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Ethnic Church Planting:
A Documentation of the Work of Dr. Chris Thomas
Nancy Kruger, Spring 1994
Case Study: A Vietnamese Church (Part 4 of 5)
In October 1991, Cal Uomoto from World Relief, Dr. Thomas and Rev. Brent Cobb (Seattle First Church of the Nazarene) met to discuss the idea of World Relief acting as a catalyst for outreach among the refugee communities of Seattle. Rev. Chuck McAlister from Brighton Presbyterian joined in this vision that same month, with a special interest in the Vietnamese community. Rev. McAlister's interest in pursuing this outreach was prompted in part by the changing nature of the community: the membership of his church was declining, and the influx of Vietnamese immigrants to the neighborhood was rapidly rising.
Rev. McAlister had been connected with an organization called Touchstone, an "umbrella" for two other organizations offering help to ethnic immigrants: The Vietnamese Friendship Association and H.O. Family Association. Touchstone's offices are located in the basement of Brighton's facility, and they offer daycare services, including a daycare for disabled children 0-3 years old, educational tutoring, family oriented programs, nutritional training and English-As-A-Second Language (ESL) classes. An ESL class sponsored jointly by the Vietnamese Friendship Association and Brighton Presbyterian was offered, and they planned on about 20-30 people. On the first day of class, 70 people came, indicating the great need for Brighton to reach out to this community!
Rather than start a new church for them, however, Chuck wanted to incorporate the Vietnamese community into his present congregation. Since they had the facility and means to allow for this, it was considered inappropriate to start a separate congregation, especially since most of the Vietnamese people were not Christians, and/or had not even heard the Gospel! Dr. Thomas presented his concept of having ethnic language groups meet during the week for Bible study, singing and fellowship. On Sunday, they would join the Brighton congregation for worship, using the earphones for simultaneous translation. This method of outreach was seen as a way to "build Brighton Presbyterian as well as reach out to the refugees in the area." The group started with four Vietnamese families attending worship services on a regular basis. Unlike many ethnic groups, the Vietnamese preferred to worship as part of the American church rather than a Vietnamese church, and with this arrangement they could do that and be with other people from their own culture!
Chuck McAlister presented the idea to the Brighton congregation and board, as well as discussing the matter of funding with the board. Dr. Thomas and Cal Uomoto attended a service at Brighton in December 1991, giving a general presentation to the congregation and giving the members an opportunity to meet some of the Vietnamese people interested in becoming a fellowship group within Brighton. Dr. Thomas also met with the Vietnamese members to hear from them about their ideas for the fellowship.
Cal served as a consultant for up to 50 hours in the first six months of the work. Chuck requested funds from University Presbyterian, which would be allocated to World Relief for Dr. Thomas' services. In March 1992, Dr. Thomas preached at Brighton, and that week he began to visit the various programs of the church, especially the activities among the Laotian, Mien, Hmong and Vietnamese people.
By May 1992, the ESL classes had been established at Brighton, and Chris visited these classes three to four times a week to get to know the Vietnamese people. He also attended services at Brighton on Sunday so that the Vietnamese people would see a familiar face welcoming them to church. Christian literature and New Testaments in Vietnamese were ordered. Flyers were printed and sent out in the Vietnamese language to invite people to a worship service to be held at 12:30 on Sundays in Vietnamese.
The first of these services was held in May 1992, and Nhan Le, his wife and their three children were the only ones that attended. Seven Vietnamese and five non-Vietnamese people attended the second service. On Friday of the same week, Dr. Thomas held a service at 7:30 p.m. after the ESL class, and this time 22 Vietnamese attended.
While attendance seemed to be growing slightly each week, it became apparent before too long that the Vietnamese people came to the services out of a sense of obligation because of the English classes that were being offered. Since Asian people normally have a deep sense of "duty" in situations like this, it became important that the Gospel message not be offered for a "price". Without actually saying that they were offended by being held "captive" after ESL class for half an hour, their attendance at the Sunday services slowly began to decline. Eventually the 12:30 service was discontinued, it having become clear that the Vietnamese believers preferred worshiping with the rest of the Brighton congregation at the 10:30 morning service.
At the Sunday service on June 21, 1992, Binh and his family decided that they wanted to seriously commit their lives to Jesus. Dr. Thomas visited them in their home that week, and since then, Binh has proven to be a true leader. He came faithfully every week to services and, according to Dr. Thomas, "soaked up the Word of God like a sponge!" He immediately began translating the sermons into Vietnamese, and became the regular translator on Sunday mornings. By July 1992, the church had installed and began using the transmitter and earphone simultaneous translation. Binh continued to provide the translation and he began leading the prayers as well. Already he had decided that he wanted to become an elder in the church.
There were gatherings after Sunday services with Vietnamese food and outdoor picnics during the summer months. In July, the 'Jesus' movie was shown in the Vietnamese language. Out of the 35 who attended, 14 Vietnamese people signed a paper indicating a decision for Christ. Currently, attendance is averaging at least 20 Vietnamese per week at Sunday services, and all come because they are committed Christians (not out of obligation to sponsors!) The current ethnic make-up of the congregation is approximately 65% Anglo-Americans, 25% Vietnamese, 5% African Americans and 5% Other.
In August 1992, Pastor McAlister announced his resignation at the Sunday service. He planned to pastor a multi-ethnic church in Los Angeles, beginning October 1. His concern for Brighton, however, was that someone be in place who had experience in dealing with the Vietnamese culture. He suggested Tony Calvert, who was Mentor Coordinator for World Relief at the time. Tony had been involved in the process of working with this community, and agreed to take over as interim pastor for the church. Discussions regarding the training of ethnic leaders and helping with tuition for ethnic seminary students were also instituted, and the church continues to establish programs to develop leadership among its Vietnamese members.
