Tri-lingual Worship Brings Unity

March 5, 2024

Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart has been doing a new thing. For a while now, they have been worshipping in 3 languages.

According to Pastor Quinn, “Prairie Street actually began as a bilingual congregation. An old bulletin from the 1800s lists a schedule of services in English and German. Many years later, we’re returning to our roots by worshipping in the languages of our hearts.” Ten years ago, the church started a Sunday School class where they summarized and discussed the sermon in Spanish. The heart for intercultural worship began to grow from there.

Pastor Quinn, who is bilingual, faced some barriers when the pandemic came. “As pastor, I needed to find a way to offer virtual worship and pastoral care in both English and Spanish. We began a Spanish-language WhatsApp group for all the Spanish-dominant speakers in the congregation, and I sent weekly sermons to the group.” After Covid, the Spanish-speaking group became its own service.

However, the challenge that faced PSMC was how not to capitulate everything toward the dominant culture. Pastor Quinn said, “I called a group of leaders in the congregation together to discuss the question, ‘What would it look like to worship in two languages every week?’ I was skeptical that we’d be able to reconcile our cultural differences without the more entrenched patterns becoming dominant. The leaders worked hard at this.” French speakers also began attending the congregation, and it was a good time to experiment with adding French as a language spoken in worship.  They started with a testing period of worshipping in 3 languages for 2 months, making sure to leave space for feedback. “It really seemed like God was doing something new at Prairie Street,” said Pastor Quinn.

Pastor Quinn described their new format of worship: “The new worship pattern offered space for children, cultures, new leadership, connections, warmth, and joy. We meet for an hour in the sanctuary for ‘vertical’ worship, with a short sermon – everything is said in three languages. Then, we process (and dance!) with music to the Fellowship Hall where we gather at tables designated by language for sharing testimonies, prayer requests, and reflections from the sermon.”

Due to my own scheduling difficulties, I watched the January 14th service online, with a plan to visit in person to see this “worship experiment” for myself.

The service begins with an intercultural ensemble playing prelude music, quiet and meditative. Pastor Quinn starts the service in English and acknowledges those present in body and those present online on this particularly cold and rather hazardous Sunday for Northern Indiana. This is followed by Patty Gorostieta speaking an interpretation in Spanish and Micheline Ilonga speaking another interpretation in French. The opening scripture was Psalm 150, quoted in each language. Speaking in all 3 languages, the congregation recited “Praise the Lord!”

Each person up front seems to know how to break up spoken words in manageable paragraphs to give each other the time to be interpreted. The French and Spanish language interpreters remained up front during the entire service.

The opening hymn was “Come, thou fount” from Voices Together. The sound was a wonderful cacophony of languages. I noted that close to the camera were people singing in French in harmony. As Voices Together does not include the words for the hymn in Spanish or French, they were projected from the front. This was followed by a song of praise in Spanish with the universal word, “Alleluia” sung throughout, loud and strong, with multiple harmonies, hands raised in adoration.

After the three had prayed in their respective languages, they finished with the Lord’s Prayer together, creating a shuffling togetherness of voices.

The reading came from Mark 4:1-9, The Parable of the Sower. The speaker for the Sunday was Carolyn Gardner Hunt, a former pastor at Prairie Street. She started by highlighting the gardening instruments she brought for the visual up front, which seemed a bit difficult to interpret into other languages. Whenever one interpreter would falter, the other was eager to help. I would imagine the sermon part of the service might be the most difficult to interpret.

The offering time was also accompanied with a song, including people dancing to the front with their offerings, a tradition seen in other cultures around the globe. This was followed by the doxology in all 3 languages, once again, in many harmonies.

One observation I made is that interpretation obviously takes time and space. I did not observe impatience, or languages stumbling over one another. I observed grace and patience. I was delighted by how beautiful it was to see different cultures interacting on a Sunday morning, all together in one space, at one time.

Pastor Quinn concluded, “With everything still being so new, we have a lot of work before us, but there’s energy and hope. God is proving to be full of grace as we experiment our way forward.”