A few weeks ago I turned on a video clip of a Ukrainian congress meeting. No, I am not a hardline Ukrainian nationalist who follows all the politics closely, I envision if I were, I would probably move there. Yet, there was reportedly a fight that broke out towards the meeting, so I was curious, and generally I wanted to see what was happening in the “motherland.” As a gray suited man took stage behind something that strangely resembled a pulpit, I began to feel a peculiar sense of familiarity. He stood facing hundreds of other men, likewise well suited. He began speaking and my jaw dropped. “Church! This is church!” I nearly screamed. The whole proceeding began to stir up emotions and nostalgic feelings which were in my mind only associated with “the holy things.” Even while the content was politics, the voice of the speaker, the style of pronouncing certain words, the emotional flair, the type of rhetorical questions, the way he shook his hands to demonstrate certain points, all of felt uniquely “Christian.” I honestly began to feel some of the emotions that I often feel in a Russian church, and this speaker, a nonbeliever, speaking about politics, began to evoke the same response in me as going to a Russian church will. I had spent almost two decades in a Slavic church that naturally used the same cultural style, and thus I had inherited to that style as a distinctly Christian thing.
Every church, regardless of how hard it’s members try to state otherwise, is heavily influenced by the culture it is in. This is neither sinful nor holy, it’s simply the way things are. Germans will speak German in their meetings and play German styled music, while Swahili’s will speak their language and have their distinct music and dress style. The American churches around me do this and often don’t recognize this. The Russian churches in Russia do this, and also don’t concentrate on it and etc. Yet for those who immigrated from one country to another, in my case Ukraine to the USA, this cultural infusion brought about very unique problems and hardships. The ones I write about I have personally experienced or have heard from other Slavic immigrants. I have also spoken to a few Romanians, and they provided a very similar story. I envision it is also the same for many other, if not all, immigrants. I also think these issues would likely happen in Russia if a large group of Americans immigrated there and formed their own ethnic churches as well. It’s a byproduct of having a sub-culture within a larger and different culture. So then, here are three of the problems immigrant Christians deal with when they are thrown into a mixing pot of numerous ethnic Christian traditions.
3 Hardships we have
1. Measuring others by your cultural norms
I moved away from a church that was strictly for members of the traditional Slavic culture because I wanted more inclusiveness, I wanted a place to invite my coworkers and friends who spoke English, and had varying skin colors. I thought that I had progressed beyond ethnic single-mindedness many years ago, yet it still rouses its ugly head. While the doctrines in my mind are clear (all nationalities can worship Jesus equally, no culture is better), the feelings of being a Christian in a new culture often don’t follow. For example, hearing of an American pastor who went to a movie theater can still raise emotional flags and brings up stories of Slavic pastors who fought or were beaten to avoid watching some communist film. There is an invariable comparison between the two cultures, and often one is judged by the other. Quite frankly in my head I think that the Slavic pastor should have watched the darn movie and tried to use it to introduce the Gospel, being missional is more important than being proving his principles and showing he is “separate from them.” Yet in my heart I have hundreds of memories of emotional stories highlighting the bravery and sacrifice of those who were beaten rather than compromise by watching a movie in school or the army. The values that are very potent in one culture, conflict with those of another culture, and create perpetual comparisons. Visitors and “missionaries” to another nation are prepared for short-term culture shock, and make exceptions for “these people” because they are different. But when you live side by side, it is hard to avoid measuring another ethnic group by the standards you grew up with. Immigrants to the USA, often inadvertently, begin to judge Americans by secular Russian values, thinking they are using Biblical criteria.
2. Having a schism of two separate faiths
For much of my life I was not a Christian person, I was two separate Christian people. Some of my friends have told me wild stories about their life as immigrants, with one foot in the Russian culture, the other in the American. It’s hard enough to avoid living a double life as sinner and saint, but for immigrants there is yet another level of complexity. One girl in particular, along with her friends, were in a church that insisted women must wear skirts, not only to church but everywhere. So every morning she would dress up in a pair of pants, and put a long skirt over it. She would leave the house, and when out of eyesight, find a dark corner to rip of her skirt and walk into school wearing jeans in order to fit in. On the way back, she would again emerge from a dark corner, completely transformed, and walk into the welcoming embrace of her family.. in a skirt. The way I went to church, worshiped, prayed, acted was likewise, very dependent on the church. I was by all means a very different person in the two cultures. It brought about a very confusing schism in my life, I felt completely fake, like I was only pretending to be someone. I felt completely comfortable wearing jeans and clapping loudly after a song in an American church. Yet doing the same in my then home church, would point me out as a weirdo and earn me hundreds of glares. I began to have two very separate sets of things that were appropriate to talk about. When with my more Americanized friends I be able to talk about what was really deep down in my heart. With my more Slavic friends, I was always playing a role of someone I was not, always weighing my words carefully not to offend or expose myself. I began to daily struggle with a confused identity, being unable to commit to one of the two exclusive church cultures wholeheartedly. I didn’t want to abandon everyone I knew, yet I didn’t want to abandon the world and culture I lived in.
3. Being shunned for assimilating
Ultimately I started making a stand for who I was deep down. I decided to pick just one faith, one identity, one person that I could be. Therein I brought about one of the hardest struggles into my life that immigrant Christians have to deal with, and probably more than just immigrants. In divorce court they often talk about a reason for divorce called “irreconcilable differences.” I never really knew what that meant until I experienced it firsthand. It is probably one of the hardest things I have ever felt in my life. Where the culture I long considered home, could not in totality accept the person I was and the views I held. This has been one of the biggest struggles I have heard from those who are further along in the process of “Americanization.” I heard the tale of one young couple who were completely cut off and abandoned by both of their families because they had progressed beyond the Slavic culture. Both of them had family in pastoral roles with names to maintain, and it broke their hearts to be so blatantly and rudely rejected. Another young lady spoke of the fights that are always stared around her at home, she often says she wishes they could just be nice for once, instead of starting arguments she desperately tries to avoid. A second couple spoke of the very strained relationship they have with their siblings. A young guy spoke of his older brother and wife often telling him he is deceived and in sin. A young Russian guy, who is pursuing a relationship with an American girl, spoke of the coldness from his parents towards him, and their outright rejection of his “American” bride to be. His siblings are also coldhearted, even once asking this American girl why she came to a family dinner of a family she cannot be a part of. An older man who took his family to an American church spoke of the isolation from friends of the past. There are heaps of stories like this that come across my ears. They all share this in common, in some sense all of these people are viewed as traitors and deserters, often for wanting an “easier Christianity” (meaning more lukewarm with a “do what you want” attitude.) All of these stories, and countless others come from confused immigrants, that are genuinely trying to find their way in this cruel world and are unsure of the reason for this coldness and hostility. Most of them have unknowingly run into the “you are with us or against us” mindset that so permeates many sub-culture churches.
It is sad and unfortunate. But why am I writing about this? What’s the point? Simple, my hope is that those who have experienced these hardships, from whatever side or angle would know they are not alone, and that they would grow and learn from this. Those who still use their culture to judge others, I would eagerly call upon you to stop and realize your prejudices. For those who live with a fragmented identity, not fully one or the other, I urge you to quit flip-flopping dishonestly and stand firmly in one place, even if it hurts, it will be better in the end. And finally, for those who have been forsaken, or done the forsaking I call on you to see the pain that is caused by this and build bridges over our cultural and national gaps.