UPLAND, Calif. — Grafting is the process of joining new branches to old rootstock in the hopes of making a strong and unified hybrid. It’s work, but the abundant fruit that can result from a successful graft makes the effort worthwhile.
Grafting an immigrant congregation onto a deeply rooted Mennonite community in Upland is even harder work. But Pastor Nehemiah Chigoji — who grew up in Nigeria — believes the merger of First Mennonite Upland with Gereja Kristus Injili Upland into a new entity, Upland Peace Church, will prove similarly fruitful.
The two congregations, both members of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA, had been meeting together for major celebrations for years.
When GKI moved into First Mennonite’s building a few years back, the original plan was to worship in separate rooms. But somehow that didn’t feel right, since they were already in a “courtship,” Chigoji said. So they experimented with a single service with simultaneous interpretation into Indonesian — and then decided, for the sake of the younger generation, to go English-only.
GKI was “losing their children to American churches because they didn’t want to associate themselves with the Indonesian culture for worship; the experience was not the same for them,” Chigoji recalled. “Coming here, they found this to be a home they can connect to. The kids can remain in the Mennonite church, and the catch will be that the service will be in English.”
Established by Mennonites of European origin in 1903, the church is now a grand melting pot that includes people of Indonesian, Chinese, Mexican, Nigerian, Dutch and Polish heritage.
In 2013, the congregations agreed to an official merger. With that came the decision to change the church’s name — to ensure everyone felt a sense of belonging. From more than 60 suggestions, they whittled the choice down to Upland Peace Church.
A new constitution and bylaws were finalized in February, marking the birth of a new church with a long history.
A new fellowship
Chigoji is the sole paid pastor, with GKI leaders Yusak and Rina Kusuma, Mathilda Koeshadi and Slamet Mustangin rounding out the pastoral team.
Chigoji believes several factors make it easier for him to negotiate the cultural and communication challenges inherent in such a merger.
One is that his own family is cross-cultural. His wife, Agnes, is Polish-born and a linguistics expert. He also comes from a developing country and, through an accident of history, can even understand a bit of Indonesian. His home language of Hausa, like Indonesian, has some words of Arabic origin.
He and his family made an extended visit to Indonesia last year, which he said “was a huge help” in understanding the people he is serving.
One tradition the Indonesian group brought to the blend is the habit of eating lunch together after worship, with a rotation of cooks to prepare the food. The menu varies, but one thing doesn’t change: “Everywhere the Indonesians go, they take rice with them,” Chigoji joked.
Older members of the congregation may not be as comfortable with the every-Sunday prepared lunch, “but everybody from the community — the Hispanics, young people, Indonesian people — they’re always downstairs,” he said. “I think that’s where the real fellowship happens for a lot of people. There’s just something about sitting down and eating together that solidifies a sense of relationship between people.”
Chigoji admits the merger has not come without discomfort and even the loss of a few longtime members. He’d love to see members of neighbouring churches step up for a few months to help the congregation get on its feet, for instance by bolstering the music ministry. The future path isn’t entirely clear, but reproducing — reaching out to the community and forming the faith of the next generation — will be a priority.
This article originally appeared in the Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference newsletter Panorama.