Notre Dame Magazine might seem like an unlikely place to read an in-depth article about a Free Methodist pastor and church planter — especially considering that pastor, Heritage Murinda Munyakuri, isn’t an alumnus of the prestigious Catholic university that publishes the magazine. Munyakuri, however, isn’t a typical pastor, and award-winning journalist Abigail Pesta (a Notre Dame alumna) was drawn to his extraordinary life story.
In the article titled “The Lord Is His Shepherd,” Pesta recounted how Munyakuri, a native of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, “escaped a childhood of war, in which he was snatched up to serve as a child soldier for rebel groups — three times. Twice he was forced to fight; the third time, he refused to pick up a gun.” Pesta noted that Munyakuri “could have emerged a furious person. Instead, he changed his fate. He became a pastor and now runs his own church in Rochester, where he welcomes other immigrants and refugees.”
Pesta also interviewed Bishop Linda Adams who served as the pastor of New Hope Free Methodist Church in Rochester, New York, when Munyakuri and his family, who were Free Methodists in the Congo, moved to the United States 13 years ago and learned of New Hope from a taxi driver. Adams recalled how Munyakuri translated a message from his father, “We are orphans. We have no mother, no father, no motherland, no fatherland. The Free Methodist Church is our family, and you are our mother.’”
Adams also described Munyakuri as a “prayer warrior” who “would come and pray for eight hours at a time, processing what he had been through, crying, praying, sometimes shouting.”
There’s more to Munyakuri’s powerful life story that hasn’t been published previously. In a recent interview with LIGHT + LIFE, Munyakuri shared more about what has happened since his initial abduction and about his role as the founding pastor of El Shaddai Free Methodist Church.
Seeing and Praying
The lyrics for the hymn “Amazing Grace” have a literal meaning for Munyakuri — particularly “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
One aspect of his life that hasn’t been reported is the physical healing he experienced following the bodily damage of the intense brutality he experienced.
“When I was captured by the militias in Congo, when they cut me with machetes, they hit me in my eyes, and my eyes were bleeding, and I became blind for almost five years,” Munyakuri told LIGHT + LIFE. “My blind eyes led me to Christ.”
A doctor instructed Munyakuri to drink five gallons of water every day, which he did faithfully without a change.
“Nothing happened, so I said, ‘I need God. I need something that maybe will heal me,’” he recalled.
He started attending church, accepted Jesus Christ and decided to fast for two weeks.
“I keep praying. Nothing happens, and then one day I walk through the church,” Munyakuri said. “The pastor was preaching, and he started talking about somebody who was blind in the church, and he said, ‘God is going to touch you, and God is going to heal your eyes.’”
Munyakuri said he closed his left eye and moved his hand across his right eye, which had been completely blind. To his surprise, he saw his hand.
He told a friend in the church, “I’m no longer blind. I’m healed,” but the friend didn’t believe him. The friend covered the other eye and asked Munyakuri to read the Bible with his right eye. The friend then said, “For real, you’ve been healed.”
Munyakuri notified the pastor that he had been healed, and the pastor handed him the microphone to tell the congregation of his healing.
“From that day forward, I loved prayer, because it makes a difference, and nothing can stop your prayers,” he said. “When you pray, it may take a long time to happen, but God will deliver in His own time.”
Munyakuri’s restored eyesight wasn’t the only healing he received. He also was supposed to have his right hand amputated at one point, but he declined the amputation.
“I kept praying, ‘God, will you bring a doctor who’s going to heal my right hand rather than taking it off?’”
He finally met another doctor who said, “I don’t want anyone else to touch this man. I’m going to just be the one taking care of him.” Munyakuri added, “He did all he could. He saved my right hand, but that was through prayer.”
As Adams told Pesta, prayer is key to who Munyakuri is.
“If there is no prayer in my life, I won’t be the person that I am today,” he said. “I’ll be lost. Prayer helps me first connect with God.”
He follows the call to personal prayer found in Matthew 6:6.
“I take some time alone where nobody else sees me, where nobody will clap hands for me, when I go in my secret room and I pray with just God who sees me and hears my word and takes it,” he said. “It makes me develop my relationship with God. When I’m praying alone, it’s just me and God.”
Prayer has helped him through the difficulties of his life.
“When I pray to God, it’s like I’m communicating to Him. I’m speaking to Him, and He is able to listen to what I’m saying through the Holy Spirit,” Munyakuri said. “When I pray, I feel like God is standing next to me.”
Munyakuri also understands the importance of group prayer reflected in passages such as Matthew 18:19–20, Acts 4:31 and James 5:14–15.
“There are times also when we need other people to pray together,” he said. “It’s like they sharpen me. … I hear something that will lift me up.”
Suffering and Joy
Munyakuri offers a personal testimony of God’s faithfulness through the hard times of life, which he said God uses to shape us — not abandon us.
“I’m a living testimony that you can be in suffering, but sometimes God uses suffering to bring joy in our hearts,” he said. “I usually have a lot of joy, not because I have everything, but because I went through some hardship, and God came to my help.”
