While the U.S. seems to be more and more divided every day, one Forest Park church has made it their mission to be a house of diversity.
St. Paul Thai Church prides itself on its focus on inclusion.
Located at 7416 Dixon St. on a sleepy bricked roadway, St. Paul’s boasts a congregation of Asian Americans, African Americans, white Americans and a large swath of Thai immigrants, along with members of many sexual and gender orientations.
While the building itself has a much longer history, the Thai church was founded, with a $5,000 budget, in 1985 by Christians from Thailand who wanted an interdenominational worship space, said Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn.
By 1990, church leaders realized the congregation was becoming more diverse naturally — Thai immigrants had married Americans, or had close American friends. Children born to Thai immigrants were more likely to speak English and follow American culture.
The church welcomed the varied members and began to seek out ways to create an inclusive environment.
“It becomes more diverse every day,” Limthongviratn said. “If you shut the door on all people, then you shut the door on being a church as well.”
Sermons are given in both Thai and English, but thanks to headsets, similar to those used by the UN, everyone can hear a translated version of the sermon near-instantly.
Limthongviratn and members of the church take translation even further — over the summer they translated a documentary about Martin Luther and added subtitles so that it was accessible to those who speak Thai. They’ve translated various religious documents, like The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. For St. Paul’s, accessibility is a big part of inclusion.
But it goes beyond worship. After church service on Sundays, the congregation heads to an upper portion of the church where the badminton court is. There a traditional Thai meal is offered.
Though the congregation is fairly small — about 40 to 50 members — it is also mission-oriented, Limthongviratn said. In its 32 years, the church as raised and donated more than $1 million. They have helped build schools in Thailand and have donated countless dollars to relief efforts for natural disasters.
More than this, though, the church takes seriously its responsibility as a sanctuary for those who need it. St. Paul’s also owns a small house where people in need of shelter can stay. They welcome students from Thailand. They house people who do not have homes of their own. They even shelter road-weary travelers
“As a church, you have to open the door,” Limthongviratn said. “We welcome people.”