5 Things I Learned From an Immigrant Church

It’s been over a decade since I completed my dissertation, but I still have fond memories of my research project. I observed a Slavic church community, which supplied translators  for me and U.S.-born spouses of church members. I studied the ways in which the participants experienced a collective sense of identity through their interactions with religious text. But as a Christian gathering for two years with believers from outside the U.S., I learned other things as well.

1. This is not the promised land.

The U.S. did have something to offer. For many of my friends, it was the opportunity for their children to go to college, something they had been denied in the former Soviet Union. However, there was too much loss for the U.S. to be heaven, which we were oft reminded would come later. Loss included friends and family missed in the homeland, challenges with immigration authorities, and the Americanization of their children’s values.

2. Hang out with people who speak your language.

When I approached members chatting after church, I dreaded the faces that would sweep from animation to tiredness as they switched to English for me. Church was their refuge from English. It was exhausting, I was told, to make it through a work day of English—to have to think in another language for hours. They rarely, an interviewee said, wanted to do anything in the evenings because of their tiredness.

I reminded of my Ph.D. program in which I looked forward to church on Sunday in a way I never had before or after. In a secular program with faculty and students critical of Christianity, my faith was stretched by practicing seeing from others’ perspectives. I was drained. By Sunday morning, I had a deep appreciation for those who not only believed the same but shared the same language of faith.

3. There’s no perfect organizational structure.

The research community was a more welcoming place than the restrictive church culture a group of members had left. These church planters had hoped to focus more on the essentials of faith, including a love for neighbor attractive to non-believing Slavic immigrants. According to the leadership, traditionalists sometimes began attending with designs to lobby in congregational meetings for legalistic regulations. A leader longed aloud to me for what he called an Episcopal model.

Raised in a similar congregational model, I now attend an Anglican church, “the Episcopal model,” with a traditional hierarchy. It’s a positive experience with a bishop who’s gracious, but I fear what would happen if a more rigid bishop were to replace the current one. I’ve learned there’s no perfect polity.

4. Be flexible.

When the members were planning their church plant, they interviewed long-term religious immigrants. They heard that for their church to retain young people, services would eventually need to change to English. During my time in the community, the youth group began participating in the worship service with elements such as dramas and short sermons in English.

I know of a few dying churches yet today that have refused to incorporate any current Christian worship music. Only the gray heads remain. This immigrant church, by doing their homework, recognized that some changes were inevitable but did not affect an affirmation of the Gospel.

5. Focus on the essentials.

Like many immigrant centers of worship, lines of class and tribe were reduced by the hunger to be around the familiarity of language and culture. In the church where I hung out, Ukrainians and Russians communed despite some language and historic political differences. Those who had been prevented from further education in the former Soviet Union interacted freely with highly educated new believers who left their homes for other reasons than religious refuge. The attendees at the church found a refreshing commonality in Christ through Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. Their first citizenship was the Kingdom of God.

Heather Walker Peterson

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