When asked what advice he would give for people going through hard times, he said, “You may cry through the night, and the joy will come in the morning. There was a time in my life I used to cry in the night, but through my prayers and my devotion to God, and in my journey of faith and keeping hope in the Lord, the Lord never left my side. He declared through Moses, He said that He Himself will go before us and will always prepare a way for us. He will never leave us or even forsake us.”
Munyakuri added, “Even if you are in your darkest time in life, I know that God is able to take you out of there.”
The Munyakuri family’s 2007 arrival led to increased diversity among Free Methodists in the Rochester area.
“There were no other people from Africa there. We were the first to arrive at New Hope. Then other people kept coming,” Munyakuri said. “I invited them. They all loved New Hope. Then it came to the point where people wanted to worship in their own language.”
Munyakuri eventually became New Hope’s assistant pastor, and then-Lead Pastor Michael Traylor (now co-superintendent of the River Conference) asked him to lead an afternoon service for African immigrants.
“We started the service as a New Hope service, and it kept growing and growing,” Munyakuri said.
Munyakuri said that after Scott Sittig arrived as New Hope’s pastor, Sittig suggested that the afternoon congregation could become a new congregation with Munyakuri as the lead pastor. El Shaddai Free Methodist Church launched in 2017. El Shaddai means “God Almighty” or “the Overpowerer” in Hebrew.
Services are held in two languages, Kinyarwanda and English. According to the National African Language Resource Center, Kinyarwanda is spoken by 20 million people who live primarily in Rwanda and portions of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
“Most of the people are first generation here. They are very blessed to have a service in their own language,” Munyakuri said. “Because we also want to make sure we adapt to American culture, I start preaching in English every Sunday, and I have someone else translate it.”
Cultural adaptation is not the only reason for the dual languages in worship.
“We don’t want to be the church for just Africans,” Munyakuri said. “Our worship team is now singing songs in English so that we can invite other people who don’t speak our language. … We came here not only to bring the good news to the African people but also to reach the people around us.”
Unlike Munyakuri’s family that was originally drawn to New Hope because they were Free Methodists in Africa, El Shaddai primarily attracts African immigrants who are new to Free Methodism.
“They just join because we invited them to the church,” he said.
El Shaddai members are becoming prayer warriors like their pastor.
“Prayer is one of our goals at our church. We emphasize prayer most to the people. We want to encourage them to learn how to pray, because when we pray, that’s when God moves in the hearts of the people, and that’s what brings revival to the nation, other places, and our heart,” he said. “We emphasize prayer is like the foundation of our church.”
Prayer and fellowship don’t just happen at Sunday services, and the church helps give its immigrant members a sense of belonging.
“Our small groups, when we meet house to house in prayer, encourage them. They don’t feel like there are foreigners,” he said. “They don’t have the neighbors like they used to have in Africa. So once you go to their house and spend time with them in prayer group and praying and reading the Bible, it makes a difference for them, and they enjoy that.”
One area of prayer is for El Shaddai to have its own building.
After launching at New Hope, the church plant received an offer from the family of former Free Methodist Church – USA Board of Administration member Norman Leenhouts, the co-founder of Broadstone Real Estate LLC, to use space for two years rent-free in a building close to downtown Rochester. The building meant that El Shaddai could hold services on Sunday morning instead of waiting to hold them on Sunday afternoon at New Hope.
“They [the Leenhouts family] owned the building, and they wanted a Free Methodist presence there,” Munyakuri said. “We said, ‘OK, we would love to go to a place where we could worship in the morning instead of afternoon, because it would be better and the church would grow more if we had the space in the morning.’”
The church began meeting in the building in 2017 (the same year that Leenhouts died) and met there through December 2019 when the building was donated to Youth for Christ.
El Shaddai is now meeting at the Park Ridge Free Methodist Church in Rochester’s Greece suburb on Sunday afternoons.
“The building is nice, and the people there are very welcoming,” Munyakuri said. “The problem is for the people we are focusing ministry on, that’s not the best location for us.”
Some members work on Sunday afternoon and can no longer attend, and transportation is a major challenge since the move.
“On Sunday, there is no bus over there,” Munyakuri said. “We don’t have a way to get people to the church. … I can’t drive them by myself to the church.”
El Shaddai members hope to obtain their own worship space closer to where most of the members live.
“My desire is that we raise money and buy our own building,” Munyakuri said. “We think we will be sustainable in the long run if we have our own place.”
He envisions an area of the church dedicated to helping people apply for jobs and providing transportation to job interviews.
“When they come to us, we help them to adapt to American culture and find jobs for them,” Munyakuri said. “I usually have dedicated time to take people for interviews and applying for jobs for them.”
El Shaddai members are using fundraisers such as a dinner with African food to raise money for a permanent home, but they know that money alone is not enough.
“Even now as we’re seeking to buy the building, the best thing we can do and the best support people can give to us is that they can pray,” Munyakuri said.
Visit El Shaddai’s Facebook page at fmchr.ch/elshaddai for video of worship services and to learn more about efforts to buy a church building in Rochester.