Religion and Faith

Three congregations, three languages, one church service

Members of three congregations gather
Members of Karen-speaking, Spanish-speaking and English-speaking congregations gather for a shared worship service Jan. 19 at Mounds Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul.
Emily Bright | MPR News

Voices of singing congregants lifted and echoed through the sanctuary at St. Paul's Mounds Park United Methodist Church on a recent Sunday.

But on this day, for this service, with this hymn, there was something different.

It wasn't just the voices of the majority English-speaking Methodist congregation. They were joined in harmony by members of a Karen-speaking Baptist congregation and a Spanish-speaking Seventh-day Adventist congregation.

Three congregations, three languages, one church service — and one unique arrangement aimed at benefiting everyone.

"We've got the three congregations today, which is wonderful," usher Bruce Frye of Mounds Park UMC explained before the service. Dressed in a suit, he greeted arrivals with a friendly smile. "I think, having different cultures — you know, you can learn so much, and you can gather information to help one another."

Mounds Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul
Mounds Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul.
Emily Bright | MPR News

The Methodist congregation has faced shrinking attendance in recent years. There is no longer a Sunday school. Frye said his 9-year-old granddaughter stopped wanting to attend after the Sunday school ended.

In 2016, the church made the decision to share its building — first with the Baptist congregation who worships on Sunday afternoons, then with the Seventh-day Adventist Church who meets on Saturdays. The Methodist congregation received some financial help, and the other two congregations gained access to a large gathering space.

The three pastors met every two months to plan and pray, as their congregations gathered at their separate times. But last year, they launched an experiment. They decided to bring the congregations together on occasion, about once every three months.

"We wanted to mirror our community first," said Jay Jeong, pastor of Mounds Park UMC. "We are reaching out to our community with many programs. But we thought that, throughout the worship service, we can mirror our community as well."

Readings in English, Spanish and Karen are shown on a screen
Readings in English, Spanish and Karen are shown on a screen during a shared worship service for three congregations at Mounds Park United Methodist Church.
Emily Bright | MPR News

As congregants arrived for the most recent shared service in January, two parishioners practiced a duet between piano and quena, a traditional Andean flute. The Karen congregants were the first to show up, many wearing traditional red, blue or purple woven shirts or dresses beneath their jackets.

As others arrived, the congregations gathered in groups in the shared space. It was a bit like a wedding service: everyone was there for the same reason, but not all the guests knew each other yet.

Jeong said it's a lot of work to hold a church service in three languages.

Scripture and words to hymns are projected on two screens up front. That's three languages to format and spell-check, and Karen uses a different alphabet entirely. Church leaders worked hard to find hymns that existed in multiple languages.

Jeong is Korean-American, and while his congregation sang in English he made a point of singing in Korean, to encourage everyone to use their preferred languages.

The three pastors took turns leading different parts of the service. On this occasion, Alejandro Barrios preached in Spanish, pausing for English interpretation, while Karen speakers read the text of his message on the screens.

Only the children's time was entirely in English. Most of the children at this service were from the Karen congregation, and together they filled the space before the altar. Jeong talked about how God loves all of them.

Mounds Park United Methodist Church Pastor Jay Jeong
Jay Jeong, Mounds Park United Methodist Church pastor, addresses the children of the three combined congregations at the church.
Emily Bright | MPR News

Paw Ler, 21, attends the Karen Baptist church. He belonged to a multilingual church elsewhere in the Twin Cities before coming to the St. Paul congregation.

"It still amazes me that ... even though we speak different languages, we can still worship the same God," he said.

At the end of the service, everyone stood in a circle, holding hands for the benediction. Afterward, the kids were the first to scramble downstairs to fellowship hall for potluck desserts. The following week, everyone would return to normal, separate worship times.

Jeong said they plan to continue holding multilingual services once a quarter. He said it's worth the work to focus on the beliefs that unite them, rather than the factors that divide them.

After all, Jeong pointed out to the combined congregations, the last word of each prayer is the same: Amen.