The language of God’s love
Houston’s International Corps
Cecilia Dube smiles widely as she surveys the rainbow of people filing into the Houston International Corps, a church family comprising 26 different nationalities and 16 languages.
“It reminds me of what it’s going to be like in heaven, where everybody of all nationalities will be there,” says Dube, a native of Zimbabwe.
Nestled among several apartment complexes in the Southern Territory’s Houston, Texas, one of America’s most diverse cities, the corps opened a new $8.3–million building last April with a joyous service and ribbon–cutting ceremony.
Commissioner Barry C. Swanson, territorial commander, says the Eastern Territory is “exploring that particular model of ministry.
“I’ve heard about it for a number of years; I’ve met the officers and I was quite taken with their vision for ministry,” Swanson says. “They’ve been able to accomplish what very few churches have accomplished and that is to have a truly multicultural expression of ministry—in one congregation. It’s pretty rare when you find that.”
Swanson sent Lt. Colonels Cheryl A. and Kenneth W. Maynor, territorial secretary for communications and territorial program secretary, to Houston last year to see the corps and to share their findings.
Swanson said, “My idea was, what can we learn? What are they doing that we could do where we are? What could other Salvationists do in their communities and in similar situations?”
The answer is—plenty.
“It just began to grow,” Flanagan says. “They will have over 250 strong here on a Sunday.”
The new chapel will seat 450 people. The corps also has a large fellowship hall and kitchen; a gym; an education wing, including a library and computer lab; and a music and performing arts area. The 10–acre site also includes a soccer field behind the building.
“[The corps] is going to have a great impact in this community,” Flanagan says, “an even bigger impact than it’s already having.”
From many, one
Each week, sermons from Captains Stephen and Sujung Na, corps officers, are delivered in English. But then everyone reports to Sunday school, where Korean, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese are spoken.
“The worship is in English because they’re trying to emphasize ‘many languages, but one voice.’ That is just a beautiful expression of what our city is about,” Flanagan says. “Houston is a very diverse city. This is just a great example of that.”
The Nas are Korean and the corps includes several people who speak Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Indonesian.
While the relations between those countries are sometimes challenging, “Their people blend here very well,” Flanagan says.
The corps also has a large African contingent, including worshipers from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Ghana. The Spanish–speaking congregants come from Panama, Cuba, El Salvador, as well as from many other countries.
“It’s been unique how all of them have come and blended together, and yet they still represent their cultures,” Flanagan says, noting that many wear clothing from their home countries.
Bring them in
The Nas said their vision has always been to reach out and to have a “community church.” That has already started with outreach to one elementary school.
“We want to reach out to all different ethnicities around here,” says Captain Stephen Na. “There is a lot of need in this area for after–school programs.”
The corps is surrounded by apartment buildings, which the Nas see as ripe for the harvest.
“Every Saturday, we go out and knock on doors,” Captain Stephen says. “They are very receptive. They welcome us. We want our church to be a magnet. We expect the chapel will overflow.”
The corps also offers a food pantry, computer classes, Tae Kwon Do, soccer, and basketball.
Captain Sujung said the kitchen would be used for fellowship, which is extremely important in many cultures. The past buildings were small. Missing was a fellowship hall where people could eat together on special occasions.
“We could not actually sit together and eat and have fellowship,” she says. “We had to sit on the floor or in classrooms. But this is perfect.”
‘We are one family’
It’s clear that the soldiers of the corps agree on the mission. They commonly use the word “family” in describing the corps.
Katherine Diaz, whose parents came from Honduras and El Salvador, has attended the corps for three years. She is an usher and helps with Sunday school and considers the corps a “blessing.”
Diaz said the corps is going to bless the area.
“We get the opportunity to meet new people and extend the Gospel,” she says. “God has placed us here for that reason. We’re excited about what God has in store for us.”
Jesus Soriano, who hails from Mexico City, has been coming for four years and helps teach Tae Kwon Do, among many other responsibilities.
“It’s so exciting to have all of these countries together,” he says. “We are one family. My hope is that many people around this area come and join us to praise the Lord.”
Christine Andal, who is from the Philippines, has been coming to the corps for three years. A teacher, she is involved in everything from Home League to the food pantry to teaching computer classes and toddlers.
“I like the diversity and the peace I feel here,” she says. “It’s like home.”
Obot Ekwere, a native of Nigeria, has been attending since 2003. She sings in the choir and teaches Corp Cadets, but it’s the spirit of the place that she loves.
“For me to come in here and have an opportunity to worship with people of different nationalities, it makes me see how heaven will be,” she says. “Everybody is the same in the eyes of God. The way we are here, we are like one big happy family.”
Ekwere also has high hopes for the corps.
“We are going to influence this community,” she says. “I am believing that God is going to use me to leave a legacy for this generation.”
Dube, who has been attending the corps since 2008, agreed. She sings in the choir, teaches children, and is the Home League chaplain.
“My hope is to bring all people closer to God in the community and for the soldiers to really know God and to have a closer relationship with Him,” she says.
Swanson said the Houston International Corps model could work “everywhere in [the Eastern Territory].”
“Everywhere I go, I see mixed cultures,” he says. “I see multiethnic communities. I see just a spectrum of groups of people.”
While the Salvation Army’s social services programs reach a diverse group of people, on Sunday morning, the congregations tend to be largely white, Swanson said.
Reaching the world
“Given the diversity of the communities, I think there is room to improve on that,” Swanson says. “I think if we were more sensitized, if we were more aware, if we could do something different than we’re doing now, I think we might see different results and attract more people.”
Swanson said the goal is not just to grow church attendance, but also to “really reach more people for Christ and be more effective in proclaiming the Gospel.”
He has been emphasizing unity in the territory.
“That is the kingdom of God,” Swanson says. “That’s the essence of the Gospel: Jesus loves everyone, Jesus died for everyone and it’s a universal offering. We have to take care in our presentation and we have to take care within our organization that we too are open to all people.
“When you look at The Salvation Army, if we’re doing our job right, you should see all nationalities and all cultures.”
Swanson said that every community in the Eastern Territory has a high level of diversity that needs to be grasped.
“Some people see [diversity] as a problem,” he says. “Other people see it as a great opportunity. I think that the people in Houston see it as a great opportunity to build unity, not only within their church, but within the social fabric.”
Swanson said he would like to extract the best principles from what the Houston International Corps has learned to make the Eastern Territory more effective.
“We’re not here to change people culturally or socially,” Swanson says. “That’s not the point. We’re here to celebrate the various cultures, and that’s all wonderful, but it doesn’t mean we have to be apart from each other.
“Apparently in Houston, they’ve figured that out and God is blessing them in a unique way.”
by Robert Mitchell