I immigrated to the United States from the Philippines over two decades ago. I was only 15 years old at the time but I was old enough to intellectually and socially process the immigration experience; I even felt culture shock. Growing up in the Philippines, religion was an undeniably integral part of my culture, my psyche, and my overall being.
Religion, particularly Catholicism, has deep historical roots in the Philippines. Spain colonized the Philippines from the 1500s to 1800s and they introduced Christianity to the Filipino people. Now there are over 76 million Catholics living in the Philippines. This is a country that has some of the most devout Catholics you will ever meet. Try going to any Catholic church anywhere in the Philippines at any given day or time and you will likely find at least 20 people inside, praying, saying the rosary, or lighting up candles to offer up to their patron saint. As early as September many Filipinos are eagerly starting their preparation for Christmas. And in the shopping malls, you will hear the public announcement system pause everything for the 3 o’clock prayer.
It is a country where 9 out of 10 Filipinos identify as Christians. In the 2015 Global Attitude survey of the Pew Research Center, 87% of Filipinos consider religion to be very important in their lives. Of the 40 countries surveyed, the Philippines ranked tenth in religiosity.
And so as I was getting ready to immigrate to the United States, my faith was not just another single item that I packed into my suitcase. Religion, spirituality, faith, and Catholic traditions are intricately interwoven into the fabric of my Filipino being. I never gave my religiosity that a second thought. Whether I was cognizant of it or not, and whether I chose to or not, my Filipino Catholic-ness was migrating with me.
Religion and Immigrants
In his book, “Religion and Immigration,” sociologist Peter Kivisto pointed out that religion was once a neglected topic in migration studies. But for many immigrants, religion is really a vital aspect of the resettlement experience. Timothy Smith even proposed that immigration is a “theologizing experience.” Religion is a spiritual resource that helps immigrants assimilate into the new culture. And as we start to re-shape our identities as new immigrants, religion will always serve as an important foundation for that process.
Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut, authors of the book “Immigrant America: A Portrait”, argued that religious practices serve as a source of social capital that helps determine the immigrant’s path of assimilation. I have met many new Filipino immigrants whose first quest is to find a religious community. Author and researcher, Charles Hirschman, put it this way: “The centrality of religion to immigrant communities can be summarized as the search for refuge, respectability, and resources.”
For me, as a teenager, this whole process of immigrating, assimilating, and retaining my faith was all happening and evolving beneath my consciousness. It is only in retrospect that I’m able to reflect on that experience and realize how significant religion was, and it still is, in my journey as a Filipino immigrant. It was only in my late 20s that I began to realize the part of my identity that was Filipino Catholic and that my worldview was profoundly colored by Filipino Catholicism. I now consider myself “American,” a full-fledged U.S. citizen, and have been for over two decades now. I even served seven years in the U.S. military. But there is something I really cherish about my unique Filipino Catholic-ness. For many Filipino Americans, even after having adjusted to American life, “their faith retains a distinctive feel and flavor all its own.”
Accepting One’s Own Culture
I used to feel embarrassed of celebrating my Filipino traditions in America and I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it had something to do with what Filipino-American psychologist, Dr. E.J. R. David, talked about in his book, “colonial mentality.” Maybe I was just trying to fit in. Maybe I was afraid of being assigned an “other-exclusive” identity disallowed from being part of the larger Church. But eventually, I started to realize that there are people in the Church who are not the same as those in the outside world. There are people in the Church who are more accepting. They even embraced my Filipino cultural traditions and I would see them celebrating Filipino church celebrations with me. I started to feel proud to celebrate the Filipino Christmas tradition of “Simbang Gabi” every Advent season. It is celebrated differently here in the U.S. but it’s still a very nice reminder of what Christmas felt like as a child growing up in the Philippines. I started to feel even proud to visit and pray in the little shrine of Our Lady of Antipolo in the basement of the National Shrine in Washington DC. I started to realize that the Catholic Church, its people, are welcoming of me and my cultural traditions. Diversity and the various ways of culturally expressing our faith are celebrated by the Church. I started to truly feel the richness of our faith and the “universality” of the Catholic Church.
As a psychologist reflecting back on my immigrant experience, I realize that I not only had my faith to turn to in those times of adjustment but I also had a community of very welcoming Catholics who made me feel at home in the Church. They welcomed me; they greeted me “peace be with you” and shook my hand. They saw me not as an outsider but as a brother in Christ. I met some individuals who truly lived the Gospel’s message: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). They made my assimilation into the American culture much easier.
Faith and Fellowship
Dorothy Day saw the Catholic Church as a “church of immigrants.” The church historically has served immigrants seeking not only refuge and physical safety but also psychological comfort, especially when the world outside the Church walls is not always welcoming. Getting uprooted and separated from friends and family are already difficult enough and even traumatizing. Resettling, reshaping a new American identity, and finding a community that welcomes are even more difficult. Participating in Church activities, particularly with the familiarity of the Mass and other Catholic traditions, is tremendously helpful in filling the psychological voids created by immigration. Religious participation creates for immigrants a healthy sense of belonging and community. Look across America and you will see that many of the churches and temples were built and established by immigrant communities.
Faith and fellowship are important to immigrants. Catholics are obliged to go to church only once a week but many from my Filipino immigrant community go to seek additional Church and fellowship activities outside of Sunday Mass. There are many Filipino Catholic subgroups out there meeting in the church basement or in their homes to be able to facilitate these opportunities for fellowship with one another. These not only provide the fellowship and social support but they also strengthen their individual spirituality. They also allow for the continuation of many Filipino traditions that are not only religious but deeply cultural.
Continuity of Traditions
The continuity of traditions and cultural practices, not only among first-generation immigrants but also second, third, fourth generations is very important. It is important for immigrants to tell their stories from back home to their children and grandchildren and preserving their cultural practices is one way to keep those stories going. The Simbang Gabi and the huge feast that follows are a way for Filipino Americans to preserve those stories for the next generations. The parading of the Blessed Virgin Mary across the church’s parking lot during “Flores de Mayo” does the same. These are ways for us to share the richness of our faith with other Catholics. They may look too extravagant and superfluous but if we, both insiders and outsiders, take the time and effort to really dig deep into what these traditional practices mean, what we’ll see is the Filipinos’ eagerness and enthusiasm to express the richness and fullness of our Catholic faith.
Immigrants from other ethnic and national backgrounds will also have their own cultural traditions and expressions of their Catholic faith. I hope that what we’ll see is God’s presence to all peoples. I hope that we all take the time to learn from their experiences. I hope that we welcome them and embrace them and cherish the fact that there is unity in the richness of our diversity. The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes that immigrants contribute to religious diversity and that religion is a fundamental part of life throughout the world. Immigrants will try their best to adapt, assimilate, and speak perfect English, but no matter how far along they get in their acculturation process, they will continue to maintain a strong identification with the values of their culture of origin.