Much has been made of America’s dwindling church attendance numbers, but that is only part of the story. In 2013, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson of the Religion News Service reported on the role of immigrants in the American church, observing that “immigration’s overwhelming religious impact has been to inject expanding diversity and fresh vitality into the country’s Christian community.” He notes that there are over 150 African immigrant congregations in New York City alone, and that the US is home to over seventeen million Asian Americans, forty-four percent of whom are Christians. Meanwhile, Hispanics account for seventy-one percent of the growth in American Catholicism since 1960, and Latino Protestants in the US outnumber Episcopalians three to one (Granberg-Michaelson, “Commentary: The hidden immigration impact on American Churches”).
The numbers suggest that immigrant churches are quickly becoming the face of American Christianity. But, discussions on biblical gender equality have had little impact in many of these communities. Are injustices being perpetrated (even unconsciously) within these growing and vibrant churches?
In my work with immigrant churches from many backgrounds, I have observed a culture of silence about gender injustice. Economic hardship and enmeshed patriarchal worldviews push women out of sight or out of the church. We need to awaken the church to injustice and we need advocates for women in America’s immigrant churches.
A culture of silence
During a roundtable meeting I attended on the issue of biblical gender equality, a comment was made that felt like a hornet had just stung me in the middle of my forehead. “We are trying to survive in the Hispanic church,” one leader responded defensively after I asked a question about gender equality. While the rest of us in the room sympathized with him and the many other bi-vocational pastors who are struggling financially, the fact that issues of gender are not even on the radar was a rude awakening.
The economic plight of many immigrant families, churches, and communities makes gender justice a low priority. When people are in survival mode, the tendency is to overlook gender injustices, caring only about keeping their heads above water. This is the reality in many immigrant communities and congregations.
The truth is that many leaders, financially stable or not, do not realize the intrinsic value women bring to their churches. Their cultures of origin often have ingrained in them for generations that women are subservient to men. As a result, women’s essential contributions are often unnoticed and unspoken, leaving a void that neglects the needs of women in every area of ministry. Immigrant women often learn to suppress their dreams, making their needs secondary.
I know of a young Hispanic woman who has taken over eight years to get her bachelor’s degree. She arrived in the United States when she was eighteen and had to learn English while attending school and working several jobs. She is now fully bilingual and has been offered a lucrative secular job. However, if this young woman wanted to work in an immigrant church, she would likely be given a volunteer position taking care of children or doing food service.
Immigrant churches often become the epicenter of traditional ideas and activities for the community. Many immigrants are in America without extended families, so the church becomes their family. It is a place to gather with others from the same background and embrace things that are familiar, including cultural gender expectations. It is not unusual for a male pastor to have women serve in roles of hospitality, such as greeting, setting up the church, and cooking and serving the traditional food that is part of almost every service. By incorporating cultural traditions, these practices build tight-knit community.
What is wrong with this model? Let us observe the pattern: you have a male pastor, surrounded by an all-male board, with all-male ushers, deacons, and elders. Where are the women? They are often cooking, cleaning, setting up the church, greeting, and serving the food. Are they preaching? Are they leading? Are they planting churches? Are they mentoring or coaching?
No. Women are invisible and rarely front and center, which creates a lack of modeling or mentoring opportunities. They are faithfully diligent workers, and extremely committed, but are pressured to give in to the status quo. They learn to be silent and rarely speak out against injustice. There is a sense of resignation that this is the way things will always be in the church.
I was told recently by a Hispanic leader that biblical gender equality will not work in the immigrant church. His view was that biblical gender equality is about pushy women trying to take over. As I continued the dialogue he realized his own bias had come to the surface. He viewed strong women as adversarial and passive women as godly. In many churches, the more a woman does as she is told without questioning, the more she is accepted. Assertive women who have a strong biblical foundation are often shunned. Women quickly learn that in order to survive they will have to conform, be silent, or leave.
I am hearing more and more stories of young, talented, innovative women leaving immigrant churches because of these patterns. One woman told me she had left her church because she felt the leadership was not interested in women gifted for leadership. “They just don’t care,” she told me. A seminary student once told me she was so tired of systemic injustices in her home church that she is now serving in a paid position in a predominantly white church. Another gifted immigrant woman—a seminary student—found no open door to ministry and is now working in a secular job.
Those who don’t leave their churches are often forced to succumb to the multiple, enmeshed layers of patriarchy. Injustices exist throughout the church, but it is the injustices that occur in immigrant communities that are rarely spoken. The toxic cultural patterns of hierarchy and the patriarchal models of leadership in many immigrant churches are very hard to break.
Modeling a different way
We need to intentionally reach out to all immigrant churches with resources—written materials, seminars, articles, and conferences that awaken male immigrant pastors to the need to advocate for women. We need to graciously and authentically affirm all immigrant women at every level of leadership, especially those called to positions of authority within the church.
Last summer I did a pilot project on leadership development and mentorship at a predominantly Asian church. I met with over fifty women and their families. These women were gifted, talented, highly educated, and were strong leaders. They had cutting-edge ideas about how to reach their communities and many were implementing them. Some were engineers, others were writers, and others were working on their doctorates—all successful women who were open to finding creative ways to serve God.
However, as I had multiple conversations, the questions of women in authority within the church surfaced. I noticed that the women rarely addressed me as pastor, although they were very respectful. By the end of the summer, I saw a breakthrough. For the first time, a man in the church gave me an honorable introduction and referred to me as “pastor.” Biblical gender equality requires intentional modeling and mentoring by courageous men and women. As a female pastor, I was able to model female leadership and be a mentor for both men and women, which led this church to a significant paradigm shift.
I am thankful for the opportunity to serve the immigrant church. However, the reality is that at times it is quite painful for me. It takes perseverance and much prayer to continue to serve in places were gender brokenness is part of the norm. I challenge female leaders who are called to go into these uncharted territories to do so with a spirit of excellence and grace, and to go unapologetically.
Tangible solutions are urgently needed for female leaders in the immigrant church, the multicultural church, and any church seeking to be diverse in a changing landscape. There are many churches with exceptional women who are being shelved, dismissed, ignored, and underutilized. The challenge in the twenty-first century is to teach, train, and advocate for all immigrant women. Those who are advocates need to affirm them in their gifting. We will be unable to change the landscape of the immigrant church unless we raise up women leaders to model and mentor.
Who will take the challenge to raise up female leaders and pave the way for those to follow? We need strong advocates who will speak the convicting truth to cultures of silence. Who will stand for gender justice in America’s fastest-growing Christian communities? Advocates for women, please step forward.