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January 11, 2003

A Chinese American Awakening
Immigrants Help to Reenergize U.S. Christianity

By Phuong Ly

 

Standing next to the traditional lion statues and red good-luck signs, members of Chinese Christian Church in Silver Spring are staking out Chinese restaurants and markets and promoting a different type of blessing.

Some volunteers have even pored through the Montgomery County phone book, looking for Chinese surnames, to send them mailings about Jesus Christ.

David Ma told his father that for his 18th birthday, his greatest wish was for him to go to church.

"And I was prepared to get him a car," said his father, Ning Ma, 48, incredulous -- but impressed -- by his son's passion. He was so moved, he began to attend church every week and was baptized in February.

In recent years, Chinese immigrants have been converting to Christianity and aggressively proselytizing. Nearly a third of Chinese Americans now attend church, compared with the small fraction who did 50 years ago, said Fenggang Yang, a leading scholar on Chinese Christianity at Purdue University. In the same time frame, the number of Chinese churches in the United States has grown from 66 to more than 1,000, including about two dozen in the Washington region.

The increase in church membership comes at a time when Chinese are among the largest and fastest growing ethnic groups in the country. There are an estimated 2.4 million Chinese, an increase of nearly 50 percent since 1990. Locally, the population has jumped 65 percent, to 69,000.

Traditionally, many Chinese immigrants have come to America without a commitment to a religion. Indeed, Korean immigrants, who brought with them a Protestant tradition from South Korea, have jokingly distinguished themselves from Chinese arrivals by saying, "Chinese build restaurants, Koreans build churches."

But now, as increasing numbers of Chinese build churches, they've become part of a revitalization of American Christianity by immigrant groups. Many Chinese Christians are evangelical, a conservative and fervent brand of the faith.

"It's no longer white or southern; it's something that people who look very different are doing," said R. Stephen Warner, a professor of sociology and religion at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "There's a change in the landscape. They're filling otherwise empty churches."

Historically, Christianity has been stigmatized in Chinese culture as a relic of Western imperialism. "One more Christian, one less Chinese," was an old saying directed at Chinese converts. And once the communists came to power in China in 1949, all religion was officially banned.

But in the past decade, the Chinese immigrating to America have been more open to believing in God. As communist China has opened up to the West, the Bible and other books have become available, allowing people to explore ideas. And in 1989, when government troops shot student demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, many Chinese lost their faith in communism and began looking for other answers.

"Among the Chinese, Christianity is not so strange anymore," Yang said.

Hongzhi Liang, who in 1989 was a graduate student at the University of Maryland on a temporary visa, said he felt so betrayed by Tiananmen that he decided to stay in the United States.

Liang applied for political asylum and started going to church, curious about Western beliefs. His only contact with Christianity before had been in 1967, when he saw a group of Chinese Christians forced to stand in a town square, wearing signs of shame.

"When I came here, I felt that my brain was so much more open," said Liang, 51, spreading his arms to demonstrate. "My years in China, my thinking, my brain was just shallow, just communism. For the first time, I saw what is Christianity, what is God, what is the Bible."

Liang's awakening came as his church was experiencing a rebirth.

For years, Chinese Christian Church, founded in 1958, had watched its congregation decline. As in many older Chinese -- and non-Chinese -- churches, there had been much complacency and infighting and little effort to reach out. The ouster of a pastor had prompted some people to leave. The congregation was getting older, with fewer families.

The influx of newcomers gave the congregation a new purpose, said the Rev. Scott Hesler.

"It made everybody rise to the occasion," Hesler said. "We wanted to get serious. We wanted to show people who Jesus is."

Today, about a third of the church's 300 members are new immigrants who converted in the past decade. This fall, the church started a Saturday service in Germantown, where many Chinese newcomers have settled, with the hope of turning it into a satellite church.

Other new congregations have already sprung up throughout the Washington region. Chinese Bible Church of Maryland in Rockville has helped start three churches in metropolitan Washington -- in College Park, Ellicott City and Rockville. The second Rockville congregation started a few years ago as a result of outreach to employees at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where many Chinese immigrants and temporary visitors work.

On one recent Saturday, the soulful notes of bamboo flutes floated across the rented auditorium at Kingsview Middle School in Germantown. Members served a fellowship dinner of noodles and spicy tofu and chattered in Mandarin.

Despite their language and heritage, the new Chinese converts are actually practicing a very traditional and American form of Christianity.

Religion scholars say that even as mainline churches have moved into liberal policies and politics, the immigrants focus on family values, believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible and embrace tradition.

At Chinese Christian Church, services revolve around reading Bible passages, giving personal testimonies and praying. Members say that such focus has helped them stay away from the divisive talk of east Asian politics that has split some Chinese social groups.

"We emphasize the Christian culture," said George Jan, a church elder. "When we get together, we talk about God. The differences become not a problem anymore."

Back in the immigrants' homeland, many Chinese are covertly turning to Christianity despite government crackdowns.

But while many Chinese Americans go back to China to visit and while there, serve as de facto missionaries, they say their focus remains in the United States. Plenty of Chinese immigrants do not attend church. In time, the evangelists want to reach non-Chinese residents, too.

At some churches, the younger Chinese Americans have invited their non-Chinese friends to English-language services. In recent years, Chinese Christian Church has set up a booth at a Takoma Park community festival. Members give out a sample of Chinese calligraphy, as well as cards printed with Bible verses.

"Evangelism doesn't mean Chinese to Chinese. It's believer to nonbeliever," said May Jan, 63, a longtime church member.

After all, she added, isn't that what Western missionaries did when they first went to China centuries ago?

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