Anaheim: A Multicultural Experience

Anaheim: One Congregation's Multicultural Experience

A story of diverse peoples journeying together

Ernie Furness, D. Min., is the Ministerial Secretary of the Southeastern California Conference. Until recently, he was the senior pastor of the Anaheim church.

The decision to combine our English and Spanish speaking congregations was unexpected. At a well-attended business meeting, we were considering the future of our church.

The issue centered on whether or not we should sell our church property and relocate with the possibility of combining with several other churches to form one large congregation that would offer a variety of effective ministries. Another possibility was to stay in place, continuing as we were in one congregation with two separate worship services. In the midst of the discussion, a rather unexpected motion suggested that we join our English and Spanish-speaking congregations into one worshiping group. The motion passed with a two-thirds majority. Beginning in June, we would worship as one congregation. But let me tell the story from the beginning.

For ten years, Larry Downing and I served the Anaheim, California, church as co-pastors. The church was struggling, as many urban congregations do. Our efforts were directed toward building membership and attendance.

Spanish and English

When a new member suggested we begin a Sabbath School class taught in Spanish, we considered this an opportunity for growth. This class was designed to appeal to several groups. There were parents who wanted an English Sabbath School for their children but preferred their lessons taught in Spanish. This we could do. Some, for various reasons, did not fit in with any of the nearby Spanish speaking churches and were looking for a more comfortable place to worship. We encouraged the class.

Thus Anaheim came to offer two separate adult Sabbath School pro grams, one in Spanish, the other in English. At the same time we provided children's Sabbath School divisions in English. This arrangement benefited the entire congregation.

The presence of the Spanish group brought an excitement and intensity to congregational life. Whenever the church was open, they were there. They came late, as was their custom, but they also stayed late. Their commitment to church life and their enthusiasm for evangelism was encouraging. They gave new life to Anaheim. In our excitement, however, we overlooked some of the early indicators of future problems.

The next request was to expand the Spanish language adult Sabbath School class to a full-length church program. Eventually, we added Spanish language worship services, prayer meetings, and Adventist youth meetings. Since neither Larry nor I spoke Spanish, speaking responsibilities were handled by lay leaders, guest speakers, and the occasional presentation by one of us. Our presentations were translated into Spanish. As the Spanish congregation grew, we arranged for various retired or unassigned pastors to serve as Spanish coordinators. In essence, the coordinator became the pastor for the Spanish members of the Anaheim congregation.

At one point we encouraged establishing an adult Spanish Sabbath School class that would use the Easy Reading Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This class was intended for those who were interested in improving English language skills. This class never came into being. A few Spanish leaders firmly believed it was wrong to do anything that simulated secular education on the Sabbath. Ironically, on one Sabbath, we sponsored a very effective afternoon pediatric clinic. The program was arranged by our parish nurse, physicians, and health cabinet. We screened more than one hundred children from our church and from the community. We found several significant medical problems that needed attention. Those who opposed the English language study guides saw no problem with sponsoring this program during Sabbath time. Thus we pastors learned that any semblance of education was out but medical screening was acceptable.

In an effort to maintain our unity, we administered the Spanish and English groups as one congregation. There was one church board. All monies were co-mingled. Projects, needs, and issues relating to the separate worship groups were part of the planning and action of the entire church. We also met together for joint worship on special occasions, such as our Christmas and Easter programs, Communion, church school programs, and when we had special guest speakers. Our monthly potluck dinner and socials were functions for the entire church.

Challenges to unity

In spite of these combined efforts, the groups began growing farther apart. Since the two worship centers were located at opposite ends of our church complex, the distinction between groups was eventually characterized as "our side" and "your side" or, from the perspective of the speaker, "the other side."

So, contrary to our vision of a unified multicultural church, we were becoming two distinct and separate congregations. Several of the English-speaking members were becoming disenchanted with the cultural differences and the direction the church was heading, while the Spanish-speaking members were oblivious to the English members' concerns and were happily pursuing their independent course.

