Chinese Catholic ministry in Philadelphia
Fr. Thomas Betz
For 25 years I have worked in Philadelphia Chinatown at Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School. Philadelphia is a big city, a typical old eastern city with all the urban problems and realities that other US cities face. I suppose that Philadelphia Chinatown is typical of other urban Chinatowns. I love our Chinatown—not too big like New York, not too small like Washington, DC. From my perspective, just the right size.
Chinatown neighborhoods are typically located in or right next to the heart of big cities, down town. Chinatowns are intensely urban, congested, densely packed. Typically, Chinatowns have been the prime first destination for new immigrants, particularly those who come without advanced education, those who come to work in restaurants, laundries, garment factories. Chinatowns are unique ethnic neighborhoods in that they are home neighborhood for large numbers of Chinese who actually live in other neighborhoods. Often enough these Chinese feel no connection to the place where they live, but feel at home in the streets, restaurants and shops of Chinatown.
貝慈神父及唐汝梅 (右),濮揚 (悦主小組)
Chinatowns face difficult developmental pressures these days. As center cities become more popular as residential and commercial centers, property values rise, sometimes squeezing out the poorer new immigrants. Moreover, Chinatown property is often prime for development projects—public buildings, stadiums, convention centers, highways, etc. This also makes the survival of Chinatowns more difficult.
Suburban Chinese also relate to Chinatowns. Chinese churches are often located in Chinatowns and always attract significant numbers of suburban Chinese. Chinese churches, both Catholic and Protestant, sometime relate well in terms of service and evangelization to the neighborhood that they are in. In other cases, the church and the neighborhood may not relate at all.
Holy Redeemer Church and School in Philadelphia was built in 1941, though a few years earlier a mission to the Chinese had been started. Holy Redeemer was built for Chinese when there was only one Chinese Catholic family in Philadelphia. It was not built for Catholics, but for the evangelization of non-Catholic Chinese.
When I came to Holy Redeemer in 1991, 25 years ago, the community was in disarray—few people were attending Mass (about 20 people at the English Mass); there was no money; school enrollment was declining rapidly. Now on a good Sunday 300 people attend the three Masses, school enrollment is at a record high and finances are stable. The heart of the decline was internal dissension among church members. These conflicts have been resolved and our people are able to work together.
I want to talk about Chinese Americans for a bit and I want to use Holy Redeemer as a case study. Holy Redeemer was founded, as I said, to evangelize non-Catholic Chinese who were here in the United States. Holy Redeemer’s chief means of reaching the community was the school and because Holy Redeemer operated the neighborhood school, it became the most beloved institution in the community. However, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, new immigrants arrived who had already been Catholic in China. Some came with advanced university degrees to teach or to work in technical fields. Some came already speaking English, but preferring Chinese for worship. Other immigrants came, poor, illegal, oppressed and some of these were Catholic. Immigrants came from Taiwan, no longer primarily Cantonese. Immigrants came from Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Fujian, Vietnam, Cambodia—all Chinese. People spoke Cantonese, Mandarin and Fujianese. Some Chinese had been here for generations and only spoke English.
To a non-Chinese, the Chinese community seems to be composed of a single ethnic community. But that is not true. More than any other community that I know, the Chinese community is itself diverse. It is composed of families who have been in the US for generations, some of whose members have married non-Chinese, and it includes the Fujianese restaurant worker enslaved to the snakeheads by a $70,000 transport debt.
Many Chinese Catholic apostolates do not take account of the vast diversity of the Chinese community, but cater to a segment of the community only. More often than not, Chinese Catholic apostolates do not engage the poor new immigrants at all. Holy Redeemer’s current strength is that we engage, though not perfectly, a large part of the Chinese community. It was this same diversity and our inability to accommodate it which almost destroyed us some years ago.
When we talk about Chinese American youth—our future--we have to acknowledge that there is great diversity. They do not all speak English; they do not all speak Chinese. They are Cantonese, Mandarin and Taiwanese. They are not all the same. And this is true in the suburbs and in the cities.
The factor that most differentiates one Chinese American youth from another is the youth’s parents. The children of the parents who came to the US on a student visa to study science and then got a job teaching in a university will significantly differ from the children of the undocumented worker who cooks in a take out restaurant in an inner city ghetto. I have often said that the greatest distinguisher among Chinese Americans is the type of visa with which they entered the US (or the lack of a visa). Those who came as students or professional workers are quite different from those who came on family reunification visas or who came seeking asylum or who came illegally. Similarly, the length of time that a family has been in the United States is also a distinguisher. Chinese Americans are a diverse people.
Let’s turn our attention from Chinese Americans to urban America. There is an urbanization trend throughout the world, though there is a de-urbanization trend in the United States. In most poor nations, people are leaving the countryside to travel to the cities in search of work and better opportunity. Often the infrastructure of large cities is insufficient to accommodate this rapid expansion of population and large cities across the world do not have enough clean water, education, medical care, housing and sewage for the vast numbers of poor people who flock to world cities, like Mexico City, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Bangkok.
