Mauricio Rodriguez uses the word family to describe the people of Angelus Temple. He still remembers the smiles and hugs he and his mother and sisters received at the Los Angeles church when they first arrived in 1988 as immigrants fleeing a civil war in Nicaragua. They went to the church because they needed food. The Angelus Temple gave food away as part of a ministry started during the Great Depression by Aimee Semple McPherson, the famed revivalist who founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
He’s been thinking about that a lot, as The Foursquare Church, which adopted multilingual ministry in its early years and has long advocated for multicultural leadership, is now for the first time hiring a diversity advocate to work on the denominational level. Rodriguez held the position in 2019, when it began as a one-year assignment.
“There are opportunities that God is placing right in front of us,” Rodriguez said. “In the same way that I was welcomed when I came as a three-year-old boy who didn’t understand I was an immigrant and didn’t understand the language, love overcomes language barriers and anything if we would just truly love people the way God has loved us.”
For one year, Rodriguez identified challenges for people from different language and ethnic groups starting Foursquare churches in the US.
There are ministers from 74 nations, speaking 33 different primary languages, in the US denomination. There are also 477 immigrant congregations that operate as ministries of established Foursquare churches. Leadership expects to launch 200 more in 2020.
“It’s easy to create a process through a lens of administration,” Rodriguez said. “The perspective changes when you go to those you are called to serve. One of the key factors of my role was not to go and talk to our licensing coordinators or district administrators or staff but to go to the field and hear [pastors’] perspectives.”
Several common challenges emerged in the assessment of the licensing process. For one thing, it takes place mostly online. That can be difficult for pastors coming from different cultures, said Dan Cho, who joined Rodriguez in the interviews with pastors in September.
“They come from nations where they don’t trust putting their personal information on a website,” Cho said, “or letting the government even know about that information because of persecution.”
They didn’t always feel empowered by the “self-driven” online process. Many of their cultures emphasize community over the US values of individualism and efficiency.
Some words and concepts in English also don’t translate well. A bivocational Nepali pastor was confused by an application question about how many hours he spent “doing ministry.” The pastor, who is also a health care provider, found the concept of bivocational ministry hard to comprehend. He told Rodriguez he views his role in health care as a part of his ministry too.
“I never even thought about that question,” Rodriguez said. “I found myself saying, ‘Yeah, we are all doing ministry wherever we are.’ ”
Rodriguez finished his one-year assignment in December. He and Cho presented their findings and recommendations to Foursquare’s executive leadership the first week of January, and the church decided to make the position of diversity advocate permanent. Cho was appointed to the job.
Rodriguez’s assignment was part of a larger effort within The Foursquare Church to respond to historic demographic changes in the US—the Census Bureau predicts the country will be majority nonwhite by the year 2044—and continue its legacy of welcoming and sharing the gospel across lines of language, culture, and ethnicity. The Pentecostal denomination has a long history of multiculturalism, going back to when it offered Sunday school classes in Spanish, Japanese, and German in 1925.
“It is not something new to us,” said Emily Plater, who was appointed last year to oversee North American missions, including US multicultural ministries. “We sometimes have to remember that is an important part of us . . . since our very founding.”
In September 2018, The Foursquare Church hosted a summit to refocus on diversity. About 70 denominational leaders gathered at Foursquare’s central office in Los Angeles to discuss the theological significance of the idea of diversity and the denomination’s commitments to supporting different communities.
“It is a cultural conversation right now—a broader one in the United States—but the reality is that it’s really an ancient, biblical conversation,” Plater said. “When I think about diversity in the context of what we’re doing as a church and a denomination, it is a practical, pragmatic way to talk about and evaluate our absolute commitment to giving access to the gospel for everybody.”
Recent attention to immigration only emphasized the need to take intentional steps to welcome people from all over the world and encourage racial and cultural diversity, denominational leaders said.
“God is bringing the world to America,” said Huey Hudson, chair of the church’s board of directors and senior pastor of Restoration Foursquare Church in Madison, Alabama. “We have to find ways to include people of different races and cultures and ethnicities into what God is doing in America.”
The denomination has also brought on an immigration attorney, Debra Valladares, to help immigrants in the church navigate the legal complexities of the US system.
The Foursquare Church is entering a time of transition. In the fall, Randy Remington will succeed Glenn Burris Jr. as the denomination’s president. The new leadership is expected to continue the focus on diversity, though.
“The support behind this project from our senior leadership has been extremely refreshing,” Cho said. “Nothing is off the table, which is pretty astounding to me that a denomination that’s been licensing people for decades and decades is willing to say, ‘Everything is on the table. You can look at it. If something doesn’t make sense, you can change it.’ ”
Rodriguez thinks that’s what it means to care for people as if they were family.
He left the US after his one-year assignment, returning to Nicaragua to run a nonprofit ministry for young mothers called Tree of Life ’84. But he is hopeful the denomination will continue to welcome and serve pastors from every tribe, tongue, and nation in the same way the people of Angelus Temple welcomed his family more than 30 years ago.
“The church should just care for people and love them, just like God meets us where we are,” Rodriguez said. “We in the denomination are going to be moving forward and meeting people where they are as they come and reach people in this nation.”
Lanie Anderson is a writer and seminary student in Oxford, Mississippi.
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