It was in the midst of these challenges that the business meeting was called to discuss the proposal to sell the church. The concept was promoted by the English speaking "side" of the congregation that one large joint church would provide for an enhanced ministry. The motion to sell was tabled for one month. It was at this time that the surprise motion to have joint services was made and passed overwhelmingly, while at a second business meeting, an orchestrated effort by the Spanish-speaking "side" soundly defeated the motion to sell, as the vote to worship together remained in effect. Before the proposal for joint worship could be properly planned and executed, Earry Downing received a call to join another congregation. I faced the daunting task of unifying "our side" and "the other side" into one church family.

Orchestrating the new togetherness

A month following the business meeting, some among the Spanish members began to lobby against the idea of meeting as one congregation. In a short time momentum gathered among those wanting to return to a separate Spanish-speaking worship service. They demanded that we rescind the vote before the joint worship had been given a viable chance. Petitions were presented. Demands were made for the groups to be separated, claiming "You are destroying our church! You are taking away our opportunity to worship in our own language." Some even claimed that the church's decision and my leadership had its basis in demonic powers.

As the elders reflected on what was happening, they encouraged the church to continue its efforts to begin joint worships. In their discussions, they emphasized the two recent votes of the congregation to unite. The vote encouraging joint worship was ultimately approved with the simple recognition that this was the right thing to do. God had given us the opportunity to do something unique for the people in our community. It would be redundant to replicate nearby Spanish-speaking churches. Nearly all the elders agreed to make this process work.

Not everyone in the congregation agreed. The Spanish coordinator resigned. Responsibility for all programs was left in my hands. Providentially, Carlos Camacho, a recent graduate with a theology degree from Central American Adventist University, in Costa Rica, began to attend our congregation. He was fluent in both English and Spanish. We asked him to become the Spanish coordinator and volunteer pastor. His enthusiasm and pastoral skills were and are a great benefit to the congregation in bridging the cultural gap.

Building community in the congregation

Our next focus was to build community within the congregation. How could I in fact bring this multicultural group together?

Six weeks after our first worship service as one congregation, my wife, Edith, and I invited a Spanish-speaking family into our home for Sabbath dinner. They were surprised by the invitation. A pastor had never before invited them home. We shared a meal and listened to stories they told of their country. With the help of The National Geographic, we located their homeland and community of origin. They spoke of their fond memories. It was a good experience.

My wife and I determined that we would repeat this the following week. Instead of having one family, however, we planned to have a mixed group of people representing the cultural blend of the congregation. While dining, we purposely asked each person to tell about their place of birth, their migration to America, and some story from their personal experience. It was so successful that we continued our cross-cultural Sabbath meals, averaging from ten to fifteen people each Sabbath for nearly a year.

One particular Sabbath, we thought we had invited the usual 15, but because of communication difficulties, one family brought everyone in their family, including married children and their spouses and grandchildren. There were 22 additional people to somehow fit around our already crowded table. For the moment it was overwhelming, yet we were able to take it in stride and have an enjoyable experience. These dinners, which involved our entire family, were a significant undertaking, yet they proved to be the starting point for cohesiveness in our church.

Our worship services were simple and traditional. The majority of the congregation could speak English, yet proficiency ranged widely. Worship leaders were encouraged to use the language they were most comfortable in speaking. Often the calls for the morning offering or the pastoral prayers were presented in Spanish because this was the language of the presenters. These parts of the service were not translated. At first, some members who spoke only English objected. We encouraged them to be open and to affirm the blessing of being part of a diverse congregation.

Music transcended all language barriers. We endeavored to use hymns that could be sung in both languages. They were chosen from a four-page listing of hymns and tunes which were found in both the Spanish and English hymnals. Singing was an experience. We indeed made a joyful noise. You could hear some singing with majesty, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty" while others, with equal enthusiasm, sang "Santo, Santo, Santo; Dios Omnipotente." The babble was beautiful.

