ST. LOUIS – “Christians are losing Christian identity in this culture” – and that’s a problem for both immigrant churches and English-speaking congregations, said Hsin-hsin Huang in a workshop at Big Tent 2017 exploring the obstacles many immigrant Presbyterian churches encounter.
Huang is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. Her background – as a chaplain, as a pastoral counselor with a specialization in trauma and as an immigrant from Taiwan, having moved to the United States for graduate school as an adult – has shaped her understanding of the complexities of immigrant churches in the U.S.
What are the differences between immigrants and refugees? Huang began the workshop describing some distinctions between immigrant and refugee communities’ identities. Many immigrants moved to the U.S. “out of free will … pursuing the American dream,” Huang said. She compared this to the hope the Israelites had of entering the Promised Land. She contrasted this with refugees who have moved to the U.S. “often due to political unrest” and who may hope to return to their home country permanently. She equated this to feeling like the Israelites’ in their “time in exile.” Both immigrants and refugees, Huang said, “may feel in limbo for a while, belonging to neither country.”
What should churches know about factors that impact immigrants and refugees? In many cases, Huang said, immigrants and refugees face a huge loss of social status and resources as a result of not receiving their education in the United States. She relayed the story of a friend from Guatemala who had been an attorney, but upon moving to the U.S. was unable to pass the bar because he had not attended law school in the U.S., and ended up finding work as a church custodian.
Huang noted the challenges many immigrant and refugee parents face. For example: Because of difficulty navigating the American education systems, a parent who was a physician in another country may not understand how to help with his children’s homework or be comfortable communicating with teachers or school officials; or, if parents don’t know English, the child can be put in the role of caretaker, she said. Similarly, she noted, when children sense the parents are unable to offer consistent protection (perhaps from working 12-14 hour days or not understanding cultural systems), the child may find a sense of protection by joining a gang or getting involved with friends or activities that can lead to trouble.
What are the challenges of immigrant churches? “Ethnicity is very important,” Huang said. “To me, there is a vast difference between a Japanese-American and a Taiwanese-American,” but she has learned that in the U.S. she is perceived as an “Asian-American” according to the “majority’s perspective,” even though this is not how immigrants often view their own identity. “How do we be a part of something [bigger like America] and still be ourselves?” she asked.
“By choosing to come to the U.S., it is inevitable that they will lose some cultural identity,” Huang said of immigrants.
Many immigrant churches are also facing decline. “The only way you can grow an immigrant church is … you find more immigrants,” said Huang, explaining that there are no other potential new members. She said that a Taiwanese-American likely will not go to a Korean-American church because of the language differences.
The “best way to grow the church is to cultivate the second generation” to be leaders and pastors, Huang suggested. Because they are bilingual, she said, the children of immigrants will be able “to preserve the cultural heritage.”
As long as a service “is translated, it is not going to draw people from an outside culture,” she said, explaining the reluctance of many – immigrants and U.S.-born Christians alike – to listen to a sermon through a translator with an accent. “We need to have multi-language pastors.”