From child refugee to Lutheran pastor: Emillie’s first welcome to America came from LCSNW

by | Sep 15, 2023 | Refugees & Immigrants

Where Emillie Binja is from, relationships are more valuable than time. 

Emillie grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda after fleeing the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo with her family at age 8. She was 24 when she and her three brothers and mother arrived in Tacoma, where Lutheran Community Services Northwest provided them with resettlement services.

Today Emillie is a 29-year-old Lutheran pastor, early in her first full-time pastoral role. On Sunday, Sept. 17, an installation service was held for her at Creator Lutheran Church in Clackamas, Oregon. Her youngest brother and mother have joined her in the Portland suburb; all three are beginning this next stage in their journey together. 

Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar is very pleased to have Emillie in the Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

“Emillie is uniquely gifted in her love of people and her ability to communicate the gospel with both joy and courage,” Bishop Laurie said. “She has a genuine desire to serve all people and exudes authenticity. Her life experience brings a rich and needed diversity when people are hungry for different perspectives,”

Growing up in Africa gave Emillie a decidedly non-American perspective on time. 

“In Uganda, you wouldn’t look at your watch and say ‘oh, I have to go now, I have another appointment.’ Instead, you’d let your other appointment know that you will arrive later than the agreed-upon time and they would understand that you need more time for your commitment,” Emillie said.

But even in America, Emillie took the time necessary to figure out her life’s calling. She says she never set out to become a pastor; rather, she gradually recognized it while integrating into her new community.

“My mom and brothers and I started going to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church by the Narrows after we landed in Tacoma,” Emillie said. Recommended by their host family at the time, St. Mark’s seemed like a good stop along the way to finding their forever church. 

Emillie’s family soon moved into their own home, which ended up being a bit of a commute to St. Mark’s. Her family stopped attending, each for their own reasons. But Emillie kept coming back, in part because she was offered a paid position to assist at a weekly luncheon.

One sermon was particularly moving. “It was a call to take care of Earth, God’s creation. It intrigued me because I feel it is actually my call to take care of creation,” she said.

Hearing that message opened her mind to one of the many dimensions of how a pastor serves God. 

Emillie felt called to ministry at other points as well. As a seminary student, she began making pastoral care visits as part of her internship at St. Mark’s. “Those visits truly were amazing experiences,” she said, “I had started seminary school but really wasn’t planning to become a pastor.” 

 “I remember thinking, ‘this is what I love about God.’ I’m in this space, I’m not expected to fix it but rather simply to care for this person,” she said. “It’s about being together, laughing, crying and praying. All of this is held by God. And that is really meaningful for me.”

Partly because of the support LCSNW provided to Emillie and her family, they found some stability. “When you are just moving to a new place, especially a whole new continent, it is difficult to find support and community,” she said. “For my family, that was LCSNW.” 

Emillie’s story was featured in a video by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service two years ago. Watch it here.