I Will Change Your Name
The story of my trip to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Whitestone, New York this past week actually began almost four years ago on my trip to Taize. One of the ways they raise funds in Taize is through the sale of ceramics and art; they accept no donations from anyone, as it is their belief that they should trust in their own ability to support their monastic lifestyle and rely on nothing by God’s provision to help them. I bought this necklace while I was there: the deep well of blue just spoke to my heart.But this story begins not with the blue but with the plain, white, unfinished back of the large teardrop pendant and with the verse that came with it.
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” Revelation 2:17
I met Pastor Johnson Rethinasamy at a conference in Phoenix last year, right after Leann and I had started icktank. She had heard him in a session and ran to find me: Heather, you’ve got to hear what this guy is talking about.What he was talking about was his life story and how God was blessing him and the community in which he’d been placed. He’d arrived in NYC fifteen years ago with his wife, Sharon, and young daughter, Susan, and a plan to get his doctorate in Missions work in Tamil, India. He had the proverbial $10 in his pocket when he stumbled across a little Lutheran church. He wandered in and asked if they might need an organist: they did, and offered to pay him $25 a week to play. He soon developed a relationship with the pastor who discovered that he was not just an immigrant musician, but actually an ordained Lutheran pastor in India, where Lutheranism had existed long before it had come to America. He was soon colloquized (made official) in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and empowered to start an mission outreach to southeast Asians newly arrived in Queens. He quickly built up a storefront church to well over 100 people.
Just when it seemed that life was starting to make sense, he got the Call. A small traditional, old German Lutheran church—which could be called “stagnant” at best— wanted him to become their pastor. He wasn’t sure what God wanted him to do. He prayed, of course, but also, he spoke to his growing tribe of new and old immigrant Christians and said this, “I will only go if you come with me. This is how we begin to address the call to multi-culturalism in the faith in America. This is how we become one in the Kingdom of God.”
Half of the people said no; they wanted to stay there and be with “their own kind.” I love this because it reminds us that parochialism and cliquishness and comfort zones know no bounds. But half of the immigrants said yes, as did a good portion of the traditional German Lutherans at an old church which, when faced with the prospect of dying, said no: Christ will continue to live on in this place and we will simply need to learn to open our hearts, to let in the new, to stop being so worried about being comfortable and having things the way they’ve always been. And so the Mosaic ministry that is Immanuel Lutheran Church was born.
Now, do you remember where I said it was? In a town in Queens called Whitestone. At some point last year I had connected the dots from the Taize necklace scripture to this new, far-off community that was somehow becoming part of my story, and of the icktank story. In January, Pastor Johnson wrote to tell us that he would be doing our new book Loaded Words for an all-church Lenten study. We were honored and thrilled and I began to consider that I would actually make a trip there. The white stone pendant hung over my desk, an ever-present reminder of the mysteries of God and how he speaks to His people.
What I saw and did and heard and learned on my visit to the community in Whitestone made it clear that the Holy Spirit was alive and well and moving in and around us like the sweet spiced scent of curry. I felt as at home in the church and in their small group gatherings as I ever have in any church I’ve ever been in.I met brilliant Indian men who wanted to see their wives lifted up, who served their church and the Kingdom of God with joy, even after long days as high-level IT execs or managers. I wept with a man whose daughter had died suddenly of an infection she got in hospital after a routine procedure: she was just 21, and he spoke of her testimony and how she saw angels all around her and how she spent the few brief final hours she had of this life witnessing to Christ for the doctors and nurses who tended to her. I listened to a man who drove in every weekend from Connecticut to assist with the music: he had had a profound and personal experience of the Living God calling him, and gave up his corporate job and his comfortable life and now writes Christian music and helps to plant churches and shares with his family the piercing joy of relying on God alone for their provision. And I smiled to hear the testimony of a man who might best be described as a Central Casting version of a working class New Yorker. He had not been raised in the church–not really. For two years he had walked past Immanuel and considered going in, until, one morning he said to his wife “Get dressed. We’re going to church.” And as they approached the building he grew terrified at the thought of walking into a space filled with strangers. This was his greatest fear. Until he opened the door, and there on the left side of the pews was a guy he used to work with at Home Depot. And there handing out the bulletins was another guy he’d grown up with. And Pastor Johnson, who’d often greeted him in town, embraced him by name. And he told me, “God knew my fear and he put all those people there so I never felt like a stranger. I haven’t missed a Sunday since. And this church has become for me a true home.”
It is often said the Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, but not in Whitestone, where Tamil and Hindi and Chinese and German and English all come together as one. Some of the services are mixed, and led in English. Some are purely in Tamil and/or Hindi, allowing the immigrants to hear God in their own mother tongue while still being part of a new church family. Pastor Johnson oversees them all, the flock and the local pastors who he’s raised up, trained, seen through ordination, and continues to mentor and supervise. On Sunday morning, he communed close to 200 people in three services and called them their God-given name as he offered them the Body of Christ, broken for them for the forgiveness of sins. Over the course of the morning I sang old Lutheran hymns and new contemporary Christian songs and Indian liturgical chants and words I knew and words I simply let wash over me. And I was blessed to see and feel and hear what it looks like when we get it right: when we yield to the will of the God who tells us that Christ died “once for all” (Romans 6:10). That we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:8). And that we are, indeed, “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).
As for the ties to the Scripture from Revelation and my seemingly “meant-to-be” visit to Whitestone, well, I’m not sure I was actually given anything as clear as a new name.
Or was I?