FRESNO — Howard Burkhart has worked among California’s language groups for more than 30 years, 10 among the hearing-impaired, and until two years ago in San Diego. He now is a church planting catalyst for the area north of San Francisco, which includes (as of a few months ago) Stockton and Sacramento, north to the Oregon border.
He noted several issues related to immigration that California Southern Baptists are addressing or need to address:
“Hands down, the greatest need is Hispanics,” Burkhart said. “What we need are Hispanic pastors. And though they’re not immigrants, Native Americans are a people group. There seems to be a movement in getting churches among them.
“There is another need: refugee resettlement, coming alongside new immigrants,” Burkhart continued. “They’re given a small suitcase, put on a plane, left off in a place they don’t know, and are told, ‘Have a goodlife.’”
Churches that reach out to these virtually abandoned refugees by ‘adopting’ a family, need to take care that the family stays in everyday contact with others of their cultural group to help increase their comfort level and reduce their stress level, Burkhart said.
Urban gentrification is another issue, the catalyst noted. As Anglos move into renovated buildings with now-higher rents in newly-desirable parts of the downtown area, immigrant former residents are being shunted to the suburbs, which don’t have the infrastructure to be of assistance.
“Churches in the suburbs need to pay attention to their changing community, and figure out ways to reach the new people groups,” Burkhart said. “Some of the immigrants are displaced persons, Christians who knew they had to leave or die. ... There are a lot of people from the Middle-East who are Christians who move here.”
Burkhart noted an opportunity for churches to start worship services for these Christians from other lands.
“One of the things unique about the United States is that people from places where there are predominant religions, they are not exposed to other religions,” Burkhart explained. “Here they’re exposed to Christianity and everything else. That’s another opportunity for our churches.”
One thing he’s seen is that people from other cultures seem to be comfortable in English-speaking churches comprised of people from many cultures. It’s a broadening of the “multi-ethnic” or “multi-cultural” concept of church planting, Burkhart said.
The “second generation” of immigrants is another issue related to meeting the needs of immigrants. Korean and Chinese churches 10 to 20 years ago realized their Americanized teens and young adults were more comfortable in English-speaking worship services than they were in their native language.
Other ethnic groups need to realize this need, Burkhart asserted, and English-speakers from Anglo churches need to recognize this opportunity to reach outside their comfort zone for Kingdom impact.
“That’s true up and down the state, especially the people groups where there’s no more immigration,” Burkhart said, citing Romania as one example. “The first generation hang together with people of their own kind. The second generation (born in the US to immigrant parents) in a lot of people groups may not necessarily gravitate toward the American side but are more integrated. By the third generation the kids don’t speak the language, though they respect the country.”
Some immigrants are college students, sent by their governments with the expectation they will return to their homeland and become government officials.
“What an impact we can make on their country if we reach them here,” said Don Overstreet, church planting catalyst for Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor Baptist Associations. “They can go back to countries we can’t get into, in some cases. Besides this, they can reach in five seconds with their computers their friends in Iraq or wherever. Technology is helping us reach the world quicker than ever. That’s amazing to me.”
The University of Southern California has probably 50,000 students, about 15 percent of whom are international, Overstreet said.
“There are four universities in the Bay Area that work with South Asia,” said a church planting strategist who asked to not be named because of her work among certain security-sensitive people groups.
Statewide there are about 130 colleges and universities that attract international students. A problem for Southern Baptists is the lack of proximity to campuses, which usually have grown around affluent areas that price the cost of land or even current buildings far beyond the reach of local congregations.
California Southern Baptist Convention stopped funding campus ministries known as Baptist Student (or Collegiate) Ministries years ago, Burkhart said, though some groups now known as the self-funded Christian Challenge minister on campuses.
“Churches can’t afford to be where college students are,” Burkhart said. Ways to reach them include students being trained to be missionaries on their own campuses, reaching international students, as well as churches drawn to international missions.
“Why not piggyback that mission trip here and reach out locally to reach that people group?” Burkhart asked. “Perhaps invite a college student from there to your home, and learn more from them about that country before you go next time.
“We have so much to learn from other people,” the catalyst continued. “It’s just loving other people, embracing who they are and coming alongside them.”
(Editor’s Note: Second in a series on immigration and how California Southern Baptists are ministering among the many people groups in the nation’s most populous state.)