An Outside Look

Chinese Immigrants Fill Sunset Park Pews

Posted by kittyzhaoying on May 12, 2009

By Kate Zhao & Sarah Trefethen

The stained glass windows, the pipe organ and the wooden pews could be taken for any American church at any time.  So could the cheery, singable hymns – at least until hundreds of voices rose up to praise the lord in Mandarin Chinese. pray

Tian Fu Church came into existence in Sunset Park, Brooklyn only five years ago. But today, the church’s founder, the Rev. Zhaodeng Peng, says his flock has grown to include over a thousand believers in New York City’s third Chinatown.

More than a quarter of Sunset Park’s foreign-born residents come from China. Many are young and come to this country armed with limited English skills, destined for employment in one of the city’s ubiquitous Chinese Restaurants.

“New immigrants need help,” Peng said. “They need God in their lives. That’s how we’ve grown so fast.”

The United Methodist Church provided funding for Peng and his wife, the Rev. Quibe Shi, to start Tian Fu five years ago.  On May 3, the Rev. Gunshik Shim, who oversees eastern Long Island for the national organization of the United Methodist Church, visited Tian Fu to conduct a baptism and to announce that the church had grown up.  In June, the Fujianese congregation will become a dues-paying charter member of the national organization.

Peng and Shi are both from China.  Peng studied theology in Shanghai before moving on to a seminary in Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian Provence. Today, most of Tian Fu’s members hail from that same mountainous corner the country’s southeast. This year, Peng baptizes new members on the first Sunday of each month:

Fujian has more history with Christianity than most of China.  According to Shim, protestant missionaries were finding converts in Fuzhou in the early 1850’s.  “It’s very historical and meaningful for their descendants to come here and start their own congregation,” he said.

Ken Guest, an anthropologist at Baruch College and the author of God in Chinatown: Religion and Survival in New York’s Evolving Immigrant Community, also suggests that some immigrants bring their religious beliefs with them, in spite of the Atheist policies of China’s government.

“In Sunset Park, the Chinese immigrant population is primarily rural peasants,” he said. “Their religious practices haven’t been disturbed by the Chinese Communist Party. Especially the Fujianese.”

However, not all of Tian Fu’s members were Christians when they arrived in Brooklyn. Peng encourages evangelism, and awards certificates to members who bring in twelve or more converts, after the twelve disciples of biblical fame.

He also readily acknowledges that many benefits of joining the church are of a secular nature.  The social network can help young immigrants in search of a job or looking for a date. Peng makes himself available to translate intimidating letters from the government or call a phone company about an unexpected bill.  And after every service, church volunteers serve up home-cooked Fujianese food.

baptize“We are grateful to pastor Peng. Whenever I’m confused or unhappy, I call him for his suggestions,” said Meibing Liu, a housewife with a 7-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.  She says it was her husband who persuaded her to join the church.
“I found him totally changed after he became a Christian,” she said. “Before that, he was so unhappy. He always complained about life and worried about our kids’ future.”

Liu and her husband teach Christian songs to their children and read the Bible at home. Her daughter’s enthusiasm for religious music has become so great that Liu takes her out of services to prevent her running to the front for a spontaneous performance.

Not all of Sunset Park’s Chinese residents have converted.  Lan Cheng is a high-school junior from a Buddhist family. He said other friends and relatives have encouraged his parents to become Christian, but they declined to do so.

“We still keep Buddhist traditions at home and go to temples sometimes,” said Cheng.

And Tian Fu member Jiachang Dong, a nail salon keeper, complained that when he tried to spread the Christian themes back to his hometown in China, most of his old friends thought he was crazy and condemned his behavior. Dong and his wife Lin Caijing both joined the church in 1998. Lin said she did struggle changing from a Buddist to be a Christain:

But inside the Tian Fu Church, as Meibing Liu’s little daughter ran around and sang, “Jesus loves me,” Liu looked at her with a satisfied smile.

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