Lutherans in Minnesota

Church in the new land

Immigrant flocks often get help from established congregations, but it’s not easy on either side. And what’s the actual mission?

Christ’s love pours over borders — especially into the United States just now. Resulting immigrant churches are as diverse as their origin nations.

Good-hearted established congregations offer help, space, and resources. Yet such partnerships, even if well-planned, face difficulties. Both partners may soon scrutinize just what it is they’re trying to do. Merge? Preserve ethnic legacy? Find a more permanent church home for newcomers?

Meanwhile, questions that sharply divide host congregations may scarcely register with newcomers. Is gay clergy even an issue for immigrants?

Vue Lee, deacon at King of Kings Lutheran Church in Roseville, leads a Hmong startup congregation. Photo provided by Vue Lee

Hosting an immigrant group won’t necessarily grow your own congregation.

A far greater urgency is at work, suggests the Rev. Cherian Puthiyottil. Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace has particular appeal for immigrants, thinks Puthiyottil,

who served at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis from 1982 to 1999 and then led Agora, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) group that trains immigrant-flock leaders.

In play as well are lesser urgencies — albeit still urgent. The Rev. Francis Stephanos quickly gets to specifics: Newcomers need a place to worship, résumé-writing help, and a revolving housing fund from which they can draw to rent apartments and then repay the money.

Setting worship time is always difficult. Immigrants tend to get shift work and have unpredictable schedules. “Refugees have a lot of problems settling in and finding jobs letting them go to church,” says Stephanos, an Ethiopian. His 60 Mekani Jes’s members meet at Jehovah Lutheran Church, a St. Paul Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation.

In other words, immigrant congregations are complicated.

Hosting an immigrant group won’t necessarily grow your own congregation. Newcomers may never merge with the host parish. They may want to remain distinct. Helping immigrant churches doesn’t mean turning them into clones. Assimilation of immigrants isn’t the point, says Puthiyottil. Host churches must learn to “appreciate them and give them what is good here.”

Immigrant churches face unique challenges

Issues of space and resources are inevitable — and may grow irritating over time. Imagine the sniping from some members about what may seem trivial at first: “The hymn books aren’t put away,” notes the Rev. Paul Mueller, associate executive director with Lutheran Inter-City Network Coalition, an LCMS group that tries to build urban congregations. Understandably, immigrants chafe if hosts voice complaints — and, says Pastor Mueller, inevitably may well “want a place we can call our own.”

More congregations are thinking through such issues ahead of time. Grace Lutheran, an ELCA parish on St. Paul’s East Side, has welcomed a Hmong congregation led by the Rev. William Siong. Twenty-six Hmong met for worship recently at Grace, where Siong was ordained in August.

Grace has space. It’s near U.S. Interstate 94. Siong has Hmong-community connections. If his ministry burgeons, Grace feels ready. “We’re hoping that we’re not just housing them,” says the Rev. Pat Ondarko, interim pastor, “but interacting in some vital ways.”

The covenant between the congregations calls for joint Sunday school. Quilters from both congregations will meet and work together. Hmong women have their own designated area in the church kitchen.

Pastor Ondarko nevertheless anticipates inevitable miscommunication in language and culture. The strategy is to accommodate such differences. “We’re not trying to make Hmong people into who we are,” she says. “We’re trying to help them be who they are.”

The next generation

Even with a good host, good plan, and good relations, immigrant congregations still face a hard road. They must raise and manage money and schedule worship times for members who work nights, weekends, and second jobs. Pastors struggle trying to help with every family crisis. Second and third generations may want different worship, even a different church.

In fact those follow-on generations should be the focus, argues the Rev. Peter Meier, who directs missions for LCMS’s Minnesota South District. Pastor Meier finds himself asking immigrant con- gregations again and again: What about your kids? Plan a church, he says, “not only for yourselves but for your children and grandchildren.”

“We’re hoping that we’re not just housing them,” says the Rev. Pat Ondarko, interim pastor, “but interacting in some vital ways.”

In the same way, Vue Lee, takes a long view in his work to establish a new Hmong congregation. What are its challenges? “Finding our foundation,” says Lee, deacon at King of Kings, an LCMS congregation in Roseville. “Finding a vision of where the group wants to head, which direction do we want to go.”

Of course, people want to worship with others like themselves. Remember the fervor of German-Americans who established their own schools and clung to their own language?

So when more recent immigrants count on church to sustain their own language and values, it’s no surprise. Church, acknowledges Pastor Meier, is a “very convenient vehicle for preserving culture.”

And yet, he says, “I don’t think that’s really what God intends the Church to be.” After all — is it not the case that a greater urgency is in play?

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