The central Nebraska community of Lexington has seen its population grow in the past 20 years, from 6,000 in the 1990s to more than 10,000 in the most recent census.
The growth was thanks to a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant, which not only added to the population but turned it into a multicultural city.
“The community that we sit in the middle of is 62 percent Hispanic, with another 10 or 12 percent nonwhites,” said the Rev. Anne Gahn, Lexington First United Methodist Church pastor.
Gahn’s church, however, is less than one-half percent nonwhite, she said.
“We thoroughly believe that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ heaven’s going to look a lot different than our church does,” Gahn added. “We’re trying to live into that call into community, that call to embrace diversity. We all feel pretty connected in that God has called us together for a pretty incredible reason.”
One step toward reaching out to the community was the church’s first Festival of Friendship, March 24.
Through music, dance, food and sharing stories, church members and those in the community were invited to learn more about those living around them.
“We started off just thinking of where we are as a community, and how to help people talk to one another and extending the process beyond seeing people’s faces on the street,” said Albert Longe, the church’s multicultural coordinator.
Curiosity about the food – specifically, the African dish of goat and rice – lured one couple, said community member Gladys Godinez.
“Once they were in a comfortable place, they were able to taste the food,” Godinez said. “It was their ability to be a little bit outside their comfort zone and enjoy what the community has to offer.”
Gahn said the highlight for her was the music, where Hispanic and English lyrics were sung by the 50-plus people in attendance.
“To me, that was a glimpse of what integrated worship could possibly look and sound like,” she said. “It was beautiful.”
Jose Antonio, another community member, said Lexington currently has about 6,000 Hispanic residents, but their countries of origin vary greatly, as does their willingness to comingle.
“The main problem with our community in Lexington is every group is like an island,” Antonio said. “There’s a lot of islands.”
Antonio was encouraged by the cooperation he saw at the festival.
“We don’t have the answer, but it is a beginning. It was a very good beginning,” he said.
Longe, who was hired as the church’s multicultural coordinator a few months earlier, said he was encouraged by a couple who drove about 85 miles to attend the festival.
“To me, it was an expression of people wanting to go a certain way, wanting to be associated with change, with inclusion, with diversity,” he said. “That was the kind of message I was getting from them.”
The inclusion of other cultures and outreach to the community will continue in the church, including a spring cleanup weekend a week after Easter, and an effort to bring activities to local parks.
“I think we’ll all do a better job living and taking care of folks on the edge when we learn to know each other,” Gahn said. “We are just getting started, without a doubt.”
David Burke, communications coordinator, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.