WORTHINGTON — In 1873, when Swedish immigrants started a rural church just south of Worthington — where services were conducted in Swedish through the 1920s — they never could have imagined that nearly 150 years after its founding, the halls would echo with a different language once again.
It’s not a Scandinavian language, nor even a European language, but Karen, the language of many modern southwest Minnesotan immigrants and one that, most likely, those Swedes would have never even heard of.
That church, Indian Lake Baptist, is one of 13 churches in Worthington and Bigelow (out of 18 that were approached) that hosts non-English-speaking services in their church buildings. Of those 13 churches, three host more than one language, and two, Abundant Life Tabernacle and the Bigelow Asian-American Christian Reformed Church, are fully bilingual (in Spanish and Lao, respectively). One other church, Grace Community, is pursuing adding a Spanish service in the near future.
As for Indian Lake, it is “somewhere between two completely separate congregations and one unified one,” explained Pastor Jonathan Larson, whose roots go deep in Indian Lake’s history. “We are not one perfectly united multi-ethnic congregation — we’re a mix.”
It was 10 years ago, following the ICE raid in Worthington, that the Karen began moving to Worthington in greater numbers. From the start, church members at Indian Lake were helpful and welcoming to these new community members.
“People at Indian Lake reached out to the Karen to help them adjust to life in Worthington,” Larson said. “Because of that connection, the Karen asked if they could begin meeting in our church building.”
The Karen can trace their Baptist roots way back to famous 19th century missionary Adoniram Judson. Joining up with a Baptist church just made sense.
“Initially, when they came to Indian Lake, people thought they’d have a fully bilingual service with translation,” Larson continued. “But services were very long, and soon it became an English service at 10:30 and Karen at 12. We hope we will continue to become more and more multi-ethnic.”
Becoming fully bilingual is difficult for churches, with service length being one issue but also the need for congregants to worship in their “heart language.”
Lah Sae Say, who has attended Indian Lake and the Karen service since its inception in 2009, further explained the importance of having a worship service in her own language.
“Because a lot of Karen people grew up here, they don’t know how to speak their own language,” Say said. “Having church in their own language helps the new generation to remember their own language.”
When she is able, Say attends both the English church service and the Karen service.
“I really like to go because the people are nice and they welcome us,” Say enthused. “I like the drive out there and the views, too.”
Pastor Larson, who has been serving at Indian Lake since 2011, is often asked to be a part of the Karen “Thanksgiving Services,” which take place a couple of times a month in Karen homes to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries or other memorable moments. There he will give a message and a full-fledged worship service takes place right there in congregants’ homes. This in-home connection is a vital part of Indian Lake’s English and Karen connection.
“I like Pastor Larson because he is a good pastor,” Say disclosed. “He is available almost all of the time, and he comes to our Thanksgiving Service and gives the message at our house.”
Another important connection between the two congregations is the worship team, which is often led by the Karen.
“The Karen are very involved in music, very generous of their time, very generous in prayer,” Larson expounded. “They lead in praise songs with guitars, drums, piano, and very often six or seven youth will accompany on violin, trombone, etc. Even the children will sing with the team. It is a blessing to see the intergenerational connectedness.”
Another blessing that came with the Karen has been the fact that it has saved the church from, conceivably, closing.
“Indian Lake Church was once in a booming agricultural community,” said Larson. “It wasn’t a huge church, but neither was it tiny or struggling. Over time, with farms getting larger and people moving, the young people were no longer attending. The coming of the Karen has revitalized the church with the coming of the young people.”
Another church which has greatly benefited from an incoming people/group is the former Christian Reformed Church in Bigelow, where for 30 years, Lao speakers and English speakers have worshipped together on Sunday mornings.
“Everyone is together for two sermons,” explained Pastor Ron Lammers. “We have announcements in both languages, then preaching in English, then we worship together and then we stay together for a sermon in Lao. The kids stay up to the Lao sermon and then go to Sunday School.”
“Approximately 50 Lao attend the service and 10 Caucasians,” said Lammers.
Shirley Dykstra has been there from the start.
“When our church changed to Bigelow Asian-American Christian Reformed Church from just Bigelow CRC, many of the Asian people were already dear to us,” Dykstra said. “It was declared a mission church, and we already loved the people and the outreach. God just brought the people to us. We felt led to stay.”
Dykstra admits that it was a bit of a challenge to teach Sunday School in those early years.
“My teaching background helped with the challenging task of teaching Bible stories to children who at first did not understand me, or I them,” she said. “Later, it became easier after they had been to school for a while. Without Pastor Lammers’ ability to learn their language, I am not sure the church would have flourished.”
As at Indian Lake, shared worship time is a special time for Dykstra.
“We sing the same songs, just in our own languages, and the Lord sorts that out,” she said. “At one point we sang the same song but there were five languages — how cool is that? Even if we don’t understand their sermon, we are still edified by praising the Lord together.”
In addition to the English and Lao speakers, there are a few Vietnamese and Karen speakers who attend the Bigelow church, and there were so many Spanish speakers that they began their own service there on Sunday afternoons. That group, made up primarily of immigrants from Guatemala, has recently bought the old Faith Christian High School building in Bigelow. They are repurposing the gym for their sanctuary and should have seating for 500 people by summer.
Other Spanish services are hosted in Worthington at Church of the Brethren, Westminster Presbyterian, Solid Rock Assembly, Emmanuel Methodist (in conjunction with First United Methodist), First Evangelical Lutheran (which also hosts an Ethiopian Orthodox service) and — of course — St. Mary’s Catholic Church, with 900 to 1,200 at Sunday morning Mass and another 250 to 350 at Saturday evening Mass.
One other church, Grace Community, has been talking about reaching the Latino community for the past seven years.
“We are called by Jesus to reach all nations, to be churches of all nations,” said Grace’s Senior Pastor, Scott Barber. “A Spanish ministry makes sense demographically here in Worthington.”
Barber related that in 2017, after focused prayer and seeking the Lord about reaching the community, the church leaders discerned that God gave them a pathway forward. Grace hopes that it will eventually have two separate services in English and Spanish but that they will be one church, one family.
“We will begin to incorporate different cultural expressions into our Sunday services,” Barber elaborated. “All of our ministries will become more bilingual before we have one full-fledged Spanish service. We acknowledge that we don’t know exactly what we’re stepping in to, despite all the reading and research we’ve done. It will be messy and uncomfortable at times, but Jesus didn’t come seeking his own comfort — he came and he died because it was worth it.”
Other churches that host weekly services include Christian Reformed Church (Lao and Anuak), Living Waters Covenant (Karen), and Worthington Christian Church, which has hosted an Ethiopian service for 10 years. St. Matthew’s has a Sudanese service one time a month. Most of the services are unaffiliated with the host church’s denomination.