Religious Diversity

I know that New York, known to be a ‘melting pot’ of immigrants, has an incredibly diverse ethnic history.  Waves of immigration have swept ashore in New York and each wave has brought members of diverse ethnic groups to the city.  I also understand that the religions of these ethnic groups vary greatly.  However, I was completely unaware of the diverse religious backgrounds of Chinese immigrants in general, and the Fuzhounese community more specifically.  I did not realize that immigrants from Fuzhou province were as religiously diverse as they are.  Guest studies numerous religions and their communal organizations that are important to Fuzhounese immigrants in Chinatown.  Buddhist, Daoist, Catholic and Protestant.

Kenneth Guest conducted an extensive ethnographic study and determined that, in 2002, there were a total of 84 religious institutions in Chinatown, of which 59 had Chinese only congregations and three congregations served two ethnic groups, one of which was Chinese.  She further broke down the statistics and noted that 14 religious institutions “specifically serve the Fuzhounese population in Chinatown.”  All but two of these religious institutions are relatively new, founded after 1990. These religious institutions serve a diverse population  – five temples honor deities from villages in Fuzhou province, while four are Buddhist, one is Daoist, two are Catholic and two are Protestant.  Though he delineated these five categories, within each category there is overlap of one kind or another.  The Buddhist temples practice certain elements of Daoism; the Daoist temple includes worship of certain Buddhist deities; the Catholic churches serve not only Fuzhounese parishioners, but also older Italians and Chinese from Canton province.  In addition to these 14 established institutions there are numerous homegrown ‘house-church’ groups that meet “intentionally outside the larger institutions.”

Regardless of religious denomination, Guest clearly concludes that the religious organizations play a very significant role in the absorption process as well as in the development of transnational ties between Chinatown and China.  He also notes that while the institutions are diverse and serve a diverse population, often particular groups tend to remain within their own circles and religious institutions.  Cantonese immigrants, who are more settled in New York, tend to belong to one set of churches and temples.  In some cases their children, second-generation immigrants, have their own congregations within their parents’ congregations, where they worship differently than their parents.  Fuzhounese immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, build their own religious institutions.

The complexity of religious observance and religious institutions of the Chinese immigrant community of Chinatown is intriguing.  Guest’s extensive research helps the uninitiated begin to understand this subject.

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