Friday, May 13, 2011

Lutherans and Ethnic Ministries in Northwest Arkansas

Ever since our return from Slovakia in 1999, I have served as an Ambassador for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Having lived in a foreign country for some years, I developed a passion for finding ways to offer hospitality and support for those migrating to our own country.

My volunteer work with LIRS changed over the years, but essentially I focused time and energy on advocacy for refugees and immigrants, taught classes at churches about the ministry of LIRS, and did fund-raising for refugee resettlement in Milwaukee (most notably by running the Syttende Mai race each year). I continue to encourage anyone reading this blog to consider how you might intentionally and financially support the work of LIRS, either in your local context through a refugee resettlement office, or through advocacy and contributions to the national organization.

In 2010, the relationship our synod had developed with LIRS in Milwaukee resulted in Madison being designated as a satellite refugee resettlement location, and it was our congregation's and my personal joy to be able to help resettle a refugee family from Bhutan. Refugee resettlement of Bhutanese families continues in Madison.

However, this past year I moved to Arkansas, and LIRS discontinued its Ambassador program. I have been feeling the lack of an intentional focus that would continue ministry with immigrants and refugees. It's not that there is a lack of opportunity, just simply that the move and change of institutional structures has meant I have to revision what it means to be intentionally connected to ethnic communities different from my own, and what it means to be an advocate for refugees and immigrants in this next context.

I've known ever since we were moving to Northwest Arkansas that there were at least two large immigrant communities in the neighborhood. Marshallese folks have been moving to Springdale for many years, and in fact Springdale is the largest Marshallese community in the United States outside of the Marshall Islands themselves. Somewhere around 10,000 people, I believe.

Second, the Latino population of Springdale is large and growing at a rapid pace. Currently there are about 16,000 Latino people living in Springdale, and this number is predicted to rise to 25,000 by 2015. Anecdotally, there are whole sections of the town where Spanish-language markets, shops, and restaurants predominate. There are ethnic restaurants from a variety of countries in South and Central America. It's a diverse and vibrant population. You can even buy pupusas at El Salvadoran restaurants. Yum!


Today our synod hosted a consultation in Tulsa on Latino ministries in Arkansas-Oklahoma. Pastors and lay persons from about four different regions were in attendance. I carpooled with a neighboring pastor, Paul Theiss, of Peace Lutheran in Rogers. He's a wonderful pastor to have as a neighbor, and we got so wrapped up in our conversation on the drive home that we missed the 412 turnpike and almost drove to Missouri instead of Arkansas!

Our presenters at the consultation were the coordinators for Latino ministries from the ELCA office in Chicago. Essentially, they simply walked us through what various ELCA Latino ministries look like around the country (the types of congregations that are out there, how they were started, how they are financed, who leads them, how they partner with parent or nest congregations, etc.). 

I was inspired to learn that often these ministries have started at a very basic level, often with an Anglo congregation simply hosting ESL classes with teachers from World Relief, public school resources, etc. Then, as such ministries progress, the congregations have offered worship in Spanish, sometimes by inviting a neighboring Latino pastor to come and lead services, and then eventually by calling a Latino/Spanish speaking pastor to serve as pastor of the Latino population.

Sometimes these are bilingual ministries. Other times it is more like two churches simply sharing space. 

Our presenters took time to teach us at least a bit about the cultural contexts we're envisioning engaging. They know, for example, that many Latino people who are coming to a Lutheran ministry likely have backgrounds in Roman Catholic piety, charismatic piety, or a mix of the two. It has been interesting to hear stories from these pastors (as well as our neighboring LCMS missionary, Tardeli Voss, who leads a vibrant Latino congregation nested out of Salem Lutheran in Springdale) talk about how to be sensitive to these religious traditions (perhaps especially how to talk about and relate to icons, festivals, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, about which, see Maxwell Johnson's American Magnificat: Protestants on Mary of Guadalupe). 

As I listened, I was reminded of a couple of things I'll make note of here. I hope to remember these points as I begin to engage my Latino and Marshallese neighbors more intentionally this summer.

1) The fact that Latino people have unique parts of their culture that they bring into their religious practice is actually not wrong, it's just different. Anglos do the same thing, but as the dominant culture, we don't think of our cultural accommodation as ethnic. We just think it's normal.

2) It is so easy, as the dominant cultural religious group, to be patronizing. Avoid this. Find out how to accompany each other in the gospel of Christ and the mission of God.

3) Remember how thrilling, if also challenging, it is to be exposed to another culture. Be open. Be generous. 

4) The Latino community is a community of many generations. The first generation thinks differently about language and worship than the subsequent generations. 

There are probably even more pieces of wisdom I could list that I learned from our consultation today, but the my primary take away was as follows: Although I can envision what our congregation might do in the coming years by way of Latino and immigrant ministries (launch a multi-ethnic Lutheran satellite congregation in Springdale, develop ESL classes out of our Fayetteville facility, advocate for worker justice, etc.) for the time-being I just plan to be out and about this summer as a pastor and person being with people and walking neighborhoods to learn more and accompany folks on the journey. I think God is calling me not to launch something in the congregation, but just intentionally love my neighbors, and especially seek to connect with some ethnic groups from whom I can learn much about what it means to be human, in community, and faithful. That's a good start.

For a big picture approach to this topic, see:

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