While news reports of churches closing and growing racial, ethnic and other societal tensions abound, God continues to work through United Methodist churches.
These four United Methodist churches offer inspirational stories of congregations that do more than survive. They thrive as multi-racial, multicultural and/or multi-economic communities of faith.
Garfield Memorial United Methodist Church
In 2004, members of Garfield Memorial UMC in Pepper Pike, Ohio, made a conscious decision to move from an inward to an outward focus and apply selfless evangelism. Since then, Garfield Memorial has tripled in size and witnessed the transformation of the makeup of the congregation. Today, there are 1,100 active members worshipping on two campuses with an average attendance of 650 and 150 youngsters involved in their children's ministry. No one ethnic group comprises more than 52 percent of the congregation.
"We focused on reaching non-church people who live in diverse contexts," said the Rev. Chip Freed, lead pastor. "Garfield Memorial is a featured and teaching church in the multi-ethnic church movement led by Mosaix Global Network (www.mosaix.info).
"The church is one of the few segregated institutions left in America," Freed said. "Many people find non-diverse environments a little weird. A study from Duke University contends that millennials look at segregated churches the way that church people look at cults."
Diversity is one of Garfield Church's five core values. To maintain this diverse environment, Freed said, "We stress two points for people who want to be part of our church. First, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable and second, you will like 70 percent of what happens here. In other words, if you are a ‘preference-based' church person, we are not your church. We continually represent diversity in all levels of our staff and worship experiences."
Parker United Methodist Church
Located in Kaneohe, Hawaii, Parker UMC's 150-member congregation consists of worshippers who are Japanese, Samoan, Filipino, Tongan, Chinese, Caucasian, Korean and others. Years ago, the church had separate worship services for Samoan and Japanese-speaking people. When the pastors of both of those congregations left, the English-speakers embraced everyone.
Although members worshiped together, the sense of unity took time and intentional planning to develop. The Rev. Andrew Lee, pastor at Parker Church, said "Some of the church's lay leaders and I wanted to use the congregation's varying cultures to unite the church. To do this, we used languages of the congregation as part of the worship — we sing the ‘Doxology' in Samoan and the ‘Gloria Patri' in Hawaiian. Scripture readings are sometimes read in languages other than English whenever appropriate. By acknowledging and respecting the various languages of our members, we were able to tear down invisible walls within the congregation and become a multicultural faith community."
Members also come together to minister to those outside the walls by hosting homeless families in the community and inviting residents from the state's hospital for the mentally ill to the church's Thanksgiving dinner. Lee said, "I have discovered that when the congregation is able to embrace the differences within the four walls of the church, they're able to embrace the differences outside of the church. Parker UMC members have not only discovered this truth but also practice it daily in their lives."
To further unify the church, Lee respects and honors the differences in values among cultures. "Some of the cultural groups mentioned being treated differently in the past simply because people related to them based on stereotypes," Lee said. "I invite people from various cultural groups to serve in leadership positions within the church. Because of this, we have a great team of people from varying cultures, gender and age groups."
Lee also acknowledges the cultural differences in the congregation through his sermons. "I find examples and stories that are relevant to the varying age groups and cultures," Lee said.
Preparing for his annual sermon series "Hymn Stories," he asks, "the congregation to share their favorite hymns with me, and I prepare my messages based on the hymns. Although we are all different, we have the same desire to sing to God. Often, one person's favorite hymn turns out to be the favorite hymn of others in the congregation; this is a great epiphany for many as they realize how similar they are despite the differences."
South Main Chapel & Mercy Center
South Main Chapel & Mercy Center in Anderson, South Carolina, started in 2014 with the intentional mission of bringing diverse people together in one community of faith. Ironically, it began in a building vacated after another United Methodist Church — one that was not multicultural — was discontinued in 2012.
The church's outreach programs minister to people in an area where poverty and homelessness are prominent. "Included in our outreach are services for persons with mental illness and addiction issues," said the Rev. Kurt Stutler, pastor/director of South Main Chapel & Mercy Center. "We partner with community agencies and organizations to provide those services. Two state-funded agencies — South Carolina Department of Mental Health and South Carolina Department of Vocational Rehabilitation — have counselors who visit our facility and to whom we routinely refer clients."
The church provides office space for the Alston Wilkes Society, a non-profit organization that serves people coming out of incarceration. Meals and case management services are provided throughout the week to people living in poverty who inevitably face a multitude of struggles.
What makes the church different from a traditional social service organization is that the help provided comes within the context of a church family. "Many of the persons who receive assistance," said Stutler, "participate in the worship life of the congregation. They also give back by helping us with cleaning and other chores around the facility."
Currently about 85 attend Sunday morning worship. The congregation is diverse in terms of race, economic status, educational level and sexual orientation. "Our mantra is ‘We are all God's children,'" said Stutler. "It is not unusual for persons who live in a half-million dollar home to be sitting next to someone who is sleeping in a tent, or someone with a graduate degree to worship alongside someone who dropped out of high school."
Sticking to its inclusive roots, church staff and members continually emphasize the importance of diversity and respect for one another as children of God in their messaging. "We close every worship service by singing ‘Loving God, Loving Each Other,'" Stutler said.
Calvary United Methodist Mission
Since relocating in 2014, the Korean-speaking congregation of Calvary United Methodist Mission in Honolulu, Hawaii, has ministered to Micronesian children living in the area. "Families from neighboring low-income housing developments wanted to send their children to our Sunday school," said Pastor Kyu Woo Nam. "They considered our Sunday school as a safe place to send their kids. Today, we serve the children through programs such as VBS and pizza and movie nights. We also make and distribute gift boxes with school supplies and basic necessities. With help from United Methodist churches in Oahu, we provided gifts for 50 children last Christmas."
Diverse both culturally and economically, church members are sensitive to cultural issues and stereotypes. "Many people in our congregation know and work with ethnically diverse people," said Nam, "and they try to overcome stereotypical perceptions of Micronesians."
Many of the children who attend come from very poor Micronesian families. Nam said, "We stay connected with their parents so we can learn more about their culture and remove as many barriers as we can. People in Hawaii are used to living in a multicultural environment and know not to cross the line. But there are certain negative perceptions on some ethnic groups. We try to understand and share the history of these groups and honor their cultural distinctiveness as often as possible."
Cindy Solomon is a marketing consultant and content writer living in Franklin, Tennessee.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, July–August , 2017.