Immigrant congregations are indispensable to the integration of newcomers. However, they can also import prejudice and breed hatred.
While studying community-based organizations founded by and for immigrant groups, I learned how crucial these non-profits are to incorporating newcomers into the American mainstream. Congregations such as churches and mosques are especially helpful for individuals and families that have just arrived. As I wrote in a report for the Urban Institute:
Congregations are often the first and main points of contact for newcomers. They provide a ready-made community with shared religion, language, culture, and norms. Religious community leaders are often keenly aware of newcomers’ needs. They often provide direct services or educate individuals and families about how and where to find help. In this safe environment, immigrants learn from their compatriots about American life and ease into it.
Unfortunately, some of these congregations also import religious beliefs and cultural traditions that clash with the secular and pluralist character of America. This conflict was on display last week during the federal Proposition 8 trial in San Francisco. The plaintiffs presented videotapes of Hak-Shing Tam, a 55-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong and one of the main progenitors of the referendum that ended same-sex marriage in California.
The New York Times reported that Tam is one of the most respected and heeded leaders of the “burgeoning world of evangelical Chinese Christianity in the Bay Area.” The proponents of marriage equality chose Tam to prove their central argument that Proposition 8 came out of hate for a minority. Ironically, the prejudice and bigotry of one minority — fundamentalist Christian Chinese — targeted another minority: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
An example of this prejudice can be drawn from a 2008 Chinese-language essay that Tam distributed online, which includes this passage:
In a macro environment in which homosexuality is gradually accepted as being normal, child molesting by gays is gradually being viewed as normal in academia. Children who were subjected to sexual abuse only know to socialize with other men through sex. When they grow up, they would do the same to other children by molesting children of the same sex. Therefore, gay people grow in numbers even as most of them do not have children of their own.
In a Chinese-language letter that Tam disseminated among Chinese Christian churches in the Bay Area, he warned of a “gay agenda” and some inevitable legalization of prostitution and pedophilia if Prop 8 failed. All of Tam’s assertions are patently false and designed to incite discrimination and action against the LGBT community.
In a follow-up article, the Times reporter muses:
It was fascinating to realize that same-sex marriage, and the successful campaign to ban it was really the first political issue to galvanize this community. It has been rapidly — and quietly — growing for two decades but only recently tried its hand at political action.
The Bay Area’s Chinese Christians are overwhelmingly evangelical, especially in the South Bay, although there is smattering of main-line Protestants and Catholics as well in San Francisco. Evangelical Chinese Christians were one of the region’s most vocal and well-organized groups supporting Proposition 8, the ballot measure banning same-sex marriage, which voters approved in 2008.
It is safe to say that most of these Evangelical Chinese agree with Tam’s warped sense of reality because of their religious belief system, cultural traditions and general conservative bent.
This is not to say that all faithful immigrants are like Tam and his coreligionists. Neither am I advocating for newcomers to leave their religions, cultures and traditions at the border. After all, this is a nation of immigrants and they should always be welcome along with the energy, determination, talent, optimism and hope they bring into their adopted country.
However, people who choose to come to the United States also should be willing to live in a society that embraces many different kinds of people who do not necessarily share the same beliefs, customs and traditions. Newcomers need to respect and at the very least tolerate others just as they should be respected and at the very least tolerated. Immigrants have to learn and imbibe the American ideals of freedom and equality.
Ours is a liberal democracy, not a theocracy.
You can follow Erwin on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon