On Faith appears on the first Sunday of each month.
It was to be a celebration of how African immigrants had found a home in a once predominantly white church in Silver Spring. A spiritual leader had come all the way from Cameroon to dedicate a chapter of the Christian Women's Fellowship -- the Africa-based group's first chapter in the United States.
But just before the big event, the Cameroonian visitor, Elizabeth Gana, received an urgent phone call.
One of the church's leaders was gay, the caller said. Silver Spring Presbyterian welcomed gay people.
Gana's first impulse was to withdraw from the ceremony. She asked the church's African members how they could be part of such a congregation.
"It was very, very hurtful," said Lydia Evakise, 46, a Cameroonian immigrant and a member of Silver Spring Presbyterian for two decades. "We are still struggling with the dynamics of how we are going to blend without excluding the Presbyterian Church Cameroon, where we came from, and the Presbyterian Church USA, which we now belong to."
As immigrants fill the pews of mainline U.S. Protestant congregations, they are adding another dimension to the complex debate over gay men and lesbians in the church. Most of them hail from more conservative cultures, where homosexuality is rarely discussed or even acknowledged.
Some have formed their own nondenominational or evangelical churches. But others -- particularly African immigrants who speak English -- have preferred the familiarity of the Presbyterian, Episcopal or other mainline denominations that were introduced to their countries long ago by missionaries.
Sometimes, the result has been a resounding clash of values. Nowhere is that more deeply felt than at churches such as Silver Spring Presbyterian, a place where many African immigrants have met openly gay people for the first time.
Although Africans now make up more than 80 percent of the 350-member congregation, the aging white members -- who include gays and parents of gay children -- are among the most active and are determined to keep the inclusion of gays in the church mission.
Some African-born members have left over the conflict. Others still don't realize that the stained-glass triangle in one of the church's windows is a symbol of gay pride.
The Africans and whites who have stayed despite the tensions have reached an awkward compromise. They have decided that other aspects of their faith should be the church's main focus. And each group, on its own, has refrained from taking actions that might inflame the other side. There are no more church-sponsored gay pride days, and fewer mentions of gay rights during church prayers. Yet at the same time, all new members are told that they are joining a church that accepts gays and lesbians.
Despite the phone call to Gana, last year's fellowship ceremony went forward. She and the Rev. Stan Bliss, the church's openly gay parish associate, sat together in the sanctuary -- and hugged afterward.
"It's really an attempt to be the whole family of God," said the Rev. Currie Burris, the head pastor.
Religion scholars say that a growing number of U.S. churches will experience similar conflicts. Christianity is growing in Asia and Africa faster than anywhere else in the world, and clergy leaders on those two continents have strongly opposed moves by U.S. churches to condone homosexuality and expand gay rights. During a stop in Fairfax County this fall, an Anglican prelate from Nigeria proposed establishing U.S. churches under his jurisdiction to minister to Anglicans upset by the American Episcopal Church's confirmation of an openly gay bishop.
"The churches need to be aware of the changes, and more aware of the way Christianity is moving in the world and the impact of immigration," said Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University professor and author of "The Next Christendom," a study of the Third World's influence on Christianity. "These are stresses and strains that all denominations are facing. . . . They've got to live with the stress or die gracefully."
Silver Spring Presbyterian began in 1953 with a predominantly white congregation that called itself progressive. During the 1960s, the pastor marched in Selma, Ala., with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. There was a special Sunday school class for disabled children. Gay couples and parents of gay children began attending, and in 1995, the church designated itself a More Light congregation, a movement in the Presbyterian Church USA that welcomes openly gay members and accepts gay clergy.
It was the church's attitude of inclusiveness that drew the first African members.
"It didn't even register to me that there weren't that many Africans there," said Evakise, a Beltsville social worker who started attending in 1984 after she came to the United States to study at Howard University. "I went there very focused on the pastor and the word."
Philip Ngundam, a Cameroonian immigrant who joined in 1986, said he was surprised to see that the head pastor at the time was a woman, but her warmth captivated him. He also loved the untraditional oval sanctuary, which allows parishioners to look at each other. "It just seemed like a good place to be," said Ngundam, a Bowie real estate agent.
Membership declined as white families left the area. By the mid-1980s, the church had just 200 members, compared with about 900 in the 1960s. But it began growing in the 1990s with the arrival of a large wave of African immigrants. The 2000 Census found nearly 100,000 African-born residents of the Washington region, more than in any other U.S. metropolitan area after New York.
By then, a majority of the congregation at Silver Spring Presbyterian was African, and tensions had surfaced on several fronts. Some white members complained that the newcomers, most of them from Cameroon and Ghana, were always late to Sunday service and didn't volunteer for committee assignments. The Africans didn't understand why the whites insisted that children be separated from their parents during worship. There was a predominantly white choir and an overwhelmingly African one, each with a different style of singing.
For many, the issue of gays became the breaking point. When the church organized a gay pride day in June 2002, few Africans showed up. Some never came back. Many gay members and their supporters also left, tired of the controversy.
But those who remain said the positive aspects of the congregation's diversity outweigh the split over homosexuality.
Bliss said he was furious when the visiting official from Cameroon considered leaving last year's ceremony because of his presence. And many other times, he said, he has felt like an outsider. But still, the church is his home. He counts several African immigrants as friends; many others hug him even though they may not fully embrace his sexuality.
"I am continuing to be caring and loving and all as God has gifted to me, and I will share that with whomever is open to me," said Bliss, 67, a retired social worker. "God will do the rest."
Stephen Andoseh, a Cameroonian who co-chairs a fundraising committee at the church, said he isn't convinced that homosexuality is a "natural thing." But the longtime white members, he said, provide leadership and financial support. In Cameroon, all churches are centrally controlled, so many immigrants are unfamiliar with their responsibilities in a congregation that is autonomous.
The non-African members "are the pillar, they are the cornerstone of the church," said Andoseh, 45. "The Cameroonian community has to learn what it takes to grow a church in the United States."
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.
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.