America is Like Heaven

A look into Missoula’s quietly thriving Congolese community

By Reed Klass
Feb 3, 2020

Missoula, Montana is a small college town nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, known for its access to national parks and forests, density of craft breweries, and abundance of Subarus. It has a population of about 70,000 people, 91 percent of whom are white. It’s not where you’d expect to find African refugees.

But there is a community of over 200 Congolese people living in Missoula, and counting.

This is new for Missoula. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) only began resettling Congolese refugees fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the town in 2016. The resettlement began after a small group of passionate locals successfully lobbied the state government to reopen an IRC chapter in Missoula (the last one was shuttered in 2001). Today, the office is thriving, accepting new arrivals from Africa and the Middle East each year, primarily Congolese people. It’s the only refugee resettlement office in the state of Montana.

“With the U.S. in an era of an ever-shrinking refugee cap, stories of successful resettlement like this one will become more rare.”

In early 2019 I was living in Missoula, and learned about the local resettlement program when a church ministering to the Congolese refugees contracted me to help visually tell their story. In order to do so, I enthusiastically immersed myself in their culture.

I spent three months with these new Missoulians. During that time, bizarre scenes in which African and American culture collided soon became commonplace: a Congolese family watching Disney’s Pocahontas over a Sunday afternoon meal of fried tilapia and bugali; hundreds of people from different African nations flooding into a graduation party at a high school in Boise; Congolese men and boys butchering goats on a cattle ranch in rural Montana for a traditional African baby shower.

Surreal as these scenes were, what stood out was the opportunity to witness a group of people utterly displaced and traumatized from war, yet fighting to honor and preserve their culture while adjusting to life on a new continent.

With the U.S. in an era of an ever-shrinking refugee cap—resettling just 18,000 people in 2020, the lowest number since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980—stories of successful resettlement like this one will become more rare. This should only encourage and move followers of Jesus to welcome foreigners while we still have the opportunity.

Before last year, the issue of refugee resettlement felt distant to me, and to many other Missoulians I spoke with while reporting this story. Refugees are overwhelmingly resettled to larger, already-diverse cities. But when resettlement began taking place in our small mountain town, it suddenly hit home. The term “refugees” no longer applied to a far-off group of people who we ought to care about. Instead they were our neighbors, individuals with deeply moving stories. They walked down the main street of town in traditional Congolese clothing and filled the pews of our churches on Sunday.

Micah Dalbey is the pastor of the primary church helping minister to the Congolese in Missoula. I asked him how believers should approach the issue of refugee resettlement, and he told me it’s a no-brainer: God clearly calls us to love the poor, the weak, and the marginalized.

“How do we treat our neighbor as we want to be treated?” Dalbey asked. “If it were us in a foreign land, what would we want people to do for us?”

It really is as simple as that.

“I think when you look at the refugee issue a whole, it seems so overwhelming,” said Laura Wildeboer, who spearheads the church’s refugee ministry. “And I remember prior to the Congolese being at [our church] thinking, ‘What could I ever do that would impact refugees?’”

“Discipleship in Jesus’ model isn’t transactional. It’s just believers spending time together, and there’s no shortcut for that.”

As it turns out, she and other people involved in the ministry (not to mention other refugee aid groups in Missoula) can do a lot. None of it is glamorous. It mostly looks like zig-zagging around town to take people to doctor’s appointments, leading Bible studies that drag on due to the English-to-Swahili translation, and feeding kids pizza at the park while their parents attend English classes.

But discipleship in Jesus’ model isn’t transactional, Dalbey said. It’s just believers spending time together, and there’s no shortcut for that.

One weekend I traveled with about 20 refugees to Boise to shop for Congolese food at African markets. (Missoula is such a small, homogenous town that it can’t support international markets.) As we prepared to drive back to Missoula, there was a moment of quiet. A man whose brother had been killed in the conflict in the DRC years before was riding a bike nearby, so I walked over to chat with him. 

At the time, he had only been in the U.S. for about a year, so I asked him what he thought of it so far.

“America is like heaven,” he told me. He continued to say how amazed he was at the availability of food, work, and free time in the United States.

When a global issue like refugee resettlement suddenly becomes local, an opportunity to step in and love presents itself. It cannot be stated any other way: as followers of Jesus, because of how we view others—as equal and valuable regardless of culture, skin color or social status—and because of the compassion that blossoms as a result of a relationship with Jesus, we are invited to set the tone for what welcoming foreigners into our country and communities looks like.

In an effort to practice this, I made these photographs to show the Congolese people of Missoula just as they are: recovering, healing, and—through their resilience and the compassion of their neighbors—quietly thriving.