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They sleep on pews

In CAR, a Lutheran church becomes a shelter for the displaced

It’s Sunday evening at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Bangui, Central African Republic, and the main gate to the stone-walled compound is locked. Inside, under dim lighting, children run and play, young people gather under tarpaulin tents and a woman stokes an open fire while preparing a family meal.

A few people engage St. Timothy’s pastor, Paul Denou, in a lively discussion about the differences between an internally displaced person (IDP) and a refugee. “Does it matter in the end, whether you are here or outside the country?” asked Jean Georges Haman, 65, a retired police commissioner. “The fact is, you have been driven out of your home.” 

Haman and six family members have lived at the church (a parish of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Central African Republic or EELRCA) since December 2013, when armed groups raided their home in the capital’s Fondo neighborhood. They are among 120 displaced people living at St. Timothy and among some 142,000 people in Bangui who have taken shelter in churches, mosques, open fields and other sites.  

“We fled with nothing but the clothes on our back,” Haman said. The attack displaced 17 members of his family, none of whom have been able to return. Many houses have been destroyed and looted. The continuing violence between armed militia groups includes kidnappings, torture and killings.

Denou said St. Timothy’s compound and tents held as many as 1,800 people “at the height of the crisis in December.” The church wasn’t even spared. The pastor points at a bullet hole left after an armed group scaled the compound wall in February. They “took away money, TV screen, church motorcycle, a child’s bicycle … anything they could carry,” he said. “But luckily, no one was killed.”

Living in the sanctuary

Those who remain at St. Timothy are creating a positive living environment despite struggling to provide for themselves and their families. “There is very little help coming in nowadays,” Denou said, explaining that assistance from local and international nongovernmental organizations has dwindled since many displaced people have fled to neighboring countries.

Organizing themselves into teams has helped the displaced “make the parish compound function in an orderly manner,” he added. 

Angèle Vanguéré volunteers with the hygiene and sanitation team. “As the person in charge of displaced women, I make sure the little water available is distributed well, that the latrines are clean. [I] look out for those who are sick and refer them to [the] hospital, and support the others in keeping the place clean,” she said.

Inside the church, Armelle Kagale spreads out a sleeping mat and pushes aside a big basin packed with small plastic bags, each containing about 500 grams of charcoal. She buys in bulk and sells them for about $1.50 a bag. Kagale, diagnosed with tuberculosis, can’t afford medication and struggles to feed herself with what she earns.


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