Erin Chan Ding on Why the Children of Immigrants Are Returning to Their Religious Roots

Evelyn Perez tried to share her trauma. Five years ago, she met every week with a small group of women—whom she calls “great people”—at her large nondenominational church in the San Francisco Bay Area. She told the group of mostly white women, plus two other women of color, that her marriage had grown dangerous. The relationship was breaking down, and her husband was physically and emotionally abusive.

But she did not feel fully understood.

“As I shared my story, it was more like, ‘Oh, we’re so sorry you’re going through that, let’s just pray for you,’ ” says Perez, who is 37 now and divorced. “And it was never a deeper concern of ‘We want to be that neighbor. We want to sit with you in the pain. We want to walk with you.’ ”

“This is our family. This is our culture. I don’t want you guys to ever lose it.” Evelyn Perez

Image: Courtesy of Evelyn Perez

“This is our family. This is our culture. I don’t want you guys to ever lose it.” Evelyn Perez

Perez, who had come with her mother from Guatemala to the United States when she was two, didn’t feel that they understood how, in her experience, her husband’s Mexican heritage led to a manifestation of “you know, alcohol and machismo” that wended its way into their marriage.

Though they were empathetic, the group did not recognize why and how deeply she hurt.

“There wasn’t the willingness of wanting to have a deeper understanding of who I was, where I came from,” she says. “What was my culture? It was never asked.”

So she left. Though she resisted at first, Perez took herself back to Maranatha Covenant Church in Richmond, California, the majority-immigrant church where she had grown up.

She found a dramatically different reception there.

When Perez shared the trauma of her marriage, “they supported me, they came alongside me,” she says. “They were like family. I could see the difference in both churches. There was just a deep understanding, and I felt safe to share my story.”

Perez’s story of belonging at a majority-ethnic church echoes those of other second- and third-generation Americans who feel disillusioned by large, white-led multiethnic churches. It’s a phenomenon these Christians are wrestling with even as the number of multiracial megachurches increases. A new study by sociologists Warren Bird and Scott Thumma found that though 58 percent of megachurches are now multiracial—defined as 20 percent or more of a congregation belonging to a racial minority group—94 percent of the senior pastors are white.

It’s a seminal time for these children and grandchildren of immigrants. Made up largely of Asian Americans and Latinos, they constitute America’s fastest-growing minority populations, due in part to the passage the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which barred a quota system based on national origin and led to rapid growth in the number of immigrants coming from non-European nations. Largely Gen Xers and millennials, the descendants of post-1965 immigrants have often experienced an ethnic church in their youth and moved on to white-led multiethnic churches, where they found something lacking.

Now, as they raise their own children, many are pondering the type of faith and cultural environment they want to bestow on their kids. That often means a search for churches that will incorporate their stories, embrace their heritage, and hire leaders who look like them.

This shift has led many second- and third-generation Americans away from white-led multiethnic churches and toward multiple alternative paths. One is a type of modified boomerang effect, in which these Christians return to ethnic churches similar to the ones in which they were raised—albeit often with more progressive, justice-oriented expressions of what it means to follow Jesus.

Michael O. Emerson, the Christian sociologist who two decades ago co-wrote the pivotal book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, says Christians of color also broadly follow two other paths when disaffected by white-led multiethnic churches: They join multiracial churches led by pastors of color, or they drop out of religious spaces altogether.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal, who worked for years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and is co-founder of the nonprofit Chasing Justice, says many Christians of color have begun to reject white-led multiethnic spaces because they feel they’re being pushed out by a lack of cultural understanding and care.

Van Opstal, whose mother is from Colombia and whose father is from Argentina, grew up attending a Spanish-speaking Catholic parish and says she was awakened to Christian faith at a predominantly white Southern Baptist church. Later, she chose to pastor at Grace and Peace Church in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. Though she is no longer on staff there, she still considers Grace and Peace, which is majority Puerto Rican and black, her home church.

“I went to Grace and Peace because I was like, ‘I just need to be away from whiteness for a hot minute if I’m going to survive,’ ” she says, describing it as a healing process. “I wanted to be in my mother’s home. And I think that’s the image that a lot of people of color have. It’s like, my mom’s house is not perfect, but it’s my mother’s home, you know?”

Recent research has supported the notion that large, multiracial churches with largely white pastoral leadership can unintentionally pressure worshipers to conform to culturally white behaviors. Emerson says multiracial churches typically become diverse because people of color move into white churches and not the other way around; further, he says, white people begin leaving multiracial churches once they become less than 50 percent white.

“The vision is grand, and the vision is biblical: We are to come together to be unified, to be reconciled,” says Emerson, who is white. “The reality on the ground is that those who have traditionally had the most influence—white folks—continue to do so, and so the issues that matter, the issues that are discussed, are the issues that are what white folks care about. The result is, of course, that most folks of color are starting to feel like, ‘Do we matter? Do we really belong?’ ”

Emerson, who heads the sociology department of the University of Illinois at Chicago, analyzes this disillusionment in a new book scheduled for release this year, The Grand Betrayal, which he describes as “about white Christians in the US constantly and continually choosing whiteness over brothers and sisters in Christ.”

While conducting research, Emerson and his team asked Christian leaders of color what would help remedy disillusionment among people of color in white-led multiracial churches. He says, “Their answer was consistent, and I think profound, and that is: Notice the problem with the term ‘white-led multiracial church.’ How is that even possible? So the answer is there can’t be white-led multiracial churches. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t white leaders. It means there has to be what they call ‘power sharing.’ It has to be a multiracial team. No church is led by just one person. There’s always a board, there are deacons, there’s a leadership team, whatever it is. It has to be diverse. And it has to be diverse not just in appearance but in actual perspectives.”

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Source: Christianity Today