September 27, 2007
Written by C.N.
In my previous post entitled “The Downside of Diversity,” I wrote about a new study by a Harvard professor which concluded that in areas with high levels of racial/ethnic diversity, residents are more likely to feel alienated and distrustful of each other.
In that context however, as the New York Times reports, in many churches around the country, an influx of new immigrants has led to increased racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their churches. More importantly and in contrast to the findings of the above-mentioned, it has actually strengthened the social bonds between church members:
The Clarkston International Bible Church, which sits along an active freight rail line down the road from the former Ku Klux Klan bastion of Stone Mountain, is now home to parishioners from more than 15 countries. . . The church’s Sunday potluck lunch features African stews and Asian vegetable dishes alongside hot dogs, sweet tea and homemade cherry pie.
The transformation of what was long known as the Clarkston Baptist Church speaks to a broader change among other American churches. Many evangelical Christians who have long believed in spreading their religion in faraway lands have found that immigrants offer an opportunity for church work within one’s own community. And many immigrants and refugees are drawn by the warm welcome they get from the parishioners, which can stand in stark contrast to the more competitive and alienating nature of workaday America.
Indeed, evangelical churches have begun to stand out as rare centers of ethnic mixing in a country that researchers say has become more culturally fragmented, in part because of immigration.
The article describes that the transition to a multi-ethnic and multicultural church was not an easy one. As their town was experiencing these profound demographic changes, many old-time White residents were appalled and moved elsewhere, rather than live next to more immigrants and people of color.
Nonetheless, other long-time residents turned to the Bible to get guidance on how to deal with these social changes and found the answer in Jesus’s example of praying for unity among his followers. As a result, the church first rented out its facilities to Filipino, Vietnamese, and African groups for their own services. Eventually, the church invited these separate congregations to join them to form an expanded and inclusive congregation.
Further, the article notes that all groups involved had to change a little: ” Merging congregations has meant compromise for everyone. The immigrants who join the main congregation have to give up worshiping in their native languages. Older Southern Baptist parishioners have given up traditional hymns and organ music.”
This story about the evolution of the Clarkston International Bible Church is a great example of sociology in so many ways. The first lesson is that globalization and demographic change are practical realities of American society. With that in mind, “traditionalists” can try to keep running away and moving from town to town if they like, but eventually they will have to deal with these changes one way or another.
Alternatively, as illustrated by William Perrin’s example in the article, they can summon up the courage to consciously adapt to these changes and learn to even embrace these changes because it is these kinds of challenges that make us stronger and more united as a community and as a society.
A third “lesson” we might learn from this story is the positive power of religion to facilitate social unity and solidarity. Many Americans and particularly many academics, are rather skeptical and even hostile towards organized religion. In many cases, they see religion as a divisive force that only serves to perpetuate “us versus them” mentalities.
In many cases, these critics of religion certainly have a point and there are plenty of examples to support their perspective. Nonetheless, as this article illustrates, not all aspects of organized religion are divisive and in fact, as shown by the Clarkston example, religion can serve as a powerful and effective focal point that can bring together people from diverse backgrounds.
All combined, the final sociological lesson to be learned is that rather than leading to more alienation and distrust, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, with the help of some kind of “social glue” like religion, can indeed offer us the opportunity to socially evolve and to become better American citizens.