When Damon and Saehee Duran, both students at AG Theological Seminary, tell people they're planting a multicultural church to minister to the ethnic populations of the greater Springfield, Missouri, area, eyebrows frequently raise.
The greater Springfield area is made up of about 500,000 people and whether a person is white or of a minority ethnicity, one thing frequently stands out about the area -- it's very "white." Damon, who is Hispanic, says that according to the statistics he has seen, the area is one of the "whitest" in the nation, with about a 92 percent white population.
"It would seem that planting a multicultural church in Southwest Missouri doesn't make any sense," Damon says, "but if you look at 8 percent of 500,000, it's 40,000 people -- and that is a significant number of people."
The Durans' heart is to reach the multiethnic community -- not just one ethnicity, but all of them. In a sense, they want their church to reflect more what heaven will be like, with all different nations represented.
Currently, Life 360 Intercultural Church is in the pre-launch stage. A growing core group of about 30 people meet every Saturday night at the community center on the former campus of Central Bible College (CBC) for a potluck meal, a service, and relationship building.
If there is any question about how intentional the team is about reaching a multicultural audience, just a look at their ministerial staff clears away any doubts. In addition to Damon being Hispanic, Saehee is Korean; the missions pastors, Justin and Anisha Sabu are Indian; administrative associate pastor Jacob (military culture) and strategic partnership pastor Emileigh Rogers are white, but Emileigh is a "third culture kid" who grew up with her parents in the Middle East. All of them have a heart for multicultural ministry.
Justin, a graduate of Southern Asia Bible College, and Anisha, a CBC graduate, are natives of India. There they have already planted more than 10 churches, while also traveling in the U.S. speaking at conferences and churches.
"I have personally experienced being avoided or excluded because people were unaware of how to relate to me," Anisha says. "However, doing life with people from all different cultures raises awareness of the needs, the similarities, and the differences. At Life360, we unite with one goal: To bridge the gap between cultures, reach out to the community, and above all, to celebrate Jesus."
Saehee, who serves as hospitality pastor, says they have come to recognize a real hunger among the area minorities for friendship and a hunger for God. But cultivating a true friendship takes a commitment of time, concern, and compassion in order to establish a trusting relationship.
"We have started going to ethnic restaurants on a regular basis," Saehee says. "In American culture, people typically are engrossed with who they are with and don't really pay any attention to those serving. When we go, we intentionally engage the staff. We frequently inquire about them and especially their family if we see kids there. Recently I offered to hold a restaurant owner's crying baby for her, and she accepted my offer!"
Damon and Saehee say that being ethnic minorities themselves has helped them be more readily accepted in their efforts. They explain that minority members in the area readily empathize with each other -- as many of them know what it feels like to be separated from family by thousands of miles, have few friends, and in many cases, have "no life" outside of work and home.
But it's not just relationships the ethnic community is looking for. In developing key relationships with local school leadership, police, and government leaders, the Durans have had even their eyes opened to a vast need in the community.
"There are so many first generation minorities in the area who desperately need to learn English," Damon says. "We've learned that many don't take the free English courses offered by the local community college because, you have to remember, they are in a strange land, in a strange city, with strange customs, and everything is written or spoken in a language they can't understand -- so even taking a bus and finding their way to a classroom can be incredibly challenging."
As a result of this breakthrough insight, the Durans are starting ELL (English Language Learner) classes where instead of people coming to a class, the teacher goes to an individual's home. "It will spread by word of mouth, so where a teacher at first might meet with one student in his or her home, soon there will be six or seven students coming to that home -- where they are in a familiar and safe environment."
Damon says when he mentioned the idea to a group of ethnic students at a local high school, he suddenly had everyone's attention. It seemed they all knew at least one person who was basically trapped in his or her home due to not being able to communicate in English.
"We met a restaurant owner who was about to lose her business because her English was so poor she kept messing up the orders," Saehee says. "This is a big need in our community and will allow us to really develop more relationships with individuals and families, where we pray we can one day introduce them to Christ."
Currently, the Durans are also working on becoming police chaplains to gain an even deeper insight to the needs of the community. The potential for the impact of this ministry is huge as the Durans and the church's other staff members understand that foreign cultures are relationship/people oriented whereas in America, the culture is time oriented.
"In many other countries, time isn't what's important; people are," Saehee says. "When you build relationships and friendships within these cultures, you earn the right to speak into their lives and be heard. And the more we know about the needs they have, the more we can meet those needs. The deeper and wider our relationships and friendships become, it will be a natural progression to introduce them to Jesus."
The Durans say that they are also working to bring the many small ethnic churches in the area together. They explain that individually, these small congregations don't have the means to put on a significant event, but together they represent thousands with the ability to make a noticeable impact.
And despite being a newly forming church, the Durans say their children are being ministered to as well. Recently, their oldest son, Damon Jr., age 10, has felt compelled to minister to people in need -- to do something to help. The Durans allowed Damon to share his idea of putting together aid bags to give to those standing on street corners with signs. Several churches responded. So he created aid bags that contain hygiene supplies, bottled water, a New Testament, a $5 gift card to McDonald's, a business card from the church, as well as a handwritten note.
Is this young boy's effort misplaced? Saehee excitedly shares a miracle:
"Troy, a drug addict, was outside of his Springfield motel room. An envelope suddenly fluttered by him in the wind. He picked it up and opened it. It was one of the notes Damon Jr. had written that simply said, 'You're important and valuable. God loves you!' It was what Troy needed to hear at that moment. Troy turned his life over to God! He went inside and told his wife, Kendra. The business card was still in the envelope -- they called Damon, my husband, and told him that God had just changed their lives through that note . . . a note a 10-year-old child wrote. They want to visit Life360 Intercultural Church to learn more about Jesus!"
Yet, all of this promising work nearly never took place. Damon and Saehee admit that pastoring a church was something they did not want to do. But God transformed their hearts and desires.
"We had initially postponed accepting an offer from Brighton Assembly of God, a local church, to become their youth pastors and worship leaders, because we didn't feel called to pastoral ministry at that point," Damon says.
But the Durans came to recognize the opportunity God had opened wide for them. They put aside their personal agendas and accepted the position at Brighton.
"The church is amazing! It's family focused with community outreach," Damon says. "We learned how to love people through the examples set before us at Brighton. It really did transform us. Now, when we go to the store, we 'see' the people, the Hispanics, the Burmese, and other ethnicities around us and we have a God-given compassion for them."
As they followed God's lead at Brighton, the couple began to encounter others who had a heart for multiethnic ministry. They started to meet as friends. The group started to grow and grow until they were meeting at CBC to fit everyone in. Then, a divine encounter with Life360 Executive Pastor Ted Cederblom, who is the executive pastor over eight Life360 campuses in Southwest Missouri, found the Durans taking steps to prepare for an official launch of the new Life360 Intercultural Church (possibly as soon as October).
Life360 Intercultural Church, which meets on Saturday evenings so the group can attend and connect with other local ethnic churches on Sunday, is a church being built on the solid foundation of relationships -- with people and, most importantly, God.
Perhaps Saehee describes it best: "Our church is fun. It's more like going to mom's house for dinner. And hearing people worship, pray, and talk in various languages is truly one-of-a-kind in Springfield. I love how we get a taste of heaven through what we do!"