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.

"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.

"I'm more likely to meet an American in Nigeria and be friends than to meet a Rwandan in Nigeria," he said.

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.

"Americans, when the service is over, they're out the door," said Mechlin, 59, a lifelong resident of the Washington region. "But the international people want to stay."

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.

"We give them our blessing but say that's not our mission," Cover said.

Over time, some white members asked what remained for them, Mechlin said. So the church embraces hot dogs as picnic fare and commemorates American holidays. For Veterans Day, a sound system played American military anthems, and service members filed to the front. The congregation gave them a stirring standing ovation.

But members say the slow pace of the change muted tensions. One couple, Mechlin heard, left when an African American man filled in as choir director -- "this is a white church," she was told the couple said -- but she said she has never heard of someone leaving because of those she calls "the internationals."

"I guess if they didn't like it, they left," Mechlin said. "But they've been replaced."

Services remain American-style but with ethnic choirs and occasional prayers for some far-off nation's independence day or election.

"At the end of the services, I think, 'Dear Lord, are we ever going to get out of here?' " said Liz Bouldin, 66, a member since before Cover's time. But she said she supports his idea: "All the people in the world are God's people."

In interviews, dozens of immigrants said they feel welcome at the church. Many said they stayed because of its devotion to international missions or its upbeat style. Several said they thought that an integrated church is best for their children.

"If not us, our children should be American," said Wolde Dagnachew, an Ethiopian pastor who recently launched an Amharic Sunday school at the church.

One recent night, 20 people gathered in an Annandale living room for Filipino-Asian Bible study, which has outgrown its name. The group included several Filipinos, Luna the Bolivian, a Cambodian, a Korean and a Pakistani who followed along with a Bible written in Urdu. Bouldin was there for the first time.

"I'm Liz, and I'm from the United States," she said, with a Southern twang. "My ancestors were from France."

After hymns and discussion, Seoul native Miyoung Seo, 41, scooped up an almond dessert. She said she had tried a Korean church and some mostly white Protestant churches. The first was too foreign for her Italian husband; the others, too unfriendly.

"I have always dreamed of having a church, many colors together," she said in halting English. "I'm international now."

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