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Three as one

Pasadena church eschews ‘nesting’ for unified, multicultural congregation

January 21, 2011

STATESVILLE, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter

Every week, worship services at Pasadena Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, Calif., are held in English, Korean and Spanish. It’s certainly not unusual for congregations to share space; many churches have other groups “nested” with them. But Pasadena Presbyterian Church is different in that these aren’t separate congregations.

“We always get a little upset when someone refers to us as three congregations,” said the Rev. Luis Madrigal, parish associate for Latino ministries. “We’re three language groups within one congregation. We work real hard to be one congregation.”

In addition to Madrigal, the church is led by the Rev. Mark Smutny, who serves as lead pastor and handles the English language services, and the Rev. Hyun Sung, associate pastor in charge of the Korean ministries. 

“Pasadena Presbyterian Church has been blessed by leadership — pastoral and laity — that is open to thinking in innovative ways,” said the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, executive presbyter for San Gabriel Presbytery. “They are one example of leadership that honors and allows for the distinctions of language and culture through worship and fellowship while simultaneously acknowledging the ‘oneness of the body’ through governance and overall leadership.”

“We have worked real hard to have representation from each of the language groups in the session,” Madrigal said. “Sometimes it’s been a little difficult to have either Korean-speaking or Spanish-speaking leadership considered for the session because of the language, but to date we’ve been able to find leadership within all three groups.”

But while both Madrigal and Sung acknowledge there have been challenges and rough edges to work out along the way, all three pastors have continued to move forward and work out the kinks.

“Rev. Mark Smutney, Rev. Luis Madrigal and Rev. Hyung Sung are all examples of leadership willing to do the hard work that reflects more fully the kingdom of God on earth,” Santana-Grace said.

Pasadena Presbyterian Church has more than 1,000 members from all three groups. Of those, the English-language group averages 200-300 people on Sundays. The Korean membership is 400, with 200-250 in attendance most Sundays. The Latino group averages about 80 but gets up to 150 for special events like Christmas.

A new approach

Madrigal and the Latino ministry came to PPC seeking a home. 

“There was a group of brother and sister Presbyterians who had kind of fallen on the wayside of another church in another presbytery. The Presbytery of San Diego asked me if I would go and meet with them and ask them what they thought and where they wanted to go,” he said.

Madrigal’s original idea was to try to help them work things out with the church they had left, but the group wasn’t interested in doing that, so Madrigal reached out to Pasadena. The two groups decided to worship together for six months as a kind of trial period. At the end of the six months, the Latino group decided to stay with Pasadena.

Madrigal liked the idea of the multicultural church, so he asked to stay and provide pastoral leadership. Pasadena already had a small Korean component, but that group wasn’t really part of the congregation. The church decided to expand this ministry and brought in Sung to lead it.

“I started this ministry with one family 10 years ago, and with a leadership church grant from PC(USA), we just developed our ministry and [now] our membership is 400 people,” Sung said.

He credits the amazing growth to several factors but primarily to reaching out to members of the Korean community who do not have a church home. 

“They don’t have any church experience,” Sung said. “They’re young and they appreciate not just Korean culture but they appreciate other cultures too so we have a group of people that really want to love our other culture and other groups and they [haven’t found a] church home yet.”

Sung knows that what PPC offers is different from most Korean congregations.

“Most Korean churches are monocultural and kind of homogenous community of faith,” he said. “From the beginning, Korean ministry at PPC tried to be multicultural. We tried to experience other cultures and we tried to learn each other.”

The Korean group at PPC is diverse, with some living in the United States for 20 years while others are newly arrived. The younger generations are largely bilingual and bicultural and can worship in Korean or English.

Madrigal’s group is also largely bilingual, and although he conducts worship entirely in Spanish, Sunday school and many of the youth activities are conducted in English.  

Madrigal sees the multicultural and multilingual setting of PPC as the solution to a problem that has plagued Spanish-language new church developments in the United States.

“Usually the Spanish-language ministries, and it doesn’t matter what denominations, are monolingual Spanish into the second generation,” he said. “The kids get married with English-speaking spouses and they can’t bring the spouse. The kids start learning English because they are educated here and it’s all over. So you have time and time again these little Spanish-language chapels that work real hard but don’t retain the second and third generation. They go off looking for a church where everybody can go to church if they continue with church.”

A journey of faith

PPC has the unique ability to offer a selection of services for whatever language members choose. The church also holds combined services at Thanksgiving and Pentecost with each of the three preachers doing parts of the service in their native languages.

“We print the bulletins in English and Spanish and Korean and the church is a multicultural, multilingual service that usually goes off pretty good,” Madrigal said.

And while it perfecting those services took some work, the congregation always received them well.

“Sometimes we got criticism because they didn’t feel they were multicultural enough. And the criticism usually came from the English-speaking part of our group,” Madrigal said. “They wanted more Spanish, they wanted more Korean, so I think we pull it off pretty good.”

PPC has often been in uncharted waters with the multicultural approach. It’s a fairly new concept and there is no easy instruction book, but they’ve stayed the course through all the challenges.

“In the beginning, we were continuing to go each year to the annual (National Multicultural Church Conference). We were fleshing out the idea,” Madrigal said. “It hasn’t been smooth. There’ve been some rough edges here and there but by and large, the congregation has been accepting of the idea.”

Sung hopes other churches will decide to follow their lead and perhaps look to PPC as a guide.

“Eventually we have to share responsibilities and we share leadership and everything, but this process is not easy so we have to learn each other, we have to learn seriously about multicultural dynamics and those kind of things,” he said. “That was not easy but we ended up learning more and we just realized that PPC and our dream of multiculturalism at PPC can be a great model for many churches out there.” 

Santana-Grace also thinks PPC can provide an example of one of the many possibilities for a multicultural future.

“San Gabriel Presbytery is blessed by 44 churches and almost 10,000 members that worship weekly in 10 languages,” she said. “We are committed to encouraging the multiple models that are possible when bringing together people of different cultures and languages — bound together by our faith in Jesus Christ.”

It is faith that Sung credits most for guiding PPC and its various ministries.

“This is a deeply spiritual fellowship, especially Mark Smutny and Luis Madrigal. I feel just lucky and I thank God to have these wonderful people as my colleagues,” Sung said. “We sometimes eat together and we laugh together.  The journey, sometimes I don’t know where God is leading us but we fully trust God and we are just happy to travel together.”

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.

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