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Welcoming Ethnic Differences

A dozen international congregations meet at Salt Lake Christian Center every weekend.

Serving diverse ethnic congregations in one church could trigger conflicts and rivalries that hinder the gospel message. Yet it’s not an issue at Salt Lake Christian Center (SLCC) in the Utah state capital.

Lead pastor R. Ray Smith, 64, and his wife, Cathi, succeed by servant-leadership and respecting ethnicity differences.

“The Holy Spirit helps put it all together,” stresses Cathi, 62, the international pastor of the church.

The Smiths joined SLCC in 2006. The church merged with a new church plant now called New Destiny Christian Center. Only three ethnic groups met at SLCC when they arrived.

Currently, SLCC nurtures 12 international congregations (Bhutanese/Nepali, Ethiopian, Filipino, Liberian, Navajo, Chinese, Myanmar, Samoan/Sudanese, Marshallese, and Spanish) representing more than 20 language groups. These congregations account for 78 percent of the 650 congregants who regularly attend Saturday or Sunday services.

Salt Lake City shines as a welcoming gateway for immigrants and refugees, especially during the past decade. Small wonder that 26 percent of Salt Lake’s 200,000 residents speak another language than English.

Binod Lohoni, 32, leads the 90-member Bhutanese/Nepali congregation, while still working as a chef in an Indian-Nepali restaurant. Born in Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas, he fled with his family to a refugee camp in Nepal at age 3. Political mayhem in Bhutan provoked their escape.

At 14, a strange malady ravaged his body, confounding medical experts. After 21 days in intensive care, the hospital released him to die at home. A Hindu priest prophesied Lohoni’s death within 13 days. Desperate for help, his devout Hindu family allowed a Christian pastor to pray for him. Lohoni’s quick recovery prompted his conversion to Christianity.

“I knew Jesus healed me,” he says, “And I believed that Jesus Christ is truly God.”

When he confessed his new faith to his parents and began to attend a Christian church, his father burned his Bible and beat him. Eventually, Lohoni fled his home and moved in with a church elder for nine months, sleeping on the kitchen floor.

Granted refugee status, he arrived in Salt Lake City in 2010. Soon after, he opened a Nepali Bible study in his apartment with six people. The group expanded into larger quarters, but needed more room. Lohoni connected with Ray and Cathi Smith, who offered the nascent congregation free space.

“It’s very beautiful here,” Lohoni says. “We are all sons and daughters of God.”

Early on, the Smiths partnered with the ethnic groups and had to learn about the distinct and dissimilar cultures represented by each.

The couple also had to reconcile members of the English congregation they pastored who seemed disturbed at the growing number of ethnic minority attendees. Latent prejudices surfaced when the lively Samoan worship team ministered for a few Sundays in the English service. However, the Holy Spirit changed hearts. For the past decade, the English and Samoan teams have sung together.

Ray Smith admits confronting his own biases as well. He cites the way evangelicals talk as sometimes being offensive to refugee pastors.

“Sometimes we project a condescending ‘we know best attitude,’” Smith says. “God had to deal with me, that it’s not we who are blessing our ethnic congregations, but they are blessing us.”

Moreover, during state and regional meetings, ethnic groups may be asked to provide cultural dances and programs, but leaders are seldom asked to preach.

Even SLCC’s ethnic congregations must confront cultural differences. For example, the Brazilian pastor hugs everyone; but many Asian pastors avoid public displays of affection.

Smith recalls a heartfelt scene in the church lobby. The Brazilian pastor bowed before the Chinese pastor. Instead of returning the greeting with a bow, the Chinese pastor grabbed him with a hearty hug.

“It was a powerful moment and a huge statement to others,” Smith says.

Along with her husband, Raymond, Irene Kemem pastors the congregation from the Marshall Islands. They began by ministering to three families from the small Pacific nation, and the SLCC group has grown to more than 100 adherents. During the past seven years, the Kemems also have planted 21 churches in 10 states.

“Our first-generation Marshallese members were uncomfortable worshipping with other language groups,” recalls Irene Kemem, 54. “But today we are one through the blood of Jesus, and more alive together.”

Ethnic leaders hold monthly prayer meetings. In addition, the various congregations gather for combined international services on SLCC’s main campus several times annually. They max out the main 500-seat sanctuary, sitting cross-legged on the floor and spilling over into the aisles and foyer.

During Easter, the Smiths direct the musical Master Mender Passion Play, a public evangelistic event launched in 1982. Every ethnic minority congregation provides either actors, singers, dancers, or support staff. The play projects the church’s personality as a beautiful mosaic merging different colors and languages.

“I would not want to pastor any other way,” Ray Smith says. “I don’t deserve to stand in the same room with my brothers and sisters who have paid the price of severe persecution.”

Peter K. Johnson

Peter K. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, New York. More than 500 of his articles and short stories have appeared in Christian and mainstream magazines and newspapers, including the Pentecostal Evangel,Charisma, the Saturday Evening Post, Guideposts, and Decision. He also serves as a consultant and contributing editor to a scientific journal.