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Ronald Southall joins in the singing during worship service at First Grace United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.; A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

Ronald Southall joins in the singing during worship service at First Grace United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

Would Martin Luther King Jr. be right today?


By Poonam Patodia

Is the worship hour on Sunday still the most segregated time in America, as Martin Luther King Jr. noted, or are we entering an era of change?

With the continuing racial tension and divisions in our country, now is the perfect time to discuss and to create or enhance multiethnic congregations. How do you do it? The answers are as varied as the melting pot living in the United States.

One could identify most congregations in the United States as "mono-racial," with at least 80 percent of the members identifying themselves with a single racial group, according to the national Multiracial Congregations Project.

More than 60.6 million people told the U.S. Census they speak at least one language other than English at home. Almost all 50 states are seeing their populations grow more diverse.

How can you transform the monoculture atmosphere and create a congregation that welcomes and encourages people of all races, ethnicities and cultures? Everyone shares a universal attribute — the need to feel loved. At a minimum, all want to feel welcome to attend and participate.

Understand which ethnicities exist in your congregation area.
Set the stage to develop a relevant approach proactively to encourage many cultures to congregate at your place of worship.

The U.S. Census Bureau's American FactFinder offers a wealth of information. Search for data unique to your community. Select "Place" as the category and follow steps to drill down to your community or school district.

The results offer detailed information about your community population: birthplace, U.S. entry date, region of foreign-born births, language spoken at home and ancestry. With that knowledge, determine which populations could benefit from your church's embrace.

Offer a non-English service or incorporate other languages into your existing worship.
About six years ago, Korean and Korean-American churches worked together to publish a bilingual hymnal for United Methodists. Dal Joon Won, general editor, told Religion News Service that the hymnal criteria included songs that were readily translatable in both languages, carried on the tradition of the church and bridged the culture gap. They also had to easy to sing. Music is an excellent opportunity to embrace diversity. See if your musicians could incorporate into the service instruments native to cultures in your community.

Take the church into the community.
Consider having Sunday service at a local community center frequented by persons who might not feel comfortable walking into your church doors without a special invitation.

Help new immigrants ease the transition.
If immigrants are moving into your area as their first stop in the United States, create a volunteer network within the church, district or annual conference. Churches involved with these networks donate furniture, food and gift cards to help immigrants settle. They also extend invitations to worship, though participation is not mandatory for the assistance.

Take the idea of multiculturalism into the community.
Organize and host study circles, a national effort to bring together people from diverse backgrounds, to share personal experiences on topics such as race, diversity and immigration. Through the open dialogue, small-group members build a trusting relationship with people from different backgrounds and work together for long-term change. Everyday Democracy, formerly the Study Circles Resource Center, offers information to assist in the process. Read about successful programs at:

Learn the languages.
No one expects you to become fluent, but show you care by learning pronunciations so you can pronounce names correctly. Learn key phrases, such as "hello," "welcome" and "thank you." Ask for help from native speakers already in your congregation or community.

As you embark on the multicultural adventure, remember to communicate and to involve your congregation. You will need everyone's help to welcome the newcomers.

Article originally published in 2009. Updated in 2017.