To the embarrassment of most churches in Forest Park, the time between 11 a.m. and noon on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week. That’s why what happened in the white stucco church at the corner of Brown and Dixon streets meant so much to those who participated in the joint worship service there on Sep. 7.
The 85 worshipers were almost evenly divided between Thais, blacks and whites. Seniors and children sang the hymns and prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Thai and English at the same time.
A praise band composed of musicians from the Thai Community Church and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church got the service started with a series of praise songs, which the Thais call “singspiration.” Pastor Pongsak Limthongviratn’s sermon was translated into English by Apirsiri Snamthong. Bill Teague, the pastor of Hope Tabernacle Community Church, and Audree Catalano, the pastor of both St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Lutheran churches, joined Pongsak in serving communion. After the service, Catalano thanked three Slovakian university students working with the Thai congregation for the summer for helping out on a remodeling project.
“To me this day was like Pentecost,” Catalano said. “When the Holy Spirit came on those first disciples, they began speaking in tongues. When our people today were saying the Apostles’ Creed, they were speaking in English and Thai at the same time. What better way to be the church at this time and see that Pentecost is ongoing.”
Members of the four congregations mingled during the potluck that followed. Black worshippers got a taste of Pad Thai, Thais were eating taco salad and southern-style macaroni and cheese, and everyone took a slice of pizza.
“You had to be here to experience it,” Teague said. “It showed that another part of Dr. King’s dream is coming true. It was very moving. You could see a rainbow coalition going on in the Forest Park area.”
All four congregations use the church building at 7416 Dixon St., which is owned by St. Paul’s. On Sundays, St. Paul’s begins worship at 9 a.m., Hope Tabernacle at 11:30 a.m., and the Thai congregation at 4:30 p.m.
St. Peter’s, which shares Pastor Catalano with St. Paul’s, joins its sister congregation for worship on the fourth Sunday of the month.
Pongsak explained that the four congregations only get together for worship three or four times a year because each congregation has its own mission. The Thai congregation, for example, reaches out to Thais in the entire Metro area while St. Paul’s ministry is focused more on the immediate neighborhood. Getting together, therefore, is more an experience in mutual encouragement rather than an exercise in outreach.
Pongsak agreed with Teague and Catalano that it is good to see believers from different backgrounds coming together to worship.
“Singing hymns with different languages reminds us that Christianity is for all people,” Pongsak said. “Christianity is not meant to be a white religion, but is supposed to be a faith of all people who respond to God’s grace.”
As director for Asian Ministry in his denomination, the ELCA, Pongsak said he has too often seen ethnic churches go through conflicts with their white “host” congregations.
“When we look at this society we see more and more conflicts,” Pongsak said. “People look only at their own perspective and see people who are different as somehow not right.”
All three pastors interpreted the meaning of the joint worship to be an example of God’s power to unite. Catalano used the image of the body of Christ to talk about the oneness that worshipers had experienced. Pongsak narrowed the image down to the eye.
“The Gospel can enlighten us to see things with different eyes and from a different perspective,” he said.