Learning to Speak Cross-Culturally in Church

Dec. 20, 2014, 8:30 a.m. ·

Listen To This Story

Like the rest of the US, Nebraska is a melting pot. A church next door to Nebraska’s State Capitol building in Lincoln is home to three different congregations: one for English speakers, Mandarin speakers, and Karen speakers from Myanmar. These three communities are trying to make a home — together.

Sundays are always busy days for churches, but just next door to the Nebraska State Capitol building, at First Baptist Church, Sundays look kind of like a juggling act. At 10:30 Pastor Harry Riggs starts the weekly service for the church’s English speaking congregation.

Downstairs, at the same time, the Chinese services begin.

At First Baptist, about 40-50 people attend English services regularly, 50-60 attend Mandarin services regularly, and 120-150 attend Karen services regularly. (Photos by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)

"Chinese Church has a vision to serve and minister the Chinese students and scholars at UNL," Jinyue Jiang is one of the Chinese church’s lay leaders. First Baptist Church has been their home since 1997.

At 12:30, the English and Mandarin services end and the Karen congregants arrive to start theirs.

"When we start six years ago, we have, like only 25 people," Pa Naw Dee is one of their lay leaders.

The Karen congregation is, by far, the fastest growing community at First Baptist. With refugees arriving in Nebraska from Myanmar (formerly Burma) since 2008, they’ve grown to a community of 200 at the church.

At 12:30 the hallways are full of people exchanging greetings, in all three languages. Until a few months ago, this was the only time the congregations interacted.

Jiang, Pa Naw Dee, and Riggs all say cultural differences made it hard for their communities to get closer. They weren’t sure how to talk to each other.

"We didn’t have a common language. We didn’t have a common culture. And we had to literally learn how to navigate around one another without being offensive," Riggs said.

But without talking to each other, they didn’t know when they were stepping on toes. For instance, both the Chinese and Karen congregations are younger communities, with lots of young families and little kids. To Pa Naw Dee and many of the Karen, it seemed like the English congregation didn’t include kids in their worship.

"We think that the English congregation like kid or maybe they afraid the kid do something dirty that's why they not bringing them. That is my main understanding. Because I don't see kid!" Pa Naw Dee said.

Data from U.S. Dept of Health & Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement

The Pew Charitable Trust recently published a study showing immigration is slowing population decline in many states in the Midwest, including Nebraska.

And Jiang says some of First Baptist’s “house” rules seemed too strict to parents in his congregation, like trying to keep kids from running through the building.

"For our Chinese parents they have a trend not to discipline your child. But in American culture, especially if the kids in church, they are very disciplined. So you can see there is conflicts there," Jiang said.

Jiang says the reason the Karen and Chinese worried so much was because, to them, the English congregation was kind of the leader of the whole church: it was their building, and they had been there the longest.

"Before actually, the relationship is kind of like guest and host."

No one ever said anything about their concerns — until a few months ago. All three congregations had separately been thinking about leaving First Baptist Church and finding their own spaces to hold services. It was while Pastor Riggs was talking to his own congregants, that he realized this was an opportunity for everyone in the church to talk.

"So that’s what the English speaking congregation decided, okay that’s fine for the English speaking congregation. But if the other congregations also have active plans to relocate, are we putting the cart ahead of the horse?"

So all three congregations got together to talk, and that’s when a few things finally came out into the open. Pa Naw Dee remembers a Karen deacon saying one reason they wanted to move was because they wanted to include their kids in services, and from what they could tell, kids weren’t welcome at English services.

"They told me, last 20 years ago in English service, they also have a lot of kid but now they are already grown up. Oh! That's why they don't have a lot of kids. We don't know! Because we don’t have a chance to talk to each other!"

Ultimately, all three congregations decided to stay at First Baptist together, and to have all three communities run the church more equally.

"We feel like it's a really more open communication because We dare to ask them what we want to know. We don't worry that we are going to angry or something like that. I feel like a big family," Pa Naw Dee said.

Riggs agreed, "The cool thing about that for me is we’re gonna figure out together what it means to share the same space intentionally."

No one’s sure what it will look like to lead the church collectively. "For each group we are thinking: how we can benefit each other? I think in the United States, or in the world, there's no such models. So it's quite a challenge," Jiang said.

But one thing has changed already. Once a month, all three congregations hold Sunday services — together.

"We pray the Lord’s prayer in Mandarin, Karen, and English!" Riggs described.So one went, and another went, and another went…"

"Right now we are still sitting there in sections, right, but you can see the trend, we are mingling together," Jiang said.

Want to hear more? Listen to audio postcards from First Baptist Church below: