On the subject of churches and Spanish speakers, we visited a lovely church when we were in Chattanooga. Friends from Gracia y Paz had told us about New City East Lake, a diverse Presbyterian congregation in Chattanooga’s East Lake neighborhood, which from what I can tell has been over the years mostly white—my mom wondered if it was the same building she went to church in as a little girl; then black; and is now an increasingly Latino neighborhood.
Their building is a beautiful, old, mostly-but-not-fully renovated Methodist Episcopal church, with a simple sanctuary that retains its yellow stained glass windows, lending a beautiful sunny glow to the place. I really liked the atmosphere. (OK, don’t judge me for judging other people, but these were my impressions.) The congregation was majority white, fairly young, with a kind of preppy, southern, but still a bit crunchy feel—which seems like standard Chattanooga to me, and kind of feels like Charlottesville, which may be why I felt so comfortable. But then they had a solid number of black parishioners, numerous interracial couples (holler!), and a sizable group of hispanics, most of whom we learned are Guatemalan. That was the group I was interested in.
Those Spanish speakers used headphones with simultaneous translation (the reverse of our church, where there’s translation into English for the non-Spanish speakers, i.e. me). At various points in the service, Spanish was spoken. When it happened, without warning, I was surprised at how moved I felt . . . that a congregation whose majority did not need it, gave some time for a few people to be able to hear a prayer, a greeting, a song in their “heart language.” I kept my head down and tried to be subtle about dabbing the tears in my eyes.
At such times I wish I had a big name tag explaining, “I’M PREGNANT” to excuse my red face and erratic emotional behavior, and also bad driving. In a sweet way, though, those moments at New City East Lake showed me what a long way I’ve come in identifying with hispanics. Going to our church, I became the minority probably for the first time. The awkwardness and embarrassment that I experience once a week with my fumbling Spanish is what many immigrants face daily, and I respect their courage enormously.
But, what I actually wanted to get to in this post were the visual/design elements I noticed in particular. It seemed like the church consciously chose things to create a welcoming space for all their members, wherever they’re from.
The first I saw was the cross, which looked to be made of steel or tin (some kind of metal) with candles. It immediately reminded me of the Mexican aesthetic (punched tin, candle altars), though much simpler. You could also argue it as a nod to Chattanooga’s industrial history. Am I over interpreting this?? Amateur art historian alert!
Then, when communion bread was passed, I noticed the lovely simple cloth napkins they used. They have to be Guatemalan, or something, right? Yes, I should’ve been thinking about JC, but I noticed the napkins.
The baskets for the offering also looked like they had a story. A lot more interesting than stodgy old collection plates, I say.
I think the vibrant baskets only worked so well because, as a whole, the place was simple and light-filled.
In my mind—again I’m way over-thinking this, probably—it was such a nice combination of design elements. The old reclaimed church, the crisp white interior, a couple punches of color, the simple beautiful cross lit by simple white candles. It was enough to please the crunchiest of yuppies and the freshest of immigrants, not to mention the spanglish-speaking, bright-color-loving, whitest-of-white person that I am.
Have you ever been to a multicultural church, or other group like that? I think it’s hugely challenging to pull off, and the visuals are probably the least of your problems! But symbols and appearance matter, and in this case they seemed to be a reflection of the church’s deeper values and commitments. Visit them if you’re in Chatta-vegas!