Springfield Church Welcomes Many Nations Under God

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

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 evangelical church is hardly New Agey or liberal. Cover, a sedate man who had never ventured more than 100 miles from his Pennsylvania home town before he was 18, calls Latinos "the Spanish," and voters' pamphlets in the foyer this fall outlined local candidates' positions on "Christian" issues.

But the church is no longer what he called the 100-member "white Republican" flock he took over in 1977. By then, Cover had traveled the world on missions, and he arrived with the view that a church should reflect its community.

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.

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