Bilingual churches experience Pentecost every Sunday

By the Rev. Margaret Marcuson

The most profound Pentecost experience I ever had was in San Francisco in 1980. It was a big surprise, coming about from a routine task. My husband and I had just gotten married, and he wanted to make me the beneficiary of a small insurance policy that his parents had given to him. So Francisco Baltodano, the insurance agent, came to call.

When Baltodano discovered that I had just started attending seminary at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), Berkeley, Calif., he said: “My pastor’s at the GTU! I’ll have him call you.”

“Great,” I thought, “a pastoral call from a Baptist minister.”

I knew nothing about American Baptists. I didn’t think about the fact that a Baptist minister from an ecumenical consortium probably didn’t fit my stereotype. I didn’t put together the pieces of the Nicaraguan insurance agent and Baptist multicultural ministry.

A few days later, co-pastors David Wheeler and Betty Davis came to visit. They invited us to church. We attended the next Sunday, and stayed. I did my seminary field education there and kept in touch over the years. Today, I’m a long-time member of the church that Wheeler has pastored for 11 years: First Baptist Church of Portland, Ore.

But the twist was this: Wheeler was preaching in Spanish as well as English. Portola Baptist Church, just a few blocks from our apartment in San Francisco, was a primarily Spanish-speaking church filled with immigrants, mostly from Central America. The first part of the service was bilingual. The small English-speaking group, including us newlyweds, gathered in another room for the sermon in English, given by David’s co-pastor, Betty. Here was another challenge to my stereotype: I didn’t know that Baptists ordained women.

I learned a good deal of Spanish with the help of people in the church, enough to begin my own ministry after seminary as interim pastor of a bilingual church in San Jose, Calif. To experience worship in two languages was like mini-Pentecost every Sunday.

“How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:8, NRSV)

Of course, there was much more to the experience than language. After growing up in a WASP-y suburban church, to experience the vitality of the Latino community in this church was a transforming experience. They embraced us literally and figuratively. My husband and I went home every week with lipstick kisses on our cheeks from the church’s women.

As I grew in my own ministry experience, the leadership supported me and helped me grow. After the pastors left, a conservative faction tried to exclude me from preaching. The moderator stood up for me even against his own mother-in-law. He was a gentle man, but he had backbone when it was called for. I’m still grateful. They put up with my stumbling attempts to learn Spanish, kindly correcting my mistakes.

In the middle of the many blessings, it was a stretch at times. I remember attending a church retreat populated mostly by Spanish-speaking folks. Not everything was translated, and I felt left out. The person who was supposed to interpret for us didn’t do a good job. Of course, that’s what some of the others in the room experienced daily. In the moment, I couldn’t appreciate it, but later I realized what a good learning experience I’d just had. It increased my compassion for what my fellow church members regularly endured.

Here are a few things I learned:

  • Immigrants are the lifeblood of the church and the United States. Their energy and hard work transformed that church in ways that have lasted to this day.
  • Learning another language is challenging. I went on and served another bilingual church as interim pastor the year after I finished seminary. I was never 100 percent fluent the way Wheeler is. I could see the variation in how people in our church were learning English. I learned that people learn languages at different rates, and the expectation that everyone will learn English at the same rate is a false one.
  • Cross-cultural connections are both difficult and enriching. Some of the challenges show up right away in the book of Acts. I have seen them myself in that church and over the years. And I treasure the relationships I’ve developed, despite and because of cultural differences.

Pentecost offers a challenge to the church. Of course, we, like all human beings, want to talk to others who know our own language and are like us. It’s biological. We are programmed to pursue safety, including people with whom we associate. But is that our call as followers of Jesus?

On Pentecost and all year long, Jesus calls us to stretch ourselves to connect with others who are different. We can share our experience of God’s love and receive and learn from them.

Through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources, the Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without burning out.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.