On Sunday, Nov. 6, a three-person film crew from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) — a 3.7 million-member denomination in the U.S. — spent five hours filming activities at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church, 7416 Dixon St. in Forest Park, for a documentary promoting multicultural ministry among the denomination’s 9,320 congregations.
The ELCA’s historical roots go back to Germany and Scandinavia, so the denomination has been very white in terms of race. But beginning in the 1980s, the ELCA realized that if it wanted to survive as well as be a relevant force in the changing demographics of American society, it had to gradually transform itself into a multicultural church community.
Judith Roberts, one of the interviewers in the filming crew, is the ELCA Program Director for Racial Justice. She said the footage shot at St. Paul Thai will be included in an ELCA resource titled, “One Body, Many Members: a Journey for Christians Across Race, Culture and Class,” and will “assist congregations in becoming multicultural worshipping communities.”
One of the members interviewed was Monta Limthongviratn. She is not officially the pastor but really does hold the Thai faith community together, Monday through Saturday, while her husband, Rev. Pongsak Limthonviratn, is referred to as the volunteer interim pastor. During the week, Pastor Pongsak is often traveling around the U.S. and to Asia in his role as the ELCA’s Director of Asian Ministry, and functions as the church’s leader on Sundays and sometimes at Wednesday evening Bible study.
Monta said St. Paul Thai was being filmed partly because the congregation itself has included Americans and first generation families from Laos and partly because they share the building with an African American congregation called Hope Tabernacle.
Pastor Pongsak added that his congregation was chosen for the project partly because it is the kind of ethnic-specific congregation which is a major part of the ELCA’s strategy to become more diverse. When he became director of Asian Ministry in 1997, there were only 50 ethnic congregations in the whole denomination, which was still very white. Now, in part because of his leadership, there are 400.
The faith community, which meets on Dixon Street in the building formerly owned by a Lutheran congregation with German heritage, is 20% non-Thai. The vice president is an African American, Fred Martin, who is married to a Thai named Jomlong.
In his interview, Martin said, “This church welcomes with open arms anyone who wants to learn about Thai culture and the Lord. The customs the Thais brought sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, but we developed a learning process between those of Thai culture and those of American culture.”
Martin said his 43-year-long marriage to Jomlong has made him feel close to the Thai people. “When the king of Thailand died in October,” he said, “I felt as sad as they felt. This is my family here. When they cried, I cried.”
T.B. Lietz is a high school student whose father is German American and whose mother is Thai American.
“Coming to this church,” he said, “helps develop the Thai side of me. When my mom comes here she really gets to express her Thai side.”
The diversity in the congregation is generational as well as racial and cultural. One way the church has tried to appeal to old and young, he noted, is by singing contemporary Christian music accompanied by piano, guitars and drums at the beginning of the service and traditional hymns thereafter. If people visit the church for the first time, he said, they may see a lot of diversity but “while we’re here it doesn’t seem like that. It seems like one family.”
David Mercurio met his wife Piyamat while he was traveling in Thailand. He is white; she is Thai. His primary language is English; she speaks Thai. He is Christian; she was Buddhist. Concerned that his wife feel comfortable so far away from what had been her home, David brought her to St. Paul, which he found online.
“This is an incredible congregation,” he said, “so giving and so loving. If there are unmet needs, there are four or five people who come forward to try to meet those needs. It’s been a blessing in that it’s a Christian congregation and yet it still has a cultural flavor that my wife can have a sense of being at home and able to hear the gospel in her native language.”
Mercurio said his wife is a foreigner in American culture but he is the foreigner (farang in Thai) in the Thai congregation. “Farang is a funny word,” he said. “Generally it means ‘Westerner’ but in Thailand it can be a derogatory term. I have never experienced that negative connotation here in church. The Thais may tease me about my attempts to speak Thai correctly or about my not being able to handle spicy food, but here nobody looks at each other as anything but Christian.”
Pastor Pongsak said one challenge of being an ethnic congregation in the U.S. is finding a pastor who can function well in Thai culture and at the same time relate to the Americans in the congregation and in the neighborhood.
“In the whole world,” said Pongsak, “there are less than 20 Thai Lutheran pastors.”
A bishop from Thailand was interviewed years ago but the congregation didn’t like him. Then a Thai pastor served for three years, but it wasn’t a good fit, and he resigned.
Pastor Pongsak thinks St. Paul Thai has found the answer. Every year the congregation brings over two or three interns from Thailand — 17 since 1992 — who live in what used to be the parsonage next to the church, study English and help out with the ministry. One of the interns made a good impression on everyone and may be brought back from Thailand to begin a process leading up to her becoming a replacement for Pongsak and Monta, who are nearing retirement age.
Another challenge is the necessity of becoming more American. Pongsak explained that an ethnic congregation has a life span of only about 30 years. At first the cultural glue is so strong that the first generation members are willing to drive long distances on Sunday. Members of St. Paul Thai drive from as far away as Zion to the north, Woodridge to the west and Palos to the south. But as those members age, their children, who have grown up in the U.S., see themselves culturally as more American than Thai and are not as attracted to a church that is ethnic specific.
That’s why Pongsak began translating almost everything in the service into English when he became involved with the church around 1992. For the sermon, English speakers are given headsets through which they can hear the message simultaneous translated for them.
In a sense, St. Paul Thai is an experiment in multicultural living. On the one hand, black and white fabric streamers flow from the central chandelier to the corners of the sanctuary as one way of mourning the death of their beloved King Bhumibol. So they still have one foot in Thailand, but they are intentional about having their other foot planted on American soil as is evidenced by their holding English classes every Sunday, by feeding the homeless every month at the PADS shelter, and by having a dozen homeless people sleep at the church for two weeks each summer as part of Housing Forward’s summer program.