Several hundred immigrants from 30 countries gathered for lunch yesterday at Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, and over plates piled high with paella, fried rice and lamb, they reflected on what a difference one church can make.
Ung In and Sarin Sieng, a Cambodian couple, said they got their jobs through Columbia. Anna Damajanty, an Indonesian, said she is learning English there. And Chand Kim, who is Korean, said Columbia has given her a day-care center for her son, John, as well as a sense of community.
"When I go home after work, I'm all alone with my son, and I get sad sometimes," said Kim, a waitress at a Sizzler Restaurant. "But on Sunday, when I come to church, I see my friends and I am happy."
The immigrants and their American church friends -- some 500 in all -- were taking part in the church's annual international banquet, this year titled "Love in Any Language." At a time when some other Protestant churches are struggling to survive, Columbia, one of Northern Virginia's largest churches with 3,200 members, is thriving. That's partly because its ministers have reached out to provide needed social services as well as spiritual instruction to the area's growing ethnic community.
When its senior minister, the Rev. Neal Jones, came to the church 22 years ago, the congregation was almost entirely white. Today, about 400 immigrants from about 30 countries pass through Columbia's doors, according to the Rev. James Perdew, a former Navy chaplain in charge of Columbia's mission program.
With Hispanics and Asians alone now making up at least 14 percent of Northern Virginia's population, there's potential for growth, Perdew said. "We have become an urban church," he said.
Columbia Baptist, on Washington Street North and West Columbia Street, holds five worship services each Sunday morning, including one in Korean and one in Spanish. Those services are led by a Korean pastor and a Hispanic pastor who work full time at the church. An international Sunday school class also meets every week. And on Sunday nights, an Egyptian surgeon leads a worship group in Arabic.
But what brings many immigrants to the church the first time -- and entices some to stay -- is the social service program. A full-time worker helps men and women of any faith find food, furniture, housing and jobs.
Yesterday an Islamic couple expressed privately their thanks that the church had helped the husband find his first job in several months. Two tables over sat Chand Kim, who was raised a Presbyterian.
After visiting other churches in the area, she settled on Columbia. "People here do, rather than just talk," she explained.
Three times a week, 40 Columbia volunteers teach English as a second language to about 160 people. Volunteer-driven church vans pick up immigrants in their neighborhoods and shuttle them to the church and back. Other volunteers provide child care during class time.
Damajanty has been taking English instruction for about a month, aided by tutor Mary Louiselle, a Catholic from McLean.
"Anna and I started with parts of speech," Louiselle said. "We've done lots of conversational work and role playing. She reads articles and underlines words she doesn't understand after she has gone to the dictionary. Then she brings those to me."
Churches such as Columbia that belong to the Southern Baptist Convention have always emphasized evangelism, or winning people over to their faith. But until relatively recently, social programs were not a major part of the package.
Arminda Parodi, a widow from Colombia with four children, is thankful Columbia Baptist does more than preach and pray. Formerly a housekeeper who had trouble feeding and housing her children, she now has a steady job as a secretary at the church and is taking English classes there.
Her spiritual life has matured along with her good fortune, she said, and she finally has a sense of community. "We're like a big family here," she said.