Immigrating: God and the Newcomer

By Mahtot Teka

Change comes to your way of life when you immigrate. It spares nothing; not even the most intimate aspects of life, like religious practice. It happens because of your interaction with the new culture. The way change happens “always differs with different places; what you are bringing with you, where you are coming from, and what you are coming into,” says Dr. Amina Jamal, assistant professor at Ryerson University’s sociology department.

What most immigrants find when they immigrate to Canada is a culture that is less religious, busier and different in lifestyle.

How can change affect your religious practice?
For some, the busyness of life has a direct effect on how often they practice their religion - if at all. Artan Dalipaj, an immigrant from Albania, goes to church less in Canada than in his native country because of lack of time. Wan Long, an immigrant from China, used to go to the temple when he was living there. He doesn’t go now because he is too busy working every day in his own store.

For others, it could be the scarcity of worship centers as well. Syed Ahmed used to go the mosque once or twice a day in his native Pakistan. He usually manages once a week in Canada. He says that the reasons for that change are “the settings and environment, not to mention access.”

Indeed, it would be impossible to continue your old lifestyle in a new setting. Dr. Jamal says, “Nobody can remain in a complete cocoon. Even with people who seem to be completely fundamentalist, there is always negotiation [with the new culture] going on. So, they may be changing in some ways. People sometimes create ways of retaining whatever cultural or religious identity that they already have. And they try to balance that with the demands of the new life.”

How can you maintain a balance?
Practicing religion doesn’t necessarily mean going to a worship center frequently or following religious rituals strictly. It seems acceptable in any religion to miss attendance for reasons out of your control. If you attend less, you might make up for that by praying/meditating at home or by devoting a few minutes at work to connect with your higher being.

This doesn’t mean you are becoming less religious, though. It simply means your practice has adapted to the new lifestyle. That is at least the case for Kavitha Rajan, who says that even though she doesn’t go to the temple as often as she did in Sri Lanka, her religiousness hasn’t changed. By making time to go for special occasions, she maintains a balance that works in her Canadian life.

Creating religious communities is another way for people to keep their relationship with religion. Dr. Jamal says they manage to maintain their religiousness by being in these kinds of communities, observing festivals, and celebrating together.

New lifestyle also brings its own features that can be used to religious ends. “The Internet has become not only a place of social connection, but also one where individuals can seek out personal spiritual enhancement. For some, the Internet functions as a place of spiritual renewal as people seek truth on digital pilgrimages though web links. Others search for spiritual direction and fellowship with like-minded believers on email lists or BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems),” says Heidi Campbell in her book Exploring Religious Community Online. With technology, you can practice, pray, or meditate together with people in your native country in real time. Your physical presence may not add much to the experience. However, if you choose to be present in person, what are the worship centers in Canada doing to encourage you?

What do places of worship do to encourage attendance in the new culture?
Some worship centers provide prayers and lessons online for those who don’t have access offline. Others shorten masses or prayer periods to fit the busy life here. Father Dimitros Maarew, a priest at an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, says that the service at his church is tailored to suit the Canadian lifestyle. For example, instead of starting mass at 6:00a.m. as is the tradition, his church starts at 8:30a.m. He says the change was important to make it suitable for congregants who live far, travel to church in unfriendly weather, and are very busy at work. “You cannot change the religion, but you can modify the way it is practiced,” he said.

And yet, as far as religious practice goes, your country of origin is perhaps more accommodating. However, you might find yourself turned into a very religious person after you immigrate to Canada.

Why do some immigrants become more religious?
It might be due to a divine revelation, or a personal decision of some sort. It could also be a reaction to your new environment. “Certain groups are identified by their religious or cultural identity,” Dr. Jamal explains. “It [religious identity] becomes a form of thinking about themselves as different. It also becomes a ground from which to ask for rights from the state. It becomes identity politics.”

In addition, religion could become one way to connect with your culture or what is familiar. You might start going to a worship center or frequent it just to meet people who have similar backgrounds; people you can easily relate to; people who speak the same language as you. The religious center then becomes “like a community center or a social networking place,” says Dr. Jamal.

How do immigrants change the Canadian religious landscape?
“When people come here, of course, they bring their identities. And religion is a part of many people’s identities,” says Dr. Jamal. When immigrants come here, they might find a less religious society, but not a religion-less one. As Dr. Jamal says, religion has been part of societies like Canada which define themselves as liberal democratic secular. “It is just that any kind of difference [the new religions that are coming with recent immigrants], when it enters the society, raises different kinds of alarms on the part of those who are there.” She explains that this has an effect on the Canadian religious landscape, because now there are more kinds of religions, and there is a challenge to the norm when it comes to what is an acceptable religious identity in public space.

When you immigrate, it is inevitable that your ways will be changing for good. Sometimes it is a conscious decision about what to modify and what to keep. Other times, it is not; you will either be forced by circumstances to make a change, or change will happen without you fully realizing it. Whatever the case may be, when you said “yes” to immigration, you will have said “yes” to change.

It is inevitable, too, that you will change the new culture for good when you become a part of it.