By Don Meyer
KENT, WA (June 20, 2011) – “When the day of Pentecost came . . . all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Acts 2:1-4 (TNIV)
That scripture text was no doubt top of mind at Kent Covenant Church a week ago as 32 individuals came forward during worship services, representing 19 countries of origin and 15 languages.
“We took advantage of the Day of Pentecost theme to have everyone born outside the U.S., or who learned a language other than English as their native tongue, to come forward, introduce themselves, name their country and language of origin, and give a greeting in their native tongue,” says Pastor Keith Carpenter of that special Sunday emphasis. And the group did not include representatives of the church’s growing Bhutanese congregation that was engaged in its own Sunday school classes at the time.
“The growing international flavor of our congregation is an encouragement to all of us,” Carpenter said.
The gathering not only reminded congregants of the incredible impact that the Pentecost experience had on people of that earlier time, but also reminded participants of the growing diversity within the community of Kent – population 90,000 – that Carpenter says “is rapidly becoming one of the most diverse cities in the nation when evaluated by the total number of ethnic groups present. It is new immigrants and refugees that are driving this, not significant increases in traditional minorities like African American and Hispanic, although there is some of that, too.”
The Kent School District (KSD) is the fourth largest in the state with more than 27,000 students, but is perhaps the most diverse with more total ethnicities represented than even the Seattle Public School District, the pastor notes. “The KSD has identified students who represent at least 130 original languages,” he adds. “Try finding another school district in the whole country with more than that.”
He also points out that World Relief (International), a group that is perhaps the most active in re-settling refugees, has moved its Seattle office to Kent “because this is where the action is.”
Two years ago, the congregation crafted a vision statement calling for the church “to accept, reflect, and celebrate the ethnic diversity of our community.” The congregation had noticed that people from around the world – new immigrants – were visiting the church, and many of them were staying.
Carpenter recalled a visit by Evangelical Covenant Church President Gary Walter in 2010. During his remarks, Walter defined a multiethnic church as one with more than 20 percent coming from the non-majority ethnicity. “That challenged us to pay a little more attention to numbers, because we knew that the percentage was rising, even if we haven’t quite hit it (the 20 percent level) yet.
“It’s amazing how God honors those intentions,” Carpenter said of the vision commitment, observing that the congregation’s attempts to reach out to the emerging immigrant population was inspired by God – “he was getting us ready for it long before we knew it.”
The Bhutanese community now numbers around 70 individuals. “God sent us a former Nepali pastor/evangelist two years before we ever heard anything about the Bhutanese moving into the Kent area,” Carpenter recalls. “The Bhutanese speak Nepali, so he teaches their Sunday school class and is leading them out of Hinduism to Christ by the dozens. I’ve baptized about 30 of them as new Christians. God literally dropped the Bhutanese people on our doorstep.”
The growth in the international flavor of the congregation began to command more attention and conversation in staff meetings last fall, the pastor says. “We were looking for a way to celebrate the way that God has been adding so many nations to our church, but we wanted to do so in a tasteful way . . . and in a way our international folks would feel honored by. With Pentecost Sunday on the horizon, we saw an opportunity.
“On Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples as they waited in Jerusalem,” he continued to explain. “As a result, they declared God’s praises in the many languages of the people gathered there for the great Jewish Festival of Weeks. Theologians recognize this event as God’s equipping the church with power and boldness for her mission of taking the Good News of Jesus to the whole world – all the nations – as Jesus had outlined in his comments recorded in Matthew 28 – the Great Commission. So, we decided this was the perfect opportunity to call attention to the many nations that God has been bringing to Kent Covenant.”
Nationalities of those who came forward included Tanzanian, Haitian, Congolese, Sudanese, Philippino, Russian, Vietnamese, Nepali, Iranian, Burmese, Indian, Iranian, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Korean, Mexican, Costa Rican, and Austrian.
Kent Covenant seeks to integrate the Bhutanese worshipers into the congregation, currently following a schedule of the first Sunday of each month. Audio systems are in place for translation of the services. The other Sundays of the month the Bhutanese meet for their own Sunday school sessions at 9:30 a.m. Church-owned and private vans are used to make the seven-to-eight trips each Sunday to nearby apartment complexes where they live.
The church also shares its facilities with a Chin-Burmese church, a Karen-Burmese church, and a Hispanic church.
“We call ourselves a missional church,” Carpenter says. “Being missional means taking your immediate vicinity seriously and reaching out with the Good News of Jesus in love and service. To use the language of the Book of Acts, Kent is our Jerusalem. We can’t overlook it. We believe in taking the Good News to all the nations – as Christ commanded us to do – and God is giving us enormous opportunities by bringing so many of the nations to us.”
The congregation reaches out to the Kent community in other ways as well, from offering English as a second language classes to providing benevolent assistance.
“A lot of what we’re doing is the ministry of hospitality, which the Bible commands us to carry out,” he adds. “In the Old Testament, it is part of the rubric about how we treat the ‘alien’ in our land. We also are adding to the kaleidoscope of nations that make up God’s kingdom – those who will gather around the throne of God in heaven – and we know he wants all the nations there.
“But, is also is a huge blessing to us at Kent Covenant. We’re fulfilling several of the important purposes for which God’s church – and our church – exists. It’s a huge blessing to us.”