For three years, Chinese immigrants in west Pasco County have been meeting weekly at a Christian church to practice their faith in their native language.
NEW PORT RICHEY - The service is modest and simple.
A dozen or so people gather in a room with four blank walls and a Formica conference table. There are no altars or stained-glass windows. No windows at all, for that matter.
But to a group of China-born Christians in west Pasco, the one-hour service is a chance to worship from the heart and in their native language.
"It's more comfortable because if you want to pray in English, it's kind of hard," said Phillip Lee, the organizer.
For three years, Lee has been gathering Chinese Christians at his New Port Richey home for meals and at Living Word Church on Rowan Road to read the Bible and practice their faith. They pray in Chinese, sing hymns in Chinese and read from Chinese Bibles.
It's a comfort, Lee says, to people so far from their homeland and in a county with fewer than 500 Chinese residents, according to the 2000 Census.
Nancy Gray, program director with the World Relief refugee resettlement agency, said gatherings like this one for immigrants can be beneficial on two fronts. Because they meet in an American church, the people will become more easily acclimated to their new culture by mingling with English speakers, but they'll also retain their own ethnic traditions by forming connections with other people from their country.
Children, especially, are at risk of forgetting their native language when they move here, she said.
"A lot of the kids, if they're thrown into the American system, they lose their native language. They can't even speak it," she said. "But if they're put in a situation where they have to speak their first language, they're going to retain it."
Lee, 55, is originally from the Honan Province in northern China. He moved to the United States before the Communist Party took power in China and has lived in Pasco for about five years. He brings new people into the group by first inviting them to his home on Saturday nights for dinner and Bible study.
One man who attended on a recent Sunday will soon return to China, where Christians are not free to practice their religion. He asked that his name not be printed, for fear of recognition.
A family who used to attend the service, Lee says, now meets to worship in the top floor of their home in China, with heavy curtains drawn.
"They have to keep very quiet," he said.
So despite the lack of any trappings, the group at Living Word appears to find fulfillment.
Tears stream down faces as people go around the room offering praise. Spontaneous "Amens" rise up from the table again and again. A tape plays hymn music.
Lee calls the service the Lord's Table. Communion is served toward the end; a plate of crackers is passed, and wine is poured into tiny plastic vials.
"We remember at the Lord's Table what Jesus did," Lee said. "Everyone participates because everyone has the salvation."
The service is for all ages, but some members send their children to Living Word's regular Sunday school classes.
Sherry Huo, 16, gets dropped off by her parents, who attend another Christian church. She has lived in Pasco about a year since moving from Xian, China.
"I just feel that this is a really blessed group," said Huo, who became a Christian after moving to the United States. "Everybody just feels so happy to come here, to read and to pray."
Huo speaks clear and comfortable English, but she said it's more natural for her to pray in Chinese.
"I'm actually more familiar with Chinese than with English. I can comprehend every single word," she said.
But for Huo the comfort goes beyond language: "Everybody's Chinese, so I feel very familiar surrounded by Chinese culture."If you go
WHAT: Living Word Church
WHERE: 5151 Rowan Road, New Port Richey, (727) 845-8877
WHEN: Chinese church group meets at 9:30 a.m. Sundays for Bible study, and 11 a.m. for the Lord's Table worship service. Wednesday night Bible studies are at 7 p.m.