jump to navigation

Hearing God’s Word Beyond the Walls May 21, 2006

Posted by peterong in Immigrant Church.

As reported in the New York Times

Immigrants Hear God's Word, in Chinese, via Conference Call

Just before midnight, the calls start coming in to the church on Allen Street in Chinatown. They come from Chinese restaurant workers across the United States.

Chen Yingjie, 25, is one of those on the other end, dialing the Manhattan church, the Church of Grace to Fujianese, on a recent night from his room above the China Garden in Dowagiac, Mich., a town of 6,000. "Every time I call in, I know that the Lord is alive and that there are brothers and sisters by my side," Mr. Chen said. "I don't feel as empty."

The callers — more than a hundred crowd the line on many nights — are for the most part like Mr. Chen, illegal immigrants from the Fuzhou region of Fujian province, coming off bone-wearying 12-hour shifts as stir-fry cooks, dishwashers, deliverymen and waiters at Chinese restaurants, buffets and takeout places.

For the next hour, led by a pastor sitting in front of a speakerphone in Chinatown, they will sing praises to God over the phone and study shengjing — the Bible — together.

With limited English and even less time, often isolated in small towns across the country, most Fujianese Chinese restaurant workers find it impossible to attend church on Sundays. But strung together by cellphones and free night-and-weekend minutes, these workers have come to form a virtual church on Monday through Thursday nights, deriving spiritual sustenance and companionship from an unusual conference-call Bible study organized by the Church of Grace.

"It's like there is a giant net, connecting people from all different places together," said Mr. Chen, speaking in Mandarin.

The Bible study is the brainchild of the Pastor Paul Chen, a minister at Church of Grace, and himself an emigrant from the Fuzhou region, which has become China's leading source of illegal immigrants smuggled into the United States. Three years ago, he said, he had been praying about how to tend to the thousands of Fujianese working in Chinese restaurants across the country.

"In the Bible, it states that you are never to stop gathering together," he said, speaking in Mandarin. "For those who are out of state, having fellowship and being together, it is not that easy."

The conference-call idea came to him, he said, when he saw someone at the church use the three-way calling feature on his cellphone one day. Early on, the gatherings over the telephone were organized haphazardly, with one restaurant worker calling into the church and then conferencing in a friend; the friend would in turn conference in another friend. The chain expanded, growing to 20 or 30 people on the line at once. Sometimes it would take 20 minutes just to get everyone together.

Different parts of the Bible are studied on different nights: Psalms on Tuesday; New Testament on Wednesday; Old Testament on Thursday. On Mondays, there is a short devotional and then a time of prayer.

Eventually, the church bought conference call lines able to handle 40 callers at a time. When that proved too few, they expanded to 100 lines.

Although reliable numbers are difficult to come by because most Fujianese are here illegally, it is estimated that 300,000 immigrants from the Fuzhou region are in the United States, with the largest concentration, about 60,000 to 70,000, in New York City, said Kenneth J. Guest, a Baruch College anthropology professor who wrote the book "God in Chinatown" (New York University Press, 2003).

By all indications, they are continuing to come. Church of Grace, the largest Protestant church in Chinatown catering to Fujianese, gets newcomers almost every week at its services. Last year, more than 500 visitors, most of them fresh from China, passed through the church, said Stanley Chan, a deacon. About 450 to 500 people attend services weekly.

New York City is the central node of a vast ethnic economy that provides labor to the country's Chinese restaurants, of which there are more than 36,000 — more than the number of McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's outlets combined — says the Chinese Restaurant News, an industry publication.

Fujianese workers line up at dozens of ramshackle employment agencies under the Manhattan Bridge. On the wall are postings advertising jobs available at restaurants across the country, generally paying $1,800 to $2,600 a month. After short telephone interviews, the workers are trundled off on van lines that drop them off at their new jobs.

"We've got this little diaspora in formation," Dr. Guest said. "The workers are not settling in these places. The restaurant owners are going and establishing these outposts. The workers are still moving back and forth. It's really a working-class internal migration between New York and other parts of the country."

