The year 2015 marked a historic milestone for the Chinese Christian community in Chicago as they celebrated the 100th anniversary of the start of the first Chinese church in the city. A glowing report appeared in a 1915 local publication about that first, exclusively Chinese church service held in October with fifty-five members. Although several other informal gatherings of Chinese Christians had occurred in the city previously, Chicago Chinese churches observed the centennial year with special meetings and celebrations. That community has steadily grown and flourished over the last century.
As a migration scholar and diaspora missiologist who has lived in Chicagoland for over two decades, I happened to be at some of the celebrations and was subsequently drafted by the United Chinese Churches in Chicago (UCCC), an association of the Chinese pastors and leaders in and around the Chicago area, to embark on a research project about the Chinese Christians of Chicagoland. Its goal was to discern ministry trends of this diasporic faith community and to assess issues facing Chinese churches as well as to explore ministry opportunities.
Let me begin with full disclosure. I am not of Chinese origin (I am actually of Asian Indian descent) but have many friends among the Chinese and Asian American Christian community in major cities of the US and Canada. I have lived in Singapore and Hong Kong for short stints during my corporate career and have widely connected with Chinese Christian leaders in different parts of the world. I serve as the director of the Global Diaspora Institute at Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and as a Global Catalyst for Diasporas of the Lausanne Movement. I research, teach, write, and consult about global migration, diaspora mission, and world Christianity.
In light of the expectations and guidelines provided by the UCCC, this research spanned two years of fieldwork from January 2018 to December 2019 with quarterly reports presented at the gatherings of Chinese pastors. I was ably assisted by a team of graduate students from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the University of Chicago, and Wheaton College in conducting fieldwork and interviews. We had ample opportunity to participate in worship services of various Chinese churches, small group meetings, and youth and children’s ministries. In addition, I was invited to preach at Chinese churches and mission conferences during the research phase. This study was multidisciplinary in its approach and used ethnographic methods as well as congregational analysis tools. It drew from literature and reports of ethnic demography, social sciences, sociology of religion, and diaspora missiology.
Chinese Diaspora: Global Scattering
Chinese diaspora is the largest dispersed community in the world. Though traditionally referred to as overseas Chinese, it is only in recent years that the term diaspora has gained wider acceptance among scholars for Chinese migrants globally. China has a long history of emigration, and its people have been widely scattered all over the world for a variety of reasons. The Chinese diaspora is highly diverse and comprises various distinct migratory waves to different regions of the world. The global Chinese diaspora is roughly estimated at 60 million worldwide, most of whom are still in Southeast Asia with a sizable population of Chinese in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. As per the American Community Survey of US Census report 2018, the Chinese American population had swelled to 5.2 million (excluding Taiwanese) and is the highest among all Asian American groupings (twenty-three percent of 22.6 million Asian Americans).1 In thirteen states Chinese is the third most spoken language besides English and Spanish.
The Chinese migration to the United States began in the 1850s, drawn by the pull of the California Gold Rush of 1848 and the push factors of crop failure, poor economic conditions, and political unrest in China. Most immigrants were young men who worked on farms, in fishing, mining, railroad construction, and other low-skilled jobs. In subsequent decades, they began to migrate eastward from the West Coast using the newly built transcontinental railroad and began to arrive in the Windy City starting in the early 1870s.2 The Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882 and an increasing anti-Chinese attitude precipitated the tide of the second migration of Chinese from the Pacific Coast to Chicago, New York, Boston, and elsewhere for the next few decades. The first Chicago Chinatown was established in the 1880s moving to its current location around 1912; it currently remains as one of the most thriving Chinatowns in North America. The Chicago World Fair of 1893 drew many to the city and created numerous service jobs with Chinese dominating the laundry business. Later Chinese “chop-suey” restaurants became popular bringing more people from coastal Chinese cities and causing their community to grow steadily throughout the depression era. After the repeal of exclusion laws in 1943 and immigration law reforms in the mid-1960s, Chinese migration to the United States surged with many coming to Chicago. The communist control of China, the fall of Saigon, and the geopolitics of Taiwan and Hong Kong created wave after wave of diverse groups of Chinese migrants to the American shores.
