Diffusion of faith: Immigrants are transforming American Christianity

Published: Thursday, Jan. 12 2012 4:58 p.m. MST

Attendees listen to a speaker during a Catholic Church conference in Salt Lake City Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. The topic was Immigration- A 50 State Issue: A focus on State and Local Immigration Initiatives.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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.

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