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Posted January 31, 2007

Taken From the Book:

Religion and the New Immigrants

by Dean Hoge and Michael Foley [Already cited on our website]

Charity and Social Services Choices

Religious communities are often deeply involved in their communities through social services, community development efforts, and participation in community organizations and boards. Some offer a variety of social services to members and nonmembers, from food distribution to counseling programs, job training, legal aid, and citizenship classes. A few invest heavily in such services, while others have little in the way of formal programs. Whether or not to provide social services is both a theological and practical question. Shall the focus be on worship and religious education above all else? Or should the community in significant ways, and if so, how great a priority should such activities be given, taking into account competing demands on members’ time, energy, and money? Theology and the organizational culture of the worship community do not act alone in deciding such questions. Rather, organizational culture interacts with the peculiar identity of each faith community, the sense of security and self-confidence in the new land that community members feel, their own needs and resources and theological and cultural preferences as to who outside their own membership most deserves their help.

Social services may be formal, as in the cases of afterschool tutoring or food distribution programs, or informal, as when a pastor calls upon members to help another member find an apartment or a baby sitter. Both may help newly arrived find their way in the new land. But they have different implications for the incorporation of the worship community into the larger American society. Our survey asked about formal services, but our case studies revealed how important informal services are in the everyday life of many immigrant worship communities.

Charity for Whom?

Faith communities vary in the groups they target for help. We can divide them roughly into three. The first target group is the most obvious — needy people in the worship community itself and, sometimes, their immediate neighbors. A second target of concern are others of the same ethnicity or religious background. This is manifest, for example, in community service programs serving an ethically or religiously defined clientele; but sometimes the focus is on the needy abroad to whom worship community members feel connected by ties of ethnicity and/or religion. Third, some worship communities focus their attentions especially on the needy outside their immediate purview, on the homeless or other poor residents of the larger community.

Most worship communities sooner or later provide for needy members of their own. They may be recently arrived from the home country, or they may have been residents in the United States for a long time but in temporary dire straits due to sickness or unemployment. All the faith communities we have studied were ready to help these families, but in varying degrees and ways. It appeared common, for instance, for potential immigrants from Korea to establish contact with a pastor in a Korean church in this country before making final plans. Pastors would offer to pick people up at the airport, help them find an apartment and a job, and assist with immigration papers. They would call upon their members to help out, drawing on their own social capital to do so. Similarly, in some of the evangelical Salvadoran churches, pastors speak from the pulpit about th plight of a family in need and ask those present to take up a collection to pay the rent, cover the deposit on a new apartment, or help out with health costs. Pastors themselves often saw to it that needy members got the necessary help. These sorts of gestures can be quite important in helping immigrants adapt and survive in their new surroundings, and they can be potent means for drawing in and holding onto members in a worship community. They do less to integrate immigrants into the larger society, and they involve the worship community itself only occasionally in seeking out or exploiting linkages beyond their walls.

Formal programs may be directed solely to members of the worship community or to neighbors, fellow ethnics outside the immediate community or the needy in general. Many communities have all they can do to attend to the needs of their members, though their programs may be formally open to everyone. A few manage to provide a variety of services to members, their neighbors and friends, and others. Many put a primary emphasis on helping members of their own ethnic or religious group. For example, the Community Service Department of the Maryland Korean Christian Church, a “mega-church” in the suburbs, established service to fellow Koreans and other Asian immigrants as its first priority. Most of the Muslim communities, likewise, targeted the majority of their programs to their own membership and to other Muslims, particularly needy immigrants. Depending on the scope and level of services, this sort of community involvement may entail little contact with agencies outside the worship community, or it may motivate a host of connections to other worship communities, government agencies, community groups, and non-profits.

While most social service activity is directed locally, many immigrant worship communities keep in mind the needs of their co-nationals abroad. Salvadoran Catholic churches sent large donations of money to El Salvador after a disastrous earthquake there in 2001. Quite specific “transnational” ties between individuals and institutions in both countries often shape such contributions. In the case of the earthquake relief, some Salvadoran leaders preferred to deliver the financial help personally, since they wanted to be certain that funds were distributed in the towns form which the church members came. In some cases, missionary activities and aid to clandestine Protestant communities inside mainline China, and many Korean congregations take up collections for missionary and relief activities among North Korean refugees living illegally in Manchuria.

Such activities should not be seen as purely charitable or purely missionary in impact. Not only do missionary and charitable activities sometimes mesh; in many cases, such causes are simultaneously the subject of media, educational, and advocacy campaigns directed at U.S. audiences and public officials. Aid for one’s own and involvement in homeland causes thus spill over easily into greater civic activism in the United States.

The third target group is needy people in the Washington, D.C., area, regardless of ethnicity. These people, albeit deserving, are not as visible or as urgent as the first two groups. Immigrant faith communities serve the needy stranger largely through contributions to religious or secular social welfare programs. They provide contributions and volunteers to programs feeding the homeless in Washington, D.C., the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, AIKDS campaigns, and other familiar cases. In general, the wealthier worship communities fit this typically middle-class American pattern of involvement. Poorer immigrant worship communities either provide mainly informal services for their own members (and potential members) exclusively; or they sponsor a range of services for their membership and needy neighbors.

Finally, the events of September 11, 2001, sent a sense of shock and good-will through all faith communities. All of the communities we studied raised funds, wrote to political leaders, held meetings, or engaged in projects such as blood drives to help the September 11 victims. Some mobilized defensively against the threat of backlash directed at their own ethnic group. These efforts, coupled with the more everyday engagement in social services in which they were already engaged, put many communities into closer touch with other worship communities and agencies; and in many cases, immigrant worship communities have forged important partnerships as a result, deepening their integration into American society.