Father Alex Pereida knows what to expect when he visits his former parish, Holy Trinity, for worship services.
"Believe and belong. That's their motto and way of life," Pereida says. "They're a very social community. You're not going to walk into the Mass and hear a pin drop."
The community Pereida speaks of is a large Mexican community establishing itself in the affluent Stone Oak area of San Antonio, Texas. These well-to-do Mexican immigrants are doctors, lawyers, authors and businessmen who have come to south Texas to expand their practices. Some have even dubbed the area "Little Monterrey."
But what Little Monterrey has done for the Catholic community in south Texas is what's remarkable. In the 22-year history of the parish, there had never been Spanish services or liturgy. Now after Spanish services have been instituted by the archdiocese, one would be hard-pressed to find a seat.
"It has grown so much," Pereida says. "We have more than 800 people who attend consistently."
The way the immigrants of Little Monterrey are bolstering the Catholic community in San Antonio is a microcosm of the way immigrants are affecting Christianity at large in the United States. Although the great wave of immigration that has taken place over the past few decades has included a wide variety of people from great world religions — Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism for example — the majority of those who migrate to America are Christian. And while these people profess the same beliefs, the culture they bring is changing the flavor of American Christianity.
Sociologist Dr. R. Stephen Warner of the University of Illinois at Chicago has studied the effects of immigration on American religious life. He pointed out that while the promise of America is inviting to all walks of life, those who practice Christianity find it most comfortable to migrate here.
"We like religion in the United States," Warner said. "It makes it a little easier for some groups to maintain their religion when they come here. But even though we do have larger numbers of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., than we used to, none of those communities is larger than about 1 percent of the American population. One of the things that has been overstated and underappreciated is that the great majority of immigrants are Christian."
Warner points out that as many immigrants come to the U.S. they find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. However, many turn to religion to help them cope with the struggles of being in a foreign land, and help them maintain their culture. He explains in his article, "Immigrants and the Faith they Bring" in the Christian Century, this does not lead to the "de-Christianization of American society, but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity."
"People in the global south make Christianity more expressive," Warner says. "Cultures from these countries are very festive. There are more parades, more celebrations surrounding religious events like La Posada and Holy Week. This changes American Christianity to be more public and more obvious."
One of the major groups that affects this expressive Christianity are those from Latin America. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, more than half of the approximately 1 million immigrants to the United States in 2010 came from the region. And with 63 percent of those immigrants practicing Catholicism according to the Pew Forum, the culture clash is one the church has had to deal with.
Coupled with the growth the Holy Trinity parish has experienced, Pereida says expressive movements have shown up, too. One example is "slain in the Spirit," where observers can fall to the floor, speak in tongues and experience divine healing when touched by the Holy Spirit.
"We didn't feel those type of charismatic movements were what we practice," Pereida says.
Some feel the denial of these expressions in Catholicism have led Latino immigrants to more evangelical movements. A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study showed half of Hispanic evangelicals (51 percent) are converts, and more than 80 percent of them are former Catholics.
However, Pew Research Center Director Luis Lugo points out the change is most likely a by-product of the religious climate immigrants enter into here in the United States.
"They come to a country where more than half the religious population changes religious affiliation at least once in their lifetime, and the majority of them change affiliation more than once," Lugo says. "They come into a context where it is simply more acceptable to leave Catholicism for something else."
Lugo does explain Latino evangelicals are more dedicated in their attendance and religious practice than Latino Catholics and find themselves more socially conservative.
"Latino evangelicals are much more socially conservative than Latino Catholics," Lugo says. "Which is in a sense ironic because the Catholic church on social issues is actually much more conservative than Catholics themselves as a whole. So when these people convert from Catholicism to evangelicalism, they actually come closer to the official views of the Roman Catholic Church on social issues."
Although much of the focus on immigration to the U.S. is on Latin America, Lugo emphasizes the fact that the subject of Christian immigration has a worldwide focus, even with people from the Middle East, where Christianity is least observed.
"This is not just a Latin American story," Lugo says. "Even today, after significant Muslim migration in the last few decades, there are at least as many Christians as there are Muslims in the Arab American population."
One of the regions that caught Dr. Mark Gornik's eye was West African Christianity in New York City. As the director of City Seminary serving Harlem, he noticed the influence the immigrants from countries with strong Christian roots like Ghana and Nigeria were having on New York City religious practice. These immigrants have supplied the city with more than 200 new congregations.
"New York City is the window to the world," Gornik said. "What happens here is a microcosm of what happens in the world at large. … These new congregations have tremendous impact on people who are new to the city. They are a community of belonging for those who find themselves here."
Gornik also points out the forms of expression among West Africans do change the manner in which Christianity is practiced in America.
"Let's take the most basic of things — prayer, for example," Gornik says. "For the African people it's not something rote, but a whole body sort of communication. The same can be said for other things like fasting. For these people it's a committed way of life."
The influence of these immigrants seems to be preserving America's Christian identity although it is changing its practice. Contrast that with Europe, where a century ago the continent included two-thirds of the world's Christian population. Now it is home to only one-quarter of worldwide Christians.
And even though subsequent generations of U.S. immigrants slow their Christian practice in comparison to their parents, Lugo says the data is somewhat reassuring.15 comments on this story
"Although there is a tapering off of religious identification and religious intensity among subsequent generations of immigrants, there is also a tapering off of the falloff between the second and third generation," Lugo says. "Because religion is much more vibrant in the United States than in just about every European society, that serves to sort of cushion the dropoff, and what we could be seeing is what economists would call a 'soft landing' as it were, rather than a crash in terms of religious observance in the United States."
Gornik also draws attention to the fact that not only are immigrants practicing Christianity during services, but they also are conducting themselves everyday in a way that has a powerful impact on U.S. religious society.
"The biggest dimension is actually not what happens on Sunday morning, but when African immigrants and every other type of immigrant goes about their work and school life they interact with people and express themselves by caring through prayer and general concern," Gornik says. "There is a diffusion to that. They are expressing their faith throughout every fabric of their lives."