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Learning to pray in 27 languages


First Baptist Church of Alhambra

101 S. Atlantic Blvd
Alhambra , CA 91801 United States

Among Alhambra's first religious communities, First Baptist Church will celebrate its 125th anniversary next year. While many older urban churches struggle to survive, it is experiencing a multicultural renewal. Pastor Leland Hamby describes how in the past decade his congregation went from "a maintenance church" of aging Caucasian congregants to a thriving congregation with services in three languages and members from 37 countries.

Photo by Nathan SolisWhat was First Baptist like when you arrived in 2001?

Back in the sixties, attendance peaked at 2,500 for an Easter service. But by the time I got here in 2001, church attendance was only at about 140, our average age was 78 and majority Caucasian.

How did you convince this “dying church” to change and grow?

At the beginning of my ministry, I told the church cabinet that if we wanted to grow, we basically needed to reach out to young families and hired our first staff person to families, when we only had five children on Sundays. When I was told, “That’s a lot of money for five kids,” I told them that is what we need to do in order for this to develop. Currently there’s about 40 kids on a typical Sunday. While I have hoped for more, some of this has to do with the fact that our Asian families typically have only one to two kids, and we have a growing singles population. To their credit the vast majority of the old-timers were not just receptive to many of the changes, but supportive in both their time and money.

Now our overall average attendance on a Sunday is a bit more than 450, and it reflects a wide diversity of groups: Asian, Hispanic — people from 37 countries speaking over 27 languages. Sunday Service is simultaneously translated (using our 120 headsets) into Spanish, Mandarin, the hearing impaired, and channel four is “on demand:” Korean, Tagalog, etc. While there is a still large contingent from Atherton Baptist Homes across the street, the average age has been reduced to the 40s. We regularly watch our demographics both in our congregation and in our community so we know who we are, who we are serving, and who lives in our community.

How did you and your congregation handle so much change and diversity, which can often lead to tension, misunderstanding, and conflict?

The wide diversity in our congregation can mean very different viewpoints. This requires us to talk a lot more, and find more creative solutions. Fortunately, I haven’t had to really do anything that was too far out for me. Having a diverse, multiethnic staff has definitely helped — with bilingual Chinese and Spanish staff. I imagine when I leave First Baptist, one of them will take over. 

But the many viewpoints has required a lot of listening and learning. You have to be willing to do things that are different from your own customs, and to be willing to be a part of their culture and customs. For example the traditional liturgies for wedding, funerals, and baptisms are things we humans put together, not something literally found in the Bible, so it gives a lot of leeway for cultural expressions. And I’ve had to learn and listen to the many cultural traditions in these different rites of passage.

I remember one Burmese wedding I did for a couple. Instead of the traditional unity candle up front behind the couple, there was one candle lit to represent the deceased brother of the bride. At the wedding, her father would actually come up during the ceremony to share about her deceased brother’s life. The bride explained to me that this was a Burmese tradition—a concrete way to remember her brother and have him share in her special day.

Research shows that churches that grow and embrace change like your own are also typically engaged with their community. How has that been true for First Baptist?

We really do want to be a church that reaches out and interfaces with the community. We just had our 2nd Health Fair, and partnered with the Pacific Justice League which helps immigrant parents with school issues. We offer a food pantry as well as Treasure Box (a monthly $32 box of food enough for a family of four for a week), and showers and bus tokens for the homeless. We also recently agreed to be a host site for Family Promise, a multi-congregation collaborative to temporarily house and feed homeless families with the goal to place them in permanent housing.

Our gym is opened every Sunday afternoon for youth. With the lack of a green space in our area, we put in an outdoor basketball court in the parking lot for anyone to use in the community and it’s used everyday (Incidentally, this greatly decreased the amount of graffiti on our property). We also help our many immigrants with translation, write letters of reference, and show up at the courts to be a witness for them. We also offer various ESL and citizenship classes, have a SAT prep school, a summer day camp and daycare – preschool on site too

In September we will have a 9/11 commemoration service honoring the Fire and Police Department with the Mayor attending. At our church, we ask members to give 50% of their volunteer time to the church, and 50% to the local community. Many members have given their time to planning commissions, the HUD commission, Alhambra & San Gabriel Valley hospital, and adult education for the city. Pastor Josh Sands (the youth pastor) recently became the chaplain for Alhambra High School’s football team. I am a member of Alhambra’s Rotary Club, a volunteer chaplain for San Gabriel Valley Hospital, and on the City library trustees board. All in all we want the community to know that we are here to help the community, and to be a witness to Christ.

Interview has been edited and condensed.Photo by Nathan Solis

First Baptist Church of Alhambra is located on 101 S. Atlantic Blvd, Sunday Services are at 9:00am and 10:45am.

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3 thoughts on “Learning to pray in 27 languages”

  1. There are aging white churches all over the southland… it’s like the congregants are sitting around waiting for the next generation of young white families to move into town. It’s refreshing to see not just a pastor with the courage to reach out to the wave of immigrants sweeping over Alhambra, but also that the congregants were on board in vision and treasure.

  2. Wonderful that First Baptist of Alhambra is involved in being part of the community rather that just being in the community!

  3. Fascinating article. Really underlines the notion that no matter what cultural, ethnic or religious background we come from, we ALL believe there is one entity we call “God.”

    Kudos to Pastor Leland Hamby and thanks to Alhambra Source for posting this.