European cities are popular places to live, though the new immigrants tend to end up in slums at the outskirts of these cities. The United States has an unusual problem, falling population in large, old established cities. As the more affluent leave for the suburbs with their oversized houses, large green lawns and academy-like public schools, the poor are left behind in the cities. Some of the urban flight which accelerated in the 1960’s is race based, a flight of whites, often white Catholics, to the suburbs as blacks, usually not Catholic, bought the homes of the whites who fled, often at bargain prices.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia consists of five counties—four suburban and one comprising Philadelphia city. Census statistics show that 75% of Chinese live in the city, and 25% in the suburbs; interestingly enough, 75% of Koreans live in the suburbs and only 25% in the city. Chinese are also moving to the suburbs as they get money and education but in Philadelphia, Chinese are still basically an urban people. Interestingly enough, Chinese Catholic apostolates are often basically suburban, even if they worship in a Chinatown church, thus indicating that a large segment of the Chinese community is not served by the apostolate.
Chinese immigrants often find opportunity in the city that they cannot find in the suburbs. Chinatowns are in the city and there are jobs, community, familiar foods and a network of social assistance. It is also possible to open and operate small businesses in minority neighborhoods where most entrepreneurs are afraid to go. Housing is often affordable and in some cases Asian immigrants have turned back the decline of some decaying neighborhoods by buying homes, repairing them and creating new Asian enclaves, alternate Chinatowns.
Most large urban centers have predominantly African American populations, or at least a sizable African American minority. In some parts of the country Mexican or Puerto Rican communities are significant and some cities are more diverse with a number of minority communities. Philadelphia is more than half African American with a sizable white minority. The Hispanic population is large enough to have some political clout. The Asian community is small relative to the larger ethnic and racial groups. Asians are often new immigrants, not citizens, so the political power of Asians is minimal. This is typical of large US cities.
Some observers believe that the US has two basic cultures—black and white—and that urban America is black and suburban America is white. Under this analysis, Asian teens in the city would be very influenced by African American culture—hip hop music, sneakers, baggy clothes, African American language idioms. Asian suburban kids would likewise be influenced by white cultural norms. Somehow in the midst of these two dominant US cultural influences, Chinese culture is also important for Chinese American teens. It must also be acknowledged that suburban teens often like African American cultural style and urban teens can be influenced by white American trends.
Chinese American urban teens are a diverse mix of cultural influences. However, despite the risk of over simplification I will divide them into three groups:
• Those heavily influenced by urban styles and urban problems. These teens tend to underachieve in school, to spend a lot of time outside of their homes and without parental supervision. These teens may appear to imitate African American hip hop style. Some of these teens are members of gangs. Risks for these teens include drugs, violence, sexual experimentation and underachievement. Most urban Chinese teens are influenced by this type of social example, even if they do not completely ascribe to this style.
• Those who are recent immigrants or whose families retain a very Chinese style of life. These teens prefer to speak Chinese and are often from Fujian Province. They often have to work hard to support their parents’ business. Many of these teens are also significantly at risk for academic underachievement, especially if they never master the English language. Socially they are often shunned by other Asian teens as FOB’s and they rarely have non-Chinese friends. These teens project a “foreignness”.
• The third category is not really a distinctive group. There are plenty of Asian teens who do achieve reasonably well in school, who speak English as their preferred language, who cooperate with their parents, who avoid the extremes of urban and foreign styles. They are influenced by hip hop and by Chinese culture, but they are free enough to dialogue critically with these cultures out of a healthy sense of self.
Urban Chinese Catholic youth ministry must reach all three groups of teens. It is not likely that these three groups of teens can be served by the same programs. The second group, the “foreign acting” teens may not be welcomed by the other teens and may not feel comfortable with them in any event. The very urban kids may be seen as bad influences and unwholesome by the other teens and most especially by their parents.
Not all Chinese Catholic kids are urban. There are educated suburban Chinese Catholic youth also. At Holy Redeemer we have engaged some of these kids and many of these kids also relate to local mainstream American parishes. But, to be honest, our educated immigrant Chinese families have not done a good job of passing the faith on to the next generation. This problem is widespread across the United States—good Catholic families not producing practicing Catholic teens and young adults. It is also a problem for our college educated immigrant families. I have to admit with regret that our programs have targeted more the urban and not the suburban teens and young adults.
There are two basic types of Chinese Catholic youth ministry models in the United States. Type one starts in the church with Catholic children of church members. While occasionally some Catholic teens may get their non-Catholic friends involved, the youth ministry is primarily a service offered for Catholic families. I will term this ministry as catechetical, that is meant to offer faith formation for Catholics.
