“I didn’t have a car initially when I first worked, as a waiter, and many people rotated letting me borrow theirs. There were even people willing to help me practice my English.”Caleb Lin, pastor of Chinese Evangelical Church in Portland, Ore., recalls the days when he had just come to the United States as a graduate student in Pittsburgh, Penn.
Back in the 1980’s, when Lin was a member of Pittsburgh Chinese Church, he said the church helped him while he was trying to salvage an income from his job as awaiter, offering him help when he needed it most.He struggled back then,
just like any Chinese immigrant who is having trouble adjusting to the new environment of English-speaking America.
(Caleb Lin(the second from the right) and other church members)
Now, Lin has become an ordained pastor himself. Knowing how frustrated people can be if their English is insufficient,
he encourages newly arrived Chinese immigrants to have an optimistic outlook and join church activities. Often times, the
people in Chinese churches will also have been in America for a number of years, and will thus be already well adjusted and eager to share their experiences.But faith isn’t the first cardinal requirement to join this community.
Even if you don’t share the same beliefs as a church, you can still join the activities they provide and meet a community that has been through the same challenges as you.“(Immigrants) often don’t have ways of connecting, and I seek to help them understand both Chinese and American sides, and encourage them,” Lin said. Regardless of the sheer number of Chinese in one building, or even beyond matters of faith, a Chinese American church is a safe haven for immigrants seeking help and familiarity in a foreign country.
In America, churches are a staple of citizens’ everyday lives. The church tends to
almost serve as an extracurricular that adults engage in, whether it is being an usher
on Sunday, an ‘elder’ who advises the pastor, Sunday school teachers, or a lunch
There is usually a service in which a pastor takes a Bible passage and interprets
it into an everyday life lesson. The messages, as they are called, are usually in
Chinese for the listeners’ convenience, and convey a moral meaning applicable to
one’s outlook. People can also become familiar with each other, and share struggles
or prayer requests.
These Chinese-American churches also emphasize looking at faith and community
through the lens of their culture. Thus, they have additional activities outside of
communion and service that keep them in touch with their Chinese heritage. They
celebrate Chinese New Year and the Moon festival, eat Chinese food, and hold
services and small bible study groups, all in which Chinese serves as the primary
Chinese New Year, for example, can be celebrated with a variety of activities.
Sometimes there are potlucks, where wives and mothers in the church can make
traditional dishes of chow mein, dumplings, fried pork or chicken, and stir-fry
vegetables and bring them to share. If not potlucks, there will be a line of hotpots,
with each family providing their own resources to have an authentic and shared taste
of each other’s cooking.
(Photo of Spring Festival dinner in the Chinese church)
After dinner during New Year’s events, church members will gather to watch
traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, where rehearsed Chinese ballet, opera
and tongue-twisting comedy are performed by church members.
The activities that are not relevant to culture are bible studies– these come on Friday
nights or Wednesday nights, and people will rotate hosting the gatherings in their
homes, depending on the week and convenience of location. The small group leader
will give a Biblical passage for the rest to mull over and dissect individual elements.
Xiao Ping Zhou, who came to the United States in 1990 from Nanjing for school and
who has lived in both Alabama and Oregon, came to the church for the activities for
her children as well.
Children in the church would go to Sunday school, learning about Bible studies
taught by various sisters in the church. They would also have many friends their age
to hang around whose parents would have the same background as them, which
attracted Zhou’s interest.
“At the time, I wanted my kids to grow up with playmates,” Zhou said. “So I felt the
church environment was a good fit, and so because of my kids I started attending.
Eventually, after a few months, I also felt touched by the atmosphere.”
Sarah Tsai also felt the effects of this hospitality. She said there were many
American-born Chinese and Americans who couldn’t always relate to her linguistic
struggles, as well as struggles she had in trying to provide for her children; schooling
in Taiwan had not properly equipped her for the troubles connecting to those around
However, the church served a vital role in being a good support system for Tsai and
“I had felt supported and loved by the church, particularly by the women’s group.
Those people really treated me like a member of their own family and it helped me
adjust,” Tsai said.
Chinese churches will usually have fliers on display at the local Chinese grocery
store, or even American grocery stores. If one can find these advertisements in
public places (even sometimes on the sides of telephone poles in the cities), it will be
very helpful to them.
Other sources include word of mouth, such as Chinese restaurants in the area who
will have fliers or know friends in the church. The community usually also makes an
active effort to reach out to new immigrants in the workplace as well (for immigrants
arriving with graduate degrees already).
(Band formed by the children in the Chinese church)