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Connecting With Internationals13 min read

The following is a transcription of a podcast aired in October of 2019 but still relevant today. You can listen to the podcast here.

Intro by Todd Jones: Welcome to Michigan District’s Thought Leader Podcast. Today we’re going to visit with Pastor Davis about his experiences with immigrant Christian churches.

Jones: I understand your congregation has been working more and more with internationals, especially refugees. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on?

Rev. Zerit Yohannes discusses theology with the Congolese pastors at St. Luke, Christ Campus in Lansing

Davis: Sure. Three years ago what we call our Meridian Campus—and what our Eritrean pastor, Pastor Yohannes, calls our Country Campus—joined forces with what we now call our Christ Campus in downtown Lansing (it was a former English District congregation). When we came together there was already a group of members with a Sudanese background; we also have some people from Ethiopia and Burundi, so there was already an international community there, along with longtime anglo-Lutherans. The Sudanese there had already been led by a part-time pastor, Elamin Bagor, from the Sudan, who had gone through EIIT training at some point. And then about 15 months ago or so a group of people originally from the Congo with a Methodist background became connected with our congregation. We’ve been working with them, trying to get them acclimated both culturally and theologically so that we can bring them into our congregation. They have an extensive network of fellow Kiswahili-speaking brothers and sisters in St. Louis; Kansas City; Kentwood, Mich.; Chicago; Des Moines; Louisville… One of our pastors, Pastor Yohannes, is taking the lead with their leaders to get them prepared with a series of seminars so they’re ready to become connected with our LCMS ministerium and get involved in our system. So it’s been an interesting time—we came together with another congregation already with an immigrant population and then more have come!

Jones: Yes, it’s exciting to see that group of pastors and laymen gathering together from around the Midwest in Lansing to study the Catechism. As I understand you recently led a session to help the Kiswahili leaders from around the country to understand some things about American culture. What were some of the things that you’ve dealt with in that session?

Davis: I know we talk a lot about differences in culture, and so when we began to talk about American culture and Congolese culture, I wanted to start by reminding them that in the church, the church is one—there’s the Holy Christian Church. We confess it every Sunday. And so I didn’t want to make it sound like we were people from different planets. We’re the same, we’re the people of God. But certainly at the same time each Christian is from a particular national or people group with its own cultures and traditions, habits and way of relating, and so we do need to spend some time thinking about the differences that we have but—I think this is key—being on guard not to let our differences in culture become either a point of pride or a wedge of division between us and other Christians. And so we had a conversation about this. I wanted to help them focus on their children becoming part of actually a third culture; that their kids will take some things from a Congolese culture and some things from an American culture and develop a third culture. So they won’t be quite like mom and dad and won’t be quite like people raised in the US, but they’d be somehow in between. And so the real heart of what I talked about with these leaders who are also parents was I wanted to help them shape that third culture, what they would have their kids be involved in.

And so I said “Keep the best of your native culture; be who you are, and be on guard against the worst of American culture and help the kids stay away from some things that we see in American culture that would work against who they want to be as the people of God. So of course I didn’t make it sound like everything in America is awful or bad, but it was important to let them know that American culture is not all one. We really aren’t a melting pot; we’re more of a stew pot, and so it’s hard to generalize completely about Americans. I thought it was an important thing for them to understand.

But in general I talked about how Americans are more casual than formal; how we’re certainly more focused on time. We already kid about with pastor Yohannes, he will tell the new immigrants, “Now this is on American time, not African time.” We are more time focused. And even if it’s a cultural difference, as they’re getting plugged into America, we talked about the importance of showing up for school and work and meetings and worship on time, even if it doesn’t come automatically. I talked about how Americans are independent, self-reliant, those seem like good things; and how Americans might focus more on getting things done than the relationships in the meantime. I also think this is true and good to say: Americans really are focused on kindness and equality, that those would be some good things for them to bring into their families.

At the same time there were a number of things we talked about, I said “Here are some American traits you might be on guard against”: because we’re so independent we can become anti-authority, and they may see some of that bubble up in their children. Certainly we’re highly sexualized as Americans; we can be very materialistic as Americans, those are some things that they need to be sensitized to. And there’s a sense in which Americans, for all of our can-do spirit, there’s a stripe here in America—I don’t know if lazy is the word—a sense of entitlement, that things will fall on your plate and wanted them to be on guard against that. So those are some of the things we talked about. I did mention because I think this is true—I think Americans are going to be very welcoming of our new immigrants. I think often we’re very intrigued by people from another culture.

An Interesting Q&A Session

Jones: You told me that during this session you had a Q&A period in which you were intrigued by the questions they asked you. Would you share some of the questions that you got from the participants as they talked to you about their perspective of the American Christian culture?

Davis: Yeah, that was the best part of the day. When I was done talking, I asked, “Do you have any questions?” And here’s the first question: “Why is Halloween celebrated by Christians?” That was the last question I expected to be asked. This was in the middle of September and they hadn’t been in the country for more than about 18 months but already in September they could see all of the Halloween stuff all over and, as we poked around it a little bit, I think it was the ghoulishness, the fright in it and I think from their standpoint—syncretism. You know? Not “Why are Americans into Halloween” but “Why are Christian Americans into it?” Are we somehow more intrigued with demons and horrible things than we ought to be? I thought that was very interesting.

