Walking the Road of Relationship
Becoming a Multicultural Congregation: Invitation, Fiesta Fellowship, Sharing Our Lives, Joyful inclusive Worship
Ten years ago, I began ordained ministry with a burning call to plant a Spanish-speaking congregation at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in the heart of Latino Washington DC. There was no question in my mind that God would open all the doors necessary to make this happen. But as the dream began to emerge as reality, I began to be filled with self-doubt. Will Spanish-speaking people come to worship in a place where a white North American woman is the priest? How will I enter into this new culture? My wise mentor, the Rev. Jesus Reyes, assured me that my future congregation would love me in the measure that I loved them.
The questions I wasn’t thinking about related to the impact adding a Spanish-speaking congregation would have on the administrative aspects of the church. More on this later.
Six months in, the first hurdle for our fledgling Misa Alegría congregation was to deal with our own cultural misunderstandings. We are a diverse congregation representing 11 countries. We needed to learn to be sensitive and empathetic to our own differences. We’ve had our misunderstandings but are learning to appreciate our differences.
The process of mutual appreciation between the Spanish and English speaking congregations was more challenging. St. Stephen as host parish had generously welcomed us and given us “the keys to the kingdom” so to speak. They worshiped on Sunday mornings and we worshiped on Sunday afternoons so we had no conflicts over space use which can be a common friction point. St. Stephen’s began to define itself as a “multi-cultural, bilingual” congregation, but there was very little personal interaction between our communities. A group of interested people from both congregations began to consider how we might begin to bridge the gulf between us. We knew we could not force relationship… it would need to develop organically.
Misa Alegría began to invite the morning congregation to our services—to taste and see. But there were few who came. It is never easy to venture outside our comfort zones. Our first breakthrough came when Misa Alegría decided to celebrate the Day of the Dead complete with the building of the Ofrenda (offering) in the Mexican tradition. Some Misa members were quick to say, “Madre this is not our custom.” I said, “You know, it’s not mine either, but together maybe we can make it ours.” So we invited the whole church and to our delight many morning people showed up. The idea of worship and fiesta was a winner. Afterwards, we shared steaming tamales and lively music. Shy smiles accompanied efforts to share some words, phrases, or stories. We are learning to relax together and to call each other by name. The Ofrenda is now a church-wide St. Stephen’s tradition—a centerpiece of our All Saints’/All Souls liturgy and celebration.
Soon after, we began a more intentional process of integration. Eight members of each congregation came together to read Enrique’s Journey, the story of a Honduran boy’s harrowing journey north to find his mother. The book was the point of departure for sharing life stories. English speakers heard painful, unimaginable truths often told through tears. This experience reversed the normal roles: immigrants, so often in the learners’ seat, became the teachers. Opinions shifted and hearts were transformed. When you have shared both suffering and joy with another you are forever joined by bonds of mutual affection.
People in both congregations began to want more time together. Approaching Lent, we decided that our Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday services would be bilingual. We bolstered that with Friday bilingual Stations of the Cross followed by a simple supper and common study piece which included personal sharing. These services are highlights for many people of both congregations. We still find that the sermon, being so language dependent, is the most difficult element of bilingual worship. Our efforts haven’t been entirely satisfying for both English and Spanish speakers. For some years we held the line at the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil was the “sacred cow” of liturgy at St. Stephen’s and the Prayer Book liturgy is totally language focused. One day, my colleague surprised me with word that the Liturgy Committee had decided the Vigil that year would be bilingual. Yikes! This meant that we would have to do liturgy in new way: we would have to make the Vigil an exciting, alive multi-sensory experience. It has succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings. The creativity and joy of our Easter Vigil is for me proof of the synergy that comes from whole-heartedly embracing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Adapting Our Way of Work
Behind the public aspects of worship and community building, are staff and volunteers who make sure things at our church run smoothly. Welcoming the Misa Alegría congregation to St. Stephen’s meant changes – some larger, many smaller – in day-to-day operations. Adaptations were needed.
Language: We are fortunate to have English speaking members of the congregation who also speak Spanish and are able to provide simultaneous translations during vestry, annual, and other meeting. Our parish administrator, while conversant in Spanish, sometimes feels limited in his ability to fully support the Latino congregation or Latino/a groups using church facilities, due to his language skills. We recognize that future hires should be bilingual.
What else about the church should be bilingual? Many of the people in the Misa Alegría congregation are immigrants, with limited English. Others speak both Spanish and English. Some, but not all, members of the St. Stephen’s congregation are bilingual. When we worship together, should our bulletins be bilingual? What about our newsletters and our website? Some pieces are offered in both languages, most are only in English. Translations take resources; we work with what we have, we prioritize and make choices.
Budget: When we started the Misa Alegría congregation, we created a separate budget as a way to determine the expenses related to this new ministry. Over time, as both congregations have begun to spend more time together, some of the line items from the Misa Alegría budget (i.e. hospitality, office supplies, etc.) have been absorbed into the primary church budget.
Communications channels: What we’ve learned over time is, as in any congregation, different members of the Misa Alegría congregation prefer different types of media. This congregation is consistent with congregations across our Church in that people in their 20s and 30s often rely on electronic communication for information (parish newsletter, announcements) while some of the older members prefer a printed, paper newsletter and mailings. There is also a strong preference among Latino/a members for verbal communication.
What’s different between the two congregations is their use of Facebook and email. While almost everyone in the Misa Alegría congregation is on Facebook, they tend not to use email. The English-speaking congregation uses email. What has been interesting to watch is the shift in Facebook users to include more English language posts – as some of the Misa Alegría congregation post messages in English, the page becomes more accessible to those who only speak English.
Membership records: We work with one set of membership data, coded in such a way that we can easily sort by the two congregations, giving us options for looking at membership changes, trends, or other data.
We continue working at building relationship through knitting circles, hymn sings, prayer vigils, political actions and advocacy, annual meeting parties. Together we even created our “Nicho,” a beautiful chapel in our church using images of the Virgin Mary and other folk art. The people—all the people—of St. Stephen and the Incarnation are being called to think and vision in new ways. We still have a long way to go; things have not so much changed as been transformed. We know we are walking el Camino—the Way of Jesus—and faithfully following his call to us in this time.
Sarabeth Goodwin is an Episcopal priest and Latino Missioner, St. Stephen & the Incarnation, Washington, DC. She also serves as the Transitional Latino Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, overseeing and promoting the welcome of Latinos to the entire diocesan community.
- Bilingual Stations of the Cross and common study resource [pdf]
- “Expanding Our Understanding” by Sam Dessórdi Leite, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers
- “Ingredients for Joyful, Inclusive Bilingual Liturgy” by Anna Olson, ECF Vital Practices’ Vital Post
- Misa Alegría slideshow (YouTube)
- “Mission of Union and Integration” by Daniel Vélez-Rivera, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers
- St. Stephen & the Incarnation/San Esteban y la Encarnacion, Washington, DC website and Facebook page
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