African Immigrant Ministry on Staten Island
Place Matters Profile
On Staten Island, 8,000 Liberians are among the most well-established African communities in the borough. Staten Island is also home to a diverse Sub-Saharan African population from Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. Reverend Phillip S. Saywrayne founded the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church/African Immigrant Ministry in 1996. Originally based at campus of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Castleton Corners, in 1999, Christ Assembly redeveloped a factory at 27 Hudson Street in Stapleton to assist Staten Island’s nearby West African communities. Under Reverend Saywrayne’s guidance, the community-based ministry provides outreach in the areas of education, traditional art presentations, citizenship classes, and fellowship with others. Today, the ministry claims a growing five hundred-person membership, and averages three hundred congregants in worship attendance. Although Liberians constitute a majority, the ministry embraces people on an interfaith and trans-national basis.
Reverend Phillip S. Saywrayne was born in Liberia and immigrated to the United States in 1989 to attend a school of ministry in Tennessee. During the course of his studies, war broke out in Liberia, preventing Saywrayne from returning home. After being granted asylum, Saywrayne moved to Staten Island in 1991, and was called by the Lutheran Church to serve as missionary to work with local African communities. For the last twenty years, he has served as senior pastor of Christ Assembly, the first and largest of ten congregations that he has developed in the northeast region. Saywryane and the church are the most trusted organization and social hub within the Liberian community, and he notes that approxiately ninety-percent of the borough's Liberians received resettlement services through the Lutheran church program.
In addition, Saywrayne has been an advocate for the preservation of culture and traditional arts among Liberians in New York City. Through the church, he hopes to meet both the religious and social needs of his congregants. Saywrayne deliberately developed a congregation where Liberians and others from West Africa would be comfortable incoporating elements of their home styles of worship. Sayrwayne notes, "most West African denominations clap hands, they dance, they stand up. They make a joyful noise unto the Lord, as the Book of Sam said! And so, we encourage them to do that." At services, attendees often make testimonials and feel physically moved by a spiritual presence. Many women wear lappa suits -- colorful, patterened garments featuring a wrap-around skirt, which are typically worn in West Africa. "We try to keep some elements of home in there. And we make time to sit with them to remind them about their culture. We’re here, but we came from somewhere. The place we came from can never be forgotten."
The high value that Africans put on education, and networking within the community and with other people of African descent, are just some of the gifts they have brought to Staten Island. Specifically, Saywrayne has worked with Staten Island Arts to encourage the presentation of traditional folktales among a prominent group of Liberian women who faithfully support the church. He has also encouraged the development of an African market in the Park Hill neighborhood, and a choir at Christ Assembly, which includes junior and senior sections, as well as a praise dance team. According to musical director Cecilia Martol, music comprises approximately fifty percent of each Sunday service, and for good reason. As one choir members put it,
We are the ones to dance for god. Because you may not know our story. This church has a lot of stories. Can you imagine just coming from a fifteen-year war? There are a lot of things that happened to so many of these people here today. So sometimes we feel so happy; we take it as an opportunity that when we are in the presence of god, we just want to give him all. Be it dancing, be it singing. That’s it.
Martol's music arrangements fuse everything from contemporary gospel, to traditional African and Caribbean melodies, harmonies, and beats, to elements of Rock & Roll and R&B. The singers are accompanies by a highly-skilled band featuring electric guitars, a bass, keyboard, and full drum kit, as well as traditional hand drums and gourd rattles called sassas. The choir, including the band, are well-regarded both amongst Staten Island's West African church-goers and on regional and national levels. In the fall of 2015, Martol and the roughly forty-five-member-choir were invited to Princeton, New Jersey to perform at a concert honoring the Church's 500th anniversary. Mobilizing that many members aross state lines -- individuals of varying ages and with myriad family, professional, and school-related obligations throoughout the week -- is no easy feat. But the singers and band members are as committed to the choir and the music as they are to celebrating their community, heritage, and faith with others from around the world.