The Christian Reformed Church in North America started as an immigrant congregation, but immigration isn’t only part of our history—it’s still part of our story today.
Historically, many members of the CRC came from the Netherlands. While many members are still from Dutch backgrounds, the denomination is becoming increasingly diverse and multicultural. Today, the Reformed expression of faith is resonating with people from a variety of cultures and countries who are finding a home in the CRC.
And these newcomers represent much of the growth in our denomination through evangelism, said Amy Schenkel, a Resonate Global Mission regional mission leader.
“That’s where there are the most baptisms; that’s where there are the most new people coming to faith,” Schenkel said. “We are growing, and the Spirit is moving.”
A Growing Congregation
Membership at Willowdale CRC in Toronto, Ont., was gradually declining—but then Nasser Zand and Sylvie Charliekaram showed up. In just a few short years, Willowdale CRC has grown. The church baptized 22 new Christians on one Sunday earlier this year. A few weeks before that, they baptized 18.
“When Sylvie and Nasser arrived, they were the first Farsi-speaking folks in our congregation,” said John Meiboom, a member of Willowdale CRC. “Currently, when you come on a Sunday morning, about half of the congregation is Farsi-speaking.”
Zand and Charliekaram moved to Toronto from Iran in 2005. Charliekaram grew up attending church as a Christian. Zand was raised to practice Islam but started attending Charliekaram’s home church as a teenager. He was inspired by Christ’s love and gave his life to Jesus.
Eventually, Zand and Charliekaram married. The two were dedicated to their church’s ministry, but like many Christians in Iran, there came a time when they didn’t feel safe in their country anymore.
“In Iran, as a converted Christian, your life is somehow always in danger and you receive a lot of threats,” said Charliekaram.
It was a difficult decision, but the couple prayed about moving to another country, and God opened doors to Toronto. More than a decade after moving to the city, they found Willowdale CRC.
“We were welcomed warmly,” said Charliekaram. “It reminded me of my church back home. I started crying, and I told Nasser, ‘This is where I want to be. This is where I want to worship.’ And so we stayed, and it became our home.”
Through Zand and Charliekaram, other Farsi-speakers came to call Willowdale CRC home. The couple has hundreds of connections with Farsi-speakers through Spiritual Growth Ministry, a ministry they co-founded that provides biblical teaching in Farsi online, especially for new believers from a Muslim background in the greater Toronto area and around the globe.
Zand and Charliekaram have formed connections with Farsi speakers throughout the world. Some of those speakers have moved to Toronto—in some cases, specifically because they met Zand and Charliekaram through SGM. The couple invites newcomers to Willowdale CRC, and the congregation warmly welcomes them.
“They’re thirsty and hungry to learn,” said Charliekaram. “They want to belong to the family of God.”
Today, nearly half of Willowdale CRC’s congregation speaks Farsi, and the church has adapted. Zand and Charliekaram serve as elders, the church hosts a weekly Bible study for Farsi-speakers, and the Sunday worship service is a mix of English and Farsi.
Through Charliekaram, Zand, and SGM, God opened a new ministry opportunity for Willowdale CRC—though it’s not without challenges.
“There’s an opportunity here for all of us as Christians to grow in our faith as we learn to disciple new Christians, as we learn to share the gospel with those who are seeking,” said Meiboom, who serves on the SGM board.
As Willowdale embraced this ministry and welcomed more Farsi-speakers into the congregation, it sought support from Resonate Global Mission, the CRC’s mission agency. Resonate exists to walk alongside CRC congregations as they join God in mission. While Resonate supports many church plants serving newcomers, Resonate also works with established congregations who are welcoming newcomers.
Willowdale CRC, Spiritual Growth Ministries, and Resonate formed a partnership that provides Willowdale and SGM access to funding, training, and guidance from Resonate ministry leaders. Last year, Zand, Charliekaram, Meiboom, and Henry Eyenraam, chair of the Willowdale council, participated in Resonate’s Journeying into Friendships consultation with other ministry leaders who work with people from a variety of faiths.
“We’re asking all the time, how can we help them minister better?” said Beth Fellinger, Resonate’s regional mission leader for Eastern Canada. “If they need something specifically, or if there’s a program that will help their ministry, can we put that in their hands?”
The partnership is one way Resonate works with CRC congregations to spread the gospel, disciple believers, and equip leaders throughout the world.
“I prayed to be used by my Lord in every shape and form,” said Charliekaram. “I feel joining Resonate as a partner is an answer to my prayers as well. … How can we work together to better serve Farsi-speaking Christians?”
Learning and Training with the CRC
It’s not just CRC congregations that are growing and welcoming newcomers. Students from more than 20 countries around the world come to study at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., and that diverse, multicultural student body is one of the reasons Jerry Rawlings Opiyo came from Kenya to study there.
Opiyo was well on his way to becoming an engineer when he began to feel that God was calling him to ministry. After graduating from university in Kenya, he explored this call by interning at a church and training in church planting. After a few years, he strongly felt God call him to continue his work in ministry, and he knew he needed theological training. He settled on CTS, where one-third of the student body is from a country other than Canada and the United States.
“It was more than getting an M.Div.,” said Opiyo. “It was meeting with believers from different traditions, from different parts of the world, and having that as part of the learning experience. What is God doing in other places of the world, and what can we learn from that?”
Opiyo, who expects to graduate next spring, said he’s appreciated studying and working in the Reformed tradition. “It aligned with many of my own theological convictions,” he said. “We’re all called to live our faith in a way that speaks or proclaims to the world who Christ is and what Christ has done.”
After graduating, Opiyo said he’s holding his dreams “loosely” in order to go where God calls him, but he’s sensing God calling him back to Kenya to continue his work planting churches. He said the diverse community of CTS right now will be critical for his future ministry.
“The learning community that we are building here will continue to be a learning community even after we have finished our studies,” said Opiyo. “I can reach out to my friends from Europe and ask, ‘Your culture is pretty much post-Christian. What can you say to somebody like me who still lives in a pretty Christian context but can see signs of post-Christianity continue to show u? How do I respond to that?’”
Opiyo said CTS not only gives students the space for practical theological and ministry training, but the space to build lifelong friendships that will help strengthen the global church. That’s important to CTS.
“The presence of international students and scholars at Calvin Seminary greatly enhances the community as a whole,” said Sarah Chun, dean of international student and scholar services at CTS.
As the world changes and people travel and move to countries throughout the world, our communities, churches, seminaries, and other ministries continue to become more diverse. “We experience the ‘globalness’ of God’s kingdom here on earth,” Chun said.
Immigration isn’t just part of the CRC’s history. It’s part of the CRC’s story right now.