The Rev. Karen Lyons, a vivacious pastor whose smile is an almost permanent fixture of her countenance, arrived at the United Methodist Church in Clarkston, Georgia, a little over a year ago to discover a challenge. Membership rolls stood at 200 for the church, but only 60 people made it to worship each week.
Clarkston, an Atlanta suburb 20 minutes from downtown, has what Lyons calls "the most dense population of immigrants and refugees in the nation," where the high school has students from more than 50 foreign countries and half the population hails from outside the United States, according to the city's website.
"It's like a mini United Nations," Lyons told an audience in September at a Religion Newswriters Association conference. "It blew my mind."
The diversity also created an opportunity for Lyons and the struggling congregation. Clarkston UMC rents its space to two other Protestant congregations, one African and the other Asian. It makes for a busy Sabbath, and "every year, Thanksgiving and Christmas, have a worship service together," Lyons said.
The cooperation between the congregations that meet in Lyons' church may be unusual, but the demographics behind them aren't. Millions of immigrants from countries around the world have come to the United States in recent years, and just as their presence in society influences everything from education to marketing, faith communities are also challenged by an influx of parishioners whose background, worship style and needs may be radically different.
"When you invite other people into your congregation, there is a unity under the body of Christ, but we have to identify with their diversity," Lyons explained. "People worship in different ways, so to allow people to worship in different ways (is important). We had to invite people into the community or (the community) will die."
Migration shapes congregations
An estimated 40.8 million immigrants were living in the United States in 2012, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit that studies immigration issues. The group calls that statistic "a historical numeric high for a country that has been a major destination for international migrants throughout its history."
And observers say that immigrant population is reaching into American churches, synagogues, mosques and other worship centers.
"The current experience of migration has differences other ages didn't have," said Jehu J. Hanciles, a professor at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. A century ago, he explained, there were more restrictions on migration than there are today, and today's migrations are "more multidirectional than ever before."
A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 61 percent of immigrants are Christian. Such flows, from developing nations south of the equator to the more developed and affluent north, are "bringing together increasing numbers of diverse peoples into the conversation" of how congregations should function, Hanciles said.
Even Islam is feeling the impact, said Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, an Emory law professor and "an American Muslim immigrant for 20 years." In his native Sudan, An-Na'im said, "I think religious experience always looks local and personal," but when a diverse community of Muslim immigrants is found, worship needs to be adapted to fit the dominant culture.
An-Na'im called this "the Christianization of Islam," where the religion is framed in terms non-Muslims can understand, although this is not without its challenges since some traditions may be unfamiliar to Western sensibilities.
"The Muslim calendar is lunar, not (the) common calendar," he explained. "How can you expect (religious) accommodation when you can't (easily) tell colleagues you need accommodation based on when the new moon appears?"
More than worship
As of 2012, an estimated 18.9 million U.S. immigrants were of Hispanic origin, the Migration Policy Institute reported. And for evangelical groups, said Tony Suarez, a pastor and vice president of chapters for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, this influx of new people presents a dual responsibility.
"The role of the church is a double assimilation role. When somebody comes to us, we help them assimilate into the kingdom of God and into the life of the United States," he said. "We're teaching them how to pray and how to apply for a job, or for different things."
For immigrants, he said, "That pastor or priest not only preaches the gospel on Sunday but also is who they're going to call before they buy a car, or for an interpreter when they've been stopped by the police."
Suarez said churches that recognize the potential of immigrant congregations are likely to thrive in the years ahead, but only if they become generational and multicultural, without treating a Hispanic congregation as "a niche group."
One successful implementation, Suraez said, could be found at Houston's Lakewood Church, where an estimated 46,000 people attend weekly. While most congregants are Anglos coming to hear Pastor Joel Osteen, the church also draws 10,000 Hispanics to Iglesia Lakewood, its Spanish-language congregation led by Danilo Montero.
"I think that when you see the amount of immigrant communities that are coming, I can't say they are doing enough, but they can realize this growth is not just in Miami, Houston or Los Angeles," Suarez said.
Of immigrants, "We're everywhere," Suarez said, citing a town 200 miles west of Minneapolis to support his point.
The Asamblea Apostolica De Nuestro Senor Jesucristo (Apostolic Assembly of Our Lord Jesus Christ) is a 600-member church in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, "one of the 'whitest' areas of the United States," Suarez said. The congregation, made up of poultry workers from Mexico, began when the migrants found themselves in the area, organized Bible studies and eventually formed a church that built "a beautiful facility on their own," he said.
Catholic network strong
For at least the past 150 years, if not longer, the Roman Catholic Church has provided a focal point for many immigrant groups arriving in the "New World," according to Sr. Myrna Tordillo, MSCS of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sister Tordillo is assistant director of the conference's Subcommittee on Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers.
"When immigrants come into the local community and they look for a place of worship, they will go into a parish and see in addition to the sacraments and worshipping, there might be some things they would be asking or referred to," she said.
Such assistance is organized at the local level, she said, citing groups such as Catholic Charities, which "would assist in terms of many other needs that an immigrant or migrant would be looking for."
Beyond providing a network for social services, Sister Tordillo said, the church wants to promote immigrant assimilation into church and community life. "We want to encourage them to be leaders in the local community, in the local church," she said. "The desire is for immigrants to be really part of the local community, to be part of the local church."
However, there is a challenge on the horizon: Many dioceses are closing and consolidating parishes. When those mergers involve people of different ethnic backgrounds, she said, priests and parish leaders need tools to help the blended congregations thrive, something the bishop's conference is providing, she said.
Integration is a challenge inside and outside of the Catholic Church. Speaking at the Religion Newswriters event, Henciles said "to find situations where immigrant Christians and homegrown Christians interact on a regular basis is uncommon. Disengagement and alienation is the usual experience."
An-Na'im said a similar situation can be found in communities of Muslims from various countries. "To assume all Muslims can get along fine is misleading; when you talk about the Claxton and the Somali community, people who share the language, history and culture — (you find) totally isolated Mosques. Some will not enter the next mosque no matter what."
Methodist minister Lyons might have offered a path toward a solution, noting some churches at least are no longer viewing the ethnic divide "as 'I/them,' but rather ‘we/us.’ ” Noting the inflow of newcomers from lands where Americans had earlier sent missionaries, Lyons said, "We have to get used to migration on both sides."
In response, An-Na'im mentioned the "centrality of migration in Islam, where the Prophet is the ultimate immigrant." He said the Muslim calendar commences on the day of Muhammad's migration (hijira) from Mecca to Medina.
And anthropologist Don Seeman, also an Emory professor, said he "couldn't help but be struck by the influence of African and Latino (worshippers on) Christianity and Islam." He believes the "base tolerance for religious differences in America is growing."
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