WASHINGTON — Even in an era of mass immigration that has produced suburban tamale shops alongside halal meat markets and created a market for television programming in Hindi and Arabic, places of worship remain bastions of racial and ethnic uniformity. And that makes the case of one brick church in Springfield, Va., particularly remarkable.
On a recent Sunday morning at the Word of Life Assembly of God Church, pink-cheeked Virginia native David Gorman skipped in a conga line in Swahili Sunday school while a Kenyan preacher played an accordion and a Singaporean woman led jubilant hymns. Filipinos analyzed Bible passages in a classroom.
Later, as the Sierra Leonean choir prepared to perform in the sanctuary, Wendel Cover, the folksy white pastor, listed the nations of the world and asked worshipers to stand when they heard their homelands.
He seemed a bit dismayed to find just 80 represented.
“Our country’s becoming more international,” Cover, 73, said in an interview.
He has led the formerly majority-white Pentecostal church for three decades. “The next generation is going to be American. If the church doesn’t realize that, they’re going to lose a whole generation.”
The Springfield church, congregants often say, is a glimpse of heaven — a “multitude” of nations and tongues, as the Book of Revelation puts it. Of the 1,300 or so people who attend each Sunday, about one-tenth are Asian, one-fifth white, one-third Hispanic and one-third black, most of them African immigrants.
But it is not what worship in the United States typically looks like. According to a recent national survey by Rice University, about 7 percent of congregations are multiracial, defined as worshiping as one group and consisting of no more than 80 percent of one race.
The Springfield church is no longer what Cover called the 100-member “white Republican” flock he took over in 1977. By then, Cover had traveled the world on missions, and he arrived with the view that a church should reflect its community.
The church has become a counterpoint to suburban tensions over immigration.
On Sundays, the green velvet offering pouch is passed from Sudanese refugees to American lawyers to Afghan converts, and the freestyle prayer that is a hallmark of Pentecostal worship erupts in a cacophony of languages.
As immigrants spread across the United States, researchers say, churches are slowly abandoning the “homogeneous units” theory that long guided church-growth philosophy. People want to worship with similar people, the idea went, leading white churches to “plant” ethnic branches.
But churches’ attempts to diversify often fail, said Michael Emerson, a Rice sociologist. Being situated in a diverse area is hardly enough; several churches near Word of Life are mostly white. Churches stumble when they push change too fast or say they welcome everyone “as long as they become like us,” Emerson said.
Cover struggles to explain how his church succeeded. One turning point came in 1990, when he brought on Cathy Mechlin to spearhead a multicultural ministries program, and Samary Resto, a Puerto Rican, to lead Hispanic ministries. Only a “smattering” of the 500 or so members were not white, Mechlin said. They launched Spanish-language and “international” Sunday schools. Mostly, church leaders let immigrants start whatever programs they want, Mechlin said. The church has a Ghanaian choir, a Hispanic band and groups for Indians and speakers of Amharic, an Ethiopian and Eritrean language. Sunday services are translated into Spanish and French, which parishioners can listen to on headphones.
Over time, some white members asked what remained for them, Mechlin said. So the church embraces hot dogs as picnic fare and commemorates American holidays.
Services remain American-style but with ethnic choirs and occasional prayers for some far-off nation’s independence day or election.
In interviews, dozens of immigrants said they feel welcome at the church. Many said they stayed because of its devotion to international missions or its upbeat style. Several said they thought that an integrated church is best for their children.
“If not us, our children should be American,” said Wolde Dagnachew, an Ethiopian pastor who recently launched an Amharic Sunday school at the church.