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Signs and Events—or Relationships?

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

All of our community outreach centers around a church, a Vietnamese congregation, that meets in the basement of a large, mostly-white church. Outside the building stands a little sign. The sign says, “Vietnamese Lutheran Fellowship” in Vietnamese script. Placing the sign in front of the building was one of the first things that our host congregation wanted to do when we moved in. They thought the sign would attract other Vietnamese people to come to church there.

I knew that wasn’t going to work. In fact, in 13 years we haven’t had a single Vietnamese person come to our church because of the sign. Why? Because Vietnamese people don’t do walk-ins. They won’t come to a strange building where they know nobody just because they saw a sign saying, “Welcome!” As far as we were concerned, the only purpose of the sign was to let non-Vietnamese people know where we were—so they could call us for help if they knew a Vietnamese person in trouble.

What about you? Perhaps you’re running a program in your neighborhood to which you’d like to attract people. If you are part of mainstream American culture, your first impulse is probably to put up a sign, as well. And that’s okay.

But if the people you’re trying to encourage to come are from a different culture, you can forget about the sign. Many—let’s say most—cultures just don’t work that way. If you want people to come, you need to get out of your building and go meet the people where they are. You need to go to them. They will not come to you.

Forget the community invitations, the open house day, the “neighborhood fair” (held on your property, naturally). You’re going to put way more money and effort into it than you’re ever going to get back. Try something else.

Where do your people hang out? Is there a local restaurant, a bar, a coffee shop? Could you arrange to be there informally on a regular basis, chatting up the locals?

Is there a hospital nearby, with an emergency room full of hurting people? Perhaps you could offer interpretation services. Maybe you could bring sandwiches or bottled water—or crayons and coloring books for the kids. Make yourself useful. People will get to know you, and decide whether they can trust you.

You can even go for walks in your neighborhood saying hello to people and striking up easy, non-pressured conversations when you have the chance. Don’t be pushy. Just say, “hi,” and maybe briefly mention who you are and where you’re from. As you get to know people, you can offer help if it seems needed—or even ask for help yourself! By that point, you will be neighbors and no longer complete strangers.

Then—and only then—you will have a fair chance at seeing people come through your doors. They will know you already, at least a little. At that point, you can show them everything else you have to offer.

How can you implement some of these ideas to welcome people in your community? Is your neighborhood multicultural, and if so, how might you best reach people from different cultures? Can you research the traditions of these different cultures at your public library? Could you make a point to honestly and humbly ask questions as you meet people? However you go about it, putting yourself out there (rather than expecting people to come to you) is generally a more effective way to get to know those around you.

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