Photos by Callie Mechelke
Freshman Natalia Escobedo prefers to worship in Spanish.
Junior Ikechukwu Egwuonwu likes Nigerian Gospel music.
Senior Anna Renfro enjoys traditional Christian hymns.
Everyone worships differently.
Worship isn’t just white, isn’t just Western, as scholars said some presume. Worship is colorful, global and shaped by all identities.
“We need to realize that not everyone worships or accesses God in the same way,” said David Humphrey, associate dean of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion.
Ethnicity, culture, national origin, gender and sexuality are some of the markers that shape not only how one sees God, but also how one prefers to approach worship.
“All [cultures] have their own styles of worship but if we take them into the bigger picture, they’re all parts of the body of Christ,” sophomore David Kim said. “Let’s just say the Korean culture was the left arm and the Latino culture was the right arm – but when they come together they’re just arms on the same body. They’re just one.”
However, white Christians are often not aware that their culture influences how they practice their faith, said Religion Professor Raymond Carr, who teaches a class on exploring theologies born of struggle, including Native American, black, feminist, womanist and LGBTQ+ theology.
“Christian faith can be very different depending on what kind of cultural matrix you come out of,” Carr said. “These are real differences that we sometimes really don’t acknowledge for people and so we end up undermining their faith or undermining their culture for our brand of faith.”
Different cultures have shaped and adapted Christian worship throughout the years, Carr said. So Christian belief shouldn’t be thought of as Western belief, as Christianity can be shaped, practiced and celebrated by every culture.
“Culture Christianity is when you confuse Christianity or Christian belief with the ideas of Western society,” Carr said. “The problem is that when you use Christianity to defend [your] culture it doesn’t render you open to other cultures. And then you use God to justify your particular culture.”
To accept different types of worship, it is vital to adhere to a model of Christianity shaped more by the Gospel of Christ than by American ideals, Carr said.
“Part of the problem is that only certain narratives are being used and only certain narratives are being heard,” he said. “And so it makes us one-sided when we got all of this beauty, all of this polyphony. We got this kaleidoscope of different sounds but we’re reducing them to one sound.”
Music oftentimes shapes people’s experience in worship and music is shaped by culture. Most students said some type of music – contemporary Gospel, classical, instrumental, choir – helps them feel the Holy Spirit more than another.
Egwuonwu, who grew up with a strong Nigerian background and was raised around African American communities, said his preferred way of worship is through Nigerian and Gospel music.
“I feel like there’s a certain emotional pour out from music because it comes from what you’re feeling,” he said.
He said when he came to Pepperdine, it was hard for him to connect with instrumental worship like Celebration Chapel because he was used to worshipping in different styles. Egwuonwu is the vice president of worship Word Up, a platform that students created to have the freedom to explore contemporary worship styles. The gathering is typically held once a month and plays contemporary Gospel music.
Junior Peace Ikediuba, a singer in Word Up who also grew up in a Nigerian Christian home, said musical worship is her favorite way of approaching God.
“In the morning when I’m showering getting ready for the day – I turn on my speakers to a playlist called Soul Cleanse,” Ikediuba said. “I’ll just play that for the whole time I’m getting ready and just let the words get ingrained in my head so that whatever happens throughout the day, I’m remembering those words and what they mean to me.”
Religion Professor Dan Rodriguez said Gospel music came about as a result of a sense of agency within African American churches.
“[During segregated America] people of color couldn’t control what happened in many places, but they [could] control what happened in the church,” Rodriguez said. “And in one way they expressed that freedom was through their worship style.”
David Kim and sophomore Justin Chai, who are both Korean American, said music plays a big role in the way they worship. Kim said his parents encouraged him to learn how to play classical instruments from an early age and inspired him to acquire a love for music, which led him to eventually become a guitar worship leader at his church.
“Music is my most comfortable form of worship because it’s what I’ve grown up with my entire life,” David Kim said. “I play guitar, piano, cello, saxophone and violin too.”
Sociology Professor Rebecca Kim said the Korean Evangelical worship style typically involves instrumental praise. She said for older generations this means singing in Korean, while younger generations usually prefer to worship in English.
“And so the big tension is that [younger generations] don’t want to worship in the Korean language,” Rebecca Kim said. “Even within a Korean immigrant church, there’s always the Korean-speaking group (KM) and an English-speaking group (EM). So the worship is obviously going to be different in the language that they choose.”
