Even in an era of mass immigration that has produced suburban tamale shops alongside halal meat markets and created a market for television programming in Hindi and Arabic, places of worship remain bastions of racial and ethnic uniformity. And that makes the case of one brick church in Springfield particularly remarkable.
On a recent Sunday morning at the Word of Life Assembly of God Church, pink-cheeked Virginia native David Gorman skipped in a conga line in Swahili Sunday school while a Kenyan preacher played an accordion and a Singaporean woman led jubilant hymns. Filipinos analyzed Bible passages in a classroom.
Later, as the Sierra Leonean choir prepared to perform in the sanctuary, D. Wendel Cover, the folksy white pastor, listed the nations of the world and asked worshipers to stand when they heard their homelands.
He seemed a bit dismayed to find just 80 represented.
“Our country’s becoming more international,” Cover, 73, said in an interview. He has led the formerly majority-white Pentecostal church for three decades. “The next generation is going to be American. If the church doesn’t realize that, they’re going to lose a whole generation.”
The Springfield church, congregants often say, is a glimpse of heaven—a “multitude” of nations and tongues, as the Book of Revelation puts it. It is also reflects the diversity of the Washington area: Of the 1,300 or so people who attend each Sunday, about one-tenth are Asian, one-fifth white, one-third Hispanic and one-third black, most of them African immigrants.
But it is not what worship in the United States typically looks like. According to a recent national survey by Rice University, about 7 percent of congregations are multiracial, defined as worshiping as one group and consisting of no more than 80 percent of one race.
As Cover likes to say, rarely is such a global group under the same roof, except at Wal-Mart.
The church has become a counterpoint to suburban tensions over immigration. On Sundays, the green velvet offering pouch is passed from Sudanese refugees to American lawyers to Afghan converts, and the freestyle prayer that is a hallmark of Pentecostal worship erupts in a cacophony of languages.
At 8 a.m. one recent Sunday, the Swahili class gathered for a raucous praise party. Kenyan pastor Josiah Kambutu marched around with his accordion, bellowing that faith is “better than the American dream!” A group of women, including Cassandra Choo, 34, who grew up Buddhist in Singapore and lived for a time in Africa with her now-deceased Nigerian husband, led English and Swahili songs that broke into ground-shaking dances. Devotees include Nigerians, Malaysians and Americans, who say they like the dynamic music and fudge the Swahili.
“There’s no segregation in heaven,” said Gorman, hugging Kambutu as the class filed out to the main service. Gorman, 29, who works at a McDonald’s and a bookstore, joined Word of Life about a year ago. Kambutu invited him to Swahili ministries, and now he’s a regular.
“We have given him an African name!” said Kambutu, his forehead speckled with flecks of the tissue he had used to blot dance-induced sweat. “His name is Kamau!”
“Bwana asifiwe,” Gorman said in Swahili, with a sheepish smile. “Praise the Lord.”
As the years have passed, Cover has learned to lead quincea¿eras and hold memorial services for African members’ relatives who died half a world away. The Filipino Bible study group switched from Tagalog to English so that Miriam Luna, a Bolivian, and others could understand. Luna, 47, said she has grown to like the cold rice of Filipino cuisine.
And Emmanuel Ogebe, 36, a bespectacled lawyer, has ceased explaining that his traditional Nigerian robe is not a “costume,” as people at his previous church remarked. At Word of Life, Ogebe’s attire raises nary an eyebrow, and his friends have come to include a Hispanic handyman he calls “Brother Miguel,” and, most astounding to him, non-Nigerian Africans.
As immigrants spread across the United States, researchers say, churches are slowly abandoning the “homogeneous units” theory that long guided church-growth philosophy. People want to worship with similar people, the idea went, leading white churches to “plant” ethnic branches. Immigrant churches also sprout independently: If they wish, Liberians, Bolivians and Koreans in the Washington region can join congregations composed mostly of compatriots.
But churches’ attempts to diversify often fail, said Michael Emerson, a Rice sociologist. Being situated in a diverse area is hardly enough; several churches near Word of Life are mostly white. Churches stumble when they push change too fast or say they welcome everyone “as long as they become like us,” Emerson said.
Cover struggles to explain how his church succeeded. One turning point came in 1990, when he brought on Cathy Mechlin to spearhead a multicultural ministries program, and Samary Resto, a Puerto Rican, to lead Hispanic ministries. Only a “smattering” of the 500 or so members were not white, Mechlin said. They launched Spanish-language and “international” Sunday schools. Next came a dinner to which parishioners brought dishes from their homelands, then an after-service doughnuts-and-coffee hour.
Mostly, church leaders let immigrants start whatever programs they want, Mechlin said. The church has a Ghanaian choir, a Hispanic band and groups for Indians and speakers of Amharic, an Ethiopian and Eritrean language. Sunday services are translated into Spanish and French, which parishioners can listen to on headphones.
Other programs have come and gone. Korean ministries fizzled. An Iranian group left after discord about who should lead their Sunday school. Some members have asked to hold autonomous ethnic services. That is where Cover draws the line: In his vision, everyone worships together on Sundays.