Madison churches embrace immigrants

January 21, 2008

This article, Churches here embrace immigrants and their languages, was published in The Capital Times, a local newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin:

Moving to a new country and trying to fit in with the community can be difficult, and for some immigrant families in Madison, it’s a church that can provide a sense of home.

That’s been the experience of Sy Inthachak, who attends Bethany Evangelical Free Church on the city’s east side. Inthachak grew up in Laos but fled the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and spent 10 years in a Thai refugee camp before coming to the United States.

Along with another family of five, Inthachak and his family started attending Bethany Evangelical Free Church 10 years ago, and through word of mouth, the Lao Fellowship there has now blossomed to about 50 people.

“It’s our home church. It’s kind of our foundation,” Inthachak said. “We feel like family and we’re so happy to be a part of Bethany.”

While some alternate language churches in Madison have congregations large enough to support their own free-standing church, others are smaller offshoots that share space with English-speaking congregations. Services in Spanish are widespread, but French, Chinese, Korean, Lao and Hmong are among the other languages that are represented. Though many of the alternate language churchgoers speak English, participating in a religious service in their native language can feel more personal. Some churches plan special events around the Christmas holiday that incorporate elements of other cultures and traditions.

“People just generally seek out a congregation that has some kind of comfort level,” said Gordon Govier, editor of, a Christian community Internet portal based in Madison. “It could be ethnicity, it could be multi-ethnicity, it could be doctrine — people have a lot of choices.

“We have kind of a smorgasbord environment in terms of religion these days,” he said.

… The church offers a place where Hmong Americans can connect with one another, Xiong said. Still, he works to find a balance of services that will interest several different generations of people.

Services are offered in Hmong, which “folks from the old country” appreciate, Xiong said. For the benefit of children, there is a youth group in English and a rock band that plays contemporary Christian music during worship.

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