When I arrived at St. Matthew’s, St. Paul in September 2005, I was delighted to encounter men, women and children not only of Norwegian, Swedish, and Irish ancestry, but also from Uganda, Nigeria, Jamaica and the Philippines. The Holy Spirit had placed our church close to the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota, International Student Housing, and Luther Seminary. Men, women and children who had grown up in the Anglican Church abroad connected with us because our worship reminded them of home.
While the Spirit had worked through the St. Matthew’s community over the years to offer hospitality to Christians from around the world, church participants from other countries were on the margins of our church’s life. As first generation immigrants, many of them were working at least one job and going to school. Quite a few of our international parishioners were in the health care field where they ended up assigned to night shifts, which made their church attendance infrequent and church connections minimal.
Having an interest in liturgy and the global church, I began using worship materials from the New Zealand Prayer Book in Epiphany 2006. A church season celebrating Christ’s manifestation to the nations seemed just the right time to learn more about different expressions of Christianity around the world. In 2007 I came across an interactive and joyful liturgy from the Anglican Church in Kenya. A couple of months before we launched the Kenyan liturgy, an Anglican priest from Kenya named Bernard literally showed up on our doorstep! He was a student at Luther Seminary and made St. Matthew’s his church home. With his help and leadership we learned more about Kenyan worship and culture. He sang many songs from heart which our music director transcribed. We decided to sing some of the service music in Kiswahili and he became our teacher. The day we launched the Kenyan liturgy (with much fanfare) Bernard walked us through the service and music, and preached. It was a powerful service and learning experience.
As the Kenyan liturgy was happening, a man from Zimbabwe named Kennedy and his wife from Zambia came to visit. That day, as well as every Sunday we used the Kenyan liturgy, a Ugandan student from Luther Seminary called people to worship using a drum. Kennedy was amazed that a predominantly white Episcopal Church was doing a Kenyan liturgy, making space for traditional drumming, and singing in Kiswahili.
Kennedy stayed and a few months later brought me a Book of Common Prayer and hymnal from his home church in Harare. The following Epiphany we featured Zimbabwe. Kennedy networked with the Zimbabwean community in the Cities and with them provided an impressive power point presentation on the history, culture, and art of Zimbabwe, as well as Christianity in Zimbabwe. They brought stone carvings, fabric, and all kinds of delicious Zimbabwean foods. We sang some of the worship songs in Shona, and included Zimbabwean readers and prayer leaders in the service. Kennedy and his friends from Zimbabwe ended up being our hosts. We put ads in the local papers and a number of people in the Cities interested in Zimbabwe joined us.
The next year we featured Jamaica, and the following year, China. Beginning with the Jamaica liturgy, our Art Ministry decided that their January show would highlight art or artists from the featured country. Additionally, we bought a steel kettle drum and a couple parishioners learned how to play it. Long after the Jamaican liturgy was over, we continued to include music from Kenya, Jamaica and Zimbabwe in our worship, including our Christmas Eve and Easter services. Our congregation loved the music and cultures we were learning more about, and, when asked in a worship survey and small group gatherings what the Spirit was up to at St. Matthew’s, affirmed their excitement about using liturgies and music from around the world.
In preparing for the China liturgy, we worked, more than ever before, with people and organizations from the surrounding community including the Chinese Hospitality Center. Two University of Minnesota students did an in-depth presentation on Christianity in China, a Chinese music director in the area helped us find music and taught our choir enough Mandarin to sing the liturgy, Chinese musicians played the pipa and er’hu in the services, a Chinese master artist living in the Cities was featured in the art show and honored at an evening supper, and a couple who had adopted two children from China worked late into the night to finish a huge dragon that their children carried in procession. The day we launched the China liturgy our church was full of Chinese and American students, and some of them told me they had never been in a church before. A Chinese graduate student at the University of Minnesota said, “I am very moved that you would do this.” The service drew from ancient Chinese music traditions and instruments, which created a level playing field among Chinese and American Christians (most Chinese churches use contemporary Christian music). The music and liturgy was new to all of us.
The fruit God has brought forth has been incredible. Parishioners formerly on the margins have become our teachers and more widely-known and treasured members of our community. Three of them have been elected to our church board. We’ve learned more about what Christianity looks like around the world and have developed a global repertoire of prayers and music that we are using year-round. We are trying to highlight and honor the many cultures and traditions in our midst. The liturgies and music send the strong message that we are a church that seeks to look and act more like God’s Kingdom, a church that values the diversity in our midst.
These are the first steps leading to a journey of deeper reconciliation and understanding among God’s people from around the world at St. Matthew’s. The danger would be assuming that global worship is enough. In the days ahead, I pray that we learn to share life more deeply; that we not only gather around God’s table at church, but also around God’s table in each other’s homes. How can we enter the doors God has opened through diversity in worship, and develop relationships across cultures, and perhaps outside our comfort zones? Next steps for us will also include following God’s Spirit into our neighborhood more frequently and intentionally, perhaps tapping into the cross cultural relational networks in our midst, and learning to receive hospitality from our diverse neighbors.