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Lucy Kolin on Communion in a Multicultural Community

Lucy Kolin is pastor of a multiracial congregation, Resurrection Lutheran in Oakland, California.

Conversation with Lucy Kolin on worship renewal

Here she talks about how to preserve community when people have different ways of practicing communion, the symbol of being one in Christ.

Lucy Kolin

What’s an example of how you’ve handled a multicultural worship difference?

We’ve had continued conversation about communion. When I came to Resurrection Lutheran in 2006, they offered communion in many ways at the same service—individual glasses, common cup, choose your own mode….Theologically, it didn’t feel to me like being one body.

I suggested an experiment. We’d do communion one way, with one loaf and one cup, for the season of Epiphany. That’s a short season, with a beginning and end. We’d experience it and see what we thought.

How did that go?

After Epiphany, we talked as a congregation about whether any folk among us would not commune or would come to communion less frequently if we continued to offer the one loaf and cup. The answer was no one, so we knew this way of doing communion wouldn’t fracture the body.

And have people remained comfortable with that single method?

Since then the number of Tanzanians in our midst has grown, and our congregation is now more than 60 percent African immigrants. A couple years ago, a church board member said the Tanzanians wanted to know if we could do communion with individual glasses, because at home, that was the way they’d received it.

Everyone looked at me. My internal response was, “Oh! We just went through that. I thought it was settled.” But what I said was, “Thank you for bringing this to us and letting us know.” The woman who brought it up assumed the board would decide up or down. She was surprised when I explained that the board is not in charge of legislating the mode of communion. That’s for the community to decide. I asked whether she and anyone else would bring the issue to our next congregational meeting.

What did your congregation decide?

Lots of people talked and listened. Many people from very rural churches, where clean water is not a given, felt there was value in the practice of bringing up your own individual glass to consume from. Some proposed we have two chalices. One is a common cup. The second is a pouring cup for people who bring up individual glasses. The upshot was that the congregation agreed this dual method was an acceptable way to do communion. Everyone who wanted to could come to the table.

But then what did that do to your sense of theological rightness?

It came up against my “druthers” and sense of theological symbolism. But the real symbol of unity is to celebrate so that everyone can commune. In fact, one of our younger members, a seminarian, later said in class, “Guess what we talked about at our congregational meeting? It wasn’t the budget. It was communion!” The way we talked about communion was a way to model and impact how we make decisions together.

Maybe in three years, someone will bring a different proposal. Meanwhile, some of our folks not from an African background have switched to individual cups. And even in some of the same African families, we see differences in how they commune.

At what age do people take communion in your church?

Here in the U.S., we have the freedom to commune at any age, even by touching the tongue. Most Africans don’t have their children commune till at least age 9 or 10. I tell parents they may have their children commune as early as is possible or practical, but I won’t say they must. However, if you bring your three-year-old to the altar for a blessing, and the child is always reaching out for bread, then let’s talk more.

Now, even among families who just wanted a blessing, we see children with individual glasses. I’ll ask the parent or grandparent, “Is ‘Theo’ communing today or just coming for a blessing?” I hope to gather a conversation group to ask how this change has happened. Was it social pressure, a different theological understanding, or something else?