Embracing Diversity to Reach New People for Christ

By Rick Wolcott*

Jai mashi is a Nepali phrase that means “victory in Christ.

On Sunday, February 4, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese Christian congregation of Refugee International Fellowship and the congregation of Grandview United Methodist Church (Canal District) celebrated their victory in Christ together during a joint worship service.

Worshippers in the Sanctuary

Pastor Santa Gajmere and the Refugee International Fellowship congregation began worshipping in the Grandview UMC sanctuary in 2016 thanks to the connection of The United Methodist Church.

“We used to worship at Grace United Methodist Church in Newport News, Virginia but it was expensive living there.  When we were looking to move, Pastor Hank (Teague) sent a letter to the United Methodist churches in Akron and Pastor Paula (Koch) was the first to answer,” he said.

“When I received the email, it was at a time when the congregation was looking for a way to reach our community.  I realized this was a way to be present for others,” Koch said from her current church, Millersburg UMC, where she was appointed in 2017.

“One of my favorite memories was the first World Wide Communion Sunday after the ministry began using Grandview’s facility. I preached and Pastor Santa translated my message. It was a great opportunity to share the Sacrament together and worship together. It truly brought home to us that we are the Body of Christ no matter what language we speak or what country we call home.

Canal District Superintendent the Rev. Ed Petersen says that North Akron is quickly becoming a large international community.

“Akron North High School reports 26 distinct cultures and 13 languages represented in the school, and Akron now has the largest population of Bhutanese/Nepali people outside of Nepal.”

“Surveys show us that there are 18,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese in Akron and the surrounding communities, but less than 1,000 of them are in Christ,” said Gajmere.  “So we are continuously praying for the other more than 17,000 and we need the help of the churches in the area to reach out and introduce them to Christ.”

He explained that the large Bhutanese population, coupled with better employment opportunities and a lower cost of living were reasons the 12 families of the Refugee International Fellowship moved from Virginia to Akron two years ago.  Since arriving in its new home, the congregation has grown to 100 worshippers, comprised of 19 families.

Roseann Andrus, a member of Grandview UMC, says, “I’m really excited to have Pastor Santa and his congregation here.  I really am.  They are trying so hard to assimilate and the more we can help them the better off everybody is.”

“I have found the people here to be very friendly and they all have a heart to help,” Gajmere said.  “There are so many seen, and unseen, people in this church who are helping us, and making us feel at home here.”

When the Rev. David Hull-Frye was appointed to Grandview UMC in July 2017, succeeding Koch, he was glad to learn that his new congregation had welcomed their Bhutanese brothers and sisters in Christ.

“In 2001, I worked with a refugee population from Sudan, with the Lost Boys, so I had experience with that, and I’ve always enjoyed working with different cultures.  It was exciting to come here and be part of this,” he said.

“Here in this community we don’t expect it to be racially diverse, but it is.  That’s the dynamic of who we are now.  So for this congregation to embrace that is encouraging to me and I think it’s living out our Gospel message.”

The two pastors meet once a month to brainstorm ideas to bring the congregations together, since Grandview UMC worships in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings and Refugee International Fellowship worships there in the afternoon.

“We decided that once a quarter we are going to come together in worship, share our cultures and emphasize the similarities in our faith.  We’re all worshipping the same God, though it might be in different languages,” Hull-Frye said.

Voices of both languages sang together as one during the February 4 service.  The Refugee International Fellowship choir led the singing of Mahan Iswor Bicharchhu Kaam Tapaiko in Nepali, while the Grandview UMC choir led the singing of How Great Thou Art in English.

Other ideas borne from the pastors’ brainstorming sessions will come to fruition this spring.  A new church pictorial directory will be published that features photos of both congregations in the same book; and Gajmere will begin writing a section of the Grandview UMC Sunday bulletin in which he will offer Nepali words and phrases, along with their English translations, to facilitate breaking down the language barrier between the two congregations.

“Grandview’s commitment to build a relationship with ALL people in their community has led to this amazing partnership between worshipping communities.  Rev Hull-Frye’s leadership is moving towards East Ohio’s vision in reaching new people,” said Will Jones, the East Ohio Conference director of Multicultural Vitality.He, Hull-Frye, Peterson, and EOC Director of Congregational Vitality the Rev. Kelly Brown continue to be in conversation with Gajmere to discern ways to join in ministry with the Bhutanese Christian community, and also be in ministry to them and the larger Bhutanese refugee community.

“We equate it to a new marriage, where you have to take time to get to know each other, and understand each other’s needs.  We each have a culture we have to learn, and all sides bring something to this,” Hull-Frye said.  “It’s a joy to work with both congregations and see the dynamic of how that comes together.  Its not always easy to welcome those that we perceive to be different, but deep down we’re all the same and we all want to experience God’s love.”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.