Pastor McAlister also introduced two Vietnamese individuals, Phu and Chi, (a married couple) and suggested that they help provide leadership for the Vietnamese fellowship. Phu and Chi were members of a Baptist church in Tacoma and leaders of the youth group there. Beginning in October, Phu was hired to work with the Vietnamese youth at Brighton, and to assist Binh by checking the translation of the sermon every week. Chi provides childcare on Sunday mornings during the worship services.
The week before Pastor McAlister was to leave Brighton, Pastor Henry Fong (from the Baptist church in Tacoma) preached at Brighton. Members of his congregation also attended, bringing their musical instruments. They led the singing and stayed after the service for a time of fellowship together. In October, Phu preached one week and a guest Filipino pastor spoke another week. Tony Calvert preached on October 25. By the end of October 1992, World Relief had discontinued its role as consultant for Brighton.
Recently, a proposal has been given to the Presbytery of Seattle that Binh be approved for a leadership position in the church. While it is not normal policy to allow an individual without seminary training to be in such a role, the Presbyterian church is "bending the rules" a bit to allow this for Binh and Brighton. This has been done in other divisions of the Presbyterian Church (particularly for Native Americans), but Brighton has been instrumental in pushing the program through in this area. Binh has been chosen for this role in recognition of his strong leadership qualities. As soon as this is approved, Binh will be commissioned as a lay preacher, able to do everything that an ordained pastor does except baptism. He currently works as a custodian at Newport High School, but has been extremely active at Brighton since the day he accepted Christ there.
The most difficult problem in reaching people of this culture is that almost all of the Vietnamese people coming to America arrive with no background in Christianity. Most are Buddhist and have a very hard time relinquishing the customs and beliefs of Buddhism. When Binh came to the Lord, he had been a practicing Buddhist (having had some background in the Catholic religion), but had come to Brighton to learn English.
A Buddhist temple was being planned for the south Seattle area at the time, and the people behind that project did not like the fact that Brighton was offering classes in English, Christian teaching and resettlement assistance to the Vietnamese people. They accused Brighton of "proselytizing religion" and of being a "rice ministry" because there was a food program that was offered on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for the elderly. They were so opposed to these programs, in fact, that they printed a flyer in handbill form, and had it distributed to area homes, stating that "Christians only want to change your culture." The Vietnamese people were severely warned "not to talk to or listen to Christians." It turned out that this opposition was mostly the result of the efforts of one person, an American Buddhist monk! But it caused many of the Vietnamese to avoid attending services at Brighton, or joining in fellowship with those who do.
These misunderstandings may arise in part from evangelism that is "too aggressive" for the Vietnamese. Again, cultural differences take their toll on cross-cultural communication. As we strive to communicate clearly and compassionately, it is so important to first learn the cultural ways and behavior of the ethnic group! In Vietnam, there is a great respect for teachers, and when someone is helping them in this role, it would be very disrespectful not to come to class. When the teacher says after the class "you may go now if you want to," but they know that there is actually something planned after the class specifically for them to hear, they feel obligated to stay. For the Vietnamese culture, evangelism is most effective when done on a relationship/friendship basis. In this sense, once again, it takes a long time to help people to understand the message of the Gospel, especially when they have not been exposed to it at all before!
Before the Vietnamese outreach began, the membership at Brighton had been declining, and it was failing to attract younger people needed to take over positions of leadership. Tony Calvert and his wife are in their mid-40's, and they are presently the youngest white-anglo, English speaking couple at the church! Since many of the members of this aging congregation were "set in their ways," the transition to becoming a multi-cultural congregation was a huge adjustment for them.
One of the biggest conflicts occurred at the beginning, when it came time to share the kitchen facilities with the Vietnamese (as well as the Khumu, Mien and Hmong) people. Standards of cleanliness and order in the kitchen are very different between these cultures and typical American culture, so it became difficult for the women to work together. Rev. McAlister found it necessary to intervene, dealing with the problem in a sensitive way that would facilitate understanding between the cultures. Bathroom etiquette is also very different between cultures, and the Americans needed to adjust to differences in "what was and was not proper or appropriate inside or outside of the building"!
Another issue (not necessarily a "problem") was the preference of the Vietnamese believers to keep an American leader as pastor of their fellowship. Vietnamese people value very highly having American, Caucasian friends and a white pastor, at least initially, is often better accepted than someone from their own culture. However, Dr. Thomas believes that even though it doesn't appear likely very soon, eventually there should be a Vietnamese pastor in place at Brighton.
The Worship Service
The Sunday service is not changed very much from the way that it was probably done before the Vietnamese group started coming. The service is very informal, with a "busy" time of greeting one another as people are assembling in the sanctuary. The mix of the "older" crowd and the younger group of Vietnamese is evident, but the older members seem to have accepted and adapted to the changes very well. Most of the Vietnamese people were seated on the 'left-hand' side of the sanctuary, while most of the English-speaking Americans were on the 'right-hand' side. For this service, the Scripture was read by Binh's son in Vietnamese (Ezekiel 37:1-14, The Valley of Dry Bones), but Tony's sermon was not translated. This, however, was an exception due to the fact that Phu, who was going to do the translation, was with his wife and their new baby daughter, bom just one day before! Tony spoke slowly so that the Vietnamese would be able to listen carefully, and the prayers and songs were said and sung slowly as well.
"Ethnic Church Planting: A Documentation of the Work of Dr. Chris Thomas"
Nancy Kruger, Spring 1994.
Introduction, Ministry Focus and Challenges
Case Study: Slavik Church
Case Study: Hispanic Church
Case Study: Vietnamese Church
Summary of Observations Regarding Ethnic Ministry
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