Lutheran church revisits bilingual past for Sudanese immigrants

Sudanese worshiper
Sudanese worshipers who belong to Bethlehem Lutheran Church and do not speak English can listen to Sunday services in their first language through headphones; a lay minister translates the service simultaneously.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

About a century ago, the founders of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Cloud prayed and sang in their first language: Norwegian.

But today a different foreign language emanates from the church.

Every other Sunday, African drums and prayer songs echo throughout the church. Relatively new congregants worship in their mother tongue, Nuer, one of the languages spoken in the southern region of Sudan.

The Sunday services in Nuer started about three years ago. But the relationship between the church and the Sudanese community goes back further. It all started when a Sudanese woman began to show up faithfully on Sundays -- even though she didn't speak any English.

Nyalat Minydhoat is one of hundreds of African refugees who have settled in St. Cloud. She and other Sudanese refugees fled from a genocide and civil war that ended in 2005 in their homeland.

Most of the Sudanese in southern Sudan practice Christianity, while the Sudanese in the northern region of the country are predominantly Muslim.

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When she settled in St. Cloud, Minydhoat began to look for a church. She first drove by Bethlehem Lutheran Church back in 2004 and prayed for a warm welcome.

Minydhoat said her friends followed her to church. They didn't care about the language barrier. The congregation welcomed them with open arms.

Nuer-language worship
Every other Sunday, James Puotyual presides over worship services in Nuer, one of the languages spoken in his native Sudan.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

James Puotyual, a lay minister in charge of African ministry, said the congregation's embrace of the Sudanese visitors started with a simple gesture: a smile.

"Sudanese are that way, if you smile, that's welcoming," Puotyual said.

Most of the church's African members are Sudanese. Nigerians and Liberians are also part of the congregation.

Church leaders want to ensure everyone feels a part of one worshiping community, instead of separate ones. So, on the Sundays when he isn't leading the service in Nuer, Puotyual sits in a corner of the church chamber quietly translating the services through a walkie-talkie set.

Nuer speakers listen to Puotyual's voice through headphones.

"It was an incredible gift to be able to be able to begin that system that brought people together," said the Rev. Dee Pederson, the church's lead pastor. "That led to recognitions and conversations, taking an interest in one another's children, and starting to recognize that we are one congregation, we are one body."

But there's more to all of this than just what happens on Sundays. The congregation wants to help build strong bridges inside and outside of the church. Volunteer cultural navigators help old and new members get to know each other's cultures. Church leaders also have started programs to help their African worshipers settle into the community, from navigating the school and medical systems to renting an apartment.

Pederson calls that "building relationships side by side."

Paster Pederson
Dee Pederson, the lead pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, said the congregation's calling to welcome those who are new to the community grows out of a common memory that their predecessors started out as newcomers, too.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

"Those relationships get formed when there is an intentionality about it, when people see one another as equals, when there is an opportunity to have non-superficial relationships," she said.

Pederson said the congregation never imagined having Sudanese worshipers. But what's occurring today parallels the church's early days.

Bethlehem Lutheran first introduced English services in the late 1920s because it wanted to reach out to students and other young people who didn't speak Norwegian. Pederson said the congregation's calling to welcome those who are new to the community grows out of a common memory that their predecessors started out as newcomers, too.