The potluck luncheons at Delhaven Christian Church in La Puente, California, are legendary. After a worship service featuring hymns in English and Spanish, the “Delhaven family” and guests feast on a remarkable spread of foods representing African American, Latino, Asian, and European American favorites. “We taste all nationalities here,” says congregation member Marie Morgan. For the multiracial pastoral-size congregation, the strengthening of relationships among the diversity of its members is central to their common life. “We are inclusive, not just integrated—we struggle together wherever we go,” says congregation member Hank Smith.
The table fellowship of Delhaven Christian Church began soon after the congregation was founded almost fifty years ago. Most members of the congregation moved to California from other areas of the U.S., or from other countries, and brought their traditions with them. But the potlucks are not just about food; they are about sharing a valuable part of personal and communal identity. During the festive meals the African American, European American, Latino, and Asian members of the congregation listen to each other’s stories, develop intimacy, strengthen relationships, and reach out into the wider neighborhood.
How then do congregations develop practices that support collaboration across cultures? Though there are many definitions for “culture,” at the most basic level it refers to the groups with which we share common experiences and that shape the way we see the world. As people from different cultural groups take on the exciting challenge of working together in a congregation, misunderstandings and conflicts are bound to occur. We all have biases and prejudices against certain groups, and often fear relating to people different from ourselves. Yet these same feelings separate us from those who could be friends and partners within our congregations. Hearing each other’s stories gives us hope and enriches congregational life. How then can congregations be enriched through more effective cross-cultural communication?
To be sure, Delhaven Christian Church has withstood many challenges to its survival, not the least of which is extending its membership into the surrounding Hispanic neighborhood, just as they extended membership to African Americans forty years ago. Overall, the congregation struggles to respond to the needs of its urban environment. For instance, one of the main challenges is adapting their worship to meet the needs of the Hispanic community. Thus far, leaders of Delhaven Christian Church have decided not to organize a parallel Latino congregation with a Spanish-language worship service, but rather develop one multilingual service. “We would like to extend into the neighborhood and worship together,” says Art DeBry, a member of the congregation. “We offer who we are and not a comfort zone.”
Delhaven Christian Church has worked to overcome one of the main obstacles congregations face in building relationships across difference by not only welcoming persons of all racial and cultural groups, but by welcoming their cultures as well. Thus, during a “typical” Sunday worship service at Delhaven Christian Church, a variety of musical traditions are heard, and voices sing hymns in Spanish and in English. Leaders of worship are drawn from persons of varying cultural backgrounds and age groups. “I personally cannot clap after the anthem because I have not been able to let go of my past training that put so much emphasis on everything contributing to the flow of the worship service,” says Gwen Guiterrez, a member of the congregation. “But I have learned to rejoice when I hear others clap because I know they have learned to worship with their bodies as well as their minds and spirits. It seems to me that too often our churches say that all are welcome when what they really mean are all who are willing to become like us,” she says. “Don’t expect to interrupt the service with ‘Amens’ or change the music we sing or serve mochi or pan dulche during refreshment time…. If it sounds like I am disappointed in much of what goes on in the name of Christianity, I am.”
Congregations like Delhaven Christian Church that are intentionally multicultural are comparatively few. Not surprisingly, recent studies have suggested that although mainline churches argue the importance of inclusiveness, there are comparatively few integrated congregations–only 2 to 3 percent on average–and that racially mixed congregations account for only 8 percent of American congregations.”1
One of the first steps of building bridges across difference is the telling of stories, which not only relate the life experiences of individuals, but also unmask the various levels of history within a congregation and how the experience of an institution differs when it is told from varying cultural perspectives. Our personal history is at the root of how we experience cultural differences, as well as how we relate to God. “Telling my story is not theology, but a basis for theology,” writes Jung Young Lee. “If theology is contextual, it must certainly be at its root autobiographical.”2
For over three years, Quincy First Presbyterian Church in Quincy, Washington, has supported a formal partnership with a Hispanic congregation in the same community, Centro Christiano Fuente de Vida Nueva (Fountain of New Life Christian Church). Together the two congregations have worked together on an ambitious building project, a vacation Bible School, a language program, a community mariachi band, and advocacy for Latino students in the public school system. Ann Hinz, pastor of the congregation, believes that it is healthy for the congregation to take risks, even when the result is painful. “This is not a crash and burn place,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t sometimes painful to listen with love to what is going on.” For Hinz, emotional and spiritual struggle are integral to building relationships across cultural differences, “like Israelites in the desert.” “We may never have a significant Hispanic membership,” she says, “but we can build relationships with white folks and Latinos who want to be part of this work. We are not looking for Latinos to become white.”
