Gifts from Worshipping in a Multiethnic Urban Church
When we moved from Arkansas to New York City, we settled in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. Our decision to live in Washington Heights was determined primarily by economics. I just could not imagine paying so much rent for so little space somewhere like the Upper West Side.
So, completely naively, we moved into the Heights and immediately became ethnic minorities.
In addition to being white in a predominately Dominican neighborhood, my wife and I also have two adopted children. Both of them are ethnically different from us and from each other. We are quite a sight. And we’ve received our fair share of stares in the last several months—not just in the Heights. But the one place we feel totally normal is at church.
We worship in a new church called Christian Community Church of the Heights. Our service is bilingual—with music and announcements in both Spanish and English and a sermon delivered in English and translated live for Spanish speakers. The congregation is majority Latino but very diverse. In fact, the congregation reflects the ethnic diversity of the neighborhood (60-something percent Latino and 40 percent “other”). There are as many or more trans-racial couples as same-race couples.
Being surrounded by diverse families is a gift in itself, for a family like ours. We’ve received several other gifts by worshipping in a multiethnic urban church. Here are a few, presented as lessons learned. I’ve learned, for example:
Hips can be used in worship.
I’ve raised my hands in worship. I’ve bent my knees in worship. Doggone it, I’ve even clapped and swayed. But never before have my hips been tempted to involve themselves in worship. And it shows: they are very bad at it.
There’s a serious point in here somewhere. Style of worship is more than a matter of taste. Different musical forms open different possibilities, even theological possibilities. For example, I’ve sung the song “Blessed Be Your Name” in many churches in the last fifteen years. In all of them, the tone of that song has varied from reflective, even repentant, to triumphant. But when I sing it over a Caribbean bass line and rhythm section, a new possibility opens up. The song becomes positively celebratory.
In this case, musical style is a reflection of deep values and cultural personality. Our Dominican brothers and sisters know how to party, and they know how to bring that party to church. I never thought I could sing, “You give and take away” with a smile on my face. The fact that I can do it now is a gift from my diverse congregation.
Most churches I’ve been to are designed for someone just like me.
As much as I enjoy the Caribbean flavor of our worship, it is a constant reminder that our service and programs are not designed to reach me—they are designed to speak the heart language and meet the needs of other people in our community.
That’s how it should be, of course. But it strikes me that for all of my life I’ve been part of churches that were actively accommodating to people just like me—people my age and my race and my socioeconomic status. And I never thought of our worship and programs as “how we do church.” I thought of those things as “how people ought to do church.”
The implications of this lesson don’t stop with my past church experience. It’s become clearer to me in recent months that the vast majority of ministry resources, even Christian resources more broadly, are produced with “me” in mind. I’ve enjoyed a privileged status for a long time and never really realized it. I feel it as soon as something isn’t tailored to my tastes.
The gift that comes from worshipping in a service that isn’t designed for me is that it reveals the depth of my consumeristic relationship with church. This is not a fun lesson, but it’s an important one.
Diversity doesn’t just “happen.”
We thought moving to one of the most diverse cities in America would mean that we would find comfortable diversity everywhere. Boy were we mistaken. The longer I live in New York City the more striking it is to me how segregated the city is. Neighborhoods and even blocks divide along ethnic designations. Schools can be monocultural even in diverse neighborhoods. It’s harder than I realized to find churches in the city that are committed to radical diversity.
All our social and civic systems work against ethnic and socioeconomic integration. It’s possible I knew that intellectually before now. But living where we live and worshipping where we worship has driven the point home: diversity doesn’t just “happen.” It takes deliberate and uncomfortable intentionality. It takes a group of people who are happy to hear all the church announcements twice—once in English and then again in Spanish—happy to sing all the songs in two languages. It takes a group of people who are willing to sacrifice their preferences so someone who sits near them can hear God speak to them the way they need to hear him.
I suppose the real gift of worshipping in a diverse urban church has been the tangible hospitality. While our service is not designed to appeal to my tastes, I am frequently moved by how accommodating people are to make sure my family feels welcome. We have been the recipients of great grace and kindness. That grace and kindness has made this vast new city feel small and familiar.
Brandon O’Brien is Director of Content Development and Distribution for City to City. He and his wife, Amy, and their two young children live in Upper Manhattan.