The early immigrants were mostly Cantonese single men who had little education and worked as laborers or in the small business sector. Without families of their own, there was noticeable gender imbalance and negative stereotypes. Poor socio-economic conditions without political representation kept them as an isolated minority in America. The vices of opium smoking, gambling, prostitution, and crime further undermined the Chinese in the city. However, later immigrants, who came in the 1970s and 80s, especially those who came from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Northern China, were educated, or came to America for higher studies in specialized fields. They came with their families or established stable and nuclear families in Chicago. In the last three decades, more professionals in medical, science, and technology fields have migrated to Chicago and settled directly in the suburbs with little contact with Chinatown while earlier immigrants still have familial or cultural associations with the Chinatown area.
Chinese Christianity in Chicago: Local Gatherings
As of early 2020, there are eighty Chinese churches in the greater Chicagoland area that include services in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. They maintain affiliations with various Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, and independent ecclesial traditions. The Chinese Baptist Mission work began in Chicago in 1878 and the Swedish Evangelical Free Church began the Canton Mission in 1887. There are only two churches that are more than a century old and only a couple of Taiwanese (Formosan) churches in the city. We mapped the spread of Chinese churches across the city and suburbs over time and identified specific congregations for detailed analysis. We also met with Chinese pastors and leaders who are not part of the association but are active with local, American, large, multiethnic churches; some are second generation and are studying in local seminaries or serving with other Christian organizations.
Using a questionnaire, we surveyed the church leaders within the association about their respective churches and we researched the latest published information about Chinese demographics for Chicago, its suburbs, Illinois state, and even the US at large. We charted the migration and settlement patterns of Chinese in the city and suburbs and carried out detailed interviews with select pastors, elders, English ministry pastors, youth leaders, children’s ministry leaders, and others. Some of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin and later translated into English for analysis. When some of the findings at the quarterly meeting of the pastors were presented, it generated extensive discussions. We examined the Chinese international student population in various educational institutions in the region as well as met with select Chinese business leaders, and professors—and even Buddhist community leaders. Our team visited Mandarin schools for children and participated in other Chinese cultural celebrations in the city.
When analyzing the age distribution of congregations, we could discern the generational divide in some churches. We conducted some intergenerational dialogues between leaders of immigrant generations and American-born and raised Chinese and applied the life-stage theory of immigrant churches to local Chinese churches. The study explored the mission of the Chinese churches in the city, particularly their mission awareness, involvement, activities, and giving. We highlighted congregations who were involved in mission projects in Asia (China and elsewhere), Africa, and Europe. During the study, I made it a point to connect with Chinese leaders in other parts of the world, and I spoke about the global dispersion of Chinese and missional opportunities for Chinese Christians in Chicago. We also identified the lacuna of Chinese churches in the suburbs and located potential locales where new Chinese churches could be started. In fact, during the study, a new church plant began directly as a result of this study and is showing promising prospects.
One of the surprising finds was a cluster of nearly 10,000 Chinese students in the Urbana-Champaign region without any Chinese church in the university town. In the summer of 2017, a young Chinese woman scholar was killed at the university and many international students and college officials were on edge. Some church leaders decided to visit the Champaign area and have since adopted the Chinese student community there. They now take turns hosting a student fellowship every Friday evening and have started meeting as a church offering Mandarin services on Sundays. This outreach has emerged as a haven for these Chinese students on campus and several dozen Chinese students have embraced the Christian faith. It has also given a sense of mission to the partnering churches in Chicago, and upon graduation many of those students are likely to end up in Chicago, other US cities, or return to China as Christians.
This is only a brief, initial account of our research. The details of the research and other findings are being analyzed. We hope to put them all together for a publication sometime soon. Most of the academic and mission research on Chinese American Christians has been focused on the West and East Coasts of the US while little effort has been given to Chicago or the Midwest. We hope this study becomes a welcome addition to the growing literature on Chinese diaspora and presents a simple and helpful framework to research any immigrant community in a city. We pray that more intentional effort will be taken to understand the dynamics of immigrant communities and the missional opportunities and challenges they pose for fruitful and lasting ministry.
- ACS 2018. US Census. https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=chinese%20alone%20or%20in%20combination&t=Race%20and%20Ethnicity&tid=ACSDT1Y2018.B02018&hidePreview=true (Accessed Nov 1, 2020.
- Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’A Jones, Ethnic Chicago: A Multicutlural Portrait, 4th Edition,Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995. pp 378–408.
Image credit: Andrew Lee
Sam George, PhD, lives with his family in the northern suburbs of Chicago and serves as the director of Global Diaspora Institute at Wheaton College Billy Graham Center near Chicago, USA. He is involved in researching and teaching about diaspora communities and world Christianity. View Full Bio