Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, NY, prides itself on welcoming worshippers from all walks of life. This extends most particularly to its acceptance (and indeed performance) of gay marriage and its widely international congregation, a significant fraction of whom are not fluent English speakers. The diversity of the church members was celebrated at the beginning of the service where we exchanged a 'Good morning' with the paster in Mandarin (Zao Shang Hao), French (Bonjour), Burmese (Ming Gulava), Chin (Na Dam Ma), Spanish (Buenos Dias), Karen (Gaw Ler Gay), Kerenni (Teh Rya Beh Thee) and Nepalese (Namaste).
… And incase anyone like me was forced to reach for google after looking at that list, Karen and Kerenni are spoken by a group of people living in the south of Berma. Berma shares a border with China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh. It is not infeasible I had to also check that second fact.
However, I couldn't help thinking --as I scanned the pews-- that this highly diverse greeting was wasted on the people around me who were predominantly white American. Was this a case of laying the table and hoping that the well known Kerenni speakers of northern New York state pour in? I'd noticed there were a lot of churches in Rochester, but this niche seemed a bit of a long shot.
But by the time we were half an hour in, the demographic had changed; families with black hair, brown hair, blonde hair and red hair, of all different ages and tones of skin had filled out the pews. Ideas of punctuality (and perhaps the driving of the church bus) appeared to vary as vastly as language choice. In fact I was to later learn that this congregation was smaller than usual; daylight saving does nobody any favours but at least most of the absent had the excuse of language. Afterall, the idea there might be a Government backed mandate to STEAL AN HOUR OF YOUR LIFE in March is hard to anticipate.
… is that not how it works? Felt like it this morning.
With the pastor announcing three times that the adult education class on race and ethnicity would begin promptly at 11:30 that morning, one had to conclude start times were problematically open to interpretation. A fact that extended to the publication of the notice sheet which had the same class listed as 11:45 pm.
Quite aside from that, may I say right now that Burmese children, with their Asian black hair and eyes and tanned skin, are frankly adorable? This sentiment was probably reinforced (if not created) by the fact they arrived late and then left shortly afterwards to go to Sunday School elsewhere in the church. Before they departed, the associate pastor led the 'Children's Worship' whose topic was the same as the main sermon; The Prodigal Son.
As the children confirmed, this parable is well known. A feckless whelp of a boy demands his inheritance from his father and disappears off to a life of partying (activity provided by the child audience; probably from one who was anticipating turning 4 years old real soon). Having spent all his cash in an irresponsible and stupid fashion, the son is forced to suck up his own mistakes and work on a pig farm for scraps of food he barely deserves.
and PIGS ARE NO FUN! (Helpful calibration point provided during the children's sermon incase anyone thought that did sound rather good)
Finally acknowledging that he was a idiotic twerp, the boy returns home to beg for work on his father's farm as a servant. Upon seeing the worthless spawn who had left him for dead for a life of debauchery, the father runs out to greet him, demands his servants hold a huge party (clearly knowing his son's perchance for such activities), dress him in robes and rings and kill the fatted calf. The older son who has experienced no such party life style is exceedingly pissed off and gets fobbed off by the promise of being able to inherit his father's hard working lifestyle when he dies.
The pastor asked us all who we identified with more: the piggy scum of a prodigal son, the father or the older sibling. (Slight paraphrasing in progress.)
In case anyone was in any doubt based on my re-telling of this famous religious story, I SYMPATHISE WITH THE OLDER SIBLING.
Slapping it into the context of the day, Jesus told this story as a mirror to the attitude of the religious leaders who were angry that Jesus was hanging with the sinners of the town for dinner.
Prior to this morning, I had never had much sympathy with those said religious bods. They seemed a stuffy bunch, more interested in bashing scrolls that actually applying any of the good that they preached. However, having thought the matter through carefully in right-hand side of the penultimate pew, I realised THEY HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE ANNOYED!
Let's take a step back and assess the situation: these people have dedicated their EVERY WAKING MINUTE to God. They have given up career plans of ballet dancing, Formula One racing and pimping for one of fasting, studying-without-macbooks and uncomfortable hair growth.
Then MIRACLE UPON MIRACLE! It all pays off! The promised Son of God appears not only in their lifetime, but right there in their town!
Then he goes and hangs out with the scum who have just been making like Uncle Scrooge of Ducktails in his money bath.
WOULDN'T YOU BE A TAD MIFFED?
TEAM OLDER SON. I'm getting a tee-shirt made up.
Having thoroughly digested the sermon, I paused on my way out of the church to use the bathroom. Pinned on the wall of the cubicle was a notice that not only demonstrated the problems with a congregation with a language barrier but utilised a technique familiar with my own teaching in Japan: Use pictures. Keep the words few and simple. No. In. That goes for nappies and possibly religious messages.