A Swahili Sanctuary at Shiloh Restoration Church

Felix Iyoko and Nicole Bishisha have created a welcoming community for resettled Congolese refugees in North Carolina.
by Andrea Rice / photography by Tyler Cunningham

There is a thriving community of Congolese refugees and immigrants in North Raleigh, where co-pastors Felix Iyoko and Nicole Bishisha have led Sunday afternoon sermons since 2016.

It’s here that Reverends Iyoko and Bishisha, who are also husband and wife, built Shiloh Restoration Church as a place for Swahili-speaking people to gather. The church is both an answer to their own call to faith and a means to support others in their new home country.

Twenty years ago, Iyoko fled the Democratic Republic of Congo after his family was assassinated by the army of former President Laurent Kabila. He traveled hundreds of miles on foot before reaching the Central African Republic, where he met Bishisha, who was leading a music program at a church. He soon proposed, and they were married the following year. Together, they applied for asylum in Nigeria, where they stayed for 12 years as refugees while Iyoko served as a volunteer minister of Agape Community Baptist Church in Lagos Island for six years. He was ordained as a minister in 2009 and helped plant 11 churches around West Africa on behalf of Kingsword Ministries International.

In 2010, Iyoko and Bishisha, along with their five children, were selected to begin a resettlement program to move to the United States. It involved two years of security and background checks, multiple interviews and medical exams. By the time the family left Nigeria in November of 2013, Bishisha was pregnant with their sixth child.

Adjusting to an unfamiliar place was not easy, and not just for the family.
“When we got to Raleigh, we found our fellow refugees living with stress and mental health issues,” says Iyoko. “Some started requesting to go back to Africa to their refugee camps. I started thinking about what solution to provide and came up with the idea of starting an advocacy group to share refugee situations.” Iyoko registered with the Raleigh Immigrant Community, Inc. in 2016 and became an advisor to local Congolese refugees and immigrants. Since then, whenever a new Congolese family arrives at the Raleigh airport, even if it’s the middle of the night, Iyoko and Bishisha are the first to greet them with groceries and hot, familiar food.

That same year, Iyoko was awarded a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to help secure employment, adequate education and housing for community members. Over three years, Iyoko provided support for more than 1,400 refugees across the Triangle. “Most of them got full-time, good-paying jobs, 11 became homeowners and eight refugees got their GEDs and are now enrolled in college,” Iyoko says.

Despite these successes in social and professional achievement, Iyoko observed an absence in their spiritual lives. “The Lord spoke to me to start a church using the language they understand,” he says. Shiloh Restoration Church began as a congregation of about 30 members in Iyoko and Bishisha’s apartment complex in 2016, and with the help of local ministers, the growing congregation moved to a space inside a nearby Lutheran church that same year.

Kim and Marc Wyatt, missionaries with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, met Iyoko and Bishisha at St. John’s Baptist Church shortly after their resettlement. They introduced the two to local church planting leaders, and by 2017, Shiloh became recognized as an affiliate of the CBF. Today, it’s a multicultural, multigenerational faith-based congregation that offers camaraderie to the growing community of the Triangle’s Congolese diaspora.

“They are the tour guides for Congolese people that live in the Triangle,” says Kim Wyatt. The Wyatts collaborate with Iyoko and Bishisha, providing resources for the congregation and the community including furniture for new families and translation services. They also provide aid via Welcome House Raleigh, a local CBF ministry that offers refugees shelter, food and other support as they begin their new lives. During the recent Thanksgiving holiday, for instance, Iyoko, Bishisha and their children delivered meals to refugees in the area.

Amanda Atkin, the minister of faith formation at Greystone Baptist Church in Raleigh, provides Bibles and other materials to Shiloh — Iyoko calls her the “Mother of the Congregation.” Atkin, in turn, describes the couple, who recently became naturalized United States citizens, as leaders in the community. (When Iyoko and Bishisha voted in the 2020 general election, it was also the first election in which they’d ever participated.)

“Displacement leaves you feeling separate and longing for a sense of community,” says Atkin. “When refugees come to America, nothing makes sense. But with Shiloh, they have created a space
of sanctuary.” 

Felix Iyoko has set up an online fundraiser for The Raleigh Immigrant Community’s Food Fund which helps to ensure that all people have reliable access to food, who may need it due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Donate here.

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of WALTER magazine.