Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

No Longer Strangers: Thanks to the Largest Wave of Immigration in the Nation's History, the U.S. Church of the 21st Century Comes in Many Colors, Cultures, and Languages

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

No Longer Strangers: Thanks to the Largest Wave of Immigration in the Nation's History, the U.S. Church of the 21st Century Comes in Many Colors, Cultures, and Languages

Article excerpt

Walking around my hometown of San Francisco, I am always struck by a remarkable cultural vibrancy that translates into religious dynamism. In Chinatown, the Gold Mountain Monastery serves vegetarian meals daily, Chinese-speaking nuns minister to both longtime residents and recent arrivals, and people escape bustling streets to worship in the peaceful temple. In the Mission District, a predominantly Latino area of the city, St. Peter's Catholic Church houses a refugee center, health services, a homeless shelter, and legal services for immigrants and offers Mass in Spanish. Templo de la Fe, a storefront charismatic church, works with youth trying to leave the gangs that congregate on the streets of the Mission District. Mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries, Vietnamese Catholic churches, Santeria stores, Sikh gudwaras, Russian Orthodox spires, and storefront churches all shape the landscape of my town.

According to Harvard religion scholar Diana L. Eck, the United States--which has more American Muslims than Episcopalians--is the most religiously diverse nation in the world. This is mainly due to the largest wave of migration in U.S. history, which is having a profound impact on the ethnic and racial composition of the country. Since the early 1990s, almost a million legal immigrants have entered the United States each year, including perhaps 150,000 undocumented persons.

These new migrants are racially, ethnically, and religiously more diverse than earlier groups. In 1960, seven of the top-10 sending countries were European; by 1996, six of the top 10 were Asian, one of them was Mexico, and only one of them was European.

Daly City, California, boasts the largest concentration of Filipinos outside Manila. Long Beach claims more Cambodians than Phnom Penh. Los Angeles has the third largest population of people of Mexican descent (following Mexico City and Guadalajara). Are these "American" cities? Mexican, Filipino, and Cambodian cities? Cosmopolitan world cities? With a population that is 10.4 percent foreign-born, and with more than 30 million immigrants, the United States has a new face.

The new hues of U.S. Christianity

The new United States is evident in U.S. Christianity, which includes Latino, Filipino, and Vietnamese Catholics; Chinese, Haitian, and Korean evangelicals; and pentecostals of all ethnicities. Churches must negotiate multiple identities--cultural/ethnic, Christian, American--and this occurs in creative ways. University of Southern Maine sociologist Fenggang Yang writes of the "sinicization of Christianity," referring to the growth of Chinese Protestant churches in which occurs the integration of evangelical beliefs with Chinese (mainly Confucian) values. Chinese Catholic churches frequently incorporate traditional Chinese symbols and practices--such as the venerating of ancestors--into Catholic services. Chinese Catholic New Year's celebrations may include red pockets for small children and offerings of fruit and pigs' heads for ancestors.

Church services in San Francisco, as in most major urban areas, are offered in many languages, including Tagalog, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Korean, Polish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Days honoring Salvador del Mundo, Guadalupe, the Virgin of Levang, and other national or cultural saints occur in most U.S. cities. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2000 letter, "Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity," celebrates these cultural celebrations and devotions from around the world as "gifts given to the church."

Church historian Timothy Smith has called immigration a "theologizing experience." Migrants bring countless gifts to the church, including new ways of thinking about and practicing our faith. The theology articulated by some migrant groups expresses exile and oppression in terms similar to that of the Exodus of Hebrew scripture. Filipino Catholics at a parish in one of San Francisco's poorest areas note that theirs is a faith that strongly identifies with suffering, and that congregants hold a perspective about poverty that is less "mean-spirited" than the mainstream American view. …

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