No Longer Strangers

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. Perhaps related: In 1995, the Catholic bishops conference of the Philippines wrote "Comfort My People, Comfort Them: A Pastoral Letter on Filipino Migrant Workers," articulating a theology from the perspective of displaced peoples.

One in three U.S. Catholics are Latinos, and the growth of Latino theologies, often influenced by Latin American liberation theologies, continues at an impressive pace. Peter Phan, the first non-Caucasian president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, writes theology influenced by the Vietnamese refugee experience.

What ethnic churches have to offer

In official statements, the Catholic Church and mainstream Protestant denominations unequivocally champion the rights of the world's migrants. They also experience an influx of new ethnic groups that they have assisted in resettling. And Christian theology and religious practice in the United States benefit from the varied contributions of newcomers.

But issues of race and difference continue to divide people. Immigrants face a new identity and the experience of being a racial or cultural minority in the United States. They often leave traumatic situations in their homelands only to face discrimination in their new country. In spite of its diversity, the United States remains in many ways what sociologist Robert Bellah terms an "overwhelming monocultural society."

Tension and miscommunication are not uncommon between ethnic minority and Euro-American pastors and parishioners. For example, a 1999 study by the U.S. Catholic bishops' Hispanic Affairs committee found that Latino Catholics—including both immigrants and long-term residents and citizens—remain second-class citizens in most parishes. Latino Catholics were twice as likely to worship in "separate and ...unequal settings," often required to "rent" the church to which they belong.

Given the reality of discrimination and the desire to maintain ethnic identity, it is not surprising that immigrants often prefer ethnic churches to multiethnic or mainstream congregations. Currently there are 3,500 Catholic parishes where Mass is performed in Spanish; 7,000 Latino congregations, most of them pentecostal or evangelical; 2,500 Korean Christian churches; and 1,000 Chinese churches, most of them Protestant. Ethnic churches become focal points for cultural celebrations, ethnic gatherings, and the re-creation of customs—usually in native languages. An ethnic church may provide social belonging, psychological comfort, and religious meaning. In a country often experienced as hostile, an immigrant church provides a buffer against unwelcome aspects of U.S. ways, values, and prejudices while enabling migrants to adapt to others.

And, unlike early mission churches, most of these new churches, with a variety of theological positions, are founded by immigrants themselves. Iglesia ni Cristo, a church founded in the Philippines in 1914, continues to expand dramatically worldwide, following the growth and distribution of the Filipino diaspora. The nondenominational Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D.C., emerged from a Chinese students' Bible study and remains an important church for Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking migrants. Luz del Mundo was founded in Guadalajara, Mexico, and now boasts congregations wherever there are Mexican migrants.

Many aid and advocacy groups are also immigrant- based. The Central American Refugee Center of San Francisco is one of numerous self-help groups founded by and for immigrants. California's Interfaith Coalition on Immigrant Rights brings together ethnic groups from a wide variety of religious traditions to actively lobby for migrant rights. The Tepeyac Association in New York City is probably one of the nation's most famous immigrant self-help groups. The real action related to immigrant issues often comes not from mainstream denominations but from the growth and vitality of such ethnic churches and organizations.

Will churches of Western industrialized nations embrace the "strangers among us"? In effect Christians have no option but to provide sanctuary for the uprooted, learn from border-crossers, and fight for those who are in new, often unwelcoming homes that seem so far removed from heaven. Enriched by the insights and theologies formed by the experiences of exile and diaspora, migrant Christians possess an incredible dynamism that—together with the native-born—gives hope for a powerful reinvigoration of the American church.

Lois Ann Lorentzen was professor of social ethics at the University of San Francisco and director of the Religion and Immigration Project ( when this article appeared.

Accompanying the Displaced

The role of religious groups in bringing migrants and refugees to the United States cannot be underestimated. Nearly all the major resettlement agencies are faith-based organizations.

The Office of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the single largest resettler of refugees in the country. The USCCB also maintains an active legal advocacy wing, fighting for more humane laws concerning migration. Other Catholic resources include offices of ethnic ministries in most urban dioceses and Catholic Charities, which provides services to new arrivals including social services, legal assistance, English as a Second Language classes, citizenship training, and job assistance. (

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a coalition of several Lutheran organizations, works with refugee resettlement, political asylum assistance, foster care, and immigrant training. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's 1997 "A Message on Immigration" included advocacy for fair and generous immigration laws as a part of the church's mission. ( html)

Church World Service, a relief, development, and refugee assistance ministry of 36 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican denominations, is another of the country's largest resettlement agencies. (

American Baptist National Ministries, in cooperation with Church World Service, finds sponsoring congregations to help refugees displaced from their country of origin by war, civil strife, or religious or political persecution. The agency has sponsored more than 88,000 refugees since 1948. (

In the early 1990s, the National Council of Churches initiated its "Building Hospitable Community" project, designed to help U.S. churches be friendlier to immigration. Its Web page "Ideas that Work" provides concrete cases of projects that address community tension. ( index.html)


Suggested Readings

• A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation, by Diana L. Eck. HarperSanFrancisco

• Introducing Latino/a Theologies, by Miguel A. De La Torre and Edwin D. Aponte. Orbis Books

• Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities, by Fenggang Yang. The Penn. State University Press

• American Diaspora: Poetry of Displacement, edited by Virgil Suárez and Ryan G. Van Cleave. University of Iowa Press

• Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration, edited by R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner. Temple University Press

• Uprooted People. A newsletter of the World Council of Churches. international/uprooted/upindex.html

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