Speaking their 'heart language'

Churches find ways to reach both immigrants and their children

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According to the dictionary, "first generation" refers to the offspring of immigrants, i.e. the first generation born in this country.

Yukio Hamada is a second generation Japanese-American. On a visit to Tokyo, he and a Caucasian missionary decided to go out for dinner. When the waitress came to their table, she looked at Yukio, expecting him to do the talking. He, however, had to ask the missionary to do the ordering because he didn't speak Japanese very well.

As they grow into adulthood and ask the question, "Who am I?" the children of immigrants often discover they have added layers of complexity that require exploration and/or struggle. They may look like they come from India, China, Mexico, Thailand or the Philippines, yet they speak English better than Telugu, Cantonese, Spanish, Thai or Tagalog. They may be sensitive to their parents' culture while at home, but their instincts away from home are very American.

Sometimes these second generation children find themselves embarrassed by their parents' foreign ways. Mark Molina, whose parents arrived in the U.S. in 1969, remembered when their cultural instincts clashed with his American attitudes. "They became too involved in my first dating relationship in high school," he said, "and when we broke off the relationship, my mother actually called my former girlfriend on the phone to question why. That was very embarrassing."

Dorothy Yee, whose mother was born in Canton, China, said, "When I was younger I was embarrassed by my parents' lack of English communication skills. My mother spoke broken English and my father was deaf. I would have to translate everything that was said. I tried to distance myself from them as a teenager because I thought they were old-fashioned."

Children of immigrants also find themselves being perceived as foreigners. "I sometimes feel judged for being Asian," Yee said. "Some people automatically assume I will have an accent, or that I was born overseas. Others ridiculed me because I was Chinese, calling me "chink" or assuming I know all the latest Shao Lin moves and attempt to engage me."


Most often the next generation simply acknowledges the differences with their parents without feeling the need to make value judgments. Lindsey Ramirez's father immigrated to the U.S in 1977. "I think my experience is different than theirs," she said. "Obviously technology and entertainment are quite a bit different, and money, yes, but only with my dad because he was poor."

Barry Lee, whose parents arrived in the U.S. from Canton in the 1950s, said, "Their value system is different. Their work ethic is much stronger than my generation. For them life is less complicated [no e-mail, electronics, etc.]. They have much more patience and understand the value of honor and respect. Prayer is more important for them and fundamentally stronger. I think that's because they are the generation of the 'have nots' at one point in time."

Nisa Wongthipkongka is an elementary school teacher whose parents moved from Thailand to Chicago in the late 1960s. She compared herself to her parents by saying, "They are able to put aside their emotions and wants in order to achieve their goals. They were mainly working towards survival. I, on the other hand, am privileged and have the luxury of being more idealistic. I have more entitlement issues. I'm used to having more. I've been able to expres my feelings more than they have. It may be because I'm more comfortable with English. I'm more individualistic than my parents."

Language gap

All of the first generation individuals interviewed said they spoke English better than their parents' native language. As far as their ethnic/national identity, answers differed. "I feel more American [than Mexican] by far," said Saul Ponce, whose parents emigrated in 1981.

"My parents would identify themselves as Chinese," Barry Lee said. "I am a Chinese-American."

Mark Molina agreed with Lee. "My parents would say they are Filipino. I see myself as a Filipino-American or an Asian-American."

Lindsey Ramirez expressed some ambivalence when trying to describe her identity. "I probably feel more Mexican [than American] because I was always raised to be proud of my true heritage. I mean, I love America and all, but being Mexican will always be a part of me. But ... I kind of feel American, too, in a way." She acknowledged that she speaks English better than Spanish.

Elvira Arellano certainly knew she would be arrested and deported when she left the sanctuary of Adalberto United Methodist Church in Humboldt Park recently. That she chose to have her son Saul remain in Chicago in the care of her pastor's family reveals that she understands that her first generation son would not be "at home" in Tiajuana.

Ethnic congregations

In our Tri-Village area, there are at least six ethnic congregations-if by that term you mean ministries in which a large percentage of the members are immigrants or their children. The challenge for the pastors of these ethnic congregations is to not only find ways to minister to different generations-an issue most clergy have to deal with-but also to minister to what amounts to different cultures.

Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn, pastor of the Thai Community Church in Forest Park, explained the categories he and other pastors of ethnic churches use when describing their ministry to people in "American" congregations. He refers to the immigrants as 1.0 and the first generation offspring as 2.0. If people were born in other countries but have lived in the U.S. long enough to have lost their accent, they are classified as 1.5.

It seems that pastors who have been successful at reaching the 2.0s are 1.5s. Pongsak, would label himself a 1.0 because he first came to the U.S. as an adult, but he is really more of a 1.3 because he has lived here for almost 20 years, earned a doctorate from an American seminary and is director of Asian Ministries at the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. A graduate student at Trinity Seminary who "gets" American culture, Pongsak immediately asked to be in charge of the 2.0 ministry.

