Today I spent the morning in prayer and praise with a Lutheran Vietnamese community at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines was the largest site for Vietnamese resettlement in the United States (a close second was Fort Smith in Arkansas). Today there are as many as 15,000 Vietnamese in Des Moines.
It takes a bit of intrepidity to join an unfamiliar congregation and worship with them, especially if you don't speak their language. I do not speak any Vietnamese--at all. So when I got to church, I went in not knowing how to navigate the community. I've trained myself to not be nervous, and to take things as they come. It usually works.
At Capitol Hill Lutheran there was an 8 a.m. English-language chapel service already in action, so I drifted past that and back into a kind of lounge where the Vietnamese community was gathering. The congregation is made up primarily of older members, most of them having sought refuge in the U.S. at least 20 years ago during the Vietnamese Boat Lift. I learned later in the morning that there are younger families and members of the parish, but they work weekends so struggle to attend worship regularly.
We all hung out in the lounge, waiting. The English language service ran long, and the pastor for that service spent time greeting parishioners in the hall, so we did not officially begin worship on time, instead about 10 minutes late.
Up to this point in my visit, I had communicated with brief nods and smiles and simple introductions. I didn't want overwhelm the small community, like a noisy sociologist, so I sat and read the Bible a bit and waited. Eventually the Vietnamese pastor (who spoke very little English) introduced me to a member who could translate. He gave me a service bulletin, assigned me to the welcome pew, and made a brief introduction about their visitor as worship began.
Vietnamese is a beautiful tongue, with many sounds unfamiliar to my Anglophone
ear. We sang an opening hymn, accompanied by the 8 a.m. worship musician, who then promptly left after the hymn.
The pastor offered a very long gathering prayer, which was emotional enough that I teared up some.
I should mention, this is an important aspect of worshipping in languages not our own--there's often enough time of incomprehension for mind and heart clearing moments to shine through. It's not "praying in tongues," and yet... it is. Resting in your incomprehension while someone else prays in their heart language is disconcerting and comforting simultaneously.
The majority of the service was devoted to the sermon on the lessons, especially Ephesians 4:29: "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."
This text took on a completely different sense for me today, as I thought about it in terms of languages. Can words in a foreign tongue still give grace to those who hear? I certainly know the Vietnamese prayers gave grace to me.
We prayed a confession litany, which, although very foreign to my ear linguistically, made sense because of its similarity structurally to the confession of sins in the liturgy. The congregation spoke this part of the service with special energy.
The most basic idea in the pastor's sermon was simple, and I was able to pick up on it because of his hand gestures: we have two ears, but only one mouth, and our Christian practice should reflect this. After 40 minutes of worship, we adjourned to a small bible study in a separate room. My translator invited me please to stay, so I did. We exchanged some very kind if formal greetings. They hoped I would return (I most definitely will!)
Most Christians should be reminded regularly of the most basic missionary moment: that our faith is translated. It was carried first in Hebrew, then in Aramaic, then in Greek, then for a long time in Latin, and then, through the miraculous work of missionaries and the Holy Spirit, to the thousands of languages of the human race. As we are reminded by that great missiologist, Lamin Sanneh, the translation of the gospel into the vernacular has ever and always had considerable implications for mission.
And the very first moment of translation is encounter and incomprehension: hearing someone else speak in a language you do not understand.
After that, the work is learning that language, then prayerfully discovering how to take the gospel you know in your language and translate it into the heart language of those you have met.
It's not my work to translate the gospel into Vietnamese. That's been done by others. But by attending worship with a refugee community in Des Moines, Iowa, I can be reminded of how central translation is to the message itself... we only have what we have (the Bible, our faith, the Word) because of the faithful translation of others.
At one time our ancestors were me, in that worship service, curious and wondering not only about the language being spoken, but the people speaking it, and the content of their message.
Many new refugees have arrived in Des Moines since the influx of Vietnamese. My translator today mentioned: the Sudanese, the Bosnians, and now those from Myanmar. Even more will continue to arrive (as long as Terry Branstad doesn't get his way). And when they arrive, they will offer new opportunities for Christians to discover that first mission moment.
If we are brave enough to subject ourselves to the vulnerability of getting lost in translation.
When and if we do (and I hope and pray more Christians after reading this will go to worship in other tongues), we will hear sayings like the following (the basis for our Bible study in Vietnamese today) with new ears, a grammatical spirituality for the refugee moment:
"Prov. 15.1 A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
2 The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge,but the mouths of fools pour out folly. "