The language used for the special music was at the discretion of the vocalist. We listened to music in English and Spanish. We occasionally heard it in Korean, Russian, Romanian, German, or one of the many other languages found in our congregation.

Language and culture translation

We translated the worship service into Spanish but not in the traditional way. A synchronous translation more than doubles the time of worship. Since the majority of members were proficient in English, we chose to provide translation by radio. We used a small FM transceiver that would broadcast in our buildings over a set frequency. Those wanting to hear the worship service in the Spanish language wore headphones connected to small "Walk- Man" type radios provided by the church. This proved to be a time- and cost-effective way to make worship available in Spanish.

All of us learned to make adjustments. Worship was noisier. There were more children at worship, which added to the excitement and to the noise level. There was more movement, especially from our Spanish-speaking saints. Those used to a more sedate and quiet form of worship were awakened to a new reality. When they complained, we encouraged them to sit toward the front. We talked about the importance of reverence and how we wanted to respect not only God but others who were present in worship. Things settled down to a dull roar. At times, the translation was uneven, for it was dependent on the ability of the translator. Some older members had trouble adjusting to the radio station. Occasionally, a local jazz station strayed into the frequency we were using. This gave new life to a few of the listeners! But all these issues were solvable.

An overarching vision

In our vision it was our hope not to replicate the homogeneous area churches but to affirm the ideals of God's kingdom to come. In God's kingdom we will be one people. At Anaheim, we hoped to demonstrate a bit of God's future by worshiping as one people and by celebrating our cultural differences. Perhaps our worship could begin to answer the separateness that nationalism, tribalism, culturalism, and racism brings.

Paul's classic affirmation began to take on some definable character among us. He envisioned that within the church we are one people in Christ, with no definitive cultural, economic, or gender distinctions beyond that great overarching reality. His magnificent argument is that justification simply comes to us by faith in Jesus Christ, as does our new identity and unity. This New Testament vision was articulated by Paul directly in response to a powerful philosophy of worship that encouraged separate Communion, in which honorable and respected leaders such as Peter at first formally chose to no longer associate with the Galatian Christians. Paul saw Peter's action as a foreign gospel. By contrast, God's great work through Jesus Christ calls all people to sit at the table and receive together the emblems of His broken body and spiled blood. Paul said that the true gospel was one in which "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal.3:28, NIV).

It has been nearly two years since the Anaheim church began joint worship. We have lost some Spanish-speaking members to other congregations. Yet others who like our approach to worship have replaced them. English-speaking members are adjusting to the multicultural experience. We have not yet found smooth waters. There are still some difficulties. Some continue to say we should return to the old ways of separate worship services. Some want a quieter worship while others still desire to hear their own language.

Yet many share the vision and the hope that our efforts can continue and may actually contribute to the desegregation of other churches. Mario Perez, Southeastern California Conference vice president for Spanish Ministries has encouraged other multicultural congregations to consider developing similar worship intentions.

At our last Communion, Pastor Pedro Chambi, a member at Anaheim and a retired missionary to the upper Amazon River in Peru, was responsible for leading the congregation in the prayer for the emblems. His Spanish is excellent. His English, however, had al ways come through a translator. But at the table that day we bowed as he prayed, "Our father who art in heaven ..." It was heavily accented, but it was English, and it was beautiful. "Our Father! We are family. We are one people. We are one church community. We are all the children of God."


Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Ernie Furness, D. Min., is the Ministerial Secretary of the Southeastern California Conference. Until recently, he was the senior pastor of the Anaheim church.

July 1999

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Multicultural ministry: challenges and blessings

Discovering and practicing the principles of Christian harmony

Multicultural Ministry: Differences and similarities

A story of diverse peoples journeying together

Not really a "miracle" church

A congregation of different cultures finding ways to work together

A well-served table

How grace, communion, and feasting may transform a congregation

A faith to live by

The challenge of ministry for university students

I just want to go home

A minister's wife explores ways of easing the experience of moving

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)