A Story of Two Congregations and Two Chinatowns

Ryan lives and works in the Boston metro area. Ryan immigrated to the United States from China in 1999 and currently serves as a pastoral intern and staff member at Christ the King Presbyterian Church.

In my senior year at college, I had to write a senior thesis for my American Studies major. After stumbling around for a topic, my thesis advisor finally suggested I write an ethnography of the Chinese immigrant church in Cincinnati I had attended many times with my parents when we first came to America. It was not a subject I was particularly thrilled about at the beginning – I did not even know what an ethnography was – but as my research deepened I soon realized that I was about to learn as much about China as I would about America. The topic I wrote about – the two distinct Chinese immigrant communities that co-exist at this church and in American society – continues to be relevant not only for studying immigration trends, but also for evaluating our evangelistic approaches. Understanding the commonalities and differences of these distinct, yet interwoven groups has helped me learn how to better love our Chinese friends and my own family.

Cincinnati Chinese Church is perhaps the biggest Chinese community in the greater Cincinnati area. When we first immigrated to the United States in 1999, there was only one congregation in a town called Mt. Healthy. Even though none of us were Christians, we sought out the church and attended worship services for several months to make friends and build up connections with other Chinese families in the area. At the time, the congregation was predominantly made up of immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong who arrived in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Some of them came to Cincinnati to study medicine or engineering, but the majority of them came because of family connections and worked low-paying jobs. Like us, these immigrants came to a city where the only identifiable Chinese community was this Chinese church. As their knowledge of Christianity grew and their relationship with the church deepened, many of them found a new sense of belonging and peace that they had never known in China. They became Christians and were baptized and became committed members of the Chinese church. People arriving from the mainland were few and far between during those decades. Even when we first arrived in 1999, we felt like odd ducks because there were not very many mainlanders like us. 

A little under ten years later, when I returned to the Cincinnati Chinese Church to conduct research for my thesis, I discovered that the entire landscape of the Chinese church community had changed. The congregation in Mt. Healthy had remained mostly the same, except that personally for me my dad had become a newly baptized member of the church. But about 22 miles to the east, a new congregation had begun worshiping in a town called Mason. 

In many ways the stories of the Chinese immigrants in the Mason congregation follow similar trajectories as those who came a decade or two earlier. The major point of difference is that most of these congregants were young scholars from northern China. Unlike the old southern mainland immigrants who predominantly speak Cantonese or southern country dialects, this group of northern mainland immigrants speaks Mandarin. Many hold college degrees from China, and the opening of Chinese society in the 1990s gave them more opportunities to study overseas. They came to the U.S. to pursue graduate degrees or technical training with confidence and expertise. After obtaining their degrees at the University of Cincinnati or Ohio State University, they were able to seek high-paying jobs at nearby hospitals, and pharmaceutical or engineering companies. Leaving mainland China also gave them the opportunity to have more than one child, which motivated these young families to settle in towns with good school systems. New telecommunication technology gave them more options to stay connected to China in ways that earlier immigrants were never able to. Most importantly, these new immigrants from northern China found each other and settled in the same town, a quickly growing suburb consisting of mostly upper-middle class families.

With more and more of these upper-middle class, educated, young Chinese families settling in Mason, the gravitational pull of the church shifted away from Mt. Healthy. In 2006, the church began construction of a brand new building for the Mason congregation. The congregation has been rapidly growing along with the town of Mason, OH. While Chinese families only made up of 0.6% of Mason’s population in 2000, it increased to 3.1% in 2014. As recently as 2015, the church started a capital campaign to raise funds for further building expansion in Mason. 

One may look at the Mason congregation – or the city of Mason as a whole – and point out, “There is the success story. There is the model immigrant community. There is the American dream.” In fact, many people in China are working hard to get what these families have achieved.  Some scholars have even referred to this group of more recent mainland immigrants as the “New Chinatown.” These Chinese communities are no longer restricted to large East or West Coast cities, but can also be found in mid-size cities like Cincinnati, where there are large research universities and companies with a growing demand for highly skilled technical employees.

For Chinese and American churches, these may also be people with whom we can more easily connect. They are educated, well resourced, speak fluent English, and are often intellectually curious about religion. Besides religion, we can easily exchange ideas on topics like politics, culture, science, philosophy, education, and the environment. There is certainly much both sides can learn from each other.

But don’t forget that there are still communities of Chinese immigrants like the ones at Mt. Healthy, or in the traditional “Old Chinatown.” These may be blue collar, less educated, and less visible immigrants. These are the Chinese immigrants who, despite having been in this country for decades, often still feel like foreigners if they do not speak the language. These may be the people who have a very hard time coming to worship services on Sunday mornings because they work on Sundays at a restaurant or hair salon, or they live alone in some elderly housing and rely on the good-will of other church members to drive them to church. Most weeks their only interaction with the church is when the Chinese pastor visits them at their restaurant or at home on Thursday afternoons to have a short Bible study with them. Reaching them would require not only creative thinking on how to get past the language and cultural barriers, but also an evaluation of who are the visible and invisible members of the broader society. In many ways these less visible Chinese immigrants are the poor in spirit. They are the meek; they are the ones who mourn, and to them also, if not more, belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.


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Further Reading

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The External Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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Qingdao: Locals and Outsiders
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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