'I'm all for it. . . . The church is more vital, more alive now.'--Ruth Adame : church member : Church Enriched by Its Ethnic Diversity

December 01, 1985|ELIZABETH LU | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Delwin Thigpen was clearly enjoying all the hustle and bustle.

After Sunday service, as he strolled over to the redwood tree where members of his English-speaking congregation were chatting over coffee and cookies, the tall, friendly minister stopped to greet scores of Chinese church members as they dashed off to the sanctuary for the Chinese-language service.

Less than 50 yards away, the smaller Korean congregation was gathering for its service in the small chapel vacated moments earlier by a group of Filipino churchgoers.

The Alhambra First United Methodist Church has not always been so international. And it hasn't had such a large membership in years. Seven years ago, when Thigpen became pastor, church members were almost all white and the church was losing members at an alarming rate.

Now, like several other churches in the San Gabriel Valley, the Alhambra church has opened its doors to other ethnic groups, both to increase membership and to fulfill part of its Christian mission.

Church More Vital

"I'm all for it, because I see it as a way for our church to grow," said church member Ruth Adame. "The church is more vital, more alive now."

Like many older neighborhood churches in the nation, the 108-year-old Alhambra church was gradually losing members as children in the community grew up and moved away. Between 1973 and 1983, the church's membership plummeted 46%, from 872 to 469. When Thigpen came to the church, more than two-thirds of the congregation was 70 or older.

"The handwriting was on the wall for the future of the church," he said.

"One of the first things I did was to organize a long-range planning committee," Thigpen said. "We began to look into things that we needed to do."

One of the church's earliest actions was to merge with the Marengo United Methodist Church, which had fallen on even harder times, attracting only about 35 people each Sunday in its last days. But the church's most dramatic move was its decision to develop multiple congregations by reaching out to the rapidly growing ethnic community.

The strategy is one used by many churches to arrest declining memberships, and it is one that has proved successful for the United Methodists. In 1973, the United Methodist Church had more than 10 million members in the United States, but within 10 years, that number had dropped by a million, said the Rev. George Walters, secretary of the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the Methodist Church.

"But the trend is leveling off," Walters said.

"There is a general belief in the church that much of the growth in the United Methodists will come from the ethnic community," said the Rev. Dr. David A. Scott Sr., superintendent for the Pasadena District of the conference.

"For the past eight years, the church has had a deep concern for the ethnic minorities of the local church," Scott said. "That's the priority of the 38,000-plus Methodist churches in the United States."

Scott said the emphasis on developing minority ministries stems from the immigration of Latinos and Asians. "Many of the persons to whom we are administering are new immigrants, and there are language problems," Scott said.

Even within an ethnic congregation, there are linguistic differences.

"We conduct the service mainly in Mandarin, but we also translate it into the Swadow dialect," said Samuel Wu, an assistant pastor of the Chinese congregation at the Alhambra church. Cantonese translations are also available during the service through earphones, Woo said.

Cultural Ties

The church also serves as a place where new immigrants can retain ties to their native cultures.

"I need to speak Korean and see the Korean people," said Chung Choi, a 22-year-old nurse who recently joined the Korean congregation at the Alhambra church.

"I can have fellowship with fellow Filipinos, which I guess I did miss," Roel Cruz, who frequently attends the Alhambra church even though he is a member of a largely white church in Whittier.

Within the Pasadena District of the Methodist Conference to which the Alhambra church belongs, 10 of 55 churches have at least one ethnic congregation, often referred to as a ministry. First United Methodist churches in Monterey Park, Glendale, North Glendale, Hacienda Heights and West Covina have Korean ministries in addition to their English-language congregations. There is a Latino ministry in Glendale, a Japanese ministry in Lancaster and an East Indian ministry in La Canada-Flintridge.

Facilities Shared

Four churches in the district also share facilities with independently chartered ethnic Methodist churches. For example, the Filipino congregation that meets at the Alhambra church is a separately chartered church within the Methodist Conference.

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