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Heritage Day – The Immigrant Spirit of Pentecost

May 19, 2013

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013. This was also observed as one of our semi-annual Heritage Days, telling the story of this congregation throughout its almost 300 years in White Plains.

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Acts 2: 1-24

On Pentecost, pilgrims from around the known world had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate heritage day.  Seriously – Jewish pilgrims had gathered to celebrate Shevuot, the Festival of Weeks when Jews remember how God gave the Torah, on Mt. Sinai.  It’s a time for remembrance and renewal. But I think it would be safe to say that no one in the crowd was prepared for what happened; indeed our scripture says that all in the crowd “were bewildered” as they heard the gospel proclaimed to them in their own languages.

Have any of you ever travelled to a place where you did not speak the language?  Even if you’re visiting a church or a business with which you’re affiliated, the experience can be disorienting to say the least.  If you are alone, you rely on interpreters and attempt hand gestures hoping you’re not committing a cultural faux pas.  Exaggerated facial expressions and, strangely, often LOUD talking characterize encounters as you try to make sense of how to navigate.  If you’re with a group, there can be a tendency to stick together, speaking the language you know, creating a bubble through which you view those on the “outside” and in which you feel safer because you’re together with people who understand you.

When you are unable to speak the language, emotions can run the gamut from fear to frustration, as even ordinary matters require extra time and attention.

Some of us have gone to live in another country for a period of time or have immigrated here.  Such experiences are not only personal they are also political – shaped by nations’ hospitality or hostility toward immigrants.  That was true in the ancient world as well.  Further, Paul had deep disagreements with other apostles about what to keep and what to relinquish in his own religious tradition so as not to hinder the ever-enlarging reach of God’s love.

In Jerusalem that day were Jews from around the known world who were bound by a common practice of faith, a common story rooted in Abram’s call and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, but who did not necessarily speak one another’s native tongue.  All of a sudden their ears hear the message of Jesus’ covenant renewal in their own language and not only that, they are able to converse with one another and understand.  They experience not only being knit together with God through the Spirit, but of being knit together as one community from many different places.  And they were able to dream together, of the kind of just and whole world that God has ever intended.

The Spirit did two important things that day.  First the Spirit allowed people to hear the “good news” in their own languages.  To hear a message in your native tongue is an intimate experience, it draws upon your culture and depends upon your framework of lived experience.  It is a message to you, for you.  It is personal, cultural and material.  Second the Spirit helped people who spoke different languages understand each other.  We don’t know how.  But following the Spirit’s lead in our own time and in our own congregation, we endeavor to try and understand one another.  As we teach and learn Spanish as a second language class and offer new ESL classes, as we speak and sing in different languages and musical traditions in worship, we enter into one another’s worlds and affirm the good news of Christ’s gospel – that all are welcome in God’s house.  Indeed we affirm, in the words of Rev. Jose Luis Casal, that “the Spirit [is], the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.” This “immigrant Spirit” creates a place where “no one is a foreigner,” welcoming all to citizenship in God’s house.

On this Heritage Day here in White Plains, it is fitting to remember the ways that the Spirit has moved through this congregation – to speak the gospel to and for particular peoples in their own languages and cultures as this church has hosted nested and immigrant mission congregations over the years.

Most of you know that we currently rent space to two immigrant fellowships, Alianza Christian Fellowship, a Hispanic Pentecostal congregation, and the Westchester Community Bible Church, a largely Filipino Baptist congregation. Some of you have worshipped with them or attended one of their celebrations. But did you know that sharing worship space has been part of our heritage for 200 years?

In the nineteenth century we shared space with the Methodists when first they, and then we, were temporarily homeless after our respective sanctuaries burned down (ours in 1776, and theirs in 1795). We even delayed our own rebuilding project to aid them with theirs, contributing to their new building.

In the twentieth century we shared our space with a Korean Presbyterian Church, an African American congregation, an Indian congregation and a Chinese congregation: the banner displayed here was given as a gift from the pastor of the Chinese church to Rev. Don Jones in appreciation for all of Don’s efforts to demonstrate hospitality to that congregation. Don recently sent it to me to include in our Heritage celebration.

And there was one other congregation, founded by missionaries sent by this church, which later merged with our congregation: it was called the Presbyterian Church of the Savior and began as a mission to Italian immigrants who had come to help build Kensico Dam at the beginning of the last century.

