Religion & Immigration

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  • Why Georgia
    Why Georgia

    There have been 8 articles in my local paper this week about how wonderful illegal immigrants makes our town. Here is the latest and it mentions JW's.

    Many faiths come with newcomers


    Pastor Saney Lee's path to Christianity was as unorthodox as a faith journey can get.

    Raised a Buddhist in his native Cambodia, Lee was devoted to its tenets and prac tices until the Khmer Rouge took over his country and chal lenged his faith.

    Separated from family and left without a livelihood, Lee and his wife were forced to flee to Thailand in 1979, where they lived in camps for five years.

    It was there that he became acquainted with missionaries from the Christian and Mission ary Alliance denomination, who introduced him to the Gospel.

    He was not an easy convert.

    `` All my life I tried to be a perfect Buddhist,'' Lee said.

    But the reign of the Khmer Rouge made him question why such suffering would be inflict ed on the Cambodian people, who had pleaded and prayed for peace. `` I asked, but no one gave answers,'' Lee said.

    That changed when he began reading the Bible in the refugee camps and finding the answers he sought.

    He became a Christian, and by the time he made his way to California, he was teaching Bible classes and Sunday school, and enrolling in a Chris tian seminary.

    Then, a church official asked if he would move to Massachusetts and take over as pastor of a small Cambodian evangelical church in Attleboro that was affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

    Lee arrived here in 1990 and is still pastor today, standing as an example of an immigrant who brought his religion to this country, even though it was not the faith of his homeland.

    Like other parts of New England and of the country, the Attleboro area has seen a surge in ethnic populations that have brought diversity to its faith communities.

    According to a 2004 report, `` Religion and Public Life in New England,'' co-published by the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., the region is rapidly becoming more Asian and more Hispanic -- and more evangelical.

    But unlike Lee, most Asian immigrants are Buddhists or Muslims.

    Hispanics, on the other hand, are more likely to be evangelical Christians, whose ranks have gained members in recent years, or they are Roman Catholics, helping to keep Massachusetts one of the most Catholic states in the nation.

    Yet other faiths are making gains as well.

    According to the Trinity College report, Massachusetts has a higher percentage of Hindus than most other states, and immigration from Asian and Middle Eastern countries has fostered the growth of Islam.

    Robert Mond, principal of Al-Noor Academy, a Muslim school in Mansfield, said he has seen new families move to the area who originate from Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Pakistan. Some are now second-generation or third-generation families, he said, and some have moved to Mansfield and surrounding communities because of Al-Noor.

    `` There is rich diversity here,'' Mond said.

    Adding to the mix are the many Hindu families who have settled in the Attleboro area in recent years, coming mostly from India.

    Mahesh Patel, who has lived in the city since 1981, estimates that up to 200 Indian families of the Hindu faith now reside in the area. Many of them have held onto their customs, he said, but some are now into the second and third generations that have become `` part of the melting pot.''

    Because of the influx, Patel said, Attleboro has become the center for faith-related Hindu celebrations that usually are held in public facilities and that are very social affairs.

    Otherwise, Hindus may go to the temple in Fall River for feasts or on weekends, but most have a small temple in their home, where they pray every day.

    Since their faith is practiced so privately, and since there is no temple in this area, Hinduism, like Buddhism, is not readily visible.

    There is also no interest in conversion, and no sense that any one religion is better than another, so Hindus are unlikely to promote their beliefs, and are respectful and accepting of the beliefs of others.

    Rather, Hinduism is seen more as a way of life, one that evolved from the ancient quest to understand the truth behind existence.

    `` We are a very open-minded, enlightened people,'' said Balram Singh, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, which has a center for India studies.

    While Hindus are more likely to worship at home, Christians gravitate to churches, making their presence much more visible.

    The influx of Hispanic evangelical Christians has led to the establishment of churches such like Heroes of the Faith and Church of God in Attleboro, while Catholics often turn to St. Joseph's in Attleboro, which has an active Hispanic ministry.

    The Rev. Michael Carvill, pastor of St. Joseph's, said the parish has definitely seen an increase in that ministry, and an increase in attendance at the weekend Spanish Mass. At the end of that Mass, Carvill invites anyone new to stand up and be welcomed.

    `` Almost every week there's someone new,'' he said. `` The Spanish community is definitely growing.''

    Yet, the ethnic makeup has changed.

    Twenty years ago, most people served by the ministry were Puerto Ricans, he said, but those arriving now are more likely to come from Central America, South America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

    St. Joseph's is also part of the Hispanic Apostolate in the Fall River Diocese, which is now in the process of developing a diocesan-wide plan to better respond to the pastoral needs of Spanish-speaking Catholics.

    At LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro, priests and brothers have been focusing on expanding programs and ministries for ethnic groups that frequent the shrine.

    As of now, 10 different pilgrimages are held there for various ethnic groups, plus healing services and confessions in different languages.

    Shrine booklets are also printed in Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and French, as well as English, and Masses on certain feast days are said in Spanish and English.

    The Rev. John Sullivan, a LaSalette priest who served for 18 years in Bolivia and Argentina and whose specialty now is Hispanic ministry at the shrine, said he sees a strong representation of Catholics from Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as from Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

    He also sees more people from India, the Philippines and Vietnam at weekend Masses, and an attendance of about 3,000 at the annual Vietnamese and Filipino pilgrimages.

    But these Catholics do not necessarily live in this area, and many come to the shrine from Brockton, Boston, Fall River and Providence.

    They also bring ethnic elements into how they practice their faith, Sullivan said, and the shrine tries to incorporate them into ceremonies and services.

    While knowing other languages is important, Sullivan said, ethnic ministry also requires respect for heritage.

    `` It's not just speaking Spanish. It's knowing another culture,'' he said. `` Language is a big part of it, but it's more than that.''

    The variety of customs makes the ministry rich, he said.

    `` There is more of a sense of God's creation,'' Sullivan said. `` It is not limited to one culture, but there is also a oneness because we are all Catholic.''

    While Pastor Lee of the Cambodian Christian church knows many Vietnamese who are Catholic, he said many Cambodians hold on to the Buddhist beliefs of their homeland, but may not necessarily practice those beliefs.

    Christianity, on the other hand, was not popular in Cambodia, he said, and those who embraced the faith when they came to this country in the 1980s were likely sponsored by Christian churches. However, he said they did not necessarily stay close to the church once they were here.

    Some do not practice any faith, he said, and a few became Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, two religious groups that send members out to knock on doors and convert others.

    Lee's own church had only seven members when he arrived, and it gradually grew to about 80 or more, but has since declined to about half that number.

    New Cambodian families are no longer moving to this area, he said, and many of them who were living here are leaving and relocating to other states because of the high cost of housing in Massachusetts, or because of the rough winter weather.

    Lee is here for now, but with Christianity growing in Cambodia, he expects to one day be called to return to his homeland to serve a Christian and Missionary Alliance church there.

    `` Where the Lord calls, I go,'' he said.

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