By Lorie Ham
At a time when diversity is being challenged all over the country, it is more important than ever that churches strive for it. One church in Fresno has a unique perspective as four different congregations meet in their sanctuary with three different language groups. Shelly Spencer has been the Office Manager at Butler Mennonite Brethren Church, referred to as Butler Church, for seventeen years. She and her husband began attending there after college when they were newly married. We chatted with Shelly recently about the diversity within their church.
Q: Does each congregation have its own services or is it all together?
Shelly: There are four worship services each Sunday in English, Spanish, and Lao. Each congregation has a name since their characteristics are more than just language or style. And even within each congregation, there are multiple ethnic groups! For example, our Asian Grace congregation includes Khmu, Laotian, Thai, and Mien. Translation is needed there also!
Q: What are some of the best things about having so much diversity within the church?
Shelly: The food! We for sure have the best church potlucks! And it’s a taste of heaven to be able to worship together in multiple languages. It blesses my heart to see people who might not otherwise even interact with each other begin to engage in each other’s lives and extend themselves on behalf of each other.
Q: What are some of the challenges?
Shelly: Communication across languages and cultures is certainly something we’re always working at. It’s not just translation, but understanding that various groups each approach things like decision making and leadership differently. For example, it can slow down the process of implementing a new initiative. Actually ‘being’ one church is more than just getting together regularly.
Q: How do you feel having such diverse perspectives strengthens the church?
Shelly: We gain a much broader view of what God is about in the world and don’t just see him through one type of lens. We discover how our various gifts and talents fit together to serve our church family and also to share the Hope of Christ with others. I love being able to greet someone in the office and have so many options to connect them with, depending on what their situation is. I can offer them food, if they’re not English speaking I can connect them with our Amor y Fe congregation, if they’re wondering if they fit in our church, I can invite them to a worship service in English attended by people of various backgrounds and racial groups.
Q: What are things the church does to build bridges between the groups?
Shelly: Our ministries for children, youth, and adults include all of our congregations. While there are groups within each congregation that meet regularly for Bible study, each time we have a special event there are often people from each of our congregations who attend – like the recent Men’s Day at the Lake, or our summer Women’s Lunches. We find that food brings people together! This is an area we’re still working on though. One thing we’d like to try is a common teaching series at certain points in the year where we are all studying the same section of scripture and could share (with translation of course) testimonies of what we’ve been learning. We do have a common theme every year; our current one is Confident Hope.
Q: What are some things your church can offer the community because of that diversity?
Shelly: A place of connection that is possible even when coming from a variety of languages or socioeconomic backgrounds. Having worship services in Spanish and Lao are especially important for our immigrant communities. And, having those alongside English services means worshiping with an extended family; they may have young adults attending our Common Ground service in English where they may feel more comfortable while the parents or grandparents would like to continue worshiping in Spanish or Lao.
Q: Are there special events that you have that highlight some or all of the different groups?
Shelly: We do have combined services several times a year. Coming up we’ll have a fall Cultural Celebration night where we get to highlight the uniqueness of all the parts of Butler and our surrounding community. As one church we also have a shared budget for shared activities and ministry which would include children’s and youth ministry, the costs of office and facilities, and the staff positions that serve all of the church. We also work together in various ministry events like Food Distribution, Neighborhood Clean Up Days, and community events like Meet and Treat.
Q: Anything you would like to add?
Shelly: Folks who have been at Butler for any length of time have made an intentional choice to be part of this church family because it is multicultural. We’re all in different places of understanding what it means to be a healthy multiethnic church though, and many would be the first to say we haven’t got it ‘all figured out!’ This past year, we’ve been digging into that even more and are in the process of working at this more intentionally. There are so many aspects of that – creative funding models, growing in our awareness of cultural dynamics, ministry partnerships, and understanding the demographics and needs not just of our church family but of our southeast Fresno community. Our story from intentionally choosing this multicultural model over 30 years ago is still unfolding!
For those in the Fresno area who might want to check out Butler Church, you can find them at 4884 E Butler Ave. in Fresno, California. You can learn more on their website. Services for the four different congregations on Sundays are:
9:00 a.m. Faith Community and Asian Grace
10:45 a.m. Common Ground and Amor y Fe
Faith Community and Common Ground services are in English, though different worship styles.
Do you have a story of diversity within your own church? We would love to have you share on the Mennonite Insurance Services Facebook page!