It was from the east, according to St. Matthew’s gospel, that the wise men came looking for Jesus. It was also from the east that most of our forebears came, looking for a better life in many cases or in chains in others.
The myth that most of us were taught growing up is that America is a melting pot in which people from many different cultures become one people with a common language and the same worldview. E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one—is after all the motto on the Great Seal of the United States.
The Great Seal was approved by Congress in 1782, and we’ve been trying, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, to make the vision of that motto into a reality ever since. In the midst of all of the progress that has been made, it’s curious if not disturbing that Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in America … and it’s all by choice.
That’s why what you will experience if you attend the Christmas candlelight service at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church on Dec. 22 will be encouraging for those still struggling to find some kind of unity in the midst of our diversity.
In this case the wise men have also come from the east, the Far East as Asia is sometimes referred to. The older Thais in the congregation started coming after the Immigration and Nationality Act signed into law in 1965 abolished the national origins quota system. The women tended to be nurses and the men went into business.
St. Paul Thai members see life partly through the lens of being a minority in a different culture than the one in which they grew up. They experience the challenge of “being different” every day. It’s visible in little things like their difficulty in pronouncing some English words or their preference for rice over bread.
That’s why on Sunday afternoons members will drive from as far as Zion to the north and Palos Heights to the south. It’s because St. Paul Thai church is like an oasis in the middle of a cultural desert. It’s a place where they can both pray and gossip in their heart language, where they can relish spicy curries instead of steak and potatoes. It’s the same reason why a hamburger joint in Chiang Mai named Duke’s is popular with Western expats in Thailand.
And that’s why what will happen on Dec. 22 is so remarkable. St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church will not only tolerate diversity, they will celebrate it. Almost every word spoken in Thai will be translated into English for us “foreigners” who attend. There will be elegant, graceful classical Thai dance in the service, but there will also be the foot stomping, high energy gospel music coming from the choir from Hope Tabernacle church which meets in the same building (owned by the Thais) on Sunday morning.
The sermon will be given by the Rev. Dr. Sherman Hicks, who was the first African American to be elected the bishop of the Metro Chicago Synod of the ELCA in 1988 and is now the director of multi-cultural ministry at ELCA headquarters in Chicago.
What will also be amazing is that the service won’t attempt to be a melting pot. There will be no dumbing down. The energy of the gospel music will not be at all compatible with the grace of the Thai dancers, if what you long for is a seamless cultural experience. You have to not just tolerate but celebrate the diversity—in which the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together neatly—to enjoy what will happen.
For that reason, folks involved in multi-cultural ministry prefer the image of a tossed salad, in which each ingredient retains its own identity and integrity, to that of a melting pot.
The unum which the St. Paul Thai and Hope Tabernacle congregations have put together out of their pluribus, if you will, has not come by trying to find some lowest spiritual common denominator.
I’ve been associated with the Thai congregation for over twenty years and with Hope Tabernacle for about eight. What binds the two very different congregations together as partners, to my observation, are two things: one is that both faith communities have known what it is like to be vulnerable, and they both worship the same Lord.
If you are looking for a sign that the baby in the manger has power to create unum out of pluribus, come to the service at the white stucco church on Dixon Street on Sunday, Dec. 22. It’s at a time—4:00 p.m.—which doesn’t conflict with most other holiday events and will be followed by a feast of Thai food to which all are invited at no charge.