Another one maybe not as surprising was “Why do Americans take so many drugs? Why do they drink so much?” Again, you almost take that as a given. That IS America. But why is that? What is the hole that we really have inside us that we spend so much time trying to fill, why are we anesthetizing ourselves when we’ve got more stuff and more things to do than anybody else in the world? Really fascinating question.

And then this one: “Why do American Christian women wear their underwear to the beach?” And again, it wasn’t a question I was looking for, but it went right along with how I talked about how sexualized Americans are, and I think we lose track of that. Why are we such exhibitionists? Not Americans but Christian Americans? It was a fascinating question.

And the last one, this one too was not on my radar: “Why do Americans focus so much on their dogs and cats?” And I got to thinking about that. We’ve had dogs and I like dogs, yet once you start hearing people talk about “granddog” or they refer to their cats as their “children,” and you may know lots of people take their church directory pictures with their animals in it, what does that say? One of the fellows from our team that has a master’s in social work but he is from Africa, he said they’ve done studies on Americans and when we talk about what’s important to us, statistically many Americans will list their animals before their spouse or their children. And it’s certainly puzzling. Why are we exalting the animal kingdom over and against children, other humans? It was a puzzlement to me, very interesting.

As we talked through it I went on to say, “That’s why we need you here. You’re not here so we can help you. We as Christian Americans need you here.” You hear about African Christianity being more conservative, more biblical, and so I thought, they’re going to help us think through some things that maybe we’ve been thinking past.

Jones: That is very interesting. I’m going to set aside the dogs and the cats for right now and not touch those sacred cows, but I do want to look at the three other questions, because what I find fascinating about those questions is how they challenge us in our assumptions as Christian Americans. It’s almost like we have compartments in our lives: this is who I am in church on Sunday morning; this is who I am at my devotion time to my family; this is who I am in my community and my neighborhood… and there can be significant shifts in my value framework between those different compartments. You know, so Halloween, it’s highly debated: is it demonic? Is it not? Perhaps we are too jaded by a scientific, materialistic view of the world, and they come from a very spiritual context where demonic forces are ever present.

Davis: Yeah, from their standpoint—are we playing with fire that we are not even noticing?

Jones: Yeah, that’s exactly what I am getting at. I hope we can get a little more depth into their perspective and their experiences and perhaps it will make us even more cautious about those areas that we call grey and they see them as black and white. Maybe our filter has gotten a bit smudged and that’s why it’s grey to us.

Davis: Right. They didn’t say, “Why do American Christian women dress so scantily?” They said, “Why do they wear their underwear?” It’s just kind of striking. It just seemed odd to them.

Jones: You know, I shared that question with some pastors and it was interesting because the comment from a couple of the pastors and their wives was, “I’ve often wondered that. Why can’t we bring back swim shorts? Why do we have to have a bathing suit?” So maybe those kinds of questions really help spark a deeper conversation on what is the image that we as American Christians are portraying not just in general but especially to the immigrant community coming in?

Davis: You had asked me, “How does this help American Christians or our congregation?” I think one of the things that this can do for us is to help us think through what is American culture and what is Christian culture. And we’ve blended it all together and haven’t thought through. They’ve got to come in and sift what’s the good and what’s the bad. Perhaps we’ve lost our check valve or we’ve lost our ability to sift. So again, one of the things I’m excited about is, I think these different communities coming to connect with us are going to help and change us as much or more than we are them.

Worshiping in Swahili at Living Word, Lansing, Nov 23, 2019

Jones: As your congregation has made connections into the immigrant community and specifically the immigrant Christian community, what would you say as encouragement to other congregations that might face similar opportunities?

Davis: I think the key thing is, don’t wait to become an expert before you get involved. We may be a lot of things but we sure aren’t experts on this. We’re feeling our way, we’re asking questions, we’re learning as we go, we’re going through the doors that God opens. But whatever you do, don’t wait until you’re an expert. Like the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish—do what you can with what you have and let God give the increase. Open the doors when you can. That’s what we did. When they first came, we asked them what they needed. They said they could use a place to worship. We said, “Here’s the key, we’ll open it up.” We weren’t worried about what it was going to cost us, we weren’t interested in the finance, we were interested in the Kingdom. So I think to have an interest in the Kingdom—how is God at work here; get started with what you have and what you know; and I should say this: pray like mad. Our pastoral team gets together once a month and the agenda item on that meeting is prayer. That’s all we do, we pray. And God will build His Kingdom.

Jones: And I just want to encourage you [the reader]: if you have immigrants moving into your community, often especially if they’re coming from Asia, from Africa, they have a deep spiritual passion and are desperately looking to reconnect with a faith community. Let your doors be open and become known as a community that welcomes strangers in their midst for the sake of the Gospel.

Featured image: Rev. Dr. Todd Jones (Center right) poses with Congolese pastors and some of their wives at the Kiswahili Summit in Lansing, Christ Campus, on January 21, 2019. Also pictured are Rev. Bob Rahn and Rev. Dr. Matt Heise from LHF, who came to bring Swahili Catechisms for the group.

Photos by Elisa Schulz/Michigan District, LCMS


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