The stained glass windows, pipe organ and varnished wood could be taken for any U.S. church, at any time. So could the cheery, sing-along hymns – at least until hundreds of voices rise up to praise the lord in Mandarin.
Tian Fu Church started in Sunset Park only five years ago, sharing space with a small Latino congregation in a church built a century ago for a Norwegian parish. Tian Fu’s founder, the Rev. Zhaodeng Peng, said his flock in New York City’s third Chinatown has grown to include more than a thousand believers .
More than a quarter of Sunset Park’s foreign-born residents come from China. Many are young and arrive with limited English skills, destined for initial employment in one of the city’s many Chinese restaurants.
“New immigrants need help,” Peng said. “They need God in their lives. That’s how we’ve grown so fast.”
Peng studied theology in Shanghai before moving to a seminary in Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian Province. Most of Tian Fu’s members hail from that same mountainous corner in southeast China
Fujian has more history with Christianity than most of China. According to the Rev. Gunshik Shim, who oversees Eastern Long Island for the national organization of the United Methodist Church, Protestant missionaries were finding converts in Fuzhou in the early 1850’s. “It’s very historical and meaningful for their descendants to come here and start their own congregation,” he said.
Ken Guest, a Baruch College anthropologist and the author of “God in Chinatown: Religion and Survival in New York’s Evolving Immigrant Community,” also suggests that some immigrants bring their religious beliefs with them in spite of the atheistic policies of China’s government.
“In Sunset Park, the Chinese immigrant population is primarily rural peasants,” he said. “Their religious practices haven’t been disturbed by the Chinese Communist Party. Especially the Fujianese.”
After Sunday services, ShuYing Li oversees the distribution of steamed pork buns and fish ball soup with a weathered smile. She said her family were Christians in Fujian before emigrating in 1991. For her, Tian Fu is a social as well as a spiritual place.
“The church is like my home,” Li said. “I meet with other seniors, and we’ve become good friends.”
Not all of Tian Fu’s members were Christians when they arrived in Brooklyn. Evangelism is encouraged, and Peng awards certificates to members who bring in 12 or more converts, after the Twelve Disciples of biblical fame. Peng’s wife and co-pastor, the Rev. Qibi Shi, holds an introductory Bible study session after each service.
Peng said young immigrants are drawn to the church’s social network.
“We are well connected, and many employers come to this church,” he said. “Even if they need a boyfriend or a girlfriend, we can help.”
The isolation experienced by new immigrants working long hours for small businesses can highlight the appeal of the spiritual and social comfort of the church.
“We are grateful to pastor Peng. Whenever I’m confused or unhappy, I call him for his suggestions,” said Meibing Liu, a housewife with two young children.
She said her husband persuaded her to join the church. “I found him totally changed after he became a Christian,” she said. “Before that, he was so unhappy. He always complained about life and worried about our kids’ future.”
Pressure to Convert
Not all of Sunset Park’s Chinese residents have joined the church. Lan Cheng is a high-school junior from a Buddhist family. He said friends and relatives have encouraged his parents to become Christian, but they declined.
“We still keep Buddhist traditions at home and go to temples sometimes,” said Cheng.
Tian Fu, which will become a dues-paying charter member of the United Methodist Church in June, will soon take over the church building, though Peng said the Latino congregation will remain as a tenant.
He said he baptized 106 converts in 2008, and more than 200 already this year. And all the new recruits are encouraged to spread the good word among their family and friends.
“Many say, I can’t, I don’t understand the bible very well,” Peng said. “I tell them that’s why they should bring them to church.”