Like Pongsak, Rev. Romir Esguerra, pastor of St. John United Methodist Church, 1100 Ontario St., calls himself a 1.0 because he was born in the Philippines. However, because he has lived in the U.S. since 1979 and has served in American churches for 17 years, he functions like a 1.5, fluent in both English and Tagalog. The way he carries himself, dresses and grooms himself says to people who meet him for the first time, "I'm an American."


One way Esguerra distinguishes between the generations is to say that immigrants are bound by tradition whereas their children are more interested in experience. He tells the story of a first generation teenager who accompanied his parents on a trip "back home" to the Philippines. When they arrived, he was given a special gift by a village leader because it was the boy's birthday. When he opened the bag, he found a live chicken. His parents appreciated the generosity of the gift-giver. It was, after all, a traditional thing to do. The boy, however, thought, "What is this?" Esguerra said the gift won't mean anything to this young man until he can experience it in a meaningful way. "Unless there's a connection," said Esguerra, "it's not going to happen."

The Filipino pastor is big on what he calls "heart language." For some, Tagalog is the language they pray in. For others it's English. It's not just a matter of what vocabulary you use. For the first generation, rock music may be their heart language. For people just off the boat, watching a native dance might speak to their deepest being.

Nisa Wongthipkongka confirmed Esguerra's analysis. "When I was younger I thought church was more routine," she said, "and tradition was the driving force of religion. I wanted more. I wanted to feel God and have a relationship with him. I want worship to be powerful, interactive and tangible."

Multiple belongings

Another concept Esguerra finds useful is "multiple belongings," a term he got from Dr. Eleazar Fernandez. What that means, he said, is people can think of themselves as Filipino and as Asian and as American at the same time.

Assimilation is no longer the desirable goal. "I think assimilation is in the past," he declared. "The model used to be the melting pot. Everybody just gets together in a big pot of stew. I think the model we now have is appreciating each person's unique gifts."

Raj Christodoss, who ministers to the English speaking members of the Chinese Bible Church, 700 S. Ridgeland Ave., is also a 1.5. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from India when he was 8. So what's an Indian doing as a pastor in a Chinese church? It works, he says, because Indian culture and Chinese culture have many similarities, but also because he understands where the 2.0 members of the congregation are coming from and can communicate with the 1.0s at the same time.

Christodoss agrees with Esguerra that the assimilation model is no longer useful. "Often the American family looks at the immigrant family and says, 'When are they going to get integrated?' I don't think it's a bad thing to be an immigrant family because there are values in there that are timeless and need to be passed on to the next generation. They may not fit the mold of an 'American family.' We have to cherish some of the values they bring as an immigrant family.

"We all need to melt a little," he added, "but at the same time, we cannot lose our uniqueness, being Chinese or Indian. Many people whose parents came from Europe tell me, 'I wish I had listened to my parents and learned the language that they brought us up with.'"

Christodoss also believes it matters in what part of the city children of immigrants are raised. Many Chinese immigrants gravitate to ethnic enclaves like Chinatown because it makes their transition into American culture easier. The problem for their children, he says, is they have to attend city schools where there is more of a "cultural clash" than in suburban schools.

As soon as they're able, most of the first generation move to the suburbs. "They no longer see themselves as Chinese-American," Christodoss said. "They see themselves as being American."

Maintaining a sense of multiple belongings is easier now than when he came to this country 31 years ago because of the relative ease of flying back and forth to the "motherland."

"We have some healthy models of helping people to integrate into American society without losing their identity," he said, "because there is still healthy communication and exchange between the motherland and here."

What's more, Christodoss observes, people in the motherland are more "Americanized" even though they've never left their homeland thanks to the invasiveness of American culture.

Speaking to the heart

What speaks to the hearts of the first generation children of immigrants? It's pretty clear that remaining traditional does not. The members of the India Mission Telugu Methodist Church say they don't use guitars or have children's sermons because they don't have many children. That may be true, but you can't help wondering if it isn't the other way around.

Other congregations in this area have developed approaches to ministry that, though different, seem to work equally well because they follow one basic principle: They make a conscious effort to learn to speak the heart languages of their members. One first generation Chinese-American who chose to identify himself simply as David said,

I have been coming to [the Chinese Bible] church here for four years now. This place is really an encouragement and a safe place for anyone. When I was younger, my parents brought me up in the church [in Chinatown]. My parents made sure I knew all the Bible stories and all the facts. I was a bible-baseball whiz. But with all the knowledge, I didn't really have any application with it in my life.

David fell away from the church because he didn't feel God's Word in his heart. But while living in Champaign, friends invited him to a mass gathering of all the Christian groups on campus for a night of praise and worship. He said,

"I will never forget that night. Hundreds of college students in one place singing their hearts out to God. God really spoke to me through that music."

For David, it was an experience of being addressed in his heart language. He discovered that same language being spoken every Sunday at the English service in the church on the corner of Jackson and Ridgeland in Oak Park.

Next week: How the immigration gap impacts services at local congregations.

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