Immigrant population provides big opportunities for ministry

By Karen L. Willoughby on October 01, 2015

FRESNO — In greater Miami, 38.8 percent of the population is foreign-born. That’s more than any other metropolitan area in the United States.

But Miami is the only Florida city to make that “top ten” list. California, with its population of almost 39 million, has five: San Jose, in second place with 37.5 percent; Los Angeles, third with 33.2 percent; San Francisco, fourth with 29.7 percent; San Diego, sixth with 23.7 percent; and Riverside/San Bernardino in tenth place with 22.2 percent.

California Southern Baptists have work among 75 people groups in the L.A./Long Beach area, Don Overstreet, CSBC church planting catalyst noted, where about 50 churches a year are started. Half of those are predominantly ethnic; the others are “English-speaking” with people from many cultures and ethnicities.

Anglo churches that minister only to Anglos probably aren’t as effective as they could be in reaching their community, Howard Burkhart, CSBC church planting catalyst added, because though there are enclaves of people from a single culture, most areas in any urban setting are a mix of people from many cultures.

“I know the prayer is that we have work among all these groups,” Brenda said. “We’re reaching out in several ways.”

The largest number of Afghans outside Afghanistan lives in the Bay Area, she noted.

The team she works with has identified three tasks requiring different skill sets to reach people: research, caring and evangelism.

“We need to know what we don’t know, so we’re doing mapping to see where different language and people group live,” Brenda said. “We’re further behind Southern California in doing this.

“Second, we’re trying to serve the under-served, maybe with another group such as the International Rescue Committee, who has single moms from Afghanistan in Fremont, whose husbands were killed by the Taliban. That takes people with a caring skill set.

“Third, we’re looking for people under-represented in the Kingdom of God. That’s evangelism.”

Her team visits non-Christian places of worship to build relationships, goes on “chapel tours” to get to know and better understand various people groups, and attends cultural parades and festivals to interact with people they might not encounter otherwise.

“There’s a very large illegal population; we serve them differently,” Brenda explained. “San Francisco is a refuge city, a haven for Mexican and Central Americans.”

Spanish-speaking pastors are needed statewide because of the influx of people who speak only Spanish, Burkhart said.

The US Census Bureau in June released a report that said as of July 1, 2014, about 14.99 million Hispanics live legally in California, topping the 14.92 million non-Hispanic Caucasians who live here.

“The Hollywood of today is Hispanic and low-income,” Overstreet said. “Chinatown is now half Hispanic. South/South Central L.A. is at least 50 percent Hispanic.”

That being said, with 10 million or more people living in the Los Angeles and Long Beach Association areas, a strong need exists for more than the 50 churches being planted there each year, which join the maybe 250 Southern Baptist churches already established in both associations, Overstreet said.

“There are more Cambodians in Long Beach than anywhere but Cambodia,” he noted. “Our city here has at least a million Koreans and a large number of Filipinos. In East Hollywood is a large population of Armenians. One of the ever-growing groups is East Indians, professionals.

“We take a very grassroots approach,” Overstreet continued. “We reach them where they’re at and help them understand the gospel in a context they understand.”

Immigrants gravitate to the Los Angeles area because it’s sunny and warm, with many jobs available, and because others of their culture are already there, Overstreet said.

“America is a country of immigrants,” he added. “Immigrants are hard workers. They work jobs most Americans wouldn’t do.

“We need to see (immigration) as a missionary opportunity.”

(Editor’s Note: First in a series on immigration and how California Southern Baptists are ministering among the many people groups in the nation’s most populous state.)

This Convention serves our culturally diverse congregations as we fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.