The Soul of Los Angeles: Photographs from the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California

By Berndt, Jerry | Cross Currents, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Soul of Los Angeles: Photographs from the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California


Berndt, Jerry, Cross Currents


Los Angeles is a major gateway city for new immigrants and is already home to a population where one person in three is foreign born. Given the context of this amazing demographic shift, in the fall of 1998 the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California launched a two-year research project to study the role of religion for new immigrants to Los Angeles. The project was funded initially by the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation. During the project's second year, additional funding was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. This summary of the project's initial findings is excerpted from Immigrant Religion in the City of Angels, by Donald E. Miller (Executive Director and Professor of Religion), Jon Miller (Director of Research and Professor of Sociology), and Grace R. Dyrness (Associate Director). The photographs that follow are by Jerry Berndt. For additional photographs and information, visit the center's website at http://www.usc.edu/crcc.

The traditionalist view of the role of religion in the lives of immigrants stressed assimilation. Thus, the great melting pot subsumed cultures of origin and created an American identity that was tied to one of three religions: Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. Today, a new paradigm of segmented assimilation is a more apt description of the ways in which immigrants adjust to life in the United States. Religious institutions, rather than merely incorporating people into the American mainstream, serve the dual functions of preserving national identities and aiding incorporation.

The reciprocal effects of immigrants on religion and religion on the lives of immigrants are plain to see. While immigration is affecting the entire nation, there is no question that immigrants are transforming the face of the existing religious marketplace in Los Angeles. Religious institutions are refocusing their efforts to accommodate the growing numbers of immigrants by altering their worship styles, creating multiple congregations inside the walls of a single church building, and seeking ways to show solidarity with immigrants. Moreover, denominations are creating innovative models to meet the social service needs of new arrivals to Los Angeles. Many immigrants who arrive without extended family and a social safety net are drawn to congregations. These congregations offer a safe haven, connection with the home country, a place to exercise leadership abilities, and formal and informal social services. For women, the new country often offers a greater sense of freedom and autonomy.

Religious mandates to care for strangers and the least privileged in the community are obviously behind this receptivity, but it is also born from a recognition that the demographics of the region are changing and, hence, institutional survival is connected to inclusivity and decline is likely to be the price of turning away from the newcomers. Conversely, many of the religious "imports" to Southern California, which in their own homeland may preach exclusivity, are learning to function in a pluralistic social environment that values diversity. As minority religions in Los Angeles, they see the value of tolerance as well as interfaith dialogue.

Part of the postmodern mood of Los Angeles is that people need not homogenize their beliefs and practices. Quite the contrary, uniqueness and distinctiveness are valued in a city that values experimentation. Anglos are a visible presence in many immigrant congregations, sometimes because of intermarriage, and other times because this new religious expression mediates the sacred in ways that more established religions fail to do. And there are immigrants who are switching their allegiance from the faith of their homeland. There is a small movement in Los Angeles of Latinos converting to Islam; there are Buddhist Koreans joining immigrant Presbyterian churches; and the ranks of immigrant Mormons are growing. …

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