New immigrants are coming into America, legally and illegally, at the rate of 125,000 a month. If this trend continues, by the end of the decade, the immigrant portion of the U.S. population will exceed 14.8 percent, the historic high recorded in 1890.

Missions consultant Arturo Lucero, president of Multi-Cultural Ministries, Victorville, California, said church-based outreach to new immigrants and their families has become the number one priority for many American evangelicals. He told Christianity Today that American cities and towns are undergoing an "explosion of immigrants, refugees, and changed lives."

"Jesus gave the church two mandates: evangelize all peoples and love all peoples. The peoples are here, and we need to follow Jesus even if we have to move beyond our ethnic comfort zones."

New immigrants are very needy. On average, they are poorer and depend on welfare more than native-born families. The heads of immigrant households often have little formal education. Employers frequently pay them lower wages than other U.S. heads of households. New immigrants living in poor neighborhoods are also more likely than natives to become crime victims. Aware of the risks, new immigrants may arrive with the address of a church in their pockets.

New immigrants have fanned out across the nation. But about 60 percent of the nation's 33 million immigrants live in one of ten large metro areas, such as New York, Miami, Chicago, or Los Angeles. The metro area of Los Angeles alone has 5.1 million immigrants and California takes the prize as having the greatest immigrant population of any state (9.1 million). Jon Miller of the University of Southern California Center of Religion and Civic Culture says, "Los Angeles is the new landing spot for the mission movement that started in the nineteenth century."

In greater Los Angeles, ethnic evangelicals are responding to this new mission field outside their front doors because new immigrants no longer limit themselves to culturally similar churches. Christianity Today recently visited three southern California churches, where outreach to new immigrants is thriving: Victory Outreach, Calvary Chapel, and Evergreen Baptist.

Jesus and 'gangbangers'

Obed's family emigrated from Mexico when he was a toddler. His neighborhood in the west side of Pasadena is a gang stronghold. A member of the Southern United La Raza, a violent gang in the region, recruited Obed when the youth became a teen. Gang members provide group identity, protection, and a lifestyle to immigrant teens, often culturally isolated at school. And, if the teens don't join, gang members threaten them with a beating.

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After joining, Obed went to a tattoo artist and had the gang's symbols inked onto his cheeks: an X beside one eye and a 13 by the other. Gang involvement absorbed Obed's every waking moment. Obed believed he could "cast death" with a hateful glance. "If anybody would look at me wrong, I would get them," he said. "I put evil spirits in my home."

His parents were horrified. They got a court order prohibiting him from talking with family members. They nailed shut his bedroom door and allowed him to enter the house only through his bedroom window.

The Los Angeles area has some of the nation's most violent gangs. In one week in November 2002, 20 people died in gang warfare. "To die gang," Obed said, was his dream. "My last days, I thought I would go get a gun, kill somebody and be shot or kill myself. Then I woke up sweating and had this thought put into my mind, You need to change your life around."

Obed didn't know what to do or where to go. His family wouldn't talk to him. One day around meal time, he stood outside his home looking through a window and watching his mother in the kitchen. "My mom was cooking good."

"I knelt at the door that was kept locked to keep me out," he said. "My mother wouldn't look at me."

"Mom, can I talk to you please?" Obed implored. His mom at the stove ignored him.

"Mom, I have decided to go to the Lord!"

"Ha! Is that right?"

He shouted, "Call the pastor or I'm dead!" She made the call.

That morning last July, Obed's mother called a pastor at Victory Outreach in the Los Angeles area. Obed found out that if he could get transportation to a Victory Outreach residential treatment program nearby, he would get a chance to turn his life around. Riding to the center, Obed hid in the back seat of a blue Celica with darkly tinted widows. Victory Outreach's lay counselor Cesar Zavala, formerly a gang member, caught a glimpse of Obed. All he could see were gang tattoos. He said to himself, "Oh, man! What are we going to do with this guy?"

Obed, fearful of being outside his gang territory, darted out of the car and into the rehabilitation home. "It was tearing me up," he recalled. "I had all my clothes in one small suitcase, and a lot of anger."

But a young man came up to Obed and said, "Brother, here is some coffee."

"Pretty cool," Obed thought. "The atmosphere was different for me. Usually, my anger went to violence, but from that moment, little by little, God is taking it from me."

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Sonny Arguinzoni Jr. is the senior pastor at the original Victory Outreach church that his father founded in 1967 to minister to drug addicts, gang members, and anyone else at the bottom. Worldwide, there are 260 Victory Outreach churches and 228 treatment centers in 24 countries.