Speech, text, signs – they all shape the way one perceives and approaches worship.
Escobedo was born in San Diego but her family is from Guadalajara, Mexico. She said her Mexican grandmother, who is very devout in her Roman Catholic faith, mostly shaped her own religious life.
“My grandmother loves her saints. She loves the Virgin Mary; La Virgen de Guadalupe,” Escobedo said. “We would always go to church on Sundays and I was put in Catholic school from kindergarten to eighth grade because of that.”
Now that she’s in college, Escobedo said she prays mostly by herself.
“I don’t go to church as much as I used to when I was younger,” she said. “Since I used to go to Catholic school, I would go to church at least twice a week and then I went to public high school and I didn’t go to church as often. But my family and I still always prayed [together]. It’s something we’ve always done.”
In San Diego, Escobedo goes to church in English, but said she and her family cross the border to Tijuana during big holidays like Easter and Christmas to hear the services in Spanish as she connects most with her faith in that language.
“I feel that Spanish words have more weight to them,” she said. “In English we always say ‘I love you’ a lot even though we don’t mean it as much. But in Spanish when someone says the word ‘amar,’ it’s much more powerful.”
Junior Fernanda Alvarez, a Roman Catholic from Mexico City, said group worship is a big part of Latino culture.
“I pray in a group with my family every night,” Alvarez said.
Rodriguez said worshipping in Spanish is a way for some Latinos to feel closer to God. However, he explained that second- and third-generation Latinos often prefer to worship in English as it is the language they use most often with their friends.
“Most people, when it comes to worship, they prefer to do it in their native language,” he said. “They feel that they’re in the presence of God, ‘que tengan un sentir del sagrado’ – that they can feel the sacred.”
Some identities like music and language are culturally shaped, while others like gender and sexual orientation are biologically determined. Although biological identities are inherent, they can still rub against some church teachings. For women in many churches, their gender identity shapes how they should behave and sometimes impacts how they are able to worship.
In some Christian denominations, women are not allowed to lead worship. The Bible says in 1 Timothy 12, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”
Renfro, a member of the Church of Christ who grew up in a nondenominational Christian home, said she sometimes struggles with the idea that some churches don’t allow women to lead worship.
“To not see someone who is more like you and representative of that feminine approach to faith [leading worship] does say something,” Renfro said. “It’s almost like I can’t really be represented and therefore it’s harder for me to connect.”
Senior Erika Bartlett, a nondenominational Christian, said she also felt like there was a lack of representation in both of the churches she attended growing up. She said the lack of female leadership made her realize how much it was needed, not just at church but in all areas of the world.
“I think there’s a lot that could be done,” Bartlett said. “Even if you don’t think women should be preachers – which some denominations don’t – they still have valuable insight.”
She attended Bible studies at her church on “how to be a good Christian woman” that taught women “modest is hottest,” and urged her to dress modestly, remain sexually pure until marriage and always be kind.
“Thinking back on it, I don’t necessarily agree,” she said. “A woman can be whoever she wants. If you want to be a feminine woman, if you want to be strong, these qualities don’t need to be associated with gender.”
Bartlett thinks the first step to creating a more feminine approach to worship is to begin to understand the historical and social context of the specific passages that people reference [about women in worship] and understand how they can apply for our time today.
“I don’t think [they] necessarily [have] to mean the same thing,” Bartlett said. “For example, one of the passages is ‘women should not teach’ but if you actually read about it, it was because women [weren’t educated]. If you continue to read, it’ll say ‘instead let women learn,’ which was revolutionary at the time – to let women learn and become educated.”
She said it is this groundbreaking thinking that churches should focus on.
“I think people forget a lot that the things Jesus did were actually revolutionary,” Bartlett said. “Like just simply talking to women was revolutionary in the time period. So I think people should apply that same revolutionary thinking to today.”
History Professor Tanya Hart, who studies women’s history, agreed, arguing that there are many New Testament examples of women leading in the church.
“But over time it’s been the larger secular society saying that women can’t do this or you know, people who are black people, who are brown, people who are yellow can’t do this,” she said. “Christians have let those ideas come in and shape the church instead of letting Scripture and Jesus shape the church.”
Many LGBTQ+ students struggle with how to have their faith and sexuality coexist.
Feeling like one’s identity conflicts with one’s faith isn’t easy to come to terms with, senior Joshua Jones said. Jones struggled with being part of the LGBTQ+ community and attending a Christian church growing up.
