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Exodus Churches

In my work with ministries in the Midwest, I found that some congregations are especially prepared to welcome the next wave of immigrants. One reason for this is that they remember their own family's immigration to the United States a generation or so ago.

Immanuel Lutheran Church in Chicago treasures such memories. Its chapel architecture displays cherished symbols of members' traumatic struggle to settle in Chicago. Leaded glass windows tell stories of the buildings that the congregation has occupied. Engraved plaques record the dates when the church founded a hospital, a library, then a college and a number of other community services-the essential supports for the assimilation of a migratory community. The plaques name at least four generations of Swedish families who became citizens and community leaders in fields from education to finance, from commerce to the arts. Rooted in a history of service, the church's ministries include a food pantry, a preschool, care for the elderly and the services of a parish nurse.

So it seemed natural to Immanuel Church members that they should aid a congregation of newly arrived Chinese Lutherans. Although these two churches originated in continents that are half a world away and their people left their homes in very different centuries, their pastors often said, in their separate language liturgies, "We are both immigrant people, sustained in our journey by the hand of the Almighty."

Even the language differences endeared the Chinese newcomers to the old Swedes who still recalled the precious sounds of their own mother tongue. In addition to holding separate programs, these congregations joined for special worship services and cross-cultural social events, in which they felt the rhythm of their common immigrant history. They mixed their cultures without losing their individual identities: they joked about being "sweet and sour Swedish meatballs." Some say it was God's special blessing; others say it was just good Christian chemistry....

When the Chinese Lutheran congregation found a building of their own, Immanuel Church offered shelter to the Bible Fellowship Church of Eritrea, an immigrant community from northeast Africa . . . and the beat goes on. This century-old immigrant church reaches out to other immigrants. So do others--like the Slovakian congregation that warmly welcomed their new Mexican neighbors. Numerous congregations see themselves "naturally" sharing the faith with newcomers. (For more on these churches, see chapter three of Energizing the Congregation, a book I wrote with Sally A. Johnson [1993]; for a careful, comprehensive overview and case studies of churches in community change, see Nancy Ammerman's Congregations in Community [1996].

But I have seen other congregations that ignore newcomers, or even impede their progress. What makes the difference? Many factors, including leadership, timing, resources and especially a theology of thanksgiving that is woven into the people's faith stories.

People who remember their own immigrant history are more likely to welcome the next wave of newcomers IF (it's a big if) they have a theology of the Exodus rather than of the Promised Land. We are all immigrants, sojourners, travelers through this world in one sense or another. The congregations that choose to share their space with others have an Exodus theology: they believe that they are always on a journey and never fully arrive. They stoutly reject the claim that the new world belongs to them alone.

Although holders of the Promised Land theology claim ownership of the new lands, congregations with an Exodus outlook, like their biblical predecessors, celebrate the Jubilee by passing their harvest to each generation of more recent arrivals. Exodus churches display a variety of memorials to remind them of God's guidance across the generations. God's graciousness is recalled in such a way that members would feel unfaithful if they failed to extend that grace to other immigrants.

One sad but familiar tactic marks those congregations that claim the turf for themselves and resist sharing it with the next wave of immigrants. With a twist of irony, they often accept a few individual immigrants who become the strongest dissenters against other candidates for membership. These newcomers are typically the most outspoken, saying, "The others just don't quite measure up." Members of the Promised Land church reassure the few whom they have accepted that others would be welcome "if they were only like you."

An Exodus theology is a long road that never ends. But the caravan that travels it embraces with gratitude all God's family.

July-August 1996




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