Fear and Immigration

I recently read a diatribe by a white liberal about the dangers brought by immigrants–especially those who make up much of the growth of our denomination. He was upset, and afraid that they would take our church backwards, in a “sectarian” direction; afraid that they would bring with them conservative beliefs and ways of doing things.

And that got me thinking. Many white conservatives and liberals are equally afraid of immigrants–afraid that backward people from darker places will impede our progress and our lifestyle and will mess with our politics.

I live in the heart of the most diverse part of the most diverse city in the United States.  There is a mosque in Spanish nearby, and others that are Indonesian, Arab, or Pakistani. There are Buddhist temples and a Sikh gurdwara. There are Korean Presbyterians and Nigerian Anglicans, and the closest Seventh-day Adventist church has Chinese,  Vietnamese, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Kenyan, South African, Colombian, and Jamaican members (and many more).

Yes, the Adventist church is growing through immigration–as is every other faith group. The city is diverse and dynamic and growing. In 2016, it grew by 125,000 people (twice as many people coming to this one city each year as there are members in the the entire Texas Conference). Granted, not all those were from foreign countries–but the time people are most likely to join another church is when they move to a new place, whether they are coming from another city or another country.

The rich diversity of southwest Houston is the norm that my kids grew up with, attending schools where their friends were of many nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples. Their friends were Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, and Buddhist. The Adventist church they attended for most of their youth looked like the community–and like the great multitude foreseen by John the Revelator. Yes, there were interesting conversations that sometimes became disputes because everyone, whether from Lagos or Loma Linda, wanted to find a church like they knew back home. Because when in a new place, people find comfort in what is familiar. They find meaning in what stays the same in the midst of change. They want to be able to teach their kids the traditions handed down to them.

All immigrants deal with the same things, as was demonstrated in Helen Rose Ebaugh’s 2001 book, Religion and the New Immigrants, which profiled a number of worshiping communities in southwest Houston of different faiths and different ethnicities, looking at what was unique, and then comparing issues across religious lines. I have recommended it to every Adventist pastor and administrator asking about the city, but I don’t know the a single one has taken me up on it.

Immigrants want to hold on to things that have meaning for them, while long time residents want them to conform to “us” rapidly. Church growth advocates expect application of Fuller principles should work the same in suburban Anglo churches, urban Hispanic churches, and in Vietnamese churches. They don’t. Youth surveys present a homogenous view of “X-ers” and “Millennials,” without regard to the very different perspectives of urban v suburban, or the differences in mindset and value and psychology between different cultures.

The solution only comes in crossing boundaries, in becoming comfortable in this chaos, in getting to know others, in learning how other people think, and process, and make decisions. It means being patient, and listening. And realizing that this is the main task. Because this change, this influx, is the constant.

And if we are so focused on getting another 3000 baptisms a year in the state, we won’t even be able to comprehend that 400,000 people moved into the state in the same time frame. We’re obsessed with adding a few grains of rice to our bowl with a pair of chopsticks while balancing on our head on the back of a turtle — and are oblivious to the tsunami.

Those who want to build walls are living in fear.  I prefer to live in hope, and in the excitement of the possibilities that abound in this amazingly rich place.