RALEIGH — For each of the 18 Baptisms celebrated during Sunday’s worship service at Forest Hills Baptist Church, a candle was lit at the front of the sanctuary to represent every individual reborn in their faiths, and the light of Christ in the world.
In a rainbow of colors, the candles also were a reminder of the blend of cultures brought together in Forest Hill’s “mosaic services,” which combine the four linguistically separate fellowships that call the church home.
“The kingdom of heaven is filled with people of different nationalities and races,” said Jane Pan, pastor of Chinese Baptist Church, which shares Forest Hills with its original English-speaking membership, the United African Baptist Church and the Iranian Christian Fellowship. “To know that we are all Christians, though we speak different languages, is wonderful.”
Through the week, each group has its own worship services and events. But throughout the year, the different churches come together for services that incorporate elements from each. Sunday’s included a brief sermon by Forest Hill Senior Pastor Neil Westbrook and musical performances by the Chinese choir and the Farsi praise team.
After the service, members of all four congregations gathered in the church dining hall to celebrate the Chinese New Year, coming up Friday, with a meal and a dance performance provided by members of the Chinese church. The congregations will take turn hosting similar events this year, Westbrook said.
Since Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1953 that 11 a.m. each Sunday morning begins “the most segregated hour in Christian America,” churches have wondered whether – and how – to make their sanctuaries better reflect the demographics of their communities. Some churches now have more racially and ethnically mixed congregations, and others offer their space for temporary use by start-up churches whose membership is different from their own.
Forest Hill’s arrangement is unusual because the church, on Dixie Trail off Wade Avenue, is the permanent home for all four of its churches.
Seeing them together, Westbrook said, “Helps you to remember how big God really is.”
Yinka Jolaoso and his wife, Ruth, helped launched the African church after moving to North Carolina in 1985. Originally from Nigeria, Jolaoso visited a couple of churches in the area but said he was not made welcome in either.
Forest Hills, he said, was different. He and his family were treated warmly, and eventually he was asked to start a fellowship for African nationals who were living in the Triangle. From that grew the United African Baptist Church.
At Sunday’s luncheon, Jolaoso pushed aside his plate of Chinese dumplings for a moment and opened his Bible to the book of Acts, running his finger over verses from the second chapter, describing the beginnings of the Christian church among diverse peoples.
“In heaven,” Jolaoso said he believes, “people from all over the world, from all ethnic groups, with different colors of skin, all will be there.”
Having them worship together here, he said, “This is like a miniature heaven.”