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Discipleship school prepares for multicultural ministry

Integration into congregations is only result Agora will accept

One month from now, Agora Ministries will wind up its first Discipleship & Leadership Mission School for leaders from immigrant communities in the Minneapolis area and members of Lutheran congregations interested in integrating these newcomers into their parishes.
Fifty persons, including representatives from 17 ethnic groups, have attended the three-hour lecture and dialog sessions every other Saturday since September at Augsburg College under the program.
Each session has featured two speakers covering basic beliefs and practices of the Lutheran Church. The lineup of some two dozen teachers has included ELCA pastors, college and seminary professors, the bishops of both the St. Paul and Minneapolis Area Synods of the ELCA and leaders of a number of Lutheran-affiliated agencies.
Pastor Cherian Puthiyottil, director of Agora Mini-stries since it was launched as a ministry of the ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod four years ago, says the initiation of the leadership school is critical in what he is trying to accomplish.
“This is my goal — a church where all cultures work together and respect one another. If this school is not there, it will never happen.”
That conviction is rooted in Cherian’s experience of working with immigrants over a period of two de-cades, first as a member of the pastoral staff at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis and then as head of Agora.
To the extent that leaders in these immigrant communities have backgrounds in the Christian faith, it is not Lutheran — more often Roman Catholic or Pente-costal, he said. Hence giving them knowledge of basic Lutheran teachings is essential before they can be successfully assimilated into Lutheran congregations.
The willingness of immigrants from widely different backgrounds to accept Lu-theranism as the common ground of their faith in the United States stems from Cherian’s deep respect for the Gospel-rooted teachings of Martin Luther.
The strength of his faith and his tireless efforts to express a Christ-centered love for immigrants and concern for their total well-being have won him the trust of these newcomers, Cherian’s supporters say. When he points to the Gospel message as the source of his strong faith, they express a desire to follow his direction.
Following completion of the Discipleship and Leader-ship School, Cherian expects that some of the immigrant participants will become missionaries to their own ethnic communities here, some will be certified as lay ministers to serve in ELCA congregations that desire to host immigrant groups, and some will simply be “bridge-builders,” working at linking their immigrant communities with local congregations.
Surprisingly, Cherian adds, some will go back to their native lands as missionaries, spreading the Gospel-based faith they have learned about in the United States.
For representatives of Minneapolis-area congregations who have attended the school, it has served as what Cherian describes as a “fishing pond.” By carefully observing the give-and-take in the discussion periods, they have been able to spot immigrant leaders who they think will be a good fit in forging a successful tie between their parish and an immigrant community.
Once a church decides to be host to an ethnic group, the member trained in the classes at Augsburg will serve as a mentor, working with the immigrant leader in bringing the local congregation and an ethnic community together.
After the course work is over, Cherian emphasizes, his work is far from complete. He will hold intensive discussions separately with leaders of congregations planning to link up with an immigrant group and with members of the immigrant community.
He tells leaders of the local congregation that the new relationship cannot be based solely on the passion of the pastor or left in the hands of a lay staff member to carry out. The entire membership must be in-volved, opening their hearts to the newcomers and pursuing the task with the zeal of missionaries.
Cherian says he is frank in telling Lutheran congregations that he believes the messages from their pulpits too often focus on controversies about social issues rather than the Gospel and mission outreach. This, he says, will turn off immigrant newcomers.
In his meetings with immigrant communities, he reminds them that they have been the recipients of the favor of white people in the past. But things are changing now, and they must be contributors too, he says, and the congregations into which they are going cannot exist without that.
Cherian says he doesn’t emphasize criticism of Lu-therans in America when he is talking with immigrant groups. He tells them that controversies about social issues and ecumenical matters are common to Christian churches in the Western world, where “materialism and individualism have challenged the message.”
God has brought the immigrants here to help the American church, “to strengthen the Christian church here,” he tells them.
Cherian concedes that integration is a gradual pro-cess that will take five years in the best of circumstances and that he must stay on top of the process everywhere to make sure that small disagreements and misunderstandings don’t flare out of control.
The ELCA congregations that have the best chance of successfully integrating in that short time period, he says, are Zion in Anoka, working with Sudanese; First, Columbia Heights (Hispanics); and House of Prayer, Richfield (Ethiopians).
“Integration is a gradual process,” Cherian asserts, “but integration is the only goal Agora will accept.” Setting up separate congregations for immigrant groups, some using space in established congregations, would be a mistake and miss a great opportunity for mission outreach for Christians in America, he says.
Since January 1, Agora has no longer been an official ministry of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA. It has been organized as a separate non-profit corporation and moved its offices from the synod headquarters in Minneapolis to the grounds of Atonement Lutheran Church (ELCA), 601 E. 98th Street in Bloomington.
The split follows the recommendation of a task force of leaders in the synod and the Agora ministry convened by Bishop Craig Johnson. It is designed to open up needed additional funding sources for Agora, such as foundations, St. Paul area churches and congregations and individuals in the Minneapolis Area Synod who share Cherian’s passion for mission and have feared that money contributed to the synod would be diluted and not achieve that goal.
The synod will continue to contribute $30,000 annually to Agora, and seven congregations so far have pledged $10,000 in 2004 out of a goal of 10 such congregations. These revenues, combined with smaller amounts from many other congregations and some 300 individuals who have supported Agora in the past, along with the anticipated new sources of money, convince Cherian that the change does not pose a threat to the continuation of his ministry.