One of the perks of working for Crosslight is that we can venture out of our office to visit churches throughout the synod. Along with great stories of programs and initiatives undertaken by church members, most of us return with tales of slices, cakes and scones that typify the hospitality of church communities.
So it was a little surprising to share lunch with the congregation at Melbourne’s suburban Deepdene and enjoy an amazing seaweed soup with optional chili infused cabbage.
For the past decade, Deepdene Uniting Church has worked hard to build a truly intercultural congregation.
Joan Cooper is co-chair of the church council. She explained that about 10 years ago Deepdene was facing a concern common to many Anglo-churches throughout Australia. While a beautiful old building might be lovely to look at, with a small congregation of aging members, the church faced an uncertain future.
“We decided that we couldn’t continue to go on our own but we didn’t just want to join with anybody and do what we had always done,” Joan said.
“We wanted to be church in a new kind of way. And leave something for the future.
“That was the feeling of the 80 year olds; it was too late for them but they wanted something to leave for the young people.”
Many options were considered. Talks began about merging with other churches, but negotiations fell through. As Joan explained, it was important to the congregation to explore ‘different’ ways of being church, rather than merge and continue as before.
Barbara Herbert is sitting next to Joan and explains that, at the time, her church, with a large Korean congregation, was in the enviable position of being too full.
“At Hawthorn South we were sitting on a very valuable piece of land and didn’t have the money to do up the facilities and maintain the church,” Barbara said.
“When Hawthorn South was closed in 2003, we said we wanted to continue to worship with the Korean community and worship in English. So it seemed a sensible thing to come here and pool our resources.”
Joan explained the congregation already had a strong connection with the Korean community, as many of the church’s overseas missions were based in Korea.
“We thought that working in a multi-cultural congregation might be the new thing that God was calling us to do,” Joan said.
“We decided that we could all work together and become one church, which is what we have done.”
Mijung Konakov (MJ) is a church co-secretary. The young mother said the sense of family the church offers is just one of the reasons Deepdene UC is important to her. MJ explained that she had tried a few different churches, some exclusively Anglo, others Korean, but never really felt she belonged.
Then a friend invited her to attend the women’s prayer group at Deepdene.
“After finishing the prayer she asked me how I felt. I told her ‘it’s so wonderful I feel like I have sisters back’,” MJ said.
“I was missing my family, my brothers and sisters because I am one of five children.
“The following week I attended the church and felt I had found a new family.
“The wonderful thing was that in other churches the service was either only in English or only in Korean, but this church displayed English and Korean at the same time.
“And we sing the hymns to the same tune at the same time in both Korean and English. So we sing together. This really made me so happy and I thought ‘I’m one of them – I belong in this church’.”
One of the most important aspects of church life for MJ is the Halmonie group – Halmonie is Korean for grandmother.
“We are just a young family and we don’t have grandma and grandpa here,” MJ said.
“But the Halmonie group said ‘I can be your grandma, you are my grandson, my different-face grandson’.
Sitting in the church hall on a sunny winter day, it is easy to see the benefits of an intercultural church. Table groups chat over lunch, soup for most while some prefer sandwiches. Squealing children play chasey around the tables, pots and pans clatter in the kitchen as meals are prepared and dishes washed, a birthday cake is presented for three members – ‘Happy Birthday’ is sung for a child, a teen and a woman in her 80s.
While there is an undeniable sense of community in the church hall, becoming truly intercultural has not been without its challenges. The congregation is predominantly Korean and Anglo, but also includes members from Samoan, Columbian, Taiwanese and Chinese backgrounds.
Speaking with church members, it is obvious that a lot of hard work has gone into breaking down the ‘silo’ mentality that can exist in some intercultural congregations. Deepdene is determined that all members belong to one congregation and not be broken into ‘Anglo’ and ‘Korean’, with ‘others’ somewhere in between.
As Barbara explained, as well as the obvious language barrier, cultural expectations have proved challenging.
“One difference is the hierarchical system in the Korean church,” Barbara said.
“We have to be aware of that. It can be quite shocking for a lot of our Korean members to hear us calling Jacob, our minister, Jacob. They feel we should address him with a title.
“Also, we suggested having names tags, but the Korean people said that’s not what they do. Their anglicised names would be more descriptive – ‘Sue is Sarah’s mother’ or something like that.”
One way the church has overcome the language barrier is to sing all hymns in both Korean and English, with translations projected on a screen. Barbara explained that while this works well with the older hymns, it limits the songs they can share as a community. Most of the hymns the Koreans use stem from the days of church missionaries. Barbara would like to see synod funding made available to translate Together in Song for non-English speaking groups.
Deepdene church council recently voted to hold alternate meetings this year in Korean, with all meetings translated. To support this change, church council elected office bearers who speak the two languages: co-chairpersons Joan Cooper and Sue Yang, and co-secretaries Mijung Konakov and Anthony Cooper.
Not only will this give Korean-speaking council members more confidence in meetings, it will ensure council will be able to better use the talents of all its members.
While language and cultural differences might present difficulties, MJ suggests that perhaps the most pressing challenge facing Deepdene is one most churches wish they had – a growing congregation.
“There is a generation span which is actually a bigger problem than cultural differences,” MJ said.
“We have a lot of the Anglos who are 80 or 90, and ages range from the grandmas down to a one-year-old baby, so we have all generations. This can be difficult or it can be a strength.”
The generational diversity means that decisions must be made when upgrading facilities such as the toilets – do they spend money on disability access or baby change-rooms?
While issues concerning church facilities and buildings are discussed, it is clear that having younger church members brings unexpected benefits. Tasks that are often difficult for an older congregation to undertake no longer present a problem.
Entering the kitchen, Joan’s husband John stands with a young Korean man and literally slaps him on the back.
“The sink was blocked and he was able to fix it,” John said. “He’s just saved us a fortune in plumber’s fees.”