The Ethnic Pastor in a Multicultural Society

by Roland M. Kawano

Dr. Kawano is pastor of St. Andrew’s Japanese Congregation in Toronto, Ontario.

This article appeared in the Christian Century November 3, 1982, p. 1099. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


At the very end of his ministry, Jesus threw open the shutters. ‘Make disciples of all nations,’ he said, but we are asking newcomers to cross language and culture barriers to become white Anglo-Saxon Anglicans.

“We are an ethnic church.” This is a commonplace used to describe the Anglican Church of Canada as a national Anglo-Saxon parish. It is an old church dominated by English speakers and English culture. It is part of a new land still struggling to find national, political and religious expression. The situation is complicated by the arrival of other ethnic groups, which have displaced the older Anglo-Saxon population in numbers but not necessarily in influence. And the influx of native Canadian Indians into the larger cities from the reservations has further complicated the situation.

The Anglican Church can stand apart from its society’s problems only by adopting a determined attitude of avoidance, neglect, even of obstruction. I therefore propose the following examination: first, the construction of a model of “biblical ethnics”; second, an examination of the role of the non-Anglo-Saxon pastor and congregation; and third, some elements of strategy.

To begin with, when we approach the Scriptures, we may be startled at the parallels they present to our situation. The Jewish people were one ethnic unit living not only within the ancient boundaries of Palestine-Judea but scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish figure who most interests Christians presents us with a prime example of ethnicity. According to ancient tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem and made one journey outside his country’s borders early in his life. All of his adulthood was spent inside the perimeters of his tiny country, which was much smaller than the province of Ontario. Preaching, teaching and healing only among his own people, Jesus was bound to this ethnic Jewish subculture not simply by vocation but also by language: he spoke Aramaic, the Hebrew dialect of his area, although he read the ancient liturgical Hebrew. Almost certainly he did not know Koiné Greek, the lingua franca of the time. He even disdained to have anything to do with outsiders, foreigners and the aliens who entered his subculture (John 12:20; Matt. 10:6; 15:24). And while he was yet alive, he sent his disciples only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Compare, then, this ethnic man with the figure who follows him in importance, and who stands in great ethnic contrast. St. Paul was born in the university town of Tarsus, although he was educated under Rabbi Gamaliel at Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). His Hebrew name was Saul; Paul was his Greek name. His Bible was the Greek Septuagint; his education under Rabbi Gamaliel was Hebraic. Unlike Jesus, Paul traveled throughout the known world of his day, probably as far west as Spain (Rom. 15:29), and certainly to Italy, Greece and throughout Asia Minor. In our terms, Paul was multicultural, a citizen of the empire (Acts 23:27; 22:27). He was a marginal man, able to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries with knowledge and sensitivity.

Now when Jesus, the obscure ethnic man, rose from the dead and continued to teach his followers, he left them with one dictum: Matthew 28:19. This baptismal command with the trinitarian formula, given just prior to his ascension, is tied to the other peculiar command, “Go therefore and make all nations my disciples.” At the very end of his earthly ministry, he threw open the shutters of his teaching. Whereas once the disciples were to go to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” they were now sent to “make disciples of all nations.” In the words of Karl Barth, “It is a confession which follows the transition of the message of salvation from Israel to the Gentiles” (Church Dogmatics IV, 4, 100).

This study of Jesus and Paul leads us to examine the role of the pastor and the non-Anglo congregation in the many-cultured society. Already the format has been outlined for us in the preceding discussion of a developing cross-cultural church. The pastor of a non-Anglo congregation in a multinational society functions on three levels: the ethnic, the multicultural and the international.

At the ethnic level, the pastor works within the subculture from which his parish is gathered. The parish tends to be close-knit because it shares a common first language and a culture drawn from a homeland far removed. The parishioners may live across vast stretches of a city, but they gather together for common worship and life. If the pastor belongs to the subculture, he or she needs no introduction at this ethnic level. The pastor knows the gestures, the language, the responses -- all of which, combined with common worship, make up an ethnic liturgy. Like Jesus, who was obscured by his immersion in the Jewish subculture, our pastor and congregation are obscured from the mainstream of society by their subculture.

