Monocultural churches still the norm in diverse US society

Ebeneezer Oromo Evangelical Church
More than 200 Ethiopian immigrants attend Ebeneezer Oromo Evangelical Church. Ebeneezer holds its services at Saint Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minn. The sanctuary is filled with international flags.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

Ethnic diversity is shaping Minnesota's culture in many ways, and there's a small but growing movement in the United States to make Sunday morning church services more culturally diverse.

However, the vast majority of the nation's religious services remain monocultural, with just one language, race or ethnic group represented.

On a Sunday morning at Saint Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, the first service lets out. In a few hours, a Latino congregation will fill the pews. But right now, an Ethiopian preacher takes the pulpit.

The sanctuary is certainly large enough for all three ministries to worship together in one combined service. Nearly all the congregants can speak English. But each group prefers to praise God separately.

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Roland Wells, pastor at Saint Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church says that "typically churches tend to be very culturally, linguistically isolated because people want to be with people who are like them."

Wells has been preaching at St. Paul's for over 20 years and is an expert on diversity in the nation's churches. He says that despite the image of the American melting pot, monocultural congregations have always been a part of the country's immigrant heritage.

"You can imagine how hard this would be for an immigrant if I said, 'Today you're going to go join a Korean church.' How long is it going to take you until you can understand the sermon, until you can know what to cook for a potluck and before you can be in a Bible study, speak heart to heart, face to face, faith to faith," Wells said. "The immigrant church for many people is their one experience during the week where the other people get them 100 percent."

"Typically churches tend to be very culturally, linguistically isolated because people want to be with people who are like them."

Most immigrants will eventually adapt to life in the United States, says Challa Baro, the pastor of the Ethiopian ministry at Ebeneezer Oromo Evangelical Church. But changing the way they engage with God can be too much to ask.

"It's not only the language that can be different. It's the style, the way you express yourself, even the movement of the body and how you worship, how you sing. It's different," Baro said.

The church vibrates with the voices of more than 200 Ethiopian immigrants. They're all Oromos, members of an East African ethnic group that has faced decades of political persecution. Worshipper Amenti Terfa said the all-Oromo ministry is a way to honor the members' shared history.

"There was a time at which Oromos weren't allowed to worship in their own language and when we come over here we find a place where we worship in freedom," Terfa said.

There are ethnic churches all across Minnesota. Most accommodate the more recent newcomers: Mexicans, East Africans, Hmong. But one metro ministry still caters to some of the state's earliest immigrants.

This year, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church celebrates its 90th anniversary. The Minneapolis church, more commonly referred to as Mindekirken, is one of only two in the country to conduct services in Norwegian. The other is in Chicago.

"It's a way to celebrate who you are," said Kristin Sundt, pastor at the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church. "If you can do that in your own language and culture it helps express your faith more authentically."

The largest wave of Norwegian immigrants arrived in Minnesota around 1900. These Scandinavian transplants became part of the English-speaking mainstream long ago. But Mindekirken's members have no interest in giving up their monocultural ministry.

"We are more than a church," Sundt said.

This is a place where Norwegian flags outnumber Christian crosses. And where church members are just as likely to discuss a lefse recipe as the morning's sermon.

"This is the cultural center for the Norwegian heritage," says congregant June Tearle.

Congregant Marit Andol Kringstad adds, "It's great to celebrate your faith and your heritage together."

"Everybody knows everybody. The word for it is koselig. That means very cozy," says congregant Cindy Hatlevik.

Church-goer Ingunn Henrikssen lives three blocks from a Lutheran church. But she drives across town to attend Mindekirken with other Norwegian-speaking Christians.

"The cultural piece is what makes the difference. For a couple of hours a week, you can get a good reminder of that and the rest of the week you can go off just be a Minnesotan," Henrikssen said.

To hear Henrikssen tell it, the opportunity to worship at a monocultural church is one of the benefits of living in a multicultural America.