“… a multi-cultural family of disciples of Jesus Christ …” is part of the vision statement of the church where I work: “Plainfield United Methodist Church is a multi-cultural family of disciples of Jesus Christ where all are actively involved in the ministries to which God has called them.”
All Christians know that we are supposed to be “neither greek nor jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, scythian, bond nor free …” (1 Cor. 3:11); but whenever church groups try to make this happen, there is typically not “one-ness” but conflict!
So how did this little congregation where I work end up this way? God only knows! I saw most of it happen, so I can report what I saw, but I cannot really explain it.
Plainfield UMC was a typical Methodist church in the 1950s and ’60s – bursting at the seams with working class families and their baby-boomer offspring.
As the ’70s came around, the boomer kids grew up and moved to other neighborhoods, leaving Plainfield UMC behind.
The parents grew older, and by the ’80s and early ’90s began to sell their homes and downsize to apartments, condominiums, retirement homes, etc. in other neighborhoods, also leaving Plainfield UMC behind.
Slum landlords bought the houses, and grew prosperous off a seemingly-endless stream of humanity that lives their whole life one mis-step away from disaster. The neighborhood around Plainfield UMC changed radically.
For a while the remaining church members didn’t notice. They just went on as they always had: church on Sunday, ladies’ society, men’s society, young peoples’ activities. There were still quite a few extended family groups that called Plainfield their church home. Boomer children raised their own Generation X children, and life went on. The sanctuary wasn’t bursting at the seams on Sunday, but there was still a decent turn-out, and everybody knew everybody, and life went on.
In the early ’90s the denomination itself noticed the down-tick in church membership, checked the demographics, and decided that a Food Pantry was the ministry-of-choice for an inner-city church like Plainfield. So they opened a food pantry in the church basement. But that didn’t bring new families into the congregation.
The Plainfield church family continued as always – old people died, young people had babies … When one of the Generation X daughters of a much-loved church member gave birth to bi-racial babies, nobody even skipped a beat. Plainfield UMC was painlessly integrated, from within.
When I first came to work at Plainfield UMC, it was 2001, and the congregation was comprised of about 200 members, all of them white, except for the 2 bi-racial children.
The size of the congregation has continued to decline these past eleven years, but an interesting thing has been happening.
Every now and again, somebody new just “shows up,” at Plainfield, and says that they somehow felt God himself was drawing them to this place to serve Him.
The black man who is now our Lay Leader came in about 2002 or 3, from another town. He doesn’t live anywhere near here, but he drives 30-40 miles to fellowship here, because he believed that God had called him to reach out to the community that surrounds this church. Why? Why here? I don’t get it.
An immigrant from Africa (one of the “Lost Boys”) met a Plainfield church member when he and she were both hospitalized in the same place several years ago, and he, too, now calls Plainfield UMC his church family. He became a U.S. citizen a few years back, and the whole church turned out for the ceremony. (The whole church, by this time, though, was only around 25 people, not counting the shut-ins.)
A large family of Christian immigrants from Pakistan came to church at Plainfield UMC one Sunday several years ago, and they now are also part of our family. We have a cool photograph on the church bulletin board of the wedding of the daughter of this family. Her bridal attire is beautiful, but much different from the previous wedding photos taken at Plainfield UMC. Several members of this family serve in various capacities on our boards.
A hispanic congregation came several years ago to see if they could rent our sanctuary on Sunday afternoons for worship, and the pastor of that congregation now sits on our congregation’s board of trustees, and helps us maintain our church building.
A native-american group came several years ago to see if they could rent our kitchen for twice-a-week lunches for their elderly members, and some of their leaders have shared their culture with our congregation on special Sundays.
So here we are today. Plainfield UMC is a small, multi-cultural family of disciples of Jesus Christ. Most of the time we do not even realize how unique we are. How it is that we are a family, when nothing intentional on our part was done to make this happen, I do not know.
If another congregation were to set out to copy our church model, they would probably not be able to do so. From my perspective as nothing but the church secretary, I would have to simply say that this is a very sweet, but battered and despised group of Christians, who have hung around through the winds of change, and for some reason, their hearts really are open to loving people who aren’t entirely the same as them. But no, that isn’t true. All the people at Plainfield ARE the same, even though their native cultures are different. They all love God. They all like this kind-of-old-fashioned little Methodist church, and they all think they are part of this family because God sent them here.
I don’t know what else to say. I know my Bible, and I say my prayers, but I don’t know how or why this happened here when they weren’t even trying to do anything but just hang on …
I guess God must have done it, for His own reasons. And I wonder what else He is going to do from here, as time goes on.