Colette Casburn Numajiri and I have been on a fascinating adventure of visiting churches of various cultures. Colette volunteered to join me on this adventure as part of my research for a new book, Beyond Diversity: Building Intercultural Churches in a Modern World, that I’m co-editing with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.
So far we’ve discovered churches of various cultures, but no church that is intercultural. On one street in Dallas, Texas, there is a Vietnamese church, an Eritrean church, and an Ethiopian church. These churches exist side by side, but they are not intercultural. We’re continuing to look for “intercultural” churches, that is, churches that bring people of various races, ethnicities, and nationalities together to learn to value and celebrate each group’s traditions.
Colette has written about some of the churches we’ve visited. Here are excerpts from her reflections.
Our first church was Gospel Light Eritrean Baptist Church. We were greeted by a teenage boy who led us through the youth section (where a few teenagers were singing their own service) to another part of the building.
We chose to take the boys (Zayden 3 ½, Nikko, almost 1) with us into the service where the choir was already singing. We found a spot in the back where we could watch the service and the boys playing on the floor with other small children who had joined their parents. An older lady, who seemed to be the head matriarch, asked if she could help us. When I told her we were there for the service, she asked if we understood the language. I smiled and shook my head “no.” Later, a gentleman came and sat with us to translate; he said it was a language similar to Aramaic. Knowing Jesus spoke Aramaic, I wondered if he had looked like these beautiful people with mocha skin, black hair, and big eyes and cheekbones.
Everyone was very friendly to us, and we quickly felt welcomed and comfortable there. We sat listening to the music and the choir (only words we understood were “Hallelujah” and “Jesus”) for over an hour. My kids played on and around us and comfortably crawled amongst the congregation. Everyone seemed to sway, some danced (including my boys and other small children), and some let out an enthusiastic yelp from time to time, reminding me that their roots were far away. Some people seemed to be praying and most were singing. It was very peaceful.
After an hour more people and all of the Sunday school children trickled in. A handsome family in front of us took their baby (about Nikko’s age) up to be blessed. They invited us to take Nikko, but I didn’t want to take away from that baby. An older robed gentleman spoke and prayed for that baby.
The minister had us stand and be recognized. They asked our names and applauded us. It was lovely and very welcoming.
After this the children’s Sunday school classes (speaking and spoken to in English) came up and sang and recited scriptures. Then they all went back to their classrooms. A friendly middle-aged woman asked if Zayden wanted to go to the classroom with the other children. To my surprise, he agreed. Soon after, tired Nikko started spinning in my arms. I stepped out with him and met an Eritrean mom who worked the nightshift at Walmart.
Our second adventure was at St. Peter Vietnamese Catholic Church, a mere ½ mile away from the African church we visited first. I was a bit nervous, okay a lot nervous, about doing the whole Catholic thing. Did I remember how to “Catholic”? And nervous how this would work with two small un-napped children who also didn’t know how to “Catholic.”
We arrived about ten minutes early, and took the stairs to the balcony. Music was already playing, and people were already seated and singing along. The choir and orchestra took up 2/3 of the balcony.
Three minutes until time for the service to begin at 10:00 a.m., the priest entered. He bowed at the empty altar table that had a large alpha inside an omega holding it up. He started speaking in Vietnamese, and I think there was a call and response before the first of many times of standing and kneeling. I’d forgotten how physical mass is. There were several lovely songs.
In the sanctuary there were a few statues of what they would probably call “Mary” or “Mother of God,” but we knew She was more than that. I also admired the greenery, stained glass, and beautiful architecture of the sanctuary—which all, to me, represented Her.
The service ended at precisely 11:00 a.m., and the entire congregation poured out into a courtyard with a Goddess and child statue in the center. As we exited the parking lot, we noticed an Ethiopian church across the street.
For our third adventure we went to Church in the Cliff, located in Oak Cliff, South Dallas. This church meets in a small mid-century modern building. The large windows brought in a lot of bright, natural light and emphasized interesting architectural details.
A friendly Hispanic gentleman offered to move out some of the chairs in the main room so that Nikko, my 1 year old, could play right in front of me during the service. I think Nikko highly enjoyed the pastries and friendly faces, more than any toy.
