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Toronto Church Enfolds Iranian Newcomers

December 15, 2021
Photo: Christian Courier

This story first appeared in the Christian Courier and has been republished with permission.

In three years, Willowdale Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont. has almost doubled in size, thanks to Farsi-speaking newcomers from Iran. Long-time members of Willowdale’s congregation will tell anyone who listens that this is the work of the Holy Spirit.

No one planned to have a ministry to Christians who speak Farsi, but church members count it a blessing the day that Sylvie Charliekaram her husband, Nassar (Nathan) Zand, came to worship at Willowdale for the first time in 2015, looking for a distinctively Reformed community where they could be enfolded and invite their friends.

And bring their friends they did! This congregation has witnessed over 80 baptisms in the past two years, with 20 more waiting to join. Sylvie and Nassar are now the leaders of a large group of Farsi folks who meet weekly and stay in touch with each other daily through social media. But their desire and that of the Willowdale congregation wasn’t to start a new congregation solely made up of Farsi newcomers; it was to lean into becoming a church of all nations where ministry, fellowship and life was shared with diverse members of the community.

Part of My Story

From a very young age, I have been attracted to cross-cultural friendships and experiences. I was a Spanish major in university and lived several times in Spain, preaching my first sermon in Spanish. I have traveled and lived with families all over the world. Those experiences have brought me much joy and growth, but also challenges and even heartache when there have been miscommunications or misunderstandings. In the end, the real joy comes from working through the challenges to a deeper understanding and respect for others. Looking back, I believe that God used these experiences to prepare me for my current support work as one of the supply teaching pastors at Willowdale CRC.

Building Trust

How do you create a new community with two very distinct culture groups?

The Holy Spirit had already been ushering Willowdale into a space of deep hospitality with a switch to weekly communion. This became pivotal in welcoming new members: despite the language barriers in other aspects of the worship service, Farsi believers often mention that gathering each Sunday around the Lord’s Table transcends culture and language and creates a strong sense of belonging for them as newcomers.

Another way to build trust in the midst of increasing diversity is to share stories and to explore themes like worldview, relationships, power, authority, leadership and trust itself. That’s why the congregation created an Inter-Cultural Enfolding Team to help a small group of members begin to understand some of the cross-cultural dynamics that they would need to navigate as the congregation grew in numbers and diversity. The purpose of the group – composed of Farsi speakers, original Willowdale members, a Korean and a Filipino – was to listen and learn about how folks from different cultural backgrounds and age demographics can create a new culture at Willowdale. This required moving from a seemingly benign denial that there are any differences to accepting and making use of cultural diversity, without giving the differences too much weight.

Seeking that fine balance was a joy. Using a book called Understanding Us & Them: Interpersonal Cultural Intelligence for Community Building Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim as a guide, the group shared stories about their stereotypes of people from other countries. They talked about things like collectivism versus individualism, warm cultures versus cold cultures, doing versus being, and egalitarian versus hierarchical leadership.

Often the first thought that comes to mind, when you’re experiencing a cross-cultural moment, is “That’s weird!” We want to move past the initial reaction to a place of understanding, care and respect. Helping folks from various cultural backgrounds listen to each other was most important here. It was not one group teaching the other “how things ought to be.” It was a listen and learn experience meant to build relationships and mutuality and hopefully lead to deepening friendship.

Another hope was that this experience would produce 10 members of the congregation who were better attuned to those times when occasional conflicts or misunderstandings were more about cross-cultural disconnects and not personality. The shared trust between members of this group was intended to work like leaven within the rest of the congregation. Their focus was on strategies for mutually enfolding each other into a new expression of the Body of Christ at Willowdale.

It has been beautiful to see participants moving beyond the polite stage, willing now to state their deepest desires for the whole life of the congregation.

Translation Approaches

Language barriers remain an ongoing challenge. It was decided early on that the Farsi group would meet regularly for teaching and fellowship in Farsi. It is helpful and comforting to talk about faith in one’s heart language. Worship services continue to be somewhat bilingual. Every week the congregation recites the Apostles Creed simultaneously in English and Farsi. Prayers are often projected on the screen in the opposite language of the person speaking. The occasional song is sung in both languages when possible.

Sermon outlines are translated into Farsi and distributed to listeners, and the sermon video is subsequently dubbed into Farsi and also made available to those who would like to listen to it again. Because of COVID, Willowdale currently does a hybrid service with people on Zoom and people in the building. This allows for the sermon to be transcribed live, which is also helpful to those who are English learners. A post-worship sermon reflection time allows for questions of clarification and expansion. It is attended by both English and Farsi speakers and benefits from the translation skills of Sylvie who has the gifts to be able to do this in the moment.

Members of Willowdale are aware that having different parts of the service led and experienced in one’s heart language will long be important, especially since Farsi newcomers continue to join the fellowship. To that end, a room is under construction to make simultaneous translation of the entire service possible.

A Renewed Vision for Ministry

The work of birthing a new iteration of Willowdale CRC that reflects the “Church of All Nations” takes a great deal of intentionality and patience. We are all learners on a long journey. This journey is forming our faith in deep and life-giving ways. The congregation has a front row seat to a Revelation 7 vision of Christ’s Church, which is appropriate as it is located in one of the most multicultural cities in Canada.

How the lessons prepare them for others the Spirit may bring, and how what they’re learning may bless other congregations around the CRCNA remains to be seen. Often members will testify to the fact that they can take no credit for where they are today. It continues to be a partnership with the Holy Spirit taking the lead, reminding them that pains of this shared journey are well worth the joy of experiencing renewed vision for ministry.