U-C: What I See

Sunday, October 17, 2004

A few thoughts on multicultural churches

I've been thinking a lot about multicultural churches over the past couple of months. I went to the multicultural conference in Dallas back in April, and I was very impressed by what I saw. As I’ve worked with Valerie in the Louisville office to determine priorities for my travel and visits, we’ve agreed to focus on multicultural churches wherever possible in order to encourage their work and be able to share their stories.

At the moderator’s conference in Louisville the third week of November (a conference I get to plan for moderators of Presbyteries from across the country), we’ve agreed to focus on the challenges and opportunities in building the multicultural church.

In the first few months of my time as moderator, I’ve spent time in several churches that are making a serious attempt to build a multicultural community. They are diverse in their approaches. One thing that is becoming clear to me is that, like most churches, there are no guarantees of success, and those that are successful know that they can never stop being intentional about their work in building culturally diverse communities.

In order to qualify as multicultural, there must be above twenty percent non European-American members. There are many different models (an anglo church nesting a new or developing church, a church that remains essentially a “traditional” U.S. Presbyterian worship service but has racial diversity, churches that are trying to embrace a variety of cultures in their worship, congregations that are attempting to move with a neighborhood as it shifts from European American to multicultural to an entirely different make-up, congregations that bring a strong focus on trying to work on racism, etc.

Here are quick descriptions of the first ones that I’ve seen (in the order in which I’ve visited them):

Westminster: This is the small church in Trenton that I spoke about in my speech before the General Assembly. What I love about this one is that its group of older white folks made a strong commitment to reach out to their changing neighborhood and to change their own understanding of church in order to become genuinely relevant to their community. Worship is vibrant, and they’ve embraced dvd technology and Christian hip hop style music to reach out to the young people, although they’ve continued to hold onto some aspects of their traditional service as well.

Oakhurst: http://home.earthlink.net/~oakpres/. This is a successful middle-sized church well-known for its thirty year effort to become a genuinely multi-cultural church in Decatur GA, just outside of Atlanta. Its pastors, Nibs Stroupe and Caroline Leach (who are married), are kind of the gurus of multicultural and anti-racism work in the Presbytery and across the denomination. There’s also an interesting attempt to really work on racism both in their Presbytery and through an ecumenical effort in the area that works to partner 75 African American and 75 European American churches with one another. Different cultural styles of worship are consciously blended together in this church, and like my own multicultural church in Tucson, worship often runs to two hours in order to do justice to the different cultural and worship commitments in the congregation. If you’re interested in their story, they have a book published by Westminster/John Knox Press last year called O Lord, Hold our Hands: How a church thrives in a multicultural world. I’m just finishing it, and it’s a great read!

Central: This is a church in Norristown, PA that was more than 800 in its glory days, but it had dropped to well under one hundred as of a couple of years ago. As in the case of Westminster, Central’s older, Anglo members saw the writing on the wall and agreed to risk their endowment on trying to make a transition from Anglo to bicultural (with a focus on the Mexican population moving into the area), and potentially to all Hispanic as the neighborhood continues to change. They have used two models to try to do that work. One is that they’ve tried to strengthen the traditional social services that they have offered in the community – things like a meal on Saturday nights for those who need it, a clothing closet, among other things. The goal is to focus on how to use the large building effectively as a resource in a changing community at risk. Then, they also partnered with the Philadelphia Presbytery and the synod and denomination to invite a pastor from Guatemala to come for three years to try to reach out to the Hispanic community and build a Hispanic congregation within the church.

There are all kinds of potential for difficulty. Neither of the pastors is entirely fluent in the other’s language. The styles of ministry are different, and there is tension (most days creative tension) between the two as they try to determine what their priorities in ministry should be. The worship styles of the two groups (the traditional Anglo and the emerging Hispanic) are so different that at this stage they are worshiping at different times. The fifteen new members recently admitted to the congregation are all Hispanic and they all worship in the Sunday afternoon Hispanic service. The two pastors admit that they don’t have all the answers and don’t always agree, but also affirm that they are committed to continuing to try to do this work in partnership.

Church of All Nations: This is my friend Jin Kim’s church in Minneapolis. Jin is second generation Korean, and this multicultural church is nested at a first generation Korean church in Minneapolis. They planned carefully for several years with the Korean church, and then launched this new church development (ncd) last January first. It’s pretty unique, in that their worship happens between the two services of the larger Korean church on Sunday morning. They are growing rapidly and are genuinely multicultural with an English speaking congregation. You can check them out at www.cando.org.

Southside: This is my own church in Tucson. This church has the most unique origins of multiculturalism of any church I’ve ever seen. They started as a mission church with the Native American T’Ohono O’Odam tribe in the 1920’s. Then, over the years they called a Mexican-American Pastor, an African American pastor, and a couple of Anglo pastors. As a result, they have a genuinely multicultural service today. They’ve been very intentional about building their worship in a multicultural style (another church with a two hour service as a result), and all of their life together flows from that moment. http://www.southsidepresbyterian.org/

My plane is boarding, but these are the efforts that I’ve seen so far. Pretty diverse, and very interesting. I recommend that you contact Raafat Girgis in Louisville if you’re interested in learning more about the possibilities. He can be reached at rgirgis@ctr.pcusa.org.

Blessings on each of you,