Arguinzoni Jr., 31, said his generation and this generation of new immigrants from Mexico are far apart culturally. "I have not one tattoo, nor did I participate in gangs or big drug use." A Puerto Rican-Mexican American, Arguinzoni Jr. nonetheless believes that new immigrants will listen to an honest presentation of the gospel. "I teach Jesus to the gangbangers, immigrants, and second generation [Latinos]. We are building for the future: God is raising up a church of a different nature, a real ethnic mix, not a cookie-cutter church."

The Victory Outreach movement has a controversial past. Some dropouts from Victory Outreach programs and churches have complained of leaders' lavish lifestyles and the controlling environment. Evangelicals have been concerned about the group's association with the Word-Faith movement, which critics fault for teaching a "prosperity gospel."

But starting in the 1990s, Victory Outreach and founder Arguinzoni Sr. sought endorsement from a wide spectrum of well-known leaders. Its website features supportive letters from Jack Hayford, Nicky Cruz, Marilyn Hickey, and Jesse Miranda, as well as President Bush, former President Clinton, and many other politicians.

At a recent funeral for a gang member who had come to Christ, Arguinzoni Jr. proclaimed to the warring immigrants from rival gangs that new life in Christ is possible. Victory Outreach leaders, with police officers present to keep violence at bay, prayed, "It is done. You have brought all sides together, Lord, through the death of your Son, who now takes our brother. May we have la vida [life] without loca [craziness]!"

Bigger than Calvary Chapel

Calvary Chapel's ministry to new immigrants is the church's fastest growing outreach program. "We have walked into something bigger than us," says Carlos Ayub, assistant pastor at the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. The church's startup congregation for Spanish-speaking immigrants has 300 people in worship on Sundays after 18 months of services. Calvary's outreach to Santa Ana public school students, many of them born into immigrant families, has tripled each year. The program has students representing 15 nations. "We have Mexicans, Peruvians, Colombians, Salvadorans, and Filipinos. The recent immigrants are grateful. Some became Christians here," said Ayub, whose heritage is Mexican and Lebanese.

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Calvary's release-time program has been a breakthrough for its multi-ethnic ministry, because it attends to the urgent needs of new immigrants. Many states allow public schools to release students for a short time during the school day for religious instruction, often provided in mobile classrooms. Chuck Stetson of School Ministries, Inc., which helps Christians run release-time programs nationwide, estimates that 10 percent of schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the nation's largest, have a release-time program.

Stetson reports that his group's research with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency has found that release-time programs help children get involved with a church. This in turn cuts violence and vandalism in schools. "Release-time breaks up gangs. It becomes another place that kids can go—a safe space," Stetson said.

On a recent Tuesday, Maureen, a student whose parents are native Filipinos, ran down the mobile classroom aisle to grab the last two seats for herself and her best friend, Claudia, a Mexican immigrant.

"Oh, I want to be in this class," Maureen declared, opening her Bible. Claudia chimed in, "I don't mind missing recess. I have been reading the Bible since [I was] 5, so I wanted this study."

Teacher Janie McLaughlin is astonished at the program's growth. "We started with five kids last year and now have 88 at this school. One of the mothers is trying to get us to double the number of classes we offer, and we have volunteer teachers lining up."

A Sunday school teacher, McLaughlin added a commitment to release-time instruction after she helped to serve meals at Calvary's Thanksgiving meal for the homeless and found that most of the people there were Mexican immigrants. "It was such a surprise." As she talked with the immigrants, McLaughlin discovered they had deep concern for their children. "My heart was heavy by the end of the day. When this opportunity to teach the Bible to immigrant kids came up, I jumped at it."

Calvary's programs for new immigrants started two years ago. At the time, Cheryl Smith Broderson (daughter of Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith) was registering a car with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Waiting in a long line, Broderson saw Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses passing out religious tracts by the hundreds to the many new immigrants awaiting service.

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Broderson said, "We are in the Santa Ana area with a church of 24,000 attendees. Why haven't we realized how many immigrants are seeking spiritual strength in our own backyard?" In the months that followed, Calvary's leadership discovered that new immigrant parents wanted a nearby place to worship, and good religious instruction for their children. That led to the startup congregation with services in Spanish and Calvary's burgeoning release-time program.

Evergreen's 'kingdom moment'

Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead is one of California's most historic churches for Asian immigrants, especially Chinese and Japanese. After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the federal government sent more than 110,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. Evergreen closed its doors for several years.

Ken Fong, Evergreen's pastor, is a pioneer in the pan-Asian church movement, which brings all kinds of Asians together in one church. But now, Evergreen is taking a further step forward to become a multiethnic church. Fong told CT his church is attempting to keep pace with the influx of newcomers into southern California. "I knew something had to change because of what is happening in my own family," Fong said.

"My parents are second generation Chinese. Of their nine grandchildren only three are 100 percent Chinese. There are the adopted children too. In our extended family we have a blonde southern belle from Alabama, a Guamanian-Filipina, a Korean, a Chinese-Caucasian, an African-Caucasian, and three Chinese-Guamanian-Filipinos."

