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Flowering at First Baptist Church

By Jim Carlson, pastor at First Baptist Church of Waukesha, Wisconsin

Flowering at First Baptist Church

Jim received a grant through the BPFNA’s George Williamson Peace Action Fund. He writes, “Part of the reason why things are flowering now is because the BPFNA helped me attend that conference in Valley Forge so that I could learn about the needs of the Karen folks and make some connections with their leaders.”

Last winter our congregation made a conscious decision to do something that was quite unprecedented in our history. We are very blessed to have two ethnic congregations as part of First Baptist Church. Back in 2002 we were blessed by God to have the resources and the personnel to restart the church's Hispanic ministry. This ministry had been an important part of our church's history, but in recent years it had languished because of a lack of leadership. By 2003 three we had a paid Hispanic pastor who was ministering to a few families of undocumented Mexican immigrants. Our congregation embraced this new group of folks, and they officially joined our church as members. Even though some of us in the church can speak Spanish, there was always a bit of a language and cultural barrier. But the people in that congregation really began to grow. They participated in our Vacation Bible School program, they formed their own worship band, and took some ownership in remodeling the room where they worship.

Two years ago I was contacted by folks from the American Baptist Burma Refugee Task force, who informed me that there was a group of resettled Karen refugees from Burma in our town. They were Baptists, and they were looking for a place to worship. I consulted the congregation, and they welcomed this new group with open arms. For the next year and a half we worshiped separately and participated in very few activities together. We did have all three groups involved in VBS last summer. But most of my role was one of trying to build relationships with the Karen. That process went much more slowly than I anticipated.

Last winter, during a church retreat, as I was reflecting on the future life of our church, I realized that an important part of going forward together was...going forward together. I began speaking with all three groups about what it would look like for us to try and fully integrate our three congregations. It soon became clear to me that I was certainly not the first person to come to this conclusion. The Karen were enthusiastic about the idea, though their church polity is a little different from ours. The Hispanics wondered why it took the rest of us so long to start talking about integration. And the Anglo church fully embraced the idea.

I'll never forget the meeting we had with representatives from all three congregations last spring. We sat down as equal partners and began formulating ideas about how we would work together, which activities we would do together, and how we could all share in the task of decision-making. We decided to have communion together once every quarter even though we all worship separately (for language purposes). Both the Karen and the Hispanics selected representatives who would attend the church's Advisory Board meetings every month. We also planned to meet again and evaluate our efforts at integration.

On July 21st our church had a special picnic which we had planned last spring. We planned this picnic as one of the events that would help us in the process of integrating our three congregations. At the time of the picnic there was a lot of speculation about whether or not it would be well attended, given the busyness of people's summer and vacation schedules. But those fears never materialized because, despite the fact that people are so busy during the summers, many people from the church were able to attend.

Everyone met at a local park and brought food. Both our Karen and Hispanic folks brought food from their culture. We got the opportunity to enjoy each other’s food and company. We played catch with a baseball and some gloves that I brought. Others played Bocce Ball. Still other tossed around a football. One thing we learned is that our cultures have different concepts of time when it comes to leisure activities. Although the picnic started at 12:00 noon, the whole group was not really assembled until 1:30. While that may cause impatience in some of us who are very time conscious (myself included) I learned that being the body of Christ with people who come from other parts of the world requires us to be patient and flexible with our time.

Believe me, it was worth the wait. There was a moment, just after everyone was done eating, when we all seemed to let down our guard and just be with one another. I was especially moved when the Hispanic folks began to very deliberately engage the Karen folks in conversation, despite significant language barriers. They began talking about some of the similarities between their foods (both have some kind of rice as a staple of their diets). One of the Hispanic men reflected on the fact that both the Karen and the Hispanics are refugees, even though their status here in the US is very different in the eyes of the US State Dept. Both groups share the experience of leaving their land of origin under particularly dire circumstances and relocating to a place where their language, culture and values seem foreign. And yet both groups have found a kind of sanctuary at First Baptist.

It was as if for one of the first times we realized that our church is now significantly different from what it was two years ago, and that it was an entirely unique experience - unlike anything we had ever envisioned. It was the first time that people from all three congregations were engaged with one another outside of the church building. And it highlighted just how unique our experience as the body of Christ is. We do not have any further activities of this type planned right now, but we will in the future. And we will continue to worship together once a quarter as we share communion.

This year has changed us as a congregation. And it is my hope that we will continue to be transformed as we begin to understand what it means to be the body of Christ in our context.


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