by Jerry Berndt

JERRY BERNDT is a photographer living in Paris whose work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the International Center of Photography, New York; and the Bibliothèque National, Paris.

Immigrants may be a source of moral renewal in the United States. Here are some of them at prayer.

Los Angeles is a major gateway city for new immigrants and is already home to a population where one person in three is foreign born. Given the context of this amazing demographic shift, in the fall of 1998 the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California launched a two-year research project to study the role of religion for new immigrants to Los Angeles. The project was funded initially by the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation. During the project's second year, additional funding was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. This summary of the project's initial findings is excerpted from Immigrant Religion in the City of Angels, by Donald E. Miller (Executive Director and Professor of Religion), Jon Miller (Director of Research and Professor of Sociology), and Grace R. Dyrness (Associate Director). The photographs that follow are by Jerry Berndt. For additional photographs, visit the center's website.

The traditionalist view of the role of religion in the lives of immigrants stressed assimilation. Thus, the great melting pot subsumed cultures of origin and created an American identity that was tied to one of three religions: Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. Today, a new paradigm of segmented assimilation is a more apt description of the ways in which immigrants adjust to life in the United States. Religious institutions, rather than merely incorporating people into the American mainstream, serve the dual functions of preserving national identities and aiding incorporation.

Kosovo Demonstration at the Federal Building,
Los Angeles, CA, 1999

The reciprocal effects of immigrants on religion and religion on the lives of immigrants are plain to see. While immigration is affecting the entire nation, there is no question that immigrants are transforming the face of the existing religious marketplace in Los Angeles. Religious institutions are refocusing their efforts to accommodate the growing numbers of immigrants by altering their worship styles, creating multiple congregations inside the walls of a single church building, and seeking ways to show solidarity with immigrants. Moreover, denominations are creating innovative models to meet the social service needs of new arrivals to Los Angeles. Many immigrants who arrive without extended family and a social safety net are drawn to congregations. These congregations offer a safe haven, connection with the home country, a place to exercise leadership abilities, and formal and informal social services. For women, the new country often offers a greater sense of freedom and autonomy.

Religious mandates to care for strangers and the least privileged in the community are obviously behind this receptivity, but it is also born from a recognition that the demographics of the region are changing and, hence, institutional survival is connected to inclusivity and decline is likely to be the price of turning away from the newcomers. Conversely, many of the religious "imports" to Southern California, which in their own homeland may preach exclusivity, are learning to function in a pluralistic social environment that values diversity. As minority religions in Los Angeles, they see the value of tolerance as well as interfaith dialogue.

Part of the postmodern mood of Los Angeles is that people need not homogenize their beliefs and practices. Quite the contrary, uniqueness and distinctiveness are valued in a city that values experimentation. Anglos are a visible presence in many immigrant congregations, sometimes because of intermarriage, and other times because this new religious expression mediates the sacred in ways that more established religions fail to do. And there are immigrants who are switching their allegiance from the faith of their homeland. There is a small movement in Los Angeles of Latinos converting to Islam; there are Buddhist Koreans joining immigrant Presbyterian churches; and the ranks of immigrant Mormons are growing. And so the marketplace of religion evolves, with people switching allegiances in response to whoever is serving their needs the best.

What is uniformly apparent about immigrant religion, however, is that its power lies in its anchorage in communities of people. Within these religious communities immigrants meet their spiritual needs, find respite from their loneliness, discover marriage partners, and find support to get them past the many difficulties they face. Some of this support is formalized in programs designed to serve immigrants, and at other times it is informal, nurtured in small groups associated with congregations or in personal interactions with clergy. Indeed, clergy fill a great many roles in these immigrant congregations: pastor, social worker, immigration counselor, friend, advocate, and even psychiatrist. Religion certainly includes the search for truth, but it is also a human community that nurtures, expresses compassion, and challenges individuals to live up to their potential.

While religious institutions historically have facilitated assimilation and incorporation into American values, this part of their mission is increasingly sharing energy with the task of cultural preservation. It is in the church, temple, synagogue, or mosque that immigrants are celebrating the rites of passage, feast days, and other rituals that preserve their ties to their homeland and constantly renew the values associated with the birthplace of their ancestors.

The "melting pot" idea in the sense of convergence toward a very small list of "American" religions is certainly a dated one, but we are increasingly seeing immigrant congregations that display some similarities with that process. Many of them are organized around language or broad regional identifications. Hence, there are Latino and Asian congregations that attract many people from many different national backgrounds, and yet they share an identity that is rooted in a particular language or faith tradition, finding commonalities that are different from those shared by members of congregations that are predominately comprised of Anglo Americans.

Afternoon prayer at New Horizon School,
Los Angeles, CA 1999

At the same time, there are congregations that are extraordinary in their inclusiveness, expanding far beyond regional or linguistic connections. In this regard, Muslims in Los Angeles undoubtedly take the prize for being the most multiethnic religious group in the city. Friday prayer in Masjid Umar ibn al-Khattab across the street from USC is attended by African Americans, Persians, Egyptians, Saudi Arabians, Thais, Lebanese, and Iranians, to mention just some of the nationalities present. Some have called it "the United Nations on its knees," with people from many backgrounds worshipping shoulder-to-shoulder as they participate in "Salat" prayer service. Indeed, even distinctions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, the source of tense relations elsewhere, often seem to evaporate in the Los Angeles context.

The most compelling finding during these first two years of research is that immigrants are a potential source of moral renewal at a challenging moment in United States history. The decline of civility, shared effort, and civic cooperation in Western democracies is a legitimate concern in our civic context. It is questionable whether middle class Anglos are going to turn away from their individualistic ways. It is much more likely that the source of moral renewal will come at the hands of immigrants, who together constitute the emerging majority. Anchored in community, immigrants know something about extended family ties, the value of community, and the importance of preserving a cultural heritage while contributing to the new society. Religious institutions will play an important role in this process as they simultaneously incorporate new immigrants into American society and help to maintain the values connected with their places of origin.

"The Soul of Los Angeles" is a traveling exhibition of photographs by Jerry Berndt sponsored by the Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Through the lens of his camera, we see something of the diversity of the Los Angeles community of faith -- a microcosm of the world's religions. Following is a small selection from the exhibition. Inquiries on booking the exhibition should be directed to Scott Young, Director of Photographic Exhibits, Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California, 835 West 34th Street, Suite 106, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0751, (213) 740-8562, e-mail:

CAPTIONS for photos appearing in this issue:

Base Community Meeting, Los Angeles, 1999.

Songs of Praise at a Victory Outreach Meeting, North Hollywood, 1996.

Prayer at Harvest Rock Church, Pasadena, 1999.

Farmers Market Sponsored by the Nation of Islam, Los Angeles, 1999.

Friday Prayer at Masjid Umar ibn al-Khattab, Los Angeles, 1999.

Torah Reading at Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, 1999.

Immanuel Presbyterian Church Via Crucis, Los Angeles, 1999.

Services as Hare Krishna Temple, Los Angeles, 1999.

Sikh Services at Vermont Gurdwara, Los Angeles, 1999.

Afternoon prayer at New Horizon School, Los Angeles, 1999.

Services at the Khemara Buddhikaram, Long Beach, California, 1999.

Midnight Service at St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church, Los Angeles, 1999.

Sikh services at Vermont Gurdwara, Los Angeles, 1999.


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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2001, Vol. 51,  No 1.