“I myself identify as gay,” Jones said. “Growing up, I just wanted to be amongst people that I felt could understand me. Because oftentimes when you’re a minority, you feel very misunderstood.”
Jones attended church every Sunday right around the corner from his house. Oftentimes, the pastor would talk about how homosexuality grows out of sin.
“I was heavily involved, [which] just made me feel like if I ever came out I would be rejected as a member of that community,” Jones said.
Jones said homosexuality was never framed or mentioned in other contexts, which made him feel his church wasn’t preaching true Christian principles.
“I’d say one of the fundamental things about Christianity is it often gets lost in controversy about gender and sexual identity,” Jones said. “It just shows how people are willing to attack others who they don’t agree with and not really show the true concept of love that was commanded.”
Coming to Pepperdine was a relief for Jones in the sense that he found a worship space that was willing to hear him out. He thinks churches should accept LGBTQ+ members because the Gospel commands us to love one another.
“Love is a fundamental concept that God has commanded to us,” Jones said. “Being gay, you just want to show love to people [but] oftentimes you [don’t receive] love, which is against God’s greatest commandment – to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Sophomore Grace Ramsey, president of Pepperdine’s LGBTQ+ student club Crossroads, said she too struggled with feeling accepted.
“I am a panromantic asexual,” Ramsey said. “Asexuality is not having sexual attraction to anyone of any gender and panromanticism basically means that I still want romantic relationships but I’m open to having them with anyone of any gender.”
Ramsey said her sexual identity definitely makes her more reserved than she would want to be in terms of speaking her truth and giving testimony.
“But here at Pepperdine it’s really nice because I feel like everyone at least is willing to hear you out,” Ramsey said. “And a lot of people here that are very religious are very accepting of Crossroads’ members.”
In 2016, Pepperdine created Crossroads as Seaver’s first LGBTQ+ friendly club. Since then, students of all orientations have joined the club but there is still some work to be done, Ramsey said. She said the University should make sure LGBTQ+ students feel comfortable in worship.
“Pepperdine constantly talks about diversity and says that everybody is welcome, but when it comes to the faith there is, I’d say, almost no other group that’s been quite as excluded as members from our community,” Ramsey said. “So it kind of takes an extra little bit of reassurance to get people to trust.”
Humphrey said Student Affairs wants to help students connect with others who worship like them and create spaces of singing and praise.
“It’s important to find ways for students who feel like [Pepperdine] wasn’t made with them in mind to find a sense of belonging and to wrestle with difficult dialogue and difficult conversations,” he said. “It’s just about finding out where these students are and creating opportunities and spaces where [they] can come together and pray.”
The University Church of Christ recently created an instrumental Church of Christ worship service on Sunday nights, which senior Joshua Altrock leads.
“Naturally, one of the goals is that more students can participate in the church community,” Altrock said. “We have a lot of students whose background is in instrumental music and [since] the Sunday Church of Christ morning service is only acapella … not as many students were attending.”
Rodriguez said during his time at Pepperdine, he’s seen student participation in worship events increase.
“I think we’re seeing the highest participation of students in corporate worship than we’ve ever seen in the history of the school since it’s moved to Malibu,” he said.
Carr said it would be nice to “switch things up” when it comes to Pepperdine worship events to show more of a breadth of culture. For example, bringing the Word Up contemporary Gospel style to Wednesday convo or Celebration Chapel.
“I think it’s nice to – maybe once a month or once every other month – shift the focus a little bit and maybe do a different emphasis,” Carr said. “It’s always good to be a little bit predictably unpredictable in terms of worship and how we respond to God – because God is predictably unpredictable.”
Rebecca Kim also stressed that she thinks students of different cultures should hold leadership positions in traditional worship services and not just be the token “diverse” member, pushed to worship on the side.
“[There isn’t] one standard way of doing worship,” Rebecca Kim said. “Please do not tokenize minority students and be like, oh, worship in your way – show us, be onstage. No, let the mainstream incorporate the different songs and you know, give the minorities power to shape the way the worship is done instead of saying: ‘Oh, now we’ll have the minority night.’ You know?”
Hart said it is Pepperdine’s duty to love and accept women, LGBTQ+ and all minorities, and encourage them to lead in worship.
“We need to get real about Jesus,” Hart said. “He died to save everyone, not just a particular group. We’re here to love them and to accept them and embrace them and that’s what we need to do.”
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