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A selection of exhibit photos.

A selection of images from "A Mighty Fortress Far From Lake Wobegon."

A long way from Lake Wobegon

By Pauline Oo

Nov. 22, 2006

Ethnic restaurants are one way to tell if an immigrant population exists in a community. Another way, I've recently learned, is to visit the churches. And if you happen to be in the Twin Cities, Lutheran churches should top your list.

The latest exhibit from the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center is a definite eye-opener in terms of who makes up Minneapolis and St. Paul. "A Mighty Fortress Far from Lake Wobegon" takes visitors into 16 Lutheran congregations and--through photographs, audio-visual recordings and hymnals--shows that Minnesotans are more than just white and Scandinavian; they are also Chinese, Hmong, Lao, Tanzanian, Liberian and Sudanese.

"Lutheran culture is at the heart of Minnesotan culture," says University of Minnesota student Allison Adrian, who created the exhibit with renowned photographer Wing Young Huie. "It is distressing to me that the stories of who we are as Minnesotans have not changed much from those created and told over a century ago, while the make-up of our state has changed tremendously."

Between 1990 and 2000, Minnesota's foreign-born population increased 130 percent to more than 260,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Minnesota currently ranks highest in the nation for proportion of refugees to residents and second in the nation, after California, in the number of refugee arrivals.

Adrian, a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology/musicology, received a summer grant through the College of Liberal Arts and the School of Music to collaborate with Huie on capturing the images for her dissertation on Lutheran church music in the Twin Cities. The idea of the exhibit started when Donna Gabaccia, director of the U's Immigration History Research Center, approached them about displaying their work in the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. The center, founded in 1965 and located on the third floor of the library, has one of the largest and most important collections of U.S. immigration and refugee life anywhere in the world. (see sidebar)

Immigration history at its best

The Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota promotes research on migration with a special emphasis on immigration to the United States. The thousands of materials in its collections--such as personal papers of community leaders, records of fraternal organizations and books and newspapers originating from prolific ethnic presses in the United States and Canada from the late 19th century to the present--come from around the world directly from immigrants and their descendants.

Recently, the Encyclopedia Britannica selected the center's Web site as a "Britannica iGuide site" and will present it as a recommended resource for its online readers. This means that when one of Britannica's readers conducts a search of a topic relevant to the center's Web site, a link will automatically be provided. To learn more, listen to U of M Moment.

"It has been a terrific resource," says Adrian of the Immigration History Research Center. As part of her research, Adrian--who was raised a Catholic in White Bear Lake, Minn.--also attended up to four Lutheran services each Sunday for the past three years.

"As a native Minnesotan, I have always been interested in perceptions of who Minnesotans are," she says. "As an aspiring ethnomusicologist, I am interested in the ways people decide to make music. I combined these two interests when I began researching for my dissertation [and] I found a surprising amount of ethnic diversity within the Lutheran church, especially given the media's portrayal of Minnesotan Lutheranism as Scandinavian. This diversity is dramatically apparent in the worship music featured in Lutheran services around the Twin Cities."

For example, immigrant congregations reserve much of their two- to three-hour service for music (older Lutheran congregations tend to limit services to one hour); African drums always appear next to traditional Western instruments at Lutheran services for the Anuak community, an ethnic group from southeastern Sudan and western Ethiopia; the Minnesota Faith Chinese Lutheran Choir sings hymns in Mandarin; and virtually all song and worship books at Hmong Central Lutheran Church are written in the Hmong language.

Today nearly seventy million Christians belong to Lutheran churches worldwide. The United States ranks as the fourth largest mission field for Lutheranism, which was started by German monk Martin Luther who sought to reform the practices of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. A cursory search on the City of Minneapolis Web site reveals almost 80 Lutheran churches within city limits, followed by Catholic (51) and Baptist (50) churches.

Adrian says she chose to work with Huie--a lapsed Presbyterian born and bred in Duluth--because she felt that their "interests and objectives were well-aligned."

"He enjoys creating images of people and I enjoy talking with people about music and writing about it," she explains. Huie 's most well known work is Lake Street USA, an exhibition of 675 photographs that transformed six miles of a Minneapolis thoroughfare into a remarkable public art project. The exhibition earned Huie the title of "Artist of the Year" in 2000 from the Star Tribune.

Two photos from the exhibit.

"For the last decade I've been photographing the dizzying mixture of socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural communities that encompass my home state of Minnesota, a place that bears little resemblance to Garrison Keillor's fictional land of Lake Wobegon," says Huie in his artist statement. "What I want is to reveal is not only what is hidden, but also what is plainly visible and seldom noticed."

When asked if there is a difference between listening to music in a Lutheran church and Catholic church, Adrian was a little stumped for an answer.

"That's a great question I haven't really thought about much," she replies. "The Catholic church is also seeing the same trend-these changes in demographics are not exclusive to the Lutheran church-[but] from what I can tell, the Lutheran church may be better positioned to more readily embrace differences in musical traditions because of Martin Luther's focus on making church more accessible to all people."

More on immigration

On Tuesday, Dec. 5, the Immigration History Research Center will host a talk by University professor Katherine Fennelly on "Determinants of American Attitudes Toward Immigration." The free event will be held at noon in 308 Elmer L. Andersen Library.

On Friday, Dec. 8, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center will cosponsor a free screening of the documentary Crossing Arizona, followed by a panel discussion from 7 to 9:15 p.m. in Room 25 at the U of M Law School. The film tells the story of how lawmakers and Americans have gotten to where they are today in the debate over immigration.

Adrian says she wants people who visit the exhibit to leave with "an enhanced curiosity about who Minnesotans are today."

"I hope the music [that plays continuously in the exhibit hall] follows them to school, work and home, motivating them to explore in greater scrutiny the world they navigate daily, to think about the contradiction between the Minnesota stereotype and the people they see everyday," she says.

"A Mighty Fortress Far from Lake Wobegon" is free and runs through Dec. 29 in the Elmer L. Andersen's atrium gallery; viewing hours are weekdays 8 to 4:30 p.m.

Exhibit cosponsors include the University of Minnesota Asian American Studies Program, Department of American Studies, Department of Chicano Studies, Friends of the IHRC, Institute for Advanced Study and the Minnesota Journalism Center.

Further reading Eye on immigration