When Andy Millar, senior pastor of Light of the Nations (Denver South Foursquare Church) in Denver, Colo., performed a wedding of a Christian man from India and his newly converted wife in spring 2010, he never dreamed it would cost his church a sizeable portion of its attendance.
The problem was the newlyweds’ home country’s belief in the caste system, a hierarchy of social stratification inherent in the practice of Hinduism. The husband came from a low caste, and his wife from a high caste, a difference that outraged her family. After learning of her intent to marry outside her caste, they held a funeral and banished her from their midst.
The fallout struck Light of the Nations, which at that point had reached about 190 in attendance; half came from a Hindu background. Rumors spread among those families that if they continued attending the church, they would wind up marrying someone from another caste. Ultimately, the church saw around 60 regular attendees depart.
“It was a very difficult time,” recalls Andy, who was an associate pastor at a suburban Denver church for 19 years before starting Light of the Nations in 2009. “There was a lot of turmoil and tension. When we did that wedding, I didn’t understand what was going to happen.”
Now wiser to potential problems, Andy says Christians need to be aware of issues that may arise when they try to bring people out of their cultures into an understanding of following Christ. In addition, the pastor and his 15-member core team have learned that cherished American traditions aren’t necessarily biblical.
“We are needing to come in and let go of some of the things that we hold so dear, thinking, ‘This is right,’ or ‘This is the way it’s done,’ ” Andy explains. “We’re learning how to approach others and look at what Christ really said. It’s a good challenge for us to have.”
Misunderstandings are a two-way street. Not only can immigrants be suspicious of American customs, sometimes U.S. citizens harbor misconceptions or pass on rumors and speculation as fact.
Luis Ramirez, senior pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Remanso De Paz (Warner Robins Hispanic Foursquare Church) in Warner Robins, Ga., discovered that the hard way after he invited several attorneys to his church last fall to explain court procedures and ways that Hispanics could find legal help when they needed it. Away at a pastor’s retreat the day of the meeting, Luis returned to a media firestorm created by a local radio talk show.
Picking up on a report about the meeting in a Spanish-language newspaper, some callers alleged that the church was advising illegal residents how to obtain a phony driver’s license or fictitious Social Security numbers. Alarmed by the unfounded allegations, Luis met with radio station officials and secured a well-publicized apology.
“When the callers got to the host’s ears, he didn’t spend enough time investigating,” says Luis, who also serves as district liaison for Hispanic ministries in the Southeast District. “It was unfortunate, but in the end our church’s name was brought back to the level it needed to be—and even higher.”
The church has maintained good rapport with city hall and the Warner Robins Police Department. They often provide interpreters and other assistance when members get pulled over for traffic violations or have other legal problems.
The misunderstandings in Georgia and Colorado demonstrate how when different cultures come together, varying customs and ideas may clash. Still, in a past statement, former Foursquare President Jack Hayford indicated it is worth the effort to combine the rule of law with compassionate action toward immigrants.
“Our dilemma can only be balanced by joining heart and mind by administering with God’s justice an application of law tempered by generosity,” he wrote. “And, by exercising His patience and equitability toward foreigners already in our midst. Our greatest defense in an age of terror will be to avoid offending the One who commends compassion and who rules with mercy.”
Cultural differences are where “the rubber meets the road,” says Ted Vail, associate director for Foursquare Missions International—U.S. Missions. He points out they can involve different worldviews, value systems and ways of doing things.
As pastor of Hope Boulder (Boulder Flatirons Foursquare Church)—which counts Anglos, Koreans, Japanese, African-Americans and Hispanics among its members—Ted, a former missionary to Mexico, has seen differences create some cultural hurdles.
Two possible solutions, he suggests, are through youth ministry and women’s meetings.
“Their children are in public schools with our kids and making friends with everyone,” Ted explains. “This is where cultural walls break down. For Mother’s Day weekend, we had between 30 and 40 mothers from various cultures come together. Women and children break those barriers down faster than men do. It can happen in neighborhoods, on society’s fringe and in women’s groups.”
Americans who take the time to reach out may discover that other cultures embrace the same family values, moral beliefs and strong work ethic.
“From a lot of folks we work with, I sense there’s a dignity issue,” says Andy Millar, who sees many immigrants from his church working in hotels, restaurants and other service-oriented jobs. “They would rather work. They don’t want to be begging for help.”
Emmanuel Tandean, senior pastor of House of Grace (Philadelphia Indonesian Foursquare Church) in Pennsylvania, asserts that rather than people to be feared, many newcomers are hard-working, law-abiding citizens. They also support the church, as shown by House of Grace’s regular giving to Foursquare Missions International.
“Indonesians in the U.S. are helpful and not part of crimes,” says Emmanuel, who came to the U.S. 12 years ago. “They work and pay taxes. I think it gives society some benefits.”
You are reading Part 2 of a four-part series.
Read Part 1: “The Church and Immigration”
Read Part 3: “Spiritual Blessings”
Read Part 4: “Practical Ministry”