Quincy First Presbyterian Church is located in a rural community in central Washington State. Estimates vary, but the current Hispanic population of Quincy, Washington, is between 50 and 65 percent of the overall population and is growing, while the Anglo population is in decline. As often happens in congregations that seriously engage cultural differences, a few members left the congregation after Hinz’s proactive leadership became apparent–“because we don’t want Mexicans in our church”–yet the congregation has also experienced some minor growth. “They didn’t like being preached to,” says Roxa Kreimeyer, a member of the congregation, in reference to those who left, “but if we are going to be more inclusive in the community, we are going to have to open our hearts and listen to each other.”
Ann Hinz is convinced that congregational leaders are challenged to build relationships of trust both inside congregations and across the boundaries of difference in their communities. “I am very aware that I have to first of all build trust with the people God has called me to serve…. I need to hear their stories, their joys and challenges…. I have to intentionally work on building relationships, while at the same time keeping the ‘edge’ of challenging myself and the people God has called me to serve with the gospel message.” No “lone ranger,” Hinz is clear that she was called to lead the congregation as they strengthen relationships with the Hispanic community, but not to do the work alone. Hinz frequently reminds herself and the congr
egation that building relationships across differences means a commitment over the long haul. “At this point, they [congregational leaders] usually laugh and say, ‘but we didn’t know it was going to be this much work,’” she says.
Although small congregations such as Delhaven Christian Church and Quincy First Presbyterian Church might face issues of cultural difference more easily from the perspective of survival, the heart of the struggle lies around the issues of vocation and calling. What is God calling Delhaven Christian Church to do? What is the ministry of Quincy First Presbyterian Church in their community? The ability to reflect on cultural differences from the perspective of spiritual formation and faith-based identity is one of the strengths of these congregations as they move toward making genuine multiculturalism a reality. Further, once a congregation is able to make the connection between its ability to encounter and welcome cultural differences as a spiritual issue, as opposed to simply a church growth issue, the more deeply the congregation can engage all sorts of cultural differences, beyond those of language, race, and ethnicity.
Committed Through the Struggle
Some of the most difficult cultural differences for Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to negotiate were in relationship to their decision to become a welcoming community for gay and lesbian people. Then pastor Joe Ellwanger led the congregation through months of dialogue, Bible study, and prayer before they reached this decision. This educational process was rooted in the study of Scripture and challenged the congregation to reflect on sexual identity in a positive way. Though the congregation’s official decision to become a “Reconciled-in-Christ” congregation was made in 1989, neither all the African American nor all the white members are prepared to accept gay and lesbian people. Rather, there is a multiplicity of opinions, attitudes, and beliefs held by individuals within both of these groups.
Rather than polarize the congregation across racial lines—a possibility, given that most of the lesbian and gay members of the congregation are white and most of the rest of the membership is black—opportunities for dialogue and structured education allow for the diversity of perspectives to be heard. The pastor and other key leaders of Cross Lutheran Church were unequivocal in their support of lesbian and gay people, and they have continued to support all those who would commit to continuing dialogue and education to remain together for the sake of the church. The lesson here is that congregations need not divide over cultural differences, if those on all sides of an issue are committed to supporting each other through the struggle. Issues of sexual identity continue as part of an ongoing dialogue in the congregation, and Joe Ellwanger maintains that the overall gain for the congregation was worth the struggle. “Our hope is to empower those who come to live into their potential for the sake of themselves, their family and their community,” he says.
The story of Pentecost suggests that in our various cultural identities and through our linguistic differences we can understand each other. A great variety of people can become a community if they heed the Spirit, which constantly calls for us to expand our boundaries. Through building communities of faith across differences, we can be about the healing and the wholeness that the whole world craves.
This article was excerpted and adapted from Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook’s Alban Institute book A House of Prayer for all Peoples: Congregations Building Multiracial Community (AL272). To order, call 1-800-486-1318, ext. 244 or visit our Web site at www.alban.org.
1. For a synopsis of these studies, see John Dart, “Hues in the Pews: Racially Mixed Churches An Illusive Goal,” The Christian Century, February 28, 2001, 6–8.
2. Jung Young Lee, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 7.