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Changing neighborhoods as global Christian spaces

In 1976, a number of churches in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles united to form a group called Christian Action in Central City, in part to deal with the challenges associated with ministry to a diverse population. At the time, PicoUnion was transitioning from a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood to one with a growing number of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Central America. Although the different groups shared a Latino identity and the Spanish language, the pastors of the churches grappled with tensions between the Mexican

Americans and Central Americans in their respective congregations. One of the churches in the consortium, Angelica Lutheran Church, established an organization known as the School of the People to provide English-language courses, help with applying for citizenship, and tutoring for school children in the neighborhood as a practical way to break down barriers between different groups and provide the basis for greater unity. Other efforts were even more pragmatic, including sponsoring sports teams for the youth in the community that cut across divisions of national origin and ethnicity. In addition, worship services were offered in multiple languages, to both accommodate Spanish-speakers and help those who wished to learn English acculturate more effectively (Chandler 1976).

Indeed, the experience of the churches in Pico-Union during the 1970s was a microcosm of the wide-ranging project in Los Angeles’ churches to respond to the demographic change of post-1965 Los Angeles. As community institutions, churches were on the frontlines of these changes, and struggled to deal with the problems of immigrant communities while continuing to minister to more established groups within their congregations.

By the 1980s, the kind of multicultural ministry pioneered by groups such as Christian Action in Central City had become the norm throughout much of Los Angeles. In 1986, in nearby Glendale, the Glendale Presbyterian Church was offering worship services in multiple languages, including Korean, Spanish, and English, alongside of Sunday school instruction in Portuguese, while a formerly all-white Methodist congregation in suburban La Canada Flintridge had been transformed by immigration from South Asia into a predominantly Gujarti-speaking church. Rev. Eugene Golay, the director of the local Protestant church council in Glendale, estimated at the time that the number of churches in the area had doubled in just five years, as immigrant groups began their own congregations, even as many joined existing church communities (Campos 1986).

Church leaders at the time recognized that the future of their congregations resided with the new immigrant groups, which were filling the pews of what had been declining and aging Anglo churches. Rev. W. Murray Gibbons, pastor of the North Glendale United Methodist Church, remarked in 1986 that he envisioned a time in which immigrant churches played a crucial role in the broader United Methodist Conference, owing largely to the large influx of Asian Christians into his church. However, he also noted the difficulty in bringing such a diverse array of ethnic groups together in one congregation, where the barriers of language, custom, and culture made forging a unified community exceedingly difficult (Campos 1986).

Congregants at other Los Angeles-area Protestant churches had similar experiences. In the early 1980s, Rev. Delwin Thigpen, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Alhambra, was faced with a rapidly shrinking congregation that had been cut in half during the 1970s, part of larger trend among mainline Protestant churches whose white membership declined rapidly after the 1960s (Lu 1985). In 1985, First United Methodist Church was thriving, mostly because of the presence of a sizeable numbers of Korean and Chinese Methodists who arrived just as the church’s white membership was reaching all-time lows.

In order to take advantage of the increasing numbers of immigrant Christians in his church, Thigpen and other church leaders developed a plan to merge with another Methodist congregation nearby and form multiple congregations within one church community. Each of the ethnic and language groups represented in the church had autonomy to conduct their own worship services and social events, while at the same time remaining under Thigpen’s overall leadership. The plan was innovative, but met with at least some resistance from the older, English-speaking community, who occasionally complained about the pace of change in the church. Nevertheless, many also embraced the strategy of forming multiple communities within one church, recognizing the vitality that the new immigrants brought to what had been a moribund congregation (Lu 1985).

The ways in which ecumenical Protestant churches dealt with issues of pluralism and diversity in their congregations were not limited to ad hoc efforts on the local level. On the contrary, a great deal of pastoral and theological reflection occurred, especially in the 1980s, as students at prominent local divinity schools such as Claremont and Fuller Theological Seminary turned their attention to the challenge of multicultural ministry in the Los Angeles context. In 1987, for example, Hyo Shik Pai, a doctoral student in divinity at Fuller, devoted his research to a case study of the bilingual ministry of the Korean Congregational Church of Los Angeles, taking note of both its practical benefits from the standpoint of ministry and its broader theological implications. Pai argued persuasively that the use of both the Korean and English languages at the Korean Congregational Church had resulted in the rapid growth of the church, as it was better able to provide for the spiritual needs of recently arrived immigrants from Korea, as well as those of an older, more assimilated group. However, Pai (1987) also made it clear that the move into bilingual ministry also had deeply religious roots, and cited biblical passages that enjoined the Christian churches to preach to all people in their native tongues.

 
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