But the migration has a high cost for many workers, who often find themselves stranded in places with few other people like them and little ability to interact with the English-speaking world.

"They're particularly vulnerable and lonely," Dr. Guest said. "The churches and temples serve as very important community centers for this very transient population. The conference calls are an extension of that."

Many Fujianese restaurant workers found yesu jidu, Jesus Christ, at churches back home in China, while others converted after coming to this country. Christianity is enjoying a renaissance in China. Among the areas where the greatest growth has occurred is in Fujian province and other parts of southeastern China. By early 2001, there were 1,500 registered churches and an additional 2,500 official meeting points in Fujian, Dr. Guest says in his book. Residents meet in underground churches, as well as open ones. There are also unregistered churches that simply function with the tacit approval of the local government.

Mr. Chen's parents raised him as a Christian, although he rarely went to church. He paid human smugglers to sneak him into the United States two years ago, first flying to Guatemala and then making his way to Mexico, where he swam a river to cross the border. He declined to say how much he paid them, but the price these days is generally more than $60,000. It will take him at least two more years, he said, to pay off his debt.

Soon after he arrived in New York City, he sought out the Church of Grace.

"Coming to America, I just felt that I was really alone," he said. "I saw something in the newspaper about the church, and I went."

Several months ago, seeking to move out of New York City, he found a job through an employment agency as a waiter at a Thai restaurant in Indiana. After a brief stint, he decided that being a waiter did not suit him, so he quit and went to Chicago. There, at another employment agency, he learned of an opportunity answering the telephone and working the cash register at China Garden, the lone Chinese restaurant in Dowagiac, in the southwestern part of the state.

Dowagiac, which sit in the heart of the largest hog-producing county in Michigan, might seem an unlikely place for a Chinese restaurant. But located on the town's main thoroughfare, a few doors down from Bill's Vac Shop and Marci's Variety Store, China Garden draws a steady line of customers. General Tso's chicken is the most popular dish. On the wall, a framed certificate from a local newspaper honors the restaurant as having the best buffet in town.

Upon his arrival in Dowagiac in late April, Mr. Chen was assigned a 9-by-12 room upstairs from the restaurant. The restaurant's owners lived in an adjoining room; other employees camped out in the living room.

But Mr. Chen quickly soured on life in Dowagiac. (He left last weekend to go back to Chicago.) The restaurant owners locked the doors every night, making it impossible to leave. Even on his days off, without a car, he had few options other than walking to the public library down the street.

"It's like I'm living in a cage," he said.

The Bible study offered him a lifeline, a rare chance to escape.

"For us brothers and sisters who are out of state," he said, "the Bible study over the phone is central to our lives."

His favorite Bible verse? Psalm 49:20. "A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish."

Wu Jishu, 33, has worked in more than 10 states since he came to the United States five years ago and has been calling in to the Bible study since its early days. Now he works at a takeout restaurant outside of Pittsburgh.

He appreciates the opportunity to ask questions about parts of the Bible that confuse him, he said. Occasionally, the pastor will also open up the line for participants to share news about their lives and to pray for one another.

"We can't see each other," Mr. Wu said. "But we can hear each other."

On a recent night, Mr. Chen, of the Church of Grace, led the participants through a passage in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus heals the sick and demon-possessed in Galilee. He impressed upon them that their purpose in the United States was not simply to zhuanqian, earn money, but to spread the Gospel as well.

Like a preacher revving up his audience, he challenged his listeners to respond, hitting a button to open up the lines.

"We're here to what?"

"Spread the Gospel," they said in a cacophony of Mandarin.

"We're here to what?"

"Spread the Gospel."

Later in the passage, Jesus calls on his disciples to come with him as he preached to other villages. Mr. Chen drew an analogy to the restaurant workers. They could go from buffet house to buffet house, planting seeds of faith wherever they went.


No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: