Striving to Embrace Our Multi-Ethnic Community

Race_Culture_Identity

One morning as I scanned my church email, most of the names and subject lines were familiar. Our guest speaker for the coming Sunday had sent her sermon title. Our music coordinator wanted to discuss the worship flow and congregational singing. Our denominational office had sent the usual weekly email of announcements and prayer requests. But then I saw an email from a name I didn’t recognize, and given the subject line, I just had to open it first: “Racism in the Fraser Valley Church?”

With a population of over 140,000, the city of Abbotsford where I live is the largest city in the Fraser Valley. The city has over 100 churches, from new church plants and house churches to mega-churches with multiple services and multiple staff. My church is mid-size—at an average worship attendance of 220, we’re small enough and have grown gradually enough that I still know every member by name, but we’re also big enough to get lost in and be fairly anonymous on a Sunday morning if that’s what someone is looking for.

When the church started, over 35 years ago, the 40 founding members of primarily Russian-Mennonite background chose Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19-20 as their key Scripture: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Over the years, those words have proven to be prophetic, as the church now has members from many nations besides Canada, including Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Kenya, Iran, and other countries.

When we worked on our church profile a number of years ago, one of our initial drafts described our church as a multi-cultural congregation. “But we’re not there yet,” one of our members pointed out. While we do include other-than-English languages in worship, that tends to be on special occasions like Peace Vespers, Christmas, and Easter, and not as often from Sunday to Sunday. We’re still learning what it means to respect and include different songs, different ways of offering, different ways of relating to one another. And so we say we’re a church striving to embrace our multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community.

The opening paragraph of the email seemed to recognize our intention as a congregation, for it started with a compliment: “Your church immediately stands out as interesting and different; I am curious if you know of any active programs to combat racism in the Fraser Valley Church, which I believe is rampant.”

The sender gave some of her own background, and then went on to list over a dozen painful observations from her experience with churches in the area, from condescending comments to race-based jokes and favoritism. Yet, she wrote, “no one wants to admit there is a problem. . . . I think people should delight and enjoy their ethnic backgrounds; however, these backgrounds should not be used to exclude others–there should be respect and equality.”

I wrote her back: “Thank you for your email and raising this concern which I also share. I am very sorry for the examples you list, as they only serve to shut people out rather than demonstrating the love of God and inviting people toward Christ.” I went on to tell her more about our congregation and the ways we’re seeking to build a healthy multi-ethnic community across racial and cultural lines. At the same time, I told her that I realize it is “a modest start—the attitudes you outline are persistent, and we still have much growing to do.” While her examples were drawn from specific churches in the Fraser Valley, similar things could have taken place in any number of churches anywhere, including my own.

More recently, I’ve been reading a number of articles and Twitter conversations that make a case against multi-ethnic churches as spaces of continuing colonization, as requiring disproportionate sacrifice on the part of people of colour, as unhealthy multi-ethnic plantations. The strong language makes me wince, and I almost feel embarrassed to be the pastor of a multi-ethnic congregation lest I be seen as colluding with colonizers and oppressors.

And yet, for me in Canada on the west coast, race seems more complex and more nuanced than the binary black-minority-and-white-majority paradigm that seems to dominate so much of the discourse in the United States. My city of Abbotsford is the third most ethnically diverse city in Canada after the much larger Toronto and Vancouver. 23% of the population is of South Asian origin. In nearby Vancouver, 43% of residents have an Asian heritage. Canadian multi-culturalism officially adopted as government policy in the 1970s and 1980s is reflected in my community today. In a recent conversation with a new immigrant from Korea who attends a Korean church in the city, when I tried to describe my congregation with people from many different backgrounds, she immediately said, “oh I see, you pastor a Canadian church.” For her, a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural setting is part of what it means to be Canadian.

Yes, there are challenges that come with being a multi-ethnic congregation. Yes, there is racism in our community and in the church as my email writer pointed out. And yes, I do think we need to be challenged so we don’t become an unhealthy, multi-ethnic church plantation. But being a multi-ethnic church also makes sense in my Canadian multi-ethnic suburban/urban context. I believe it’s also God’s vision for the church–for many people to become God’s people, for all nations to be drawn together as disciples of Jesus.

As for my email writer, well, we’re still in conversation about how we might continue to address our concern for racism and diversity in the church in the Fraser Valley. And in my congregation, we’re still striving to embrace our multi-ethnic community.

April Yamasaki

April Yamasaki

April Yamasaki is a pastor, writer, and most recently the author of Ordinary Time with Jesus and Spark: Igniting Your God-Given Creativity. In her church, she serves as lead pastor, as a catalyst and encourager to engage people in using their gifts, and enjoys expressing her love of Scripture and creativity in worship and preaching.
April Yamasaki

Latest posts by April Yamasaki (see all)

  • Hurrah for your church! This always pleases me when I see a multi-ethnic church – it’s like a wonderful foretaste of heaven

    • We’re still not “there” yet, but growing in that direction I hope!

  • I love what that the Korean woman said about your church! I’m finding that it’s harder than I had thought to find a truly multi-ethnic church but that more churches are trying to become multi-ethnic. Hopefully we can see a growth in church diversity more in our lifetime!

    • A number of years ago, we were approached by a Vietnamese church in a neighbouring city that wanted to start a new work in Abbotsford. So we now have a Vietnamese-language church-within-a-church that is part of our ministry. It’s another dimension of our multi-ethnic identity, and another example of the diversity of church models and growth. I hope we can see more of that too!

  • Todd Hanson

    Hi April.

    Thanks for sharing your response to that challenging e-mail. I really appreciate your congregation’s description as “a church striving to embrace our multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community”.

    An embrace requires two things: people and motion. The number of participants is variable, and so is the type of motion involved. For an embrace to occur, two (or more) people have to move so that they are together. But who moves? One person or both? Many churches are at the Matthew 11:28 (“Come to me”) stage of embrace encouragement. Churches stuck at this stage certainly are guilty of requiring a “disproportionate sacrifice” of people from minority groups by demanding that these people enter into a place where they may have no experience, no power, no connections, and perhaps few opportunities to voice their concerns either because of limited language ability or lack of opportunity. Churches need to welcome everyone, certainly, but simply issuing an invitation is not enough. Not nearly.

    Churches serious about embracing need to add a Revelations 3:20 approach: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”. Church members need to rise from their pews and go out to embrace others—to go to where they are, and to attend the churches of others in their own cultures in order to share the experience of discomfort, disorientation, and powerlessness that a “Come to me” church in Canada demands of those belonging to cultural minorities. These members could equip their congregation to genuinely reach out to embrace others, so that they wouldn’t have to patiently wait for marginalized people to work up the nerve to cross their church’s imposing threshold.

    A bedridden grandparent, a child trapped under a vehicle—these are people who can be excused for expecting an embrace while making no effort to move toward the embracee. The movies teach us that when two people want to share a loving embrace, both of them run toward each other, sometimes in slow motion, but the crucial point is that both people are in motion. Churches who strive to embrace brothers and sisters from other cultures must be actively involved with churches from other cultures.

    A “Come to me” church that claims to be striving to embrace a truly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community by passively inviting people to enter, while making no effort to reach out to embrace those people, is simply flailing its arms in the air like one of those inflatable tube men who appear in front of used car lots. Offering an invitation is not enough. Like the father in Jesus’ parable who ran to the son he thought he had lost, churches have to reach out and make an effort to build relationships with people and churches around the world.

    • Amber

      I also think the local ethnic Mennonite community needs to give up the power. There’s a new Church plant up the road from us, in the heart of a large IndoCanadian community, it’s a MB Church, but they are hiding the denomination and calling it a “community Church.” And who is at the helm? Yet another Mennonite male. Why keep using the same ineffective model over and over again? I challenged this young Pastor, he doesn’t seem to understand that he still holds the power. As a multiracial family, I’m really fed up with Mennonite males assuming I want them to be my family’s spiritual leader. I’m also painfully bored of the same worldview over and over again. I think we need other worldviews to balance out the Kingdom of God in the Fraser Valley. We all know there’s a power imbalance in this community. To me the Mennonite males need to be prepared to give up the power, or at least share it. We need affirmative action.

      • Todd Hanson

        I hear you Amber. Back in Canada now after 25 years in China we really miss the diversity we found in churches there. And that MB thing may have been meant to be more inviting and inclusive, but from what you say, the change is only cosmetic.

  • afwade

    Thanks for this helpful post, April. We worked at this my last few years living in Hong Kong. Very interesting dynamics! Our denomination’s missionaries from Indonesia and Philippines were already basically pastoring a church, but were young, female, and not ordained (an excellent combination for a vibrant gathering of folks from their countries seeking to follow Jesus!) But they wanted a church with a pastor. We discussed at length what they were looking for, a truly international church, and, since I was the ordained male from the west with church-planting experience, I would pastor.

    I was uncomfortable with the assumptions behind this decision, but we made it together. We also decided to call ourselves a multinational church (multi-ethnic has, as far as I know, not become the popular term). International churches overseas always seemed like little America churches… that we didn’t want. Long story short, we worked as blending all the various cultures and styles into worship, including a greeting time where we projected a simple greeting in Bahasa Indonesian, Tagolog, Cantonese, Mandarin, and English and each Sunday asked people to learn the greeting in two, new for them, languages and to greet at least four people with the new phrase. English, the one unifying language, was mainly used in the service, but we always made sure there were translators for those who didn’t speak English. Occasionally the message was preached in one of the non-English languages so that the rest of us got in on experiencing the sermon via translation.

    We tried a lot of things to truly blend, without homoginizing, the cultures. Our working perspective was that this is the Kingdom of God – from all tribes and nations. I can’t answer if we did this well, I think we did, but you would need to ask my co-conspirators. Before we left Hong Kong I was blessed to participate in the ordination of our Philippine missionary. She became my pastor for the final six months we were there (although truly they both had already been pastoring me the previous two years!). All this to say that yes, it is a very difficult ministry to be truly multi-ethnic, and we will fail at times. I’m pretty sure “multi-ethnic” also means “little American church” in some contexts, just as “multi-national” does. And yes, this kind of community will likely grow more slowly and some will choose not to participate in it because of the effort or unfamiliarity. But I miss it, learned so much from my sisters and brothers from other cultures, and had several of my underlying assumptions about church challenged and changed for the better.

    Blessings to you and keep up the great work!

  • Naomi

    Thanks for noting the difference of non US discussions about race I’m glad I am not the only one who sometimes feels a bit lost when listening in to what people have to say about multi ethnic church. I am certain that there’s lots that the US conversation can teach and challenge us about in the UK but it is hard to unpick whether things don’t resonate with me because of my white privilege or because there’s a different narrative here… Both sometimes I guess!

  • It sounds like your church is really trying to do the right thing. I’m with Tanya – a multi-ethnic church could be like a real foretaste of heaven where there will be people from every tribe and tongue. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective here and for sharing the concerns of your email correspondence. We need to be aware of these racial issues and my prayer is that God will use us to help bring peace and unity. Many blessings to you, April!

  • Amber

    Really excellent. As someone who is truly Canadian, in that I can trace my roots right back to the Red River, and the blending of Aboriginal and European cultures that combined there, I’m so happy that the newcomer to Canada sees Canada as multicultural. I think respect and love go a long, long way; nothing on earth is perfect, but the Bible is true when it says “love covers over a multitude of sin.” We sin with the prideful assumption that everyone wants to be just like us, we love when we allow others the space to be themselves. Activists in Abbotsford know the Churches have a problem, they hope Christianity and the Church will be changed from within. Starting the conversation and building intentional Churches are important first steps. Well done! Thank you for this.