The reading began in English. John 3:16: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Slowly, the Bible verse traveled around the worship center — and the globe — as it was repeated in the languages of Kenya, Senegal, the Congo, Bhutan, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
For pastor Harun Gatobu, that moment was one of the best parts of a weekly multicultural worship service that met for the first time Sunday at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Lexington.
Gatobu, who helped create the unique service, said even though the 100 worshipers came from 20 countries, they share a singular devotion to the Bible and the word of God.
Gatobu, who moved to the United States with his family three years ago, said what refugees and immigrants often miss when they move to Kentucky is a service that feels like home.
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"Back home," he said, "we stay together as a community. When people come here, they don't have a community right away."
The multicultural service has been several years in the making, said one of the organizers, the Rev. Reid Buchanan. A committee was formed in 2009, and it met monthly to explore the idea. Their research showed that there were about 2,000 immigrants from Africa, South America and Asia who might be attracted to St. Luke for a multicultural service, Buchanan said.
The key was to create a service that felt familiar and comforting to a variety of nationalities without being too centered on one tradition.
"We do deal with a number of different nationalities. ... It's not quite African; it's not quite South American. It's going to continue to grow," he said.
The first weekly service featured readings in French, the language spoken in many African countries; music, drums and dancing from Congo; spirituals from black America; and a sermon in English by Gatobu that touched on the difficulties of adapting to a new culture.
He told the story of when he tried to order a free pizza, a food he still greatly enjoys, at a time when he didn't know what toppings meant or that pizzas came in sizes. (His free coupon was good only for a small, one-topping pizza and he didn't have any cash.) He said in his sermon that God helped him through that minor struggle: The pizza didn't arrive in 30 minutes, so he got it for free. God also helps with more complicated problems, he said.
Many of those attending the multicultural service, including about 12 people from Bhutan, had lost everything in their previous lives and had spent years in refugee camps.
"Their faith is what kept them going," Gatobu said. But when even a worship service seems foreign, he said, "that faith gets affected."
Buchanan and Gatobu said the people they hope to reach put a special emphasis not only on the worship service itself but on the fellowship that follows.
"Nobody was in a hurry" to leave, Gatobu said.
In fact, on that first Sunday, even after the scheduled 90-minute service stretched closer to two hours, ending at 5 p.m., the families hung around and talked, sharing food and fellowship for even longer.
Buchanan said the last person left well past 7 p.m.