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Ministry Models: How Churches Host and Partner with Refugees and Immigrants

Ethnic diversity is all around us in North America, and congregations can deepen their faith and grow their numbers by getting to know refugees and immigrants.

In a taxi from the airport to his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Joel Carpenter began talking with the cab driver, an Ethiopian Christian. “He showed me a devotional book of prayers and Scripture readings written in Amharic. He’s a member of an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation that meets Sunday afternoons in the local Antiochian Orthodox Church.

“My neighbor is an Adventist from the Dominican Republic who came to Grand Rapids to plant churches in the rapidly growing Latino community. I have an African American colleague whose daughter married a Congolese chemistry professor. They live in Maryland and have joined a Pentecostal church that has denominational headquarters in Nigeria…and 250 congregations in the U.S.,” says Carpenter, who directs the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College.

His point is that Christian ethnic diversity is all around us in North America, and congregations can deepen their faith and grow their numbers by getting to know refugees and immigrants.

Ethnic Harvest provides free online searches for researching people groups and foreign-born populations in your state.

Host congregations in your building

When Carpenter lived in suburban Philadelphia, it seemed that every Protestant church in his township shared their building with a Korean congregation—except for one large church that Korean immigrants had built on their own. He’s also visited a large Korean church in Los Angeles that provides space for a Vietnamese Sunday afternoon service.

In Minnesota, Worthington Christian Reformed Church (CRC) hosts Lao CRC. In Holland, Michigan, Central Avenue CRC hosts Cambodian Fellowship CRC.

Depending on worship locations and times, children from non-English speaking congregations often attend Sunday school, youth group, or other events with youth from the English-speaking host congregations.

Help churches get established

Local or regional church bodies often provide subsidies and other help while refugee or immigrant congregations get established.

Lao Unity Church is the only CRC in Sioux City, Iowa, but Faith CRC, an hour’s drive away in Sioux Center, Iowa, provides time, advice, and money to the young ministry.

Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, most denominations in fact, have programs in place to support ethnic ministries.

“Twin” for mutual benefit

“Some congregations ‘twin’ with immigrant congregations to enhance fellowship, mutual service, and learning,” Carpenter says.

When a Laotian ministry faltered in New Brighton, Minnesota, members reached out to Karen people from Burma and Hmong people from Vietnam. They also changed their name from New Life Lao Church to New Life Church.

The Lao worshiping group hosted at Peace Reformed Church in Eagan, Minnesota, looked into the future. Knowing that English would be the language of work and worship for their children, they asked to become part of the congregation, not simply hosted there.

True twinning means looking for ways to share cultural gifts and leadership. At Morningside Lutheran Church in Sioux City, Iowa, Tom LoVan preaches at a trilingual service that draws about 100 worshipers each Sunday. “Besides refugees, we have second generation and Caucasian members. Some of the Caucasians married Southeast Asians or have adopted children from there…or just plain like to be with us,” he says.

As associate pastor, LoVan also preaches occasionally in other Morningside services, and does visitations, weddings, and funerals with what he calls “mainstream members.”

When St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, found itself drawn into the Lao community—thanks to Lao kids who attended its tutoring and social events—they specifically decided to work toward being one congregation, not two.

“We talked to other congregations that had dual ministries, like Hispanic and Anglo groups. They all said, ‘We just can’t seem to get together.’ So we thought we could do a better ministry job all together,” says choir director Earl Walter.

Lao and English speakers begin worship in different parts of St. Paul’s but join for Communion. The church also has occasional joint bilingual services and weekly fellowship. Lao adults and kids wear Laotian clothes and do Laotian songs and dances at special church events. A Lao choir sings sometimes at Communion.

“When Phetsamone Vannavong, our Lao Outreach Minister, finishes his ordination process, we’ll do even more, like seek out original Laotian music or offer English language instruction,” Walter says.

He’s found some Lao music through St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Milwaukee. “It’s really funny, but in a single service we might have Baptist gospel songs translated into Lao, along with Lutheran chorales and ‘Our God Is An Awesome God,‘ a contemporary song that kids like,” Walter says.

Phetsamone Vannavong switches between languages more easily than most St. Paul’s adults can. “When we come for Communion or a joint worship service, we use a Lao greeting or prayer for the day. Lessons are read in Lao and then translated into English, or vice versa. If a Lao adult comes up for bread and wine, I speak in Lao. I use English for other adults and Lao youth, who prefer English.

“For the closing hymn, we find a hymn in Thai or Lao that is the same in English. We invite worshipers to ‘sing in your language of choice.’ It works well with Christmas songs or classics like ‘How Great Thou Art,’ ” Vannavong says.

He attends all church council meetings. His wife, Inthaly, served on the committee that called their new pastor, Rev. Donna Brown. Church youth, including Lao teens, often read Scripture or usher at morning worship and lead work ministry teams. “Soon some will be old enough to participate actively in the decision making of the congregation,” Earl Walter says.

Laotian women have taught others to make egg rolls. Now all kinds of people turn out to help make up to 700 egg rolls for all-church events.

Reach out to the next generation

Churches that hold adult worship in one language, while kids worship elsewhere in English, have a special challenge in retaining youth after high school.

Blending languages and worship experiences helps all ages feel part of each other. While building bonds with adults who speak Lao, Phetsamone Vannavong especially works on helping all youth at St. Paul’s, Lao or other, to feel at home. As at Lao Unity Church, some Lao kids at St. Paul’s come to worship on their own, because their parents don’t attend church.

“We do as much as we can to make them feel welcomed and loved. We pray they will do good together,” he says

Many second generation Christians want to do more than worship in English. They also want to worship with other cultures. Laotians, Cambodians, Taidam, and Caucasians attend Asian Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa. People from several Asian American cultures attend Grace Community Covenant Church in Palo Alto, California.

Other second generation Christians seek out churches with members from many continents, such as Cambridgeport Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or New Community Covenant Church in Chicago.