Churches struggle to meld cultures in an era of diversity

The District's Calvary Baptist Church integrated their separate Spanish and English services in January. Such a service is rare, but an increasing number of churches nationwide are doing the same thing.
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

When Calvary Baptist Church first tried to integrate its Sunday morning services for English and Spanish speakers, the result was misery for all. The congregants grew restless as they sat through endless translations from one language to the other. The service dragged on for 90 minutes. Nobody knew the hymns.

Complaints raged.

"I don't understand what they're saying on the pulpit." "I don't know the words of the hymns." "Why are we singing in Spanish?" longtime parishioners of the historic church in downtown Washington told pastor Amy Butler.

Nonetheless, Butler was determined to persevere, gambling her seven years of progress rebuilding the fading congregation into a 200-member mix of urban hipsters, Latino families and tradition-loving seniors. Would the move to full-time bilingual services further fuel Calvary's growth, or prompt an exodus of disgruntled worshipers?

"Every time we face a challenge such as this, I stay up at night worrying about it," said Butler, 40, who made the switch permanent in January. "We felt this multiracial, multiethnic expression of our faith was true to what God has called us to do in this place. It's very important that what's being reflected inside our sanctuary is similar to what's going on on the outside."

In choosing to integrate its Spanish speakers into the main congregation rather than holding separate services, Calvary is at the vanguard of a nascent but growing movement toward multiculturalism in American worship that some believe is the wave of the future.

But other theologians and experts say there are profound cultural reasons why -- as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed -- 11 a.m. on Sunday remains "the most segregated hour" in the nation. Even as waves of immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa have made the country vastly more diverse, fewer than 10 percent of churches reflect those demographic changes, experts believe.

"Churches are still overwhelmingly segregated," said Korie Edwards, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University and the author of "The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches." "They may say that they're committed to racial and ethnic diversity, but making that a reality is a different story."

Michael Emerson, a sociology professor at Rice University, conducted a national survey in 2007 and found that just 7 percent of congregations consider themselves multiracial, and that churches are likely to have a mere fraction of the diversity of the neighborhoods surrounding them. Over the years, he has seen congregations torn apart by efforts to integrate, especially when it involves language.

"People have to worship via the vehicle of culture. When you start mixing culture, language and worship style, people feel their culture is not being represented, and they're less comfortable with it, even when you're trying to balance it," he said. "It's hard to sustain."

Proponents of multicultural services say that churches -- especially those in urban neighborhoods like Calvary's -- must diversify to survive as the country grows less homogeneous. But what form that integration will take is a matter of hot debate.

Traditionally, churches wanting to reach out to minority groups have held separate foreign language services. The Archdiocese of Washington, for example, has Mass in 20 languages, but bilingual services are rare.

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