Immigrant Congregations Bring Diverse Worship to the Lutheran Midwest

Image: Wing Young Huie

Article by Allison Adrian. Adrian specializes in ethnomusicology and musicology at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She recently served as a Fulbright Scholar in Ecuador where she studied how migration and globalization have influenced indigenous music-making in the Andes. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

We used to dance to kings but now we are dancing to God,” explains Omot Ochan, the worship leader for the Anuak service at Christ Lutheran Church, near St. Paul, Minnesota.

The music at his church begins as a high-pitched offering, a young woman’s ethereal voice floating through the sanctuary, before meeting a fervent response from congregants and the rhythms of three drums. Most of the parishioners at the service were refugees from the Gambela region in western Ethiopia, which borders South Sudan. Now, they live out their faith in the Midwestern suburbs, surprised to find empty church buildings in a country they once assumed was overwhelmingly Christian.

In the United States, the two largest US Lutheran bodies—the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)­­­ are around 95 percent white, and the denomination is slowly in decline in the Global North. But Lutheran membership in the Global South is growing. As of 2016, the largest Lutheran bodies are found in Tanzania and Ethiopia; they now rank ahead of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the US.

The revivalist spirit of these Lutheran newcomers is often expressed in a most Lutheran way—music. As Martin Luther himself once said, “Music is next to theology.”

In another Minneapolis suburb, Sudanese Lutherans sing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” in the Nuer language, accompanied by a resonant drum. This rendition of the denomination’s most famous hymn is hardly reconcilable with its German predecessor, proof that even the most eminent songs can be reproduced in profoundly different ways.

One God, Many Traditions

I set out more than ten years ago to answer a few questions: What can immigrants and refugees teach us about Christianity in the United States and globally? More locally, what does it feel like to be Lutheran and an immigrant in Minnesota? What does the music at immigrant congregations reveal about the history of religious journeys?

I visited churches with congregations from Tanzania, Laos, Liberia, Cambodia, China, Sudan, and Ethiopia, all within a roughly 30-mile radius of Minneapolis and St. Paul. By attending almost 20 churches that did not worship in English, I learned that the music differs dramatically from church to church. It’s impossible to even try to connect it, even though the congregations exist just a few miles from one another and all self-identify as Lutheran.

Some worshipers hail from countries with Christian histories that stretch back centuries. They grew up singing in Lutheran choirs in their homeland, as their ancestors did. Those from countries with a longstanding history of European colonization or mission work, like Tanzania, carry with them the most obvious signs of European musical influence.

The Swahili congregation at Minneapolis’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church might sing in precise four-part harmonies, for example. But its music is also distinctively Tanzanian: The lyrics are in Swahili, sung in a call-and-response form common across many sub-Saharan African music, and accompanied by a drum and shakers.

Some congregations I visited had never sung in a group before arriving in the US, like the Lutherans of the Khmer Choir at Christ Lutheran on Capitol Hill in St. Paul. There was little in the way of group singing as a cultural practice in Cambodia, though music itself has always been highly valued.

Bun Leoung, a celebrated Cambodian musician who co-directed the choir, was spared by the Khmer Rouge, which outlawed religion in the 1970s, because of his talent on the tro khmer (fiddle). He converted to Lutheranism in the US and played the tro with the Khmer choir until he passed away. The choir’s favorite hymns are an unusual combination of folk tunes and harvest songs, accompanied by both the piano and the tro.

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Source: Christianity Today