The Haven of Imani African Community Church

Part of a series: Scene & Heard: All Around Town

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. And while they may exist far apart, sometimes in very different circumstances, these places collectively make up the Knoxville experience—whether you personally know about them or not. In this first edition of an ongoing series, we're visiting different parts of Knoxville to simply record what we see, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city. These may be familiar places we've all heard about, or curious things that may surprise even their neighbors—but they're all Knoxville, and they're all worth getting to know.

The singers at Imani African Community Church are enthusiastically transcending their space.

It's in the basement of the Middlebrook Ministries building near Sam's Club on Middlebrook Pike, a lackluster concrete block-tan linoleum room with a stainless steel kitchen at one end. The chairs are folding metal, maybe 20 rows of 10 set up for the service, each with a white-covered book etched in gold letters: Baptist Hymnal.

The young people singing now, arranged in two lines before the congregation, they don't need the words. They sway in unison, moving from the hips, easy-like, right hands outstretched, fingers extended, a melodic chant/song pouring forth. All are from Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and they sing Swahili. One lead voice is clear, soprano, piping, never missing a note. The rest fill in, sweet and low from a tall young man in a suit and small-check shirt smoothly sliding his shoulders back and forth, higher harmony from a young lady in a sparkly pink skirt and tight braids pulled back from her rich brown face, alight with concentration.

The congregants listen, absorb, the children sing alone. They're gesturing to their Lord with those extended arms. The notes flow out, their arms reach up, up, the low ceiling in the dingy light cannot restrict their spirit.

This building houses Imani, but it does not define it.

That is the job of Pastor Peter Kinuthia, a cheerful, slight man with close-cropped curls who arrived in the U.S. from Kenya 10 years ago to complete a theology doctorate. While the Imani church is an outreach of Central Baptist, first begun by Kenyan University of Tennessee professor Michael Mbito six years ago, Kinuthia has been the one tending the flock for three years now, answering the phone in the office, printing up the announcements, fussing over pot lucks and choir practices. He speaks a lilting, rich-vocabularied English, first heard this morning at the young-adult Bible study that began at 10:15 in another basement room with 12 chairs and two cribs with Pooh Bear sheets. "For next week, Exodus chapter 2," he relays to the young people. Some are in suits (the men), some gowns or skirts (the women), some in neat khakis or jeans (again, the guys), all eyeing him respectfully. "Read it and get the whole picture about Moses trying to run away from Pharaoh." The rest is lost to the English listener as Kinuthia segues into another language, then finishes with "pick up there next week."

"We speak Swahili and English all mixed up!" he says, with a soft, rich laugh.

The congregation, most from Africa though all are welcome, once worshiped only in English; but then many Burundi, some by way of Tanzania, arrived in Knoxville seeking asylum from their native government. They did not speak English, or not much, so now services are bilingual.

So is this week's church bulletin, photocopied on dark yellow copy paper, with its Bible verse. First, "For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) Then, "Kwa maana jinsi hii Mungu aliupenda ulimwengu, hata akamtoa mwanawe pekee, ili kila mtu amwaminiye asipotee, bali awe na uzima wa milele." (Yohana 3:16)

Two young men are handing out these bulletins from behind a round kitchen table at the entrance to the church room. Congregants arrive in twos and threes from the parking lot, quietly closing doors on PT Cruisers, an older model van, and compacts, one with a prominent Obama-Biden sticker, another, a station wagon, with a canoe tied to the top. They file in unhurriedly, the teenager in paisley green gown and headdress; a lively pre-teen girl in jeans and brilliant pink T-shirt who's brought some Littlest Pet Shop cards to look at; and a regal women in a tight-wound turban and a green silk suit that could have come from the misses rack at Kohl's. Brother Wilson Kabuiyu is already at the podium as they are getting seated. He announces Psalm 199 and they're off; Kabuiyu swinging into joyous song, two men behind swinging into easy harmony.

A white-haired man in a blue serge suit pounds out the tune on the piano, swaying himself, a little. He is Brother Buck Donaldson, a missionary to Kenya for 10 years. He speaks Swahili, he's referred to as Karnau. "They've given me a Kenyan name," he says sheepishly. "You know, I'll be 84 next month."

A tiny boy with wide cheekbones, in jean shorts and athletic shoes, chortles as he chants his favorite word from the back row, "Bay-bee. Bay-bee!" He comes in for smiles and pats during the greeting part of the ceremony, when the group's reserve flies out the window. No hugs, just handshakes, but warmth is flowing, quiet laughter, people crossing aisles and one woman stretching over three rows. No one will be overlooked. Greet, smile, greet. Always, interspersed, singing, and more singing. This time, for the offertory, in English: "This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Other songs are offered up in Swahili, accompanied by bongo beats from a drummer hidden behind the goldenrod stage curtain up front, singing quietly to himself, or a slow-circling woman in a tangerine suit, shaking, so easy, the tambourine. Sister Anne Lazaro also sings in Swahili, sings her heart out, a lithe beauty in native print sundress: "Yesu ni wangu wa Uzima." The congregation is on their feet, swaying, almost dancing, singing, too. A boy in the back keeps time on his metal chair, not showboating, just falling in with her rhythm, eyes focused forward. She looks at them; they gaze back. The song last minutes, then minutes more, but the voices don't falter, the notes keep soaring up to the heavens. "Yesu," in so many keys, on so many lips.

Earlier, the church welcomed newcomers, visitors. John Miyonsenga is one such; he's been in Knoxville from Burundi for two weeks. He waits for the others to finish their pleasantries, then speaks. His words reach ears first in Swahili, then English, translated by Brother Wilson: "I thank God because I see there is a touch of God here. And I feel I am home here. The Bible says all men are brothers."

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