EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 25, 2007

City church grows internationally

Mike LaBella

HAVERHILL | They are worlds apart, an American city facing problems like drugs sold on the streets, an African village where AIDS spreads unchecked and there is no running water.

But they are bound together by the same church that serves people in both communities, organizing them to help their neighbors, whether to fight crime or provide the basics of a healthy life.

The Rev. Franklin Hobbs founded his Rehoboth Lighthouse Full Gospel Church in Haverhill's Mount Washington neighborhood 25 years ago and ministers to a congregation of about 200 people.

Two of his members, husband and wife Onisimus and Flora Goronga, natives of Masvingo, Zimbabwe, came to America in 2001 to attend Bible school and develop a new life in the church. They joined Hobbs' flock, studied hard and were ordained as ministers.

Together they have expanded the reach of the Rehoboth Church by opening an arm of the church in their native African village. The Haverhill church has a congregation of 200 people. The one in Africa ministers to 7,000.

The Gorongas say they are simply following Hobbs' lead as minister of a congregation that adheres to the motto: "The Church in the Heart of the City, With the People of the City in its Heart, and Even the World."

"We believe the purpose of Christianity is to spread the good news that Jesus saves," Hobbs said. "People in Zimbabwe have never heard of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But to teach them, you have to feed them, you have to clothe them, you have to educate them."

Flora and Onisimus Goronga were worshippers at the Haverhill church and are now pastors in Zimbabwe.

They started an extension of Rehoboth, called Rehoboth International, and in just two years it has grown to 7,000 members.

It began with the Gorongas preaching the Gospel during services in village homes in Masvingo. The church grew and, with financial support from Hobbs' church in Haverhill, the Gorongas built a brick house of worship | surrounded by grass huts.

"When we held the dedication, one woman walked 13 miles to be there," Flora Goronga said. "And she was glad to be there." One by one, the inhabitants of the village were baptized by the Gorongas.

"We asked them if they wanted to be saved, to be born again, and we baptized them," Flora Goronga said. "We asked the local school if we could preach to the children. And we asked our bishop, the Rev. Hobbs, for help as there are many orphans who weren't even going to school. They could not afford the fee to attend school, so the bishop sent us money."

More than 140 orphans now rely on the Rehoboth International Church for daily schooling, food and even clothing.

"Now the government of Zimbabwe wants to make the school our mission and expand it," Flora Goronga said. "The government wants to build dormitories for the orphans."

Along with teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gorongas must address some of the superstitions that have kept villagers mired in the past and have contributed to many deaths from AIDS. Hobbs visits the village from time to time to assist the Gorongas.

Flora Goronga says her church is beginning to make a positive impact in Masvingo.

"People are responding to our teachings," she said. "Drug addicts, those addicted to alcohol, are all turning their lives around by following the teaching of Jesus Christ."

Hobbs sees the role of his church across the sea as one that is teaching a new way of life to people who are still living in the past.

"We minister to people who believe in witchcraft," Hobbs said.

Rehoboth is also expanding in the United States, Hobbs said. Former Haverhill residents Jeffrey and Sharon Rogers now lead a Rehoboth Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., while former Haverhill resident Estella Rogers leads a church in Latta, S.C.

A tale of two churches

Rehoboth Lighthouse Full Gospel Church

Where: 409 Washington St., Haverhill

Founded: 25 years ago by the Rev. Franklin Hobbs

Members: 200 including people of Italian, Greek, Polish and Irish heritage

Rehoboth International Church

Where: African village of Masvingo, Zimbabwe

Founded: 2 years ago by husband and wife Onisimus and Flora Goronga

Members: 7,000 from the village and surrounding area