LONDONDERRY — Allegations of sexual misconduct and racial tension are at the root of an ongoing strife between a Massachusetts-based Kenyan congregation and the Londonderry-based Presbytery of Northern New England (PNNE).
On Friday morning about 20 members of the Ushindi Christian Fellowship, a Lowell, Mass., church comprised of approximately 300 Kenyan immigrants, demonstrated across the street of the Londonderry Presbyterian Church, which houses the regional Presbytery offices.
Protestors allege that PNNE is unjustly withholding more than $300,000 in funds the Kenyan congregation has raised over the past eight years — money they'd planned to use to build a new church as well as funding for everyday operational expenses.
The congregation pays about $4,000 per month to rent its current facility, located at 452 Chelmsford St. in Lowell, Mass.
"All we want is our money back," Ushindi parishioner Wilfred Wachiuri said. "This is the money we contribute at collections each week, and we feel its being kept illegally."
PNNE officials maintain that the money is being held in trust for the congregation pending the outcome of legal charges against Ushindi pastor Dr. Karimi Mumbui, and they are legally and morally bound to keep the money safe in the meantime.
Mumbui was removed from the pulpit by PNNE in November 2010 following an ecclesiastical trial where he was found guilty of "sexual abuse and sexual malfeasance," according to Dr. Cliff Creel, stated clerk of PNNE.
"Subsequent to his removal as pastor, he returned to the church and continued to act as its pastor, which is contrary to our efforts to have him desist in that role," Creel said on Friday.
Allegations against Mumbui are currently the subject of an ongoing civil court action in Massachusetts and Creel said the PNNE would continue to stand "in firm support of the large number of Kenyans who want to see him removed and have their congregation restored."
Some members of the Londonderry Presbyterian Church have enjoyed a close relationship with its some of their Kenyan brothers and sisters over the years. Ezekial Kamau, one member of the Kenyan church, has even served as guest preacher in Londonderry on several occasions.
So for now Creel said the Ushindi Fellowship's funds would remain in trust and would continue earning interest as the PNNE awaits a resolution.
Earlier this month over 100 of the disgruntled Kenyan parishioners demonstrated outside a regional Presbytery meeting in East Craftsbury, Vt.
Creel said the protestors at the Sept. 7 demonstration were peaceful and did not pose any threat to PNNE members.
"We were sitting down to lunch and we offered them some good Christian hospitality like we would to anyone," he said. "They said they were fasting, but they did come inside to use our facilities."
Local church officials alerted the Londonderry Police Department to Friday's protest due to the nature of the allegations against Mumbui and the fact that the Londonderry church has a preschool on the premises.
Three Londonderry police cruisers were parked in the church parking lot early Friday morning, about an hour before the protestors arrived. Upon arrival, the Kenyan congregants were asked to reassemble at Town Common, directly across the street from the church facility.
Police Sgt. David Carver said the protestors were also asked not to park on the side of the road, due to safety concerns in the area with heavy traffic.
The protestors politely cooperated with local law officials.
"Good luck with your cause," Detective Sean Doyle told them as he made his way back to his cruiser.
Friday's demonstrators overwhelmingly said they felt Mumbui was innocent of all charges, though stressed that the issue of church finances pointed to a much larger struggle — a longing for independence from the mostly Caucasian organization that's currently overseeing their growing church.
"In America, we're supposed to have freedom of religion. We just want to be free, we want to be independent," Ushindi parishioner Catherine Kungu said. "We worked very hard for this money."
Holding up signs with such slogans as "Remove Watchmen From Our Church" and "Let My People Go," the Kenyans sang, chanted and waived at passing motorists throughout the morning.
"Why is the Presbytery forcing us to be one of its members?" asked Stephen Kanyoni, registrant for the Ushindi Fellowship. "All we're asking for is the money that is rightfully ours. Right now we're unable to buy toilet paper for our church — we can't even buy snacks for the kids in our Sunday School."