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By Tom Holmes
Two evenings, two services: half full, half empty
I went to a service at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church Sunday evening. The folks in the pews were 50% Thai, 25% black and 25% white.
I was inspired by the diversity, especially because we know that churches tend to be less diverse than most other institutions in our society. The shared faith of those present was the glue that held that little congregation together. It certainly was not because all were on the same cultural page.
That was what was challenging for me. The black people were more expressive emotionally than with what I feel comfortable. The Thais are sillier than I like to be when they are playing ice breaker games. Often I enjoy watching other worshippers pray and sing in different ways than I do, especially if I don't feel pressured into trying to get to where they are temperament wise.
But last Sunday, it felt irritating. I guess I wanted Christmas worship to be what I'm comfortable with, in a style and tone I can really resonate to. An analogy might be that the service was like a meal of green curry, black eyed peas and pizza—interesting, maybe even fun but those three dishes don't really go together very well. What I wanted was the comfort food I ate as a child.
So, in my head I marveled at the miracle of diversity in which I was participating and that made me feel blessed, but I couldn't deny the irritation I was feeling along with the joy.
The next evening I went to the late night service at Grace Lutheran in River Forest. What I experienced there was a liturgy I had been singing for thirty years. Everybody in the pews, it seemed, knew the liturgy well, and there was no hesitation about when the congregation should join in the chanting or when to sit and stand. Everyone also seemed to be similar in terms of temperament. I know many there were feeling lots of emotion, but no one shouted "amen" or "praise the Lord."
There's an old joke that goes, "Did you hear about the Lutheran who loved his wife so much that once he almost told her?!" We Lutherans of European heritage laugh at that joke, but many of us also kind of like more spiritual light than emotional heat.
The problem I felt at Grace was that out of four or five hundred people present, I saw only one person of color. No babies cried. No children squirmed alongside their parents. I bet the average level of post high school education in those worshiping was four or five years. We were birds of a feather flocking together. It was comfortable but not very culturally challenging.
The difference between the two brought to mind a conversation I had with Cisco Cotto who is planting a new congregation, the Village Church, in Oak Park. We were talking about different worship styles, and he said more or less that he's not sure that a worship service should try to please everyone, that maybe we shouldn't apologize for going to a church in which we enjoy the experience.
I haven't figured this one out. On the one hand, I am incredibly grateful for the many amazing experiences—miracles really--I have I had because I'm a member of the Thai congregation. On the other hand, finding a way to participate in cultural expressions which feel uncomfortable to me, like silly games or meals with spicy food, can be hard work.
On the one hand, participating in a service I loved and knew by heart with people who were on the same cultural page felt so satisfying. On the other hand, the price we paid for that comfort was a kind of exclusivity which perhaps contributed a bit to the polarization in our society.
Let me know if you have resolved this tension and how. I'm still struggling.