What’s the Evangelical Covenant Church? “An Immigrant Church”

Covenant pastors in 1889
A group of Swedish Mission Covenant pastors, ca. 1889 – Covenant Archives and Historical Library

In my day job as a history professor, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week investigating the experience of immigrants during World War I. And since most of the faculty and students at Bethel in 1917-18 were either born in Sweden themselves or the children or grandchildren of such immigrants, I’ve also been thinking about my own Swedish ancestors and how their religious preferences continue to shape me.

If I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I’m a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church to a large degree because my mother grew up in the ECC. Indeed, my children’s attendance at Salem Covenant Church extends to a sixth generation a family legacy that goes back to Great-Great-Grandpa Peterson, who had surely been influenced by the 19th century pietistic evangelical revival that birthed the Mission Covenant in Sweden and then the U.S.

Sure, I had the chance to explore other traditions while I was in college and grad school. But at least part of the reason I joined a well-established Covenant congregation when I returned to Minnesota is that it felt like home: like the Peterson family, many people at Salem eat potato sausage and (one hasty bite of) lutefisk in December, drink coffee in the summer, have fun at the expense of Norwegians, and can sing at least part of one verse of “Children of the Heavenly Father” in Lina Sandell’s original Swedish. (Sorry, “Tryggare kan ingen vara.”)

As a stealth Swede (“Gehrz-quist,” my colleague GW Carlson jokingly renamed me when I was hired at Bethel), I’m still tempted to answer the question “What’s the Evangelical Covenant Church?” with this ethnic origin story.

And yes, some version of the phrase “Founded in 1885 by Swedish immigrants” appears at many individual Covenant church websites (including ours), as it does at the identity page for the denomination’s site. (And in Gary Walter’s presidential address at the ECC’s annual meeting last month.)

But while that heritage is hardly forgotten, it’s been a long time since the Covenant began to move out of its ethnic enclave. By the late 1930s even congregations as old as Salem (est. 1888) had moved to English-only worship, and the denomination dropped “Swedish” from its name in 1937. In that year, the Evangelical Mission Covenant Church of America (Mission went away, perhaps unfortunately, in the 1950s) had less than 45,000 members. Today almost six times that number are members or regular attenders of a Covenant that is most prone to describe itself as a “rapidly growing multiethnic denomination.”

* * * * *

Willie Jemison
Willie Jemison – Evangelical Covenant Church

I won’t begin to attempt anything like a comprehensive history of how that change happened, except to say that the roots go back at least to the civil rights movement. Flipping through The Covenant Quarterly, I came across the Church of God theologian and pastor James Earl Massey, trying to explain to Covenant ministers why, in the winter of 1969, “The Negro community continues to confess frustration over the lack of openness and integrity on the part of white society in dealing with its needs and concerns.”

The following year a young pastor named Willie Jemison was called to a historically Swedish, shrinking congregation on the Southside of Chicago; over his next thirty years of ministry, Jemison made Oakdale Covenant the largest predominantly African-American church in the ECC and mentored a generation of Covenant pastors of color. Oakdale’s regional conference, one of the largest in the denomination, now has an African-American superintendent, Jerome Nelson. (As does the Southeast Conference: Robert Owens, who previously pastored churches in Compton and Atlanta and preached at the commissioning and ordination service that concluded the ECC annual meeting this year.) And when Jemison died in 2011, one of those paying tribute to him was Debbie Blue, executive minister of the Covenant’s Compassion, Mercy, and Justice department — which regularly takes Covenanters on Sankofa journeys through the history of the civil rights movement.

(Incidentally, I’ll be blogging later this week about Birmingham Revolution, the excellent new book about Martin Luther King, Jr. by journalist Ed Gilbreath, now serving as the ECC’s executive director of communications.)

I wish I knew more about the history of the denomination’s burgeoning number of Hispanic congregations (e.g., Gracia y Paz Covenant in Chula Vista, CA was one of the twenty-seven new churches added to the denomination last month) or more about the stories of Asian-American Covenanters like Greg Yee (superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference) or Touger Thao (planting Roots Covenant here in St. Paul).

But instead I’ll point you to a June 2013 article in the New York Times, about Vox Veniae, a church in Houston:

Gideon Tsang
Gideon Tsang – Vox Veniae

But what’s really unexpected about Vox, to anyone who knows American Protestantism, is that what began as a church for Chinese-Americans quickly became multiracial. Last Sunday morning, whites were in the majority, and in addition to Asian-Americans, there were Latinos and African-Americans in the pews — or, rather, the metal folding chairs around the small stage where a six-piece band played before the pastor, the Rev. Gideon Tsang, delivered his sermon.

In a country that is growing more racially diverse, and in an evangelical movement that is becoming more politically diverse, Vox Veniae, which is Latin for “voice of forgiveness,” may be, as Jesus said, a sign of the times.

The church joined the Covenant in 2011 (“This means,” explained Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer, “that Vox Veniae is a multiracial church that began with Chinese roots and has recently acquired Swedish Lutheran roots”) because Tsang and his flock decided that “it’s healthy to be connected to something bigger.” It’s because of churches like Vox Veniae, Oakdale, Gracia y Paz, Roots, and others that ECC leaders can trumpet the fact that one in four Covenant congregations is either multiethnic or primarily consists of people of color.

