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Many Languages, One Vote

Michael Ford, pastor

Lake Avenue Baptist Church
Rochester, NY

Many BPFNA Partner Congregations are blessed to have a multiplicity of language groups within their ranks. We were impressed by this article from one of those churches, Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, NY, about the thoughtfulness and planning that must go into something as seemingly simple as a congregational vote. Whether or not your church speaks with more than one language, we hope you’ll be inspired as we were with this reminder of the “nuts and bolts” of justice and peace in action.

On Sunday January 26th we held our congregational meeting to deal with financial issues (to receive the financial report for 2013 and to approve the budget for 2014). In many churches a congregational meeting is not something to write much about. They are, in most cases, pretty formulaic. Reports are gathered, books are put together, meetings are called, people are gathered, information is shared and votes are taken. But, like most things, LABC is not your ordinary everyday church, and so we naturally have our own unique challenges to consider when holding a congregational meeting.

Our biggest challenge is that as a church we function in different languages. For that reason alone we always need to be aware of the challenges inherent in communication. However, we are figuring out a few things about how to hold a congregational meeting that holds in balance our need to share information but to share it in a way that we are all able to understand (at least most of the time). 

First, we have learned that it helps to define the terms that we use in “meeting-speak” that may not have easy translations. I wonder how many native English speakers know what a Parliamentarian is or what one does in a meeting. It’s helpful to define what that role is in simple language (which benefits us all). We have also learned that it is helpful to color-code our paperwork that we hand out to people. It is easier to find “the orange” sheet in a package than “the third sheet in.” It is also easier to switch between sheets if they are clearly different colors. Finally, we have learned how to use translators to make sure that votes happen in a clear manner. This was the greatest learning curve.

At our first multi-linguistic congregational meeting what would happen was we would “call for the vote” in English and the English speakers would raise their hands and then put their hands down. Then, once it was translated into Karen the Karen speakers would vote and put their hands down. Finally, once it was translated into Burmese the Burmese speakers would vote too and put their hands down. What we had were three different groups of voters. While this worked what we were hoping for was a group vote as a whole where all eligible voters could contribute by offering their vote at the same time as everyone else. This last meeting we tried asking people to vote once they understood the question and to keep their hands raised. What I saw from the front was a congregation voting together and joining the others in the congregation to make a decision “together.” It was a beautiful thing.

We don’t have it all figured out, and for all we know things may change and we may encounter a new set of struggles. But what I was most impressed by was the willingness of everyone gathered to figure out how to do this thing together. We were all willing to put aside our preferences or our historical ways of doing things and to determine together what worked best for our community as we are today. We were willing to work hard on being community together, and that is a wonderful challenge and a great blessing.

Thank you for your ongoing commitment to being community, with all of our diversity. Thank you for being willing to be part of a community where things aren’t always clean and easy and sometimes are downright messy and confusing. And thank you for sharing God’s love through your love for one another in all times and in all places.

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