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Eyes on the Future, Hearts in the Past

Religious institutions help new immigrants assimilate while also maintaining connections to home.

August 06, 2000|DONALD MILLER | Donald Miller is a professor of religion at USC and executive director at USC's Center for Religion and Civil Culture

In recent years, there has been a major shift in the role that religion plays for new immigrants in this country. While once churches sought primarily to help immigrants assimilate into American society, now religious institutions also are helping immigrants preserve the best parts of their home cultures.

One good example of this is occurring this week as many Salvadorans continue to celebrate the arrival of a replica of their Divine Savior--El Salvador. The life-size statue had just completed a 10-day pilgrimage from the Catholic Cathedral in San Salvador to Southern California--the same itinerary that many immigrants took when they fled political violence.

Decades ago, the church or synagogue was the first stopping point for many immigrants. It was here that they received help with finding a job, securing housing and learning a new language.

Historian Will Herberg, writing in the mid-1950s, viewed the priest, minister or rabbi as an agent of the state, teaching their flocks about the importance of voting, participating in voluntary associations--such as Scouts and neighborhood associations--as well as the virtues of capitalism and sanitary plumbing. Indeed, some historians believe that it is these socializing functions of religion that earned faith communities various tax exemptions.

In Los Angeles today, where the city's 700,000 Salvadorans are among immigrants from many countries, a new paradigm is being established. Religious institutions continue to provide the social functions that they did for European immigrants. Yet they are helping to keep alive connections to the country of origin and maintain the cultural values of the home country. And when it comes to the children of these immigrants, churches, synagogues and mosques are aiding the process of reconstructing an identity that has been lost as children and youth are bombarded by the mass media with American culture.

That is why the arrival on July 28 of the replica of El Salvador was so moving. It arrived at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights amid great celebration and a peace parade through the surrounding housing projects. And this afternoon, there will be a large gathering at Precious Blood Catholic Church in Pico-Union that will mirror identical events in the cathedral in San Salvador.

When I asked the organizers why they had commissioned the creation of this statue, their answer was that they wanted their children to know and celebrate their history. Their heritage as Salvadorans is being lost, they said. Therefore, utilizing a rather ancient methodology, symbol and ritual are being used as a way of creating identity in their youth.

Yet these events also are maintaining solidarity with the homeland for adult immigrants who choose to be both Salvadoran and American. Nor is this effort exclusive to Salvadorans. Similar efforts are occurring in many congregations around Los Angeles.

On a typical Saturday at the Oriental Mission Church in Koreatown, for example, one will find newcomers upstairs in classes learning English, while downstairs children are being taught Korean. The same thing is true at Armenian churches, Cambodian Buddhist temples and a host of other immigrant-oriented religious institutions.

Does this mean that these congregations are no longer fulfilling a useful function of acquainting immigrants to American society? No. Immigrant groups are renewing our culture by reviving values that we have lost, such as an emphasis on community, extended family relations and, most important, the need to live for something other than self-interest.

One indication of this is the network of hometown associations in Los Angeles in which members raise money to fund social and cultural projects in the city or village where they were born. This is scarcely the utilitarian individualism that sociologist Robert Bellah says characterizes American society.

Secondly, immigrants are decidedly postmodern in their bicultural allegiances. In our globalizing society, we can have more than one identity, and ironically, the most traditional institution, religion, is facilitating this process.

Religious institutions may always have been a place where immigrants could speak their native language and eat food from their country of origin, but now churches, synagogues and mosques are assuming a much more assertive role in mediating between the Promised Land and the homeland.

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