As Italian immigrants brought their skills of stoneworking to bear on this important construction project (which supplies 90% of the water for New York City), in 1905 our church’s council decided to reach out to the community in the name of Christ, providing spiritual nurture, programs for children, and opportunities to learn English.  Under the leadership of our church’s pastor, the Rev. Joseph H. Robinson (1902-1909), in partnership with the Presbytery, and through the generous financial support of a single church elder, Domenico Blasi was engaged as a missionary to the immigrant Italian communities in White Plains and New Rochelle.  As the outreach grew into worshipping and programming, the church appointed Miss Mary Kellogg as the church’s ongoing “official visitor” to what was known as “the Italian mission.”  Mary Kellogg was a consistent presence and leader, organizing recreation for Italian children, sewing classes for mothers, and English as a second language programs.  And the mission was peripatetic – setting up in whatever storefront property was available on and near Ferris Avenue.  While over the next ten years many other missionaries succeeded Domenico Blasi, Mary Kellogg kept the relationship between this church and the Italian mission strong and its programs flourishing.

By the time the Rev. Frank Hunnewell was pastor of this congregation (1910-1918) the church’s commitment expanded far beyond the industry of Mary Kellogg. By 1916 Sunday School attendance was 75, sewing class 60, and there were two weekly meetings for men. Worship was held at WPPC on Sunday mornings, with special communion services, in Italian, held right here in the transept. This congregation was sponsoring a number of teachers and preachers for the mission, and even had a budget line to pay for a carriage that could be used “on very stormy Sabbaths” to bring volunteers to the mission.

About this time there was a desire for a more permanent place of worship for the mission church. One elder donated property on Ferris Avenue, and another Elder Edwin Slossan donated $1000 for the purchase of a moveable chapel (a donation whose equivalent is roughly $500,000 today).[1] I emphasize the generosity of Elder Slossan, because he had also been contributed half the salary for the various mission co-workers. With this support, it was only a few more years before the Italian congregation was ready to hire a full time pastor.  The Rev. Antonio Zaccara was called by the presbytery and ordained to serve what was then known as the Ferris Avenue Mission. Within a year the mission was reorganized as the Presbyterian Church of the Savior in White Plains and enrolled with the Presbytery.

However after some time harassment and intolerance by new neighbors in the Ferris Avenue area caused the congregation to sell the property and move back here to Broadway, a move made possible by the newly constructed Church House next door. The Rev. Samuel Piercy was pastor at WPPC (1918-1925) and the Rev. Trios pastor of the Church of the Savior. What must those discussions have been like as the church’s council debated giving sanctuary to the Italian Immigrant church they had a hand in founding? It was one thing for the church to thrive on Ferris Avenue and for this church to support them.  But to move here?  In the midst of harassment and trouble?  The Spirit moved yet again.   For another ten years, worship of the Italian community was held in the chapel and classes were held in the church house.  And then the Spirit had one more surprise:  eventually the two congregations merged.  The Spirit moved through this congregation, making it possible first for the Italian immigrant community to hear the gospel in their own language and then, to build such understanding between the worshipping community here and there, that the two congregations could become one, still with their respective languages and traditions, but now with a common future.

And the Immigrant Spirit, who speaks all languages and fosters understanding, is still among us today creating a vibrant, multicultural congregation here as we gather for worship, mission and fellowship, and within our presbytery through the ministry of the Rev. Sarah Henkel and the Cross-Cultural Network.

This Pentecost, we remember that the Spirit blows in, speaking intimately, knitting diverse communities together, and raising up prophets both young and old.  I wonder, what new dreams and visions are being born by the Spirit, even now?

.

Following this sermon, we received greetings from the two churches currently sharing space with our congregation. We then confessed their faith using “The Immigrant Apostles’ Creed.” This was posted to Facebook by Neal Presa, the current moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  According to the blog where I found it, it was originally written by Rev. Jose Luis Casal.  Fruitful theological food for thought for anyone who cares about USA immigration policies.

I believe in Almighty God,

who guided the people in exile and in exodus,

the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,

the God of foreigners and immigrants.

 .

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,

who was born away from his people and his home, who fled

his country with his parents when his life was in danger.

When he returned to his own country he suffered

under the oppression of Pontius Pilate,

the servant of a foreign power.

Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured,

and unjustly condemned to death.

But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,

not as a scorned foreigner

but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,

who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,and reunites all races.

I believe that the Church is the secure homefor foreigners and for all believers.

I believe that the communion of saints begins

when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.

I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,

and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.

I believe that in the Resurrection

God will unite us as one people

in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.

I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner

but all will be citizens of the kingdom

where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.


[1] http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070923180557AAuOy2t

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