If you drive past the white stucco church at the corner of Brown and Dixon, you’ll notice a lot of work going.
The roofs on the church, social hall and parsonage are being stripped down to the decking, and new shingles are being installed along with new windows and tile in the social hall. The electrical system is being updated. Cracked and peeling plaster in the worship area is being repaired. And new flooring is being laid in the aisles.
The cost of this work to bring the historic building back into shape will be between $70,000 and $100,000. What’s interesting is that the work is being paid for by members of what used to be called the Thai Community Church. (They are in the process of changing the congregation’s name to St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church.)
In a way, the building has come full circle in terms of who’s maintaining it. The cornerstone reads, “Deutsche Evangelische Luteranishe Kirche, 1899.” The landmark building was financed by people who spoke English on the job, but at home and in worship they spoke German.
They were immigrants, fish out of water, foreigners in a new land where they had to learn a new, awkward language in order to survive. They were, therefore, willing to make financial sacrifices in order to build a church in which they felt at home, where the Lord’s Prayer would begin, “Unsere Vater ins himmel …” It was natural for them to design the big round, stained glass window overlooking the balcony to include a book at its center with the inscription Heilige Bibel.
If you wander into the church to inspect the replastering being done, you’ll notice a 50-foot mural hanging on the balcony railing under the round window. It was painted by Sawai Chinawong and depicts 13 scenes from the life of Jesus, all done according to Thai artistic conventions. For example, Sawai included a white elephant in the creation scene; Satan is always dressed in green and the hairdos come straight out of Thai legend.
The Thais who now own the building want to retain the very Germanic-looking statue of Jesus that overlooks the altar. They say they want to honor the legacy of the German Lutherans who handed the property over to them. But that statue is framed by a 20-foot-tall golden Siamese arch, which glitters in the dark when a spotlight is beamed on it.
In this case, what goes around seems to come around. Some of the Thais have become U.S. citizens. Some have green cards. Some go through the hassle of renewing their work or student visas. Two are trying to pass the English proficiency exam, which will allow them to study here. Several immigrated to fill the nursing shortage in the 1980s. A few are successful businessmen.
Like the Germans who built the church 111 years ago, they still communicate with family “back home,” only now they do it by e-mail instead. Some feel torn between the comfortable place from which they came and the opportunities in this new land.
None of the members of the Thai congregation are illegal aliens. I’ve seen the anxiety on more than one Thai face when they think they might have trouble renewing their visas. Trouble is the last thing they want to get into.
Their children – born here and U.S. citizens – have one foot on the Thai dock and the other foot in the American boat. They speak English better than they do Thai and like pizza better than they do lard nar. But at the same time, they are more respectful of elders like me than most American kids I know. Some are fluent enough in Thai to serve as translators at worship.
The Thais all agree that our-their country has the right to regulate its borders, but at the same time they wish that there weren’t so many arbitrary obstacles to working and studying here. On the one hand, I never hear them taking sides on the immigration reform debate. On the other hand, none of them has indicated any interest in moving to Arizona.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.