Someone handed me a program. (My experience in the theatre makes me almost want to call it a playbill.) I’ve always enjoyed programs; it’s nice to know what to expect. I wondered if these “programs” were an “Anglo” thing and where they started.
The service began with the hymn “Woke Up This Morning.” I exchanged “Jesus” with “Sophia” when I could, softly. Church in the Cliff is one of a few churches who use inclusive language, and their “Words of Welcome” include the “Wisdom of Sophia” and state that they are open to all.
We recited St. Francis’ prayer “God, make me an instrument of your peace.” And it was apparent quite quickly that the South Carolina church shootings (1 21-year-old white male shot and killed 9 African American church leaders—6 women, 3 men) had set the tone of this Sunday gathering. We sang a meditation song, “Da Pacem Cordium,” which means “Give Peace.” At that point with a restless 1 year old, it wasn’t all that peaceful for me.
Then the young and somber pastor read his insights about the tragedy. He delved into the history of this country’s racism. I was reminded of how solemnly frustrating it is that these kinds of hate crimes continue and how we still have much work to do. After his reading, the pastor opened the floor to discussion. Various members of the congregation spoke beautifully eloquent words of hope and love.
We took communion (Nikko had a cracker) in honor of those killed. And then an offering basket was passed around before announcements. One of the announcements that caught my attention was that the church wanted to partner with other churches to gain more diversity. There were 14 people there on the Sunday we attended; Nikko and the sweet Hispanic gentleman were the only non-Anglo people there.
On the way home, Jann and I reflected on the service and on the connection between racism and patriarchy. The shooters/terrorists are almost always male. In the Charleston shootings, 6 of the 9 victims were female, and few people bring that up. Who is going to stand up for half the population and stop violence against women?
The next church we visited was Cathedral of Hope in the Cedar Springs area of Dallas, just two days after the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality in all 50 states. On Friday and Saturday the church had held celebrations of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and many same-sex couples were married there earlier that weekend.
As soon as I turned into the almost full parking lot, I could feel this overjoyed energy. Parishioners happily walked into the building. I’d never seen people so excited to go to church.
I took the boys to the very friendly and efficient childcare where they were greeted with smiles. All of the (maybe 6-8) children were kept together in a room, and the other 75% of the kids’ area was dark. Maybe with the new freedom to wed, this church’s children’s department will fill back up.
As I went back out front, I saw the greeters tearfully hug friends as they entered. Many were bringing canned goods with them for the food drive. I watched as a dozen same-sex couples walked toward the cathedral, hand-in-hand.
An usher in a purple jacket took Jann and me to our seats as the fabulous choir finished Miriam Therese Winter’s “O for a World.” The music was sensational, what you would expect from a huge congregation founded within the LGBTQ community. As their new senior pastor Neil Cazares-Thomas began, the tone remained celebratory and relieved.
This 9:00 a.m. service was proudly packed with mostly middle-aged white gay men. There was a sprinkling of lesbian couples and African American, Hispanic, and Asian gay men. I got the feeling that maybe the younger crowd was out late celebrating the night before and that they would come for the 11:00 a.m. service. There was also a service at 1:00 p.m. in Spanish.
Pastor Cazares-Thomas expressed gratitude to the Dallas Police Department, thanking them for their protection that morning and in previous days. There followed the longest and most enthusiastic round of applause I may have ever witnessed live. The pastor went on to share his excitement over the good news. He spoke about how important it is to be Christ-like and to better our community and to spread love. As I sat there near the huge rainbow banner on the wall, seeing grown men and women wipe away tears and shake their heads in absolute amazement, I knew we were experiencing an important part of history.
The service continued with glorious music, readings, and the sermon, all with the rainbow theme of unity and acceptance. Then we joined a long line of people to take communion.
At the close of the service, the minister enthusiastically signed a newly married gay couple’s wedding license. Very charismatically he said: “It gives me great honor, as an ordained minister of the Christian Church [to applause], in the state of Texas [more applause] that is upheld by the Constitution of the United States [applause] to pronounce you legally married [more applause and cheers as the couple kissed before the congregation.] And with that the happiest service I had ever experienced ended.