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Sheluyang Peng with his parents at Fourth Avenue Methodist Church in Brooklyn, where the two of them preach. (All photos by Hilary Swift for The Free Press)

A Church Grows in Brooklyn

People say immigrants like my parents do the jobs native-born Americans don’t want to do. Keeping the faith is one of them.

I remember attending my father’s graduation from theological seminary in idyllic Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when I was four years old. My father was away for months studying in the U.S. while I was in China, so when I saw him in his robes and cap, he looked like a monarch at his coronation. I also remember the cars that shared the road with the horses and buggies of the Amish, who fled persecution in Europe in the eighteenth century to find religious freedom in this small corner of America. A century earlier, Pennsylvania’s namesake, William Penn, a Quaker who’d been thrown in jail in England because of his religion, including a stay in the Tower of London, had himself come to this country to find safe haven for his beliefs.

My parents had a similar background. They grew up amid the terror of China’s Cultural Revolution, where Christians were forced to meet in secret and hide their Bibles out of fear of being the victim of a struggle session—a mob-fueled condemnation of wrongthink not entirely unlike the cancel culture and student shoutdowns we have in the U.S. today. Religious gatherings were banned; my grandparents had to conduct “church services” in their home. My mother grew up listening to her mother tell Bible stories and sing hymns from memory, as the family Bible and hymnals were hidden in the house’s stone walls, away from the all-watching eyes of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party. 

Both my parents, despite being raised Christian, never had the chance to attend a church or read a Bible until their teenage years. After Mao died and religious reforms swept the country, my parents, married by then, were allowed to study theology abroad—my mother in Singapore, my father in Pennsylvania. They could have returned to China after my father’s graduation, to train pastors in their home country, where Christianity had attained legal, albeit heavily regulated, status. But in May 2004 a church leader in the U.S. convinced my parents to stay, saying that there were great numbers of immigrants looking for a spiritual home in America. 

In China, my father’s family was converted by Anglican missionaries from England, while my mother’s family was converted by Methodist missionaries from the U.S. So before they ever came to America, they figured it must be a very religious nation. But when they arrived, they were surprised to see that a country built on freedom of religion was slowly becoming free of it. 

My parents were granted religious worker visas and moved to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood in late 2004, where they held church services in our apartment before expanding into their current church. First we had Sunday services, then added Mondays, because many local worshippers work in the restaurant industry and don’t have Sundays off. 

For immigrants trying to assimilate into the intricacies of American culture, churches double as community centers, offering services like translation and daycare. My father helped congregants translate important government documents and register their children in schools. As the church expanded, other English-proficient volunteers took up the work. The church began to function as a hub where people helped other people, where those who were down on their luck could rely on each other instead of on the government. I witnessed how important churches are to maintaining a community’s civic life, something that even prominent atheist intellectuals both on the left and right agree on.   

Every Sunday at the Fourth Avenue Methodist Church, the pews are filled with young faces—many of whom are immigrants.

Today, 19 years later, my parents run that same church in Sunset Park. Their congregation is composed mostly of young faces, and they perform lots of baptisms and weddings. When guest pastors come to preach, I stand next to them and hold my own mic, translating their sermons from Chinese to English and vice versa. Many of the churchgoers are young immigrants trying to find their place, and their faith, in a new land. Some fled China to practice their faith here safely; others picked it up through evangelical outreach. 

Xiuya Liu, born in China, began attending services at my parents’ church in December 2011 after hearing the gospel from her best friend. A former restaurant worker who is now a stay at home mom, she quickly became one of the church’s most devoted members, volunteering her time in between taking care of her two children.

When she was stricken with breast cancer three years ago, my parents made regular visits to her home and brought her to the hospital when needed. Today, her cancer has gone into remission, and she thanks God for saving her. This March, she stood in front of the congregation and told her story of salvation and healing from start to finish. She emphasized a specific Bible verse that she clung to when times were testing: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2). Her story reduced many congregants to sobs. 

If I had never strayed from Sunset Park and had no access to the internet, I wouldn’t have guessed that Christianity is supposedly in decline in America. Preachers both on the coasts and in our heartland express worries over a sea of gray hair in pews and lament that among younger generations, Christianity has a negative connotation

But Christianity is thriving if you know where to look. People say immigrants do the jobs that native-born Americans don’t want to do. Going to church is one of them. Over two-thirds of today’s immigrants to the United States are Christians, and prominent religious scholars forecast that immigrants will single-handedly reverse Christianity’s decline in America. 

In Sunset Park, a neighborhood where nearly half of residents are immigrants (from places like Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and China) and many of the other half are their children, there are churches on seemingly every block, churches directly across from other churches, and churches with multiple congregations—Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals—all jostling for space. One Sunset Park church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, offers services in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese. When my parents attend meetings with other clergy members of their denomination in the community, the room looks and sounds like the United Nations. 

When I look around my neighborhood—a poor area with minimal social influence—I see happiness beaming from peoples’ faces on Sunday mornings when they mill out of church. But elsewhere in Brooklyn, some of the young hipsters in my borough’s more affluent neighborhoods try to fill the void in their souls with false gods—work or social climbing or politics. 

Sheluyang Peng’s parents were born in China, where they were converted by missionaries from the West. Now they are helping revive Christianity in the U.S.

When I tell my parents about how my generation is the most lonely and anxious generation ever to exist, they feel sorry for people my age. I tell them about how today’s college students are turning to a new political ideology that reminds my parents of the Cultural Revolution they grew up under—one that mimics Christianity in its doctrine of original sin, but without the hope of salvation. 

“Of course it would be like this,” my mother says. “When people have no purpose, no greater calling, their life has no meaning. They turn to new ideologies to give them meaning. America was built on the Protestant work ethic. When these values decline, what you are left with is hopelessness. But for immigrants, they come to this country for freedom and opportunity. They have hope for the future and work hard towards one. And Jesus gives them hope.” 

I am not the first child of immigrant pastors in Brooklyn to write for The Free Press. In 2021, Daniel Idfresne wrote about being the son of Haitian immigrant ministers in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Our life trajectories are similar: we both attended one of New York City’s prestigious specialized public high schools and have both opined on the illiberal ideologies in America’s institutions. 

Stories like Daniel’s and mine reveal how immigrants have kept Christianity alive in America. Meanwhile, Christianity is booming in China, against all odds. While getting precise statistics on religion out of China is almost impossible, the number of Chinese Christians has grown from an estimated 6 million in the 1980s to anywhere from 38 million to 120 million today, even while the CCP tries to crack down on the spread of what it considers a Western influence. 

Earlier this year, my father became a naturalized American citizen. When I asked him how his experience in the U.S. differs from China, he said, “In China, the people are not free to hear the Word, but they still hunger for it. In America, they are free to hear, yet they choose not to accept it.” 

This is Sheluyang Peng’s first piece for The Free Press. Follow him on Twitter @SheluyangPeng.

For a look inside the Gen Z religious revival, read Olivia Reingold’s piece, “Why Students in Kentucky Have Been Praying for 250 Hours,” and listen to her discussion with Bari on Honestly here.

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