Given “historically Swedish immigrant” or “multiethnic,” I suspect that many Covenant congregations lean more strongly towards one identity than the other. (Salem clearly lines up with the former, with some baby steps towards the latter of late.) But there’s no reason they can’t coexist, and even mutually enrich each other. I’d suggest — as others have — that they find common ground in the idea of the Covenant as an “immigrant church.”

* * * * *

Efrem SmithA key influence on my thinking here is Efrem Smith, formerly pastor of Sanctuary Covenant in north Minneapolis and then superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference before his move last September to World Impact. For the third or fourth time now, I’ll draw on the sermon he preached at the ECC’s 2011 annual meeting, in which Smith celebrated both Willie Jemison and another longtime Chicago resident who had died just before the meeting: Jim Hawkinson, whom I got to know as our interim and visitation pastor at Salem. Here’s what I took away from that sermon, in my belated eulogy to Jim:

Efrem talked about growing up in an African-American Baptist church, founding a new congregation in north Minneapolis, and then joining the Covenant. Jim decided to get to know him over a series of lunches. At first, they struggled to find anything in common. But after hearing Jim’s stories and reading the books he recommended, Efrem found himself appreciating that the church they shared—though many of us easily forget this—is an “immigrant church.” Founded by people who gave up all that they knew and possessed and, in poverty, covenanted with each other to pool their scant resources and proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, near and far. People who truly understood that “here [whether that means Sweden, Africa, or Minnesota] we do not have an enduring city” (Heb 13:14). This was a church that a descendant of people taken across an ocean in chains could make home.

And I think immigrantness (sojourning, I’ve called it in an earlier post) was central to Jim’s understanding of heritage, as well. Much as he loved the stories he told and the hymns he so loudly sang, Jim also understood—as someone with the familial memory of having left a land and language behind could do—that a heritage provides no “enduring city” either. Rather, it furnishes roots that nourish growth—and change.

I’ve since elaborated a bit on the “immigrant church” theme. First, in the All Saints’ sermon I preached later that year at Salem (with Jim’s name hanging on the wall across the sanctuary and his robe — the only one in the closet that came close to fitting me — on my back):

…the people who started this church were immigrants — a people who had sold what little they possessed, abandoned the only homes they’d ever known, and joined a great exodus of millions who crossed an ocean and settled in a new land. Once they arrived, writes Glen Wiberg of Salem’s founders, “They were resident aliens who had become outsiders to the people they had left and were still outsiders among the people to whom they had come” (This Side of the River, p. 36).

Our forebears did not expect any earthly city — whether Stockholm or Minneapolis, Oslo or St. Paul — to be their true home, but they looked to the coming city — where the children of God would come before His throne, blessed forever to “worship him day and night within his temple” ([Rev 7] v 15).

I quoted much of that section and told again of Efrem’s 2011 sermon in a post late summer, on evangelical support for immigration reform. I encouraged my ECC readers to read and respond to a draft resolution on that topic that came from the denomination’s Christian Action Commission.

Here’s how that resolution positioned the Covenant as an “immigrant church,” picking up on language from the first ECC annual meeting I attended, in St. Paul:

In remembrance of our denomination’s history, at the 125th anniversary celebration of the Evangelical Covenant Church in 2010 we affirmed that we began as an immigrant church and celebrated that today we continue to be an immigrant church. The early immigrants of the Covenant Church faced profound challenges as they entered a new nation. These Covenant ancestors were strengthened in their journey through faith in Jesus Christ, who was no stranger to the experiences of immigrants.

I love what Allan Serrano, the pastor of Iglesia Evangelica Misionera del Pacto in La Villa, Texas, says in that 2010 video:

As immigrant churches, we need to be able to learn from the established churches in America. There’s no doubt about it. But at the same time, the established churches need to be willing to be humbled, to learn from us, too. We have so much to offer.

Unwittingly, I said as much in Chicago last month when we debated the immigration reform resolution. Another delegate proposed an amendment that, among other changes, would have added a line emphasizing the need for Covenant churches to help immigrants hear the Gospel. I don’t remember exactly what I said — I didn’t mean to speak at all — but it was something to this effect:

Perhaps some immigrants need our help to hear the Gospel. But I think it’s more important that we find ways to hear the Gospel from immigrants.

As much as the Swedish heritage that nourishes us still (it’s the historical source of our identity as “missional Pietists,” after all)… As much as the multiethnic and reconciling impulses that convict, strengthen, and differentiate us today… I’m convinced that the ECC is a stronger denomination when we wholeheartedly embrace our identity as an “immigrant church.”

Not only does modern-day immigration give Christians new opportunities to love a wider array of neighbors and to invite in the stranger as they would welcome Jesus, but an immigrant church is less entangled with the structures and values of any particular society or government and more open to the leading of a Holy Spirit that moves freely across national, cultural, linguistic, and all other boundaries.

As a church shaped by reformations and revivals and committed to renewal, those of us in the ECC should greet with joy a social phenomenon that brings new passions, new concerns, new perspectives, and new methods into our midst. May those of us who are great-great-grandchildren of immigrants be willing to be humbled, to learn from our sisters and brothers who have more recently “become outsiders to the people they had left….” Let them not remain “outsiders among the people to whom they had come.”

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