Radical hospitality brings radical results at Florida church

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Radical hospitality brings radical results at Florida church

Jan. 4, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0780}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

WEST PALM BEACH — Ask people why they attend United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches and you’ll hear three words over and over again: love, family and diversity.

Despite coming from more than 38 different countries and many different languages, church members have adopted a common vision of inclusion and acceptance that’s drawing people to the church.

Jamie Clemens (left), Juan Ramos Jr. and Belci Encinosa gather to plan an upcoming Hispanic language worship service at United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches. Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #08-0721.

“Jesus reached out to us and taught us the meaning of love. The whole purpose of Christianity is reaching out,” says Patti Aupperlee, director of the church’s newcomers ministry. “In our church services, you’ll see we’re not all of one color or one age. We’re a variety, from the wealthy of Palm Beach to the homeless, and everyone worships together. This church accepts everyone.”

The church has both traditional and contemporary worship services, as well as Korean and Hispanic services. A Tamil service for members of Indian heritage will be launched soon. Although the church has multiple worship opportunities, with people often attending a variety of services, the congregation is one church.

Juan Ramos Jr. is a lay member who leads the Spanish language service. He says he was led to assume the role when his father, the Rev. Juan Ramos Sr., a Methodist minister who once led the service, was appointed to another church.

“Everybody here has open hearts, and everyone seems to understand that this is our true calling as Christians,” he said.

The Rev. Vic Willis, senior pastor of the church, says the church’s vision “is to be a church where all are welcomed.”

Like family

From Harris You’s perspective the church is achieving that goal. A 17-year-old Korean-American, You attends Sun Coast High School. He says the church is a “unique blend of cultures.”

“We have a lot of events that portray that, and I haven’t found that at a lot of other churches,” he said. “There’s a special warmth here. When I’m here, I feel like I’m in God’s house, and everyone is welcome.”

Vasantha Kulothungan agrees. Born in India and educated in England, he said he became a regular at church “because I felt like a part of the church right away. You don’t feel alone here.”

Others, like Imelda Blanco, who relocated to the area from Mexico, and Tjerk Vanveen, originally from the Netherlands and raised Roman Catholic, say there is an unusual acceptance at the church.

“In this church you can be yourself and people don’t judge you on how you believe,” Vanveen said.

Church members Donald and Lenie Grant moved to Florida from South Africa. Donald, who comes from a Dutch Reformed Church background, and Lenie from the Afrikaan culture, said they knew no one when they arrived, but immediately felt welcome when then visited the church.

“This has become our church family,” Lenie said. “Even when we bought a home in another city, we continued to attend here because this is where our church family is.”

Phillip and Ruth Mageria of Kenya meet between services with India's Nimmy Jeyakumen. Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #08-0722.

Phillip and Ruth Mageria, from Kenya, who attend the church with their 5-year-old son, Jonas, say they have also found a home at the church.

“We are a long way from our home and family in Kenya, but these people have become family,” Ruth said. “On holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, people invite you to their homes and make you feel like family.”
Celebrating diversity

Walter and Nimmy Jeyakumen, from India, say they’ve found a church where they can be themselves.

Dressed in traditional, colorful Indian dress, Nimmy says they feel so comfortable at the church they bring their friends.

“We feel comfortable wearing our native dress, and we don’t feel like we’re being looked at,” she said. “People at this church build relationships. They invite you to dinner. They visit at your home. We hope other churches learn to embrace diversity.”

Jeyakumen says she also appreciates the way she and her husband are invited to participate in worship. “We’re invited to read the Bible in our native tongue in front of the congregation, and it makes us feel special,” she said. “We feel at home. We’re given lots of opportunities to belong and to feel that sense of belonging.”

The church’s pastors and leaders make an intentional effort to create that feeling of inclusiveness.

Todd Weber, the church’s discipleship pastor, says the church is located in what he calls a melting pot community. With that in mind, he says they are trying to provide a place where everyone can grow spiritually. Other leaders say they are trying to create a safe haven for people of such different backgrounds to worship.

Brad Walston, a member of the church’s hospitality ministry, remembers a recent phone call that put their emphasis on hospitality to the test.

“A local group home called us and asked if we could transport adults to the church,” he said. “We didn’t even have a transportation ministry, but how can you say no? We saw a need, and we made it happen to get those people here.”

The Rev. Jen Sims, an associate pastor at the church, says the congregation’s diversity is inspiring.

“Having people from almost 40 nations come together and worship together is really touching,” she said. “When we have people from all over the world, we really begin to feel what is happening around the world. When you hear news from another country, you know it could be affecting a brother or sister of one of our brothers or sisters here at the church.”

Phillip Mageria says he has seen God connecting countries through relationships at the church.

“Two teens from the church went on a mission trip to Kenya and actually stayed at my brother’s home,” he said. “You can see God at work in many ways here.”

Open hearts, open minds, open doors

The Rev. Bo Sim, an associate pastor at the church who leads the Korean language worship service, says love and tolerance are the keys to diversity and success.

“Our hearts are open and there is a tolerance that comes from love,” he said. “We are able to embrace all people. Things are not always easy, but you grow and learn from the harder times. Fertilizer eventually leads to fruit.”

Children of all ages and ethnic backgrounds attend Sunday school at United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches. Photo by Steven Skelley. Photo #08-0723.

Aupperlee says the church has found the recipe for outreach and inclusion. Church members coordinate outreach events, such as old-fashioned Christmas parties, Trunk Or Treat at Halloween and their own dinner theater productions. She says they invite everyone in the community and then welcome them with open arms.

“We want to serve the community,” she said.

Lenn Holland and Denise Bleau are life partners who joined the church with their adopted daughter, Danielle, after attending the church’s Trunk Or Treat outreach.

“It’s been so inspiring,” Holland said. “We’ve been very welcomed here. So many people now have a part in helping raise our daughter in the faith.”

Bleau said they have not felt welcome at many churches, a much different experience than what they’ve found at United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches.

“We wanted Danielle to have a Christian faith,” she said. “We came here and we were welcomed with open arms. We are very grateful to be here.”

Maggie Wong, who attends the Korean worship service, says there is a special sense of family that flows from love. “Everyone is family here. We have found the love of God.”


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla.

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