According to the Rev. Jerry Drino, rector of a St. Philip's Episcopal Church in San Jose, the best way for churches to approach multicultural worship is to see themselves as laboratories, places where people can "expect the unexpected."
On Pentecost Sunday, St. Philip's celebrated the 10th anniversary of the arrival of Laotians in their midst. In their honor, the congregation took out the altar and pews, scattered grass mats around the floor and celebrated communion with rice instead of bread.
Two Sundays later, the sanctuary was filled with the beating of drums and plains Indian dancing when several parishioners of Sioux heritage were baptized.
"We are ultimately looking for a new cultural expression that is not an assimilation but that is born out of a process of transformation, something much more profound in terms of an art, an expression of this moment in history," said Drino.
Drino's voice is one in a growing chorus of church leaders who are calling on congregations to open their doors to people of all races as the culture becomes more diverse.
Drino's congregation includes Anglos like himself and significant numbers of Laotians, Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans. The 400-member congregation also has growing numbers of immigrants from Cambodia and Belize.
To acknowledge the diverse ethnic makeup, the church buildings are filled with icons and symbols representative of the various ethnic traditions. A reclining Buddha, for example, is displayed with a Laotian candle tree. And the Virgin of Guadalupe brings together Hispanic and Anglo symbols.
Openness to change, a willingness to listen to others, an appreciation for spontaneity and a commitment to sharing power are elements in the ecclesiastical brew Drino is mixing.
Drino arrived at St. Philip's two decades ago, in the wake of the civil rights movement. It was a time when the congregation of whites, blacks and a few Latinos was divided over issues of race.
But San Jose began to change dramatically with a massive influx of immigrants from Asia, Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, India and the Pacific Islands. One startling sign of change: It takes 14 pages in the local telephone directory to exhaust the Vietnamese surname Nguyen, compared to eight pages for Smith.
In 1982, Laotians began coming to the church to be baptized. St. Philip's held classes for them in Christianity, and eventually the Laotians asked to use the church's facilities for a Laotian New Year celebration. Their request was granted, and even more Laotians became familiar with St. Philip's.
Other cultural groups began flocking to the church. St. Philip's is divided into five ethnic congregations within the larger parish, each with its own leaders and services. But on the first Sunday of every month the five congregations gather for joint Eucharist and worship. The Eucharist prayer is recited in a variety of languages.
"They know when they come into the church that each tradition is honored," said Drino, who is also director of the Episcopal Church's cross-cultural ministry development program in the western states.
Cultural holidays are occasions for recognizing diversity at St. Philip's. Special liturgies are said on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and the anniversary of his death. The martyrdom of Oscar Romero, who was the Roman Catholic archbishop of El Salvador, is celebrated. And Laotians hold a New Year's festival at St. Philip's featuring ancient chants.
For Drino, multicultural ministry is not an elective but a mandate. His conviction derives not only from a biblical ideal of church unity but from practical considerations as well.
Anyone who doubts the need for multicultural perspectives, he said, need only recall the ethnic divisions that emerged during the Los Angeles riots.
Drino sees conflict as part of the normal course of events in multicultural settings and as opportunities for the faith community "to reflect together, to do theology."
"The world has changed, folks," he said, "and we've go to give up the structure that has created the present situation."