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Blending Into One Body

Chicago’s multiethnic Maranatha Chapel welcomes a diverse group of worshippers.

After 13 years as an Assemblies of God World missionary in Mexico City, when Doug R. Banks entered the pulpit at the Chicago-area Maranatha Chapel, he had a vision to transform the mostly white congregation into a multicultural church.

Banks explicitly detailed his plans before church members voted on his appointment.

“I said, ‘If you’re not in favor of that, vote ‘no,’ ” says Banks, who returned to the U.S. in 1999. “The Lord’s put it on my heart, but you have to be willing to follow that.”

Not only did 99 percent of the congregation vote to extend the call, since then the Evergreen Park congregation has emerged as a leader in blending various races and ethnic groups.

Located just a block south of the Chicago city limits, over the past 15 years Maranatha has helped launch Hispanic, Arabic, Messianic and African congregations. The Hispanic church moved into its own building nearly two years ago, while the messianic synagogue relocated to a more heavily Jewish neighborhood last year.

Although those departures meant total Sunday attendance declined from 350 to 200, Maranatha’s overall giving increased to a record high.

“We took in $1.5 million and for the first time ever gave away $1 million to missions,” Banks says. “How do you explain that? I can’t, except to say that whatever you sow you reap.”

Although English-speaking services meet at 9 and 10:15 a.m. on Sundays, the Arabic one at noon, and a monthly African fellowship at 4 p.m., there is considerable ethnic interaction. Six times a year all the congregations meet together.

The diverse congregations also are unified through children’s and youth programs, weekly Bible study, and all-church picnics.

While the Hispanic service came first, the most courageous step came in launching an Arabic service in 2002, only a year after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Church leaders had to calm the fears of some distrustful congregants, reminding them these newcomers were Christians and Maranatha needed to welcome them.

Current Arab minister Nader Kawar says the church’s cultural interchange has been particularly valuable for first-generation immigrant children, who are as at home in American culture as their parents’ native environment.

“Some other Arab churches are losing their children when they grow older because they never connect with Arab culture alone,” says Nawar, pastor of that group since 2006.

Although Nigerian native Felicia Ailende leads the African fellowship, which includes a dinner, she worships with the English-speaking congregation on Sunday mornings. Ailende, who moved to Chicago in 2003 after the death of her husband — an AG pastor and presbyter in Lagos — says she feels at home since church members don’t show favoritism.

“I’m so welcome in the congregation,” says Ailende, who started the African fellowship in 2010. “I’m so blessed that they give me an opportunity to carry out my ministry.”

Banks says the languages, colors, and cultures people see in local discount stores, restaurants, and PTA meetings should mirror who comes to church.

“When we send a missionary to another country we expect him to reach the people who are there,” Banks says. “Why wouldn’t we expect to see the same here?”

Kawar says that kind of vision is what has enabled Maranatha to withstand the challenges that have been part of the journey.

“When somebody like Pastor Doug births a vision like this and is able to sustain it because it’s in his heart, people will be able to overcome problems that occur,” Kawar says. “You have to have the vision that overcomes all barriers and differences.”

Kenneth C. Walker

Kenneth C. Walker is a freelance writer, co-author, and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia. He has more than 4,500 article bylines and has written, edited, or contributed to more than 90 books.