King’s Tabernacle Church took the town of Johnston to court last year after town officials appeared to be trying to block the congregation from moving into a long-abandoned building in town. The church, whose congregation is small and largely black, cited racial bias. But, as part of our series One Square Mile: Johnston, Rhode Island Public Radio's John Bender reports that today the community is thriving in the heart of one of the most Italian, Catholic areas of the state.
It doesn’t take many people to fill the small, pale blue sanctuary at King’s Tabernacle Church. About three dozen congregants lift their voices in prayer on a recent Sunday. There’s hardly an open seat.
This congregation is only about a decade old. Its members moved from Providence after buying a New England-style church building in 2015. It’s an island of black, Pentecostal culture in this predominately white, Catholic town. Johnston resident Olu Olofinlade comes at least once, sometimes twice, a week.
“It’s part of my survival as a person, being able to come here and fellowship other church members,” said Olofinlade.
Like most of the congregation, Olofinlade is an African immigrant. He came to this country from Nigeria in 2002. The pastor's wife, Modupe Abhulime, also comes from Nigeria.
“We believe that Jesus is the center of it all,” said Abhulime. “And I believe that Jesus is the answer to a lot of the problems that we have in this world.”
Abhulime works full time as a nurse. She’s completing her master’s degree, but she still finds time to attend the Church’s three Sunday services, and Wednesday night Bible study. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago, when this building was falling into disrepair says Pastor Chris Abhulime.
“It was really in very very bad shape,” said Abhulime. “The roof was falling apart, some parts of the walls were compromised. So what we did first was replace the roof. And from then on we ran into difficulty.”
Abhulime says town officials claimed the building wasn’t zoned for church gatherings, though the century-old building had been an active church. He believes the real issue was race.
“If this was a Caucasian congregation that came in here to purchase this building, I believe that the outcome would have been different,” said Abhulime. “People of color are still seen or treated differently.”
His theory was bolstered by an anonymous letter sent to the church filled with racially charged language. Then a building inspector was caught on tape making racially insensitive comments. Eventually the church hired lawyers and sued the city. They later settled, and found an ally in Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena.
Today, Abhulime says the congregation has moved past the dispute. But parishioner Dayo Ainabe says it revealed racial tensions in Johnston she had not expected. She and her husband are raising two young children in the town.
“I was disheartened by it, it made me feel that maybe it does still exist, and maybe my family and I have just been fortunate enough not to bump up against it,” said Ainabe.
Now that the dispute has been resolved, most members of the congregation say they feel welcome again. Modupe Abhulime says neighbors came around to offer apologies.
“People stopped by saying they were so sorry, that it was just a handful that did that, that Johnston is a peaceful place, we’re not bad, you know,” explained Abhulime.
And it turns out the congregation and their neighbors had more in common than some here expected. In the presidential election Johnston residents, once solidly blue, voted for Donald Trump by a majority. Pastor Chris Abhulime says he thinks about half his parish also voted for the Republican candidate. For some it was not an easy decision.
“He was my last choice, my last pick. I actually said to myself, I would never vote for this man,” said Dayo Ainabe.
She ended up voting for her “last pick,” propelled by issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which she opposes. And she liked Trump’s choice of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as vice president.
“He is evangelical, he is Christian,” said Ainabe. “So that matters to me a lot. All that stuff, the abortion, the gay rights. It speaks to me.”
Ainabe’s husband, Charles, also voted for Donald Trump, because he is concerned the country has become too secular.
“Christ is out of everything, in schools, in job places,” said Ainabe. “I understand everybody has their own religion. But the way people are going after religious people, we’re ostracized.”
But Sade Olofinlade worries about Trump’s language, which seemed to inflame racial tensions during the campaign.
“Right from the whole campaign I’ve been concerned about the outcome of all this,” said Olofinade. “What he has said on the TV. How it’s going to affect people, especially the minorities?”
That’s a concern in this mostly minority and largely immigrant congregation. Pastor Abhulime says some parishioners are undocumented.
“There’s a lot of worry among that group of people, that Donald Trump has said that he will build a wall,” said Abhulime. “Are we going to be profiling people more? Will he withdraw support from communities that decide to defend immigrants?”
But even during a contentious political season, this community remains united by their faith. And as the congregation raises their hands in Sunday worship, they hope for a way forward. And they hope to stay here in Johnston, for many years to come.