The pastor within such a subculture needs special ethnic and cultural skills to allow him or her to move freely. It is usually difficult for an outsider to penetrate this layer immediately so as to minister. At this level, the pastor must be community worker, social organizer, immigration-law counselor and advocate, and ethnic promoter, as well as pastor. Often missionaries to the home countries become pastors to these immigrating ethnic units. Precisely because of the specialized nature of pastoral work at this ethnic level, the pastor has peculiar dilemmas. He or she is unable to move to other types of parishes within the larger church, move up the religious hierarchy or to other jobs. Ethnic pastors often remain at their posts for lengthy periods of service. On the other hand, very few people could easily step in and carry on the role of pastor in such a community, nor would they likely want to.

Ethnic congregations that are ecclesiastically independent function completely on the level I have described. But those churches that are tied into synods, presbyteries and conferences and have some mutuality with and responsibility to a larger unit find their lives more complicated. They must engage at the multicultural level. In our first examination of biblical models, we found that St. Paul was our example of the multicultural person, who related to both the ethnic and the multicultural levels. The pastor of an ethnic congregation that belongs to a larger body of parishes must relate at both levels. At the multicultural level, the pastor associates .with colleagues who are in different strata of society, who belong to its larger and major cultural layer.

At this point the pastor must be, or must learn to be, bicultural and bilingual in gesture and tongue. Because the ethnic community is secluded by the subculture from the main workings of the society and from the churches that have power and authority, the pastor must represent the parish to the larger community. The larger church community often knows only the face the ethnic pastor presents. The other face, turned toward the ethnic congregation and community, is hidden. Therefore the larger community must often rely on the pastor’s word for the work he or she is doing.

The pastor is engaged at yet another level of activity: the international one. It includes contacts with congregations, individuals and pastors in the homeland or in other parts of the globe, spread in a sort of diaspora. Again, this is underground activity as far as the multicultural economy is concerned, since the network of contacts is maintained by the subcultural pipeline. Often it is through this network that pastors are called when a vacancy exists and through which problems arising in a particular community are resolved. Because of the vast immigration and refugee movements of this century, this international web of contacts is important in almost every ethnic community.

The pastor of a subcultural congregation, by virtue of his or her representation in the mainstream society, participates at all three levels. Work at the ethnic (local) and international levels is screened from the multicultural or national level. Yet it is often the multicultural level that counts -- that provides financial support, criticism of work, rules and regulations, and expectations for the pastor in the larger society. The multicultural layer is the arena of power. The ethnic pastor and congregation enter that arena as neophytes. Parishes and pastors from the governing economy of the mixed churches possess influence and financial strength. An ethnic parish is often seen as a hindrance, a group to be first feared, rather than accepted and approved.

That is why, for instance, St. Paul did not seek permission from the Jerusalem elders, who held authority in the early Christian church, to do his work. Only when his work among the gentiles was somewhat established did he seek the approval of the Jerusalem elders. It is also important to bear in mind that when he went to Jerusalem the second time, Paul did not seek the authorities’ support as a gentile but rather as a Pharisee and a Nazarene (Acts 21:23, 24, 26; 23:6). He identified himself with the establishment, seeking its approval, not permission, for work already done.

Moreover, when Paul sought approval for his work among the gentiles, the response of the Jerusalem elders was twofold to give approval to Paul’s work among the gentiles (the multicultural society) and simultaneously to bless the ongoing work of the ethnic Petrine mission to the Jews. The elders did not, I believe, want to give outright approval to Paul’s strategy, but they could not approve one without giving their blessing to the other. They were apprehensive about the possibility of future conflict between Paul’s and Peter’s strategies. Already there are strong hints of their nervousness at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1, 5). The Jerusalem elders were still very much a part of the Jewish establishment. They saw what it would mean to turn their backs on Jewish culture and traditions. And Paul’s advocacy of the gentiles was already leading them in that direction. These fears may well have been borne out by Paul’s rebuke of Peter, when Peter went back on his tentative multicultural convictions out of fear of rebuke from the powerful Jewish establishment (Gal. 2:14).

Discussing the strategies of Paul and Peter leads us to propose some elements of strategy for the present situation. The first priority is the penetration of the ethnic community. This can be done from the international, multicultural or ethnic level. Historically, each of these segments has raised up pastors to penetrate the ethnic community. At the international level, the church in the homeland has sent pastors to follow the emigrations into the new territories or colonies. At the ethnic level, pastors have been raised up from within the parish. At the multicultural level, church authorities are concerned to penetrate the ethnic communities.

