BALCH SPRINGS, Texas — Lyrics to “Love Divine, all Loves Excelling” appear in English on the overhead screen. But the members of this small congregation near Dallas sing the timeless hymn in Cambodian.
Sovanna Tim, a minister for the congregation of about 70 souls, floats between the two languages as he delivers the Sunday sermon.
Many of the church’s members came to Texas nearly 30 years ago, fleeing the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Now they own businesses, pay taxes and send their kids to Christian colleges. But in discussions of immigration, their faces rarely come to mind. “We have a very truncated view of immigration,” said Daniel Rodriguez, associate professor of religion and Hispanic studies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
For many Americans, the word “immigration” triggers immediate thoughts of the political hot-button issue of illegal immigration, Rodriguez said.
Often ignored is the transforming effect of legal immigration, which reached a crescendo in the 1990s. In 1999 and again in 2000, the U.S. received 1.5 million legal immigrants, according to census figures.
The foreign-born population of the U.S. is approaching 15 percent, topping the previous record set in 1890. More than 1 million immigrants earn U.S. citizenship each year.
“My experience is that Churches of Christ are only just now waking up to the reality of immigrants living, working and worshiping in our neighborhoods,” said Ben Woodward, director of FriendSpeak. The Bedford, Texas-based ministry helps immigrants improve their English skills using the Bible.
I am convinced that the next generation of Churches of Christ will be led … by those who embrace the changing demographics,” Woodward said.
‘LOCAL’ GOES INTERNATIONAL
When Scott and Karen Brunner moved from Jackson, Miss., to Richmond, Va., three years ago, they didn’t see themselves volunteering for international ministry.
“We wanted to do something that would impact the Richmond area,” Scott Brunner said.
Glen Allen, Va., church leaders suggested the Brunners contact FriendSpeak about starting the program there. The Brunners learned that many Richmond residents speak a language other than English at home.
The couple expected the bulk of the students to be Hispanic, but most come from Asia, including Japan, China and Pakistan, Brunner said. Other students are from Ukraine and Uganda.
About one-third of the Glen Allen church’s 160 members are involved in the ministry, Brunner said. The church has a waiting list of immigrants who want to enroll. Church members have developed relationships with their students, offering them advice on where to find a doctor and other day-to-day needs.
Members of the Westover Hills church in Austin, Texas, have built similar relationships with their city’s burgeoning international community, outreach minister Scott Warner said. The 1,100-member church hosts a monthly outreach service and potluck meal attended by immigrants from countries in South America, Asia — and even the Middle East.
“It’s like the day of Pentecost,” Warner said. “They’re all speaking different languages.”
Not all the attendees are Christians. Some come to be with other immigrants — even if their home countries are far apart, Warner said. Many have good-paying jobs or own profitable small businesses.
“They don’t have the need of a pantry or clothes,” Warner said. “They have a need for community.”
Larissa Zanatta, whose family was baptized by missionaries in her native Brazil, found a new family at the Golf Course Road church in Midland, Texas. Zanatta attended high school in west Texas through an exchange program and graduated from a Christian university.
Now the 26-year-old works for an investment company in Midland. The biggest challenge she faces is the yearly renewal of the visa that allows her to stay in the country.
“The uncertainty of whether I will be here next year or not is definitely a challenge,” she said, “Sometimes, it feels like being in God’s waiting room.”
Nonetheless, Zanatta said she has received “innumerable blessings” in the U.S., including the church family that has adopted her.
REACHING IMMIGRANTS’ KIDS
Ten years ago, the Cambodian church in Balch Springs sang, preached and prayed entirely in the Cambodian language.
Then members noticed that their children were “having a hard time understanding what we were talking about,” said Sophorn Pich, who works with the congregation’s youths.
Now the church is bilingual. As its youths mature, it likely will become predominantly English.
“If we’re going to get them to preach, for sure they’re going to preach in English,” Sophorn said.
Some Churches of Christ minister to immigrants by conducting foreign-language services in their fellowship halls, Rodriguez said. But the immigrants’ children, who grow up American, often are “lost in the hallway between the fellowship hall and the main auditorium,” he said.
Children of immigrants grow up in two cultures — one in their home and one they encounter in school, said Josh Murillo, whose family moved to the U.S. from Honduras when he was 4. His father, Berto, is cross-cultural minister for the South MacArthur church in Irving, Texas.
Some children find it hard to adapt to their church’s primarily Anglo youth groups, Murillo said. One reason may be a lack of interaction between immigrant parents and the American parents who work with the youth.
“Once you have relationships with the parents, you understand how they think a little bit,” said Murillo, who became a U.S. citizen in February.
Rodriguez, a third-generation Hispanic American, is researching religious groups that attract both immigrants and their descendants. One group, Praise Chapel International, has hundreds of congregations across the country that are entirely Hispanic yet conduct services in English, he noted.
“The fastest-growing churches have realized that language is not a barrier,” Rodriguez said. “They have recognized how to reach the grandmother who speaks only Spanish and her grandchildren, who speak English.”
In Ontario, Calif., east of Los Angeles, about 50 of the Inland Valley church’s 120 members speak primarily Spanish. But, “for the most part, everything is in English,” said Tom Allen, one of the church’s evangelists.
Allen, who immigrated to the U.S. from Bolivia at age 21, came to the church “through the English-speaking door,” he said. Converted by Anglo Christians, he later worked in Spanish ministry, but “when I was with one group, I felt bad that other was missing out.”
The Inland Valley church tried several approaches before adopting its current practice — providing headsets and live translation for Spanish speakers. The church’s song leader rotates between English and Spanish.
Lyrics in both languages appear on the overhead screen.
“The moment we started having the Lord’s Supper together was a landmark,” Allen said.
The church retains many of its bilingual children — and gets visitors from some exclusively Spanish congregations, Allen said. Some members don’t understand entirely each other’s language, but most have found that they don’t need to be fluent to share Christ’s love, he added.
“As they interact, they come to care for each other,” Allen said. “When people love each other, they’ll accommodate.”