Church rises to challenge of multicultural membership, international needs Tiny congregation 'like a family'

Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, a small church in Hickory Ridge, turned 30 this month, and like any other veteran, it's changing with the times.

For years, the congregation was predominantly white. But during the last decade, blacks and immigrants from India, the Middle East and Liberia have joined the church.


"The face of our church is changing," said the Rev. Albert Ely, pastor of the 180-member church since January 1976. "I think we need to be open to a more multicultural community."

To cope with that change, the church at Owen Brown Road and Cedar Lane will conduct a multicultural discussion this month, focusing on how the races can overcome fears and concerns about their differences.


"Our culture is changing, and we need to change with the times, I think," said David L. Osmundson, president of the church's congregation.

Known for its five-octave handbell choir, the church was founded in 1963 when a local farmer donated 6.8 acres of land.

The shift in the church's demographics began in 1983, when the first black woman joined the congregation, Mr. Ely said.

"She told me she stood on the parking lot for a while before she came in because she didn't know what she'd find inside," he said.

Another black member, Andre Robinson, who has attended the church for 10 years, said he was attracted by the congregation's small size and intimate atmosphere.

"It makes you feel wanted," the Woodlawn resident said. "It's more like a family than a church."

Working as a family, the congregation helped Vietnamese and Polish couples, and an Ethiopian refugee settle in the United States in the 1980s.

The reaching out hasn't ended.


The church helped a Vietnamese couple find housing, clothes and jobs in this country, and provided financial aid and other help for the young Ethiopian.

"It's not a lot, you know," Mr. Ely said, "but for a little church it's something."

Members are trying to bring congregant Sophia Suah's children from civil war-torn Liberia, where the woman's husband was shot to death. She came here in May 1990 to live with her daughter, who attends Abiding Savior.

Ms. Suah said Mr. Ely has been a blessing.

"If we need him, he comes to our house for words of prayer," she said.

Her brother, James D. Norris, the mayor of Gbarngia, Liberia, visited the church when he was in the area for treatment at a Baltimore hospital after injuring his left leg while jumping over a barbed wire fence to escape cross-fire in his homeland.


Not so long ago, Daniel Solee was in a similar situation.

An assistant transportation secretary in Liberia, he came to Alexandria, Va., in June 1990 for an international conference. The eruption of the civil war prevented his return home.

His wife came four months later, but they lost contact with their three children, who had fled to the Republic of Guinea.

After settling in Columbia, Mr. Solee began attending Abiding Savior. To help bring his children here, church members contacted several U.S. senators.

In January 1991, the children arrived.

"The church was very instrumental in getting my children over here," Mr. Solee said.


"This is what the church is all about," Mr. Ely said.