In speaking of the Anglican Church, we address the broader culture’s entrance into the subcultures. These kinds of decisions are not as difficult as it may at first seem. Those in the episcopate are looking not only for pastoral solutions but also for evangelistic outreach. We are always interested in penetrating urban communities and repenetrating new urban developments. We buy and set aside property for future use in a developing suburban community. We cling to financially and congregationally marginal inner-city parishes because urban renewal and development look promising. We do so because we have the confidence and expertise to expand in the Anglo-Saxon community.

On the whole, however, when the church governance feels called -- whether by conscience or demand to enter at the ethnic level, there is uncertainty, hesitance and resistance in its response. Authorities at the multicultural level need some leads into the ethnic community. They also need signs of promise, economic stability and communicant growth before they plant themselves firmly behind new directions. The large corporate churches are no longer the instruments but rather the institutions of salvation. Thus, ethnic parishes often must work harder than the usual parish for recognition, sustenance and growth. In any case, inroads into the ethnic communities are often cut by someone (not necessarily the pastor) who is able to shift back and forth at different cultural and linguistic levels.

In its second and third generations, the ethnic community is integrated into the larger multicultural scene, and another important strategy comes to the fore. It becomes important for the parish to take its place on a par with other parishes. It does so by becoming financially self-sufficient, by having its own building (often ethnic parishes remain in lease or rental arrangements for years -- a sign that they have no physical or psychological territory in the larger church) and by providing both lay and clerical leadership in the multicultural society and church structures.

At this point in the parish’s development, its young people will have begun to marry outside the ethnic unit. If these couples remain as parishioners, and if outsiders become members, then an unusual kind of integration takes place. Whereas once the ethnic parish constituted a linguistically and culturally homogeneous whole, now it begins to accept parishioners from outside the ethnic unit. The process of integration usually happens in the opposite way; an Anglo-Saxon parish accepts non-Anglo-Saxon parishioners.

It is a long-held tenet of Anglican culture that it is desirable to send missionaries across cultural boundaries into new territory overseas. Indigenous Anglican churches and provinces may be established. The missionaries are careful to teach the young churches biblical principles of authority and organization.

But that is overseas, or perhaps in the ghettos of our native Indian culture. What happens when immigration or refugee movements bring the young church into the very heart of Anglicanism, forming a new expression of it? The easiest way to cope with this situation is to avoid the new immigrants, to provide them only social services and immigration counsel. By these means we provide help for newcomers but do not invite them into our very heart -- by giving them new churches in which they are comfortable. Rather we ask the newcomer to cross linguistic and cultural barriers to become a white Anglo-Saxon Anglican.

To place Anglican parishes in the heart of the ethnic subculture will certainly mean that Anglicanism will begin to take on new forms and shapes. First, we recognize, as the Jerusalem elders did, that salvation comes not by the yoke of tradition, itself hard enough to bear (Acts 15:10), but through the grace of the Lord Jesus. Second, we see a corollary. Anglican evangelism in the ethnic culture would meld traditions, not extinguish those of the ethnic culture. Third, it refreshes us that as the ethnic congregations take their place within the larger church, their life will provide new strength and vision for the total church.

The model described in the preceding pages is one of crossing barriers in the multicultural society. I have suggested that three layers exist, and that there is work peculiar to each. Already it becomes obvious that the most difficult part of this working model is interaction and crossing over. This model simply reflects the society itself, in which many ethnic layers constantly relate to one another.

When someone explains that the Anglican system demands that we approach the ethnic layer through synod and episcopacy, my response is that it is a bad tactic. The highest authorities in the synodical or episcopal structures are often those furthest removed from the most delicate interactions, those of the ethnic group with the multiculture. Yet because of the hierarchical nature of our ecclesiastical polity and our respect for the episcopal office, we tend to approach those in the church’s high places as supplicants, seeking permission, information and authority before we act.

Yet the authorities of the multiculture are those who are able to frequent the points of interrelation and crossing over. They are authorities by reason of their knowledge, action and experience. Nevertheless, as I have indicated, these actual authorities are those who are most often curtained off by their involvement at the ethnic level. They operate in ethnic obscurity.

Obviously these authorities do not have the respect in the church bureaucracy that they have in their own groups. Yet they are the authorities of the margins. They function as the unheralded eyes and ears of the episcopate in the multicultural and marginal societies. Though they have insight and responsibility, they are largely ignored in the larger policy decisions of the hierarchy. After all, the authorities and the hierarchy recognize first and respond most warmly to their own kind.

I have tried to describe what is happening at three levels on which the church functions, and across those levels. A conscious strategy to establish parishes in the subculture would recognize and support the necessary interrelations and crossings-over, and give official authority to those who already bear it.