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A Church on a Cultural Divide

Issues like the acceptance of gays, Andoseh said, are a cultural difference that should not become a conflict in church. He compared it to the way Americans put their elderly in nursing homes -- something he doesn't understand but won't condemn.

How long Silver Spring Presbyterian can exist like this is unclear, members said. Some predict that it will become all-African in several years. Recently, on the same week that a funeral was held for a longtime white parishioner, five African girls were baptized.

Sue Kaspar, center left, and her partner, Virginia Azuree, have remained as Silver Spring Presbyterian has largely become a church of African immigrants. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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Many of the newest members have joined because of the presence of other Africans, rather than for the spirit of diversity that drew the first immigrants. Some fear that the church will become divided if it loses its dynamic leader, Burris, who has experience in gay ministries as well as in Africa.

"It remains a question," Burris said. "Can you do both? Can you be both welcoming and open to your immigrant communities and welcoming and open to your gay and lesbian community?"

Some religion scholars said the issue of homosexuality may become more important to immigrants the longer they live in this country.

In the beginning, "they're dealing with economic survival, they're dealing with the cultural adaptation of their children in the schools," said Carlos Cardozo-Orlandi, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. "So church experience is not a place for debates. . . . But it's a matter of time. It will come."

On a recent Sunday, the parishioners at Silver Spring Presbyterian prayed for peace around the world, help for the unemployed among them and good luck for students taking exams. They greeted a Cameroonian infant on her first visit to church. And they gave blessings to the 11-year anniversary of the commitment of a lesbian couple, Virginia Azuree and Sue Kaspar, who sat in a center pew with their arms draped around each other.

The service ended, as it always does, with everyone standing up and joining hands.

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