Evergreen is well-positioned for outreach to Mexicans and Chinese, the two most common nationalities of new immigrants. In Rosemead, the neighborhoods around Evergreen are increasingly Latino. Rick Abe, chairman of Evergreen's board, knew little about outreach to Latinos. He consulted with Rudy Carrasco, a community development leader in the Latino community with Harrambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena.

After careful planning, Evergreen's leaders made changes. They began a church coffee shop, designed for a more diverse ethnic appeal in its décor and menu, and higher level of personal service.

Busing in poor immigrant children from adjacent neighborhoods, Evergreen sponsored a harvest festival instead of a Halloween party, a holiday less familiar to many immigrants. Evergreen began an after-school tutoring program. Fong said, "Slowly we earned some trust." Right now, 15 new immigrant families (mostly Central American, Mexican, and Asian) attend Evergreen.

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During a recent weekday Bible study, Evergreen became a venue for ethnic reconciliation. Samer Farhat, an Evergreen newcomer who emigrated from Gaza, told how his family had suffered in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how he discovered a new commitment to forgiveness. Then Fong invited Kathy Nakasugi, who at age 4 was relocated to a wartime internment camp in Colorado, and Larry Wiener, a Jewish believer whose family members are strong Zionists, to pray publicly for Farhat's family, still in Gaza.

Afterward, Wiener said, "Are there two sides to this story? Aren't we as Christians to be concerned about everyone's justice? I am still processing it.

"I prayed over Farhat with my hands on his shoulder. I thanked God that we could be together in Christ."

"My brother died during relocation and my father wept," Nakasugi told CT. "My mother had twins and lost one at the camp. But they would always say, 'Move forward.' For us, our Lord gives us a compassion with others and other countries."

In Fong's words, "It was a kingdom moment" to bring together hurting Christians from three ethnic backgrounds.

Riding the immigrant wave

Missions scholar Lucero predicts that by 2010 churches in much of the nation will experience the immigration issues that churches in southern California are currently facing. By that date, the U.S. immigrant population may be 45 million, an increase of 12 million (based on the 2000 census).

Lucero said American church leaders should know that new immigrants typically do not think of themselves according to the Americanized racial or ethnic categories. For example, Asian immigrants have a stronger sense of national rather than racial identity, and many Latino newcomers think of themselves as white. (The U.S. Census considers Hispanic or Latino as an ethnic classification that can be applied to white, African American, or other racial categories.)

According to Lucero, the identity of the individual, not his or her ethnic group, is what counts. He recommends that Christian leaders draw insight about new immigrants from the writing of the late Nazarene scholar Timothy L. Smith, author of Revivalism and Social Reform. Smith considered the growth of immigration as a historic "theologizing moment," an occasion when the many social needs of new immigrants test the theology of churches. Lucero's hope is that churches will view new immigration as an opportunity to embrace ministry beyond existing ethnic boundaries.

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"Historically, ethnic churches emphasized ethnicity and the culture as the draw," Fong told CT. "But today more people want to be part of a church that is significant. Christians are more interested in a church that is trying something difficult, based on biblical vision, rather than just ethnicity."

Tony Carnes is CT's senior news writer.

Related Elsewhere

Articles on the challenges of immigration from Christianity Today and sister publications include:

Here for Good | Religion and the new immigrants. (Books & Culture, May/June 2002)
European Churches Declare Immigrants Are Not 'Potential Criminals' | Petitions submitted to the European Union for more protection, aid. (Christianity Today, June 11, 2001)
Melting Pot Redux | For without consciously intending any such result—or even fully grasping how it came about—the country finds itself dealing once again with immigration on a massive scale. (Books & Culture, July/August 1999)

Christianity Today articles on outreach to Hispanics include:

Despite Protestant Growth, Hispanic Catholicism Holds Steady in U.S. | Younger generations leaving for Protestant churches, but immigrants make up difference. (Feb. 7, 2003)
You Can Take the Boy out of the Barrio … | But nothing has been able to take the barrio out of Jesse Miranda, the uniting force for Hispanic Protestants in the U.S. (Sept 13, 2002)
The Hispanic Challenge | It's not easy growing Christian leaders for Dallas's fastest-growing population. (May 16, 2002)
Catching Up with Hispanics | New census data on the Latinos in our midst presents a reality check for cross-cultural outreach. (Nov. 12, 2001)
Wanted: Young, Dedicated Leaders | Hispanic Ministry Center and Latino Leadership Network provide informal training to equip emerging Latino youth-work leaders. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Reaching Out to Latinos | Church networks are cooperating to launch congregations in unlikely U.S. locations. (Sept. 6, 1999)

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