A man prays in front of the stained glass windows of a mosque
Amr Dalsh/Reuters

These churches and mosques assist their congregations with everything from civic rights to the college application processes.

Inside the Masjid Aqsa on East 115th street in East Harlem, women in black niquabs and brightly colored headscarves file down a narrow staircase alongside men speaking in Wolof and Mandingo. Most of the congregants at this West African mosque are recent immigrants, and the only information they have about immigration or civic rights comes from workshops held inside these walls. Immigrants come to their houses of worship to pray and retain a religion intertwined with culture, but they also turn to churches and mosques for the services and information they need to adjust to life in America.

American churches have a long history of devoting resources to caring for marginalized communities: parishes around the country run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and refugee resettlement programs. For churches and mosques whose parishioners are themselves members of marginalized communities, that ministry often means looking inwards.

In New York City, some houses of worship have majority-immigrant congregations. Kenneth Guest, a professor at Baruch College in New York and the author of God in Chinatown, estimates that eighty-five percent of the congregation at the Tianfu Methodist Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is comprised of new immigrants, most of whom are from the Fujian province of China. They’re not alone: Across the country, many immigrants identify as religious. According to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, 61 percent of legal immigrants from the prior year were Christian, 10 percent were Muslim, and 6 percent were Buddhist. Fourteen percent were religiously unaffiliated, as opposed to the 22.8 percent of Americans who identified as such in a 2014 Pew report. Across the city, large ethnic minority communities rely on their houses of worship for both the spiritual and the prosaic.

Houses of worship are powerful places to gain social capital in any society, but that power is twofold for immigrant communities, says Pyong Gap Min, a professor at Queens College and CUNY’s Graduate School who has studied the role of Korean churches and Hindu temples in assimilation. Min believes that the most powerful function an immigrant church serves is ethnic retention—a place for the next generation to learn cultural touchstones and mother tongues.

But, he says, these churches also give new immigrants a course in America 101. The church—through both pastors and laypeople—teaches worshippers everything from how to apply for a social security card to how insurance works in America. Through casual conversations, new immigrants can easily become part of a larger network that disseminates information about employment and housing opportunities. Mosques and church networks serve as unofficial work referral systems, where worshippers can hear about jobs or scope out who they might hire themselves.

Erum Jaffer, a social worker and member of the Ismaili Muslim community, moved with her parents to America from Pakistan when she was five years old. Her jamatkhana—an Ismaili Muslim religious gathering place—helped her parents navigate the college application process, impressing upon them the importance of SAT classes and encouraging Jaffer to move away from the community for college. Jamatkhanas in New York City are also instrumental in walking immigrant parents through the city’s notoriously complex high-school application process.

“A person goes to a place of worship for two things: prayer and community,” Jaffer says. “But, once they go, they get whatever other services are provided.”  

These spaces are also perceived to be trustworthy, explains Iman Boukadoum, a lawyer and the director of the Interfaith Center of New York. If an issue arises in a Yemeni Muslim home about divorce, domestic violence, or immigration, the mosque is where one would go to seek answers and counsel. “That’s how it works back home,” Boukadoum says. “The mosque played a central role in their lives, and that’s where community is for a lot of folks.” The first order of business for a new Muslim immigrant—especially one who doesn’t speak English—is to find a local mosque, says Robina Niaz, the Executive Director of Turning Point, an organization that helps Muslim women and children affected by domestic violence. Many new immigrants fear going to government agencies or hospitals for help because they worry about being targeted by ICE. That makes the houses of worship a kind of catchall for immigrant communities. All too often, Niaz says, mosques “are forced into those roles...mosques have had to serve as community centers, often over-extending their resources.”

Frequently, a mosque will connect with Muslim lawyers and invite them to impart civic and legal advice to the congregation. Iman Boukadoum speaks at predominately immigrant mosques from Brooklyn to the Bronx about civic rights and immigration. Boukadoum has seen an increased need for her services since the 2017 election, and has conducted over 25 workshops around the city since what she calls “the insanity” began. “I can’t even put into words how much of a worry, how much of a fear—the deep anxiety—within communities,” she says. “Not just Muslim communities but immigrant communities.” Most of the questions and fears she deals with revolve around America’s naturalization process and traveling outside the country.

Imam Konaté (Teresa Mathew)

If houses of worship cannot provide certain services themselves, they will often partner with the city or other organizations to make sure their congregants get the services they need, functioning as an advocate or conduit rather than a direct provider. Souleimane Konaté, an Imam at the Masjid Asqa in Harlem, regularly works with city leaders and local community- and faith-based organizations like the African Council of Imams and the New York City Mayor’s office. He has helped advocate for a clinic at the Harlem Health Center designed specifically for the needs of his West African Muslim community. It is staffed with translators who speak multiple African languages and accommodates patients who want to be seen by a doctor of the same gender.

Aside from lacking the resources to provide myriad services on his own, Konaté also believes that working with outside organizations helps to give his mosque’s programs more credibility. He has invited immigration officers, lawyers, and members of the NYPD to teach workshops at the mosque about civic rights. After Trump was elected, Konaté says, many in his congregation were too scared to go to work. Drivers in particular were afraid, worrying that displaying a driver’s license that said “Mohammad” would make them a target. But after the workshop was over, according to Konaté, the relief in his community was palpable.

Occasionally, houses of worship can aid immigrants in the naturalization process or in getting a visa. Documents like baptism certificates or photographs can have dual purposes: establishing when and where an immigrant was at a certain time, and showcasing that he or she is part of a community. Kenneth Guest remembers worshippers at the Tianfu Methodist Church once lining up to have their photos taken with a Methodist bishop, with the hope of including the snapshot in their naturalization applications. And in cases where an undocumented immigrant married to an American citizen has been deported or is facing deportation, pastors often write letters to the government advocating for the person to be allowed to remain in the U.S. “Those are some of the strongest letters,” says Brynne Howard, a managing attorney who works for Justice for Our Neighbors, a legal clinic affiliated with the United Methodist Church that provides free or low-cost immigration services.

At the end of the day, says Konaté, immigrants “trust imams—or pastors—more than politicians.” Even when it comes to matters beyond the spiritual, they will put their faith in houses of worship.

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