“Kombo kombo na yo,” the choir sang in Lingala Sunday as the tempered beat of a bass drum bounced off the stained-glass windows at Forest Hills Baptist Church.
A woman wearing an African headwrap and a black dress swayed in her seat, eyes closed and hands waving with the music. Others – black, white, Middle Eastern and Asian – filed in around her, stopping to greet old friends and welcome newcomers. They settled in for traditional prayers, Bible readings and hymns, sprinkled with a Mandarin Chinese choir performance and the baptism of five new members hailing from China and Africa.
The Mosaic service, held three times a year at Forest Hills, is a challenge to “the most segregated hour in America” – when Christians of similar races attend different churches on Sunday – Forest Hills pastors said.
Some worshipers prefer to dance and may even speak in tongues, they said. Others prefer a more traditional service of hymns, readings and prayer. The Mosaic service celebrates those differences, church officials and members said, while also recognizing a common journey of faith.
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“The core is the same, because it is God who is glorified and it is Jesus Christ who is uplifted in all that we do,” pastor Ngoma Masiala said. The Mosaic service “is important because we are just one in the body of Jesus Christ.”
The Dixie Trail church has been a home away from home for people from many places and many faiths over the years, he said.
The outreach started in the 1970s; pastor Jane Pan, whose parents were Chinese and Japanese, was one of the first N.C. State students invited to worship and share a meal with the congregation’s families in their homes. The ministry has grown over the years to include more college students and visiting scholars, along with a host of professionals who moved from around the world to work in Research Triangle Park.
Forest Hills now has four congregations – English-speaking, United African Baptist, Farsi Fellowship and Chinese Baptist – each with its own style, languages and hours for worship.
“It’s really cool how it all comes together, and we’re worshiping the same God,” said Paul Toleman, the church’s minister of music. “It’s really a lot more what heaven’s going to be like.”
Sunday’s service was also the first Sunday of Advent – a season of hope leading to Christ’s birth, senior pastor Neil Westbrook said.
“There is hope for each one of us, and there is hope for our world today,” he said.
Hope and love can be a bridge between cultures, said Pastor Asad Hashemi, a native of Iran. Roughly 95 percent of Forest Hills’ Farsi-speaking congregation were Muslim when they arrived in the U.S., he said. His own conversion to Christianity came in 1983, Hashemi said.
It can be difficult and even dangerous to be Christian in Muslim countries, he said. Two Farsi-speaking women among those baptized Sunday did not want to be identified for fear their families still in the Middle East could become ISIS targets, church officials said.
Hashemi said he, too, was followed and threatened after converting to Christianity. Others walked away from him, including more than a hundred people who left an event he was hosting after he prayed “in the name of Jesus.”
Religion doesn’t define people, he said, because there is good and bad in all faiths and all cultures. It is by loving and serving other people that you teach them what it means to be a Christian, he said.
“When you serve people, you show your love for them,” he said. “That’s what it really means to minister, to serve the community as much as we can (and to have) Muslims and Christians who love each other, not hate each other, and love other faiths.”