A Multicultural Immigrant Christmas

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Decades ago, nudged by subterranean wishes and memories, I hesitantly stepped into the nave of a Protestant church in my neighborhood. Like many of its kind, this congregation was small, old, and white. The only diversity it expressed, pretty much, was diversity of sexual orientation – and some diversity of opinion about diversity of sexual orientation. It was in many ways, an activist church, and for a time, gradually gathered to itself more young folk like me, gay and straight, and overwhelmingly white, who raised funds for AIDS programs, protested nuclear weapons, and pressed for inclusion of gays in the ministry.

A different church, but similar

For financial reasons, the church shared space with renters, a robust Asian congregation, far more conservative in theology, overflowing with young families who sat through a loud, hour-and-a-half sermon without blinking an eye. Despite our proclamations of diversity and multiculturalism, I’m sorry to report the two congregations remained quite separate, and some in our social justice-oriented church commented quite vehemently on diapers left in the nursery, heating bills, and I don’t remember what. We lived in two different worlds without a lot of warmth and welcome on our side. Eventually, divisions yawned even within our group, and I stopped attending.
I moved to another city. Decades passed. A friend began attending that church again. Reluctant and ambivalent, but curious, I agreed to visit one Sunday. The physical side of the church was little changed, same clay roof, dark pews, stained glass. But, mercy, how the constituency had changed! Now, the minister of the “white” church was a Korean-American immigrant. A South Asian guy led music, and the choir featured Koreans, Chinese, Latinos, and just a sprinkling of old white women and men. The children’s minister was African-American, and a family of African immigrants took up an entire pew. Suddenly, the congregation was as multicultural as a community college.
I received a joyous welcome with hugs, smiles, and jubilation. During announcements it became clear that, small as it was, the church overflowed with good works – at prisons, food banks, and homeless shelters externally, and with visits to the sick and homebound internally. The level of service astonished and impressed me. I felt there an urgency to live out in practical terms a life of love, and even though I didn’t share all the theology expressed in the service or the hymns, I found the sermon moving and sincere, well worth experiencing and contemplating.
The most recent Sunday I visited was devoted to carols; after we’d sung all together, trios, pairs, and individuals came up to the altar and sang, each in his or her own language, beautiful hymns I’d never heard before, Tongan, Nepalese, Tamil, Spanish, and Korean. What a miracle, I thought, to draw in and retain such diversity. Someone told me one of the Tongans had been a missionary in India. We forget that seeds planted by Europeans bore native fruit that continues on without them and in fact, often travels back to darkest Europe itself.
Every single Sunday, a collective lunch followed the service and it offered no mere cookies and coffee, but a banquet of homemade kimchee and rice, ham, chicken, sweet potatoes, tamales, chiles rellenos, and a host of other goodies. Birthdays were announced and celebrated, we sang a song, sat down to decorated tables, and gobbled.
Multiculturalism is an often-lauded ideal; in practice, it can be so hard to sustain. Painful misunderstandings, language difficulties, fear of shifts in power, new ways, even new foods, suspicions and misinterpretations come between us. Small wonder that many gravitate to the known, if stagnant. This little church, however, offered a big example of hope, rejuvenation, and community, gifts that enrich us all – given by immigrants.