Type two begins with the neighborhood. The predominant object of the ministry is non-Catholics. There may be Catholic teens involved, but not as the primary focus. Catholics teens may even feel odd or unusual in this group, if the religious meaning of the ministry is not emphasized enough. Our ministry is primarily of this type. At Holy Redeemer we encounter non-Catholic teens in two basic ways—through our Catholic school (300 children, only about 25 from Catholic families) and from our playground and gym which are very important resources for all children in a dense urban neighborhood. This model may be evangelization or service or both. At Holy Redeemer it is both. We do make a significant number of junior high and high school converts. However, we serve poor inner city teens without regard to whether or not they are likely to convert. In Philadelphia Chinatown, the Catholic Church is perceived as an institution close to the people and of great service. We fight to retain our image as a church family, united in Christ.
At Holy Redeemer we offer several services to urban Chinese youth:
• Our school is perhaps our best means of reaching young people. The standards of the school are high and an excellent education is offered in a city with a failed public school system. Our school kids are not immune from urban problems, but tend to do significantly better than public school kids. Many of our school kids come to a deep faith in Christ, though few of them practice the Catholic faith in a consistent way throughout life.
• We offer our gym and playground regularly to teens and children and there are always young people present who desperately need these resources. I try to befriend some of these teens as well, to make them feel at least a little bit at home in our church community.
• We offer some youth service programs in the summer—swim trips, trips to an amusement part, etc. These are very important for these urban teens who rarely get the opportunity to go on vacation or to have these experiences. Hundreds of children and youth take advantage of these opportunities. Most of the children who are served by these offerings are not Catholic and did not go to the Catholic school.
• We offer a retreat for teens. Again most of the Chinese teens who attend are not from Catholic families. This is the first opportunity for many to consider religious questions or to meet Christ. A few conversions have resulted from these retreats, but few of the converts who are not from Catholic families or Catholic school have persevered in practice of the faith into adulthood.
Our Sunday Mass typically has 15 or more teens who are not with their parents. These teens genuinely love the Lord and want to serve God. However, they do not have family support so it is difficult to sustain a church practice. I would want to emphasize that these teens are sincere and that many teens from Catholic families do not practice their faith into adulthood. I would also want to note that some teens and young adults do continue to practice their faith or to attend church for many years and are still involved.
Holy Redeemer combines service and evangelization to outreach urban youth and gradually to introduce at least some of them to Christ. Despite lapses in practice of the faith and reception of the sacraments, these kids genuinely love Christ and strive to live the commandments. I also believe that their faith is influential even when they cease regular Mass attendance. The most common reason for a young person’s discontinuance of Mass attendance is a job; most teen jobs are in restaurants and require work on Sunday.
Holy Redeemer has a wonderful group of young Fujianese people who were Catholic in China. These young people tend to be faithful to Mass, though there is the same problem with job interference. This group of young people does not mix well with the other teens, but fortunately we manage to have a good relationship with these teens as well.
Holy Redeemer does not only reach out to youth, but we try to be a Christ focused center of love and friendship to the Chinese community. Holy Redeemer has always had a particular focus on youth. But we also have significant service to the adult population.
• Holy Redeemer is the site of many community meetings and events. The Chinese community sees Holy Redeemer as an important community resource.
• Holy Redeemer co-founded and provides free space for a free medical clinic that treats approximately 50 poor people, particularly undocumented immigrants, each week.
• Holy Redeemer is very involved in the community. Many of our church members serve on the board of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, On Lok Senior Citizen House and other organizations. I served for many years as president of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.
• Holy Redeemer is a trusted and respected community organization. People needing help often go to Holy Redeemer first, believing that there are good people there who would help if they could.
Holy Redeemer has always been an important educational and social service asset for the community. But are we evangelizers? We don’t do good works primarily to make converts, but we do want to share the Gospel. At the very least we want those we serve to know that we do what we do because of our hope in Jesus.
Some years ago we noticed the presence of many new immigrants from Fujian Province. A few Fujianese began to attend the Mandarin Mass, which up until then had been primarily Taiwanese. As the Fujianese community began to grow, we still were not seeing many at Mass. At that time, the Legion of Mary was strong and I asked them to focus on this community. Through prayer and especially home visits, we made a breakthrough and this community is now the large majority of the Mandarin Mass.
An important Chinese group whom we have not effectively reached are university students, particularly international students. To our shame, the local Protestant churches have made great inroads and have invested resources in this community. We have had a few tepid efforts to engage this community, but it has not been enthusiastic or sustained.
The greatest barrier to evangelization is the reluctance of lay Catholics go get deeply involved and to give generously of their time and love to invite others to know Jesus. Our Protestant lay brothers and sisters understand their role as evangelizers. There are many Catholics who are doing what they can. But we still lack the fire that we need to outreach the Chinese community, particularly the university community. To our credit, we have done a better job at reaching the poor—urban youth, restaurant workers, undocumented immigrants. But the Gospel is for all and Jesus commands us to preach to all. We should do more.