The flood of refugees from Syria is pulling at the heart-strings of the world. Many hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing war and the death, destruction and poverty that goes with it. For many of these refugees, the physical journey out of Syria is just one stage in what will be a social journey of generations, as they assimilate into their new places of residence. The churches and other religious organisations play a significant role in that journey. Past articles in Pointers have explored the demographic dimensions of immigration to Australia (Hughes 2012). Recent research has involved conversations with members of immigrant families to understand better the roles of the church and how they can both help and hinder migrant and refugee families as they settle into Australian society.
Background of the Research
For many migrants arriving in Australia, faith communities provide contexts in which they readily find a sense of community among people who share their language, their culture and their values. The high value that faith communities have for these people is demonstrated in the high levels of commitment many migrants have to their faith communities. Twenty-six per cent of immigrants attend religious services monthly or more often compared with just 14 per cent of Australians born of Australian parents.
The 2011 Census also identified that 18.8 per cent of all Australians were second generation Australians. In addition, there are many young people born overseas themselves who migrated to Australia as young children with their families.
Many children of migrant families feel the need to find a place within the broader Australian context. In so doing, they have to negotiate the differences between the culture, language and values of their parents and that of the broad Australian culture. In this process, many second-generation Australians feel that the faith communities of their parents are not helpful if they act simply as a means of reinforcing their parents’ culture. As a result, some second generation Australians leave their parents’ faith communities. Some attend other faith communities which are more reflective of Anglo culture, and others cease to be part of any faith community. The 2009 Australian Survey of Social Values found that the frequency of attendance at religious services among second generation Australians was the same as that of Australians born of Australian parents: 14 per cent attending monthly or more often.
A young 2nd generation New Zealander with a Tongan background, Jemaima Tiatia, wrote a thesis on this issue as it presented itself in her community in New Zealand. This thesis was published as a book, Caught between Cultures. It expressed the dilemma well:
We face a dilemma. On the one hand, we are Pacific Islanders toiling in a predominantly European society that does not seek to understand or fully acknowledge our cultural uniqueness. On the other hand, within our own societies, we are the silenced Western educated voice, ignored because we may be a threat to Pacific Island cultural traditions (1998: p.1).
For the thesis, Jemaima Tiatia conducted research among young second generation New Zealanders with Tongan backgrounds. She wrote:
The aim of the study … was to provide an explanation of this ‘tug of war’. It is my hope that this explanation will contribute to our understanding of the church’s significance as ‘friend or foe’ for New Zealand born Pacific Island youth, and make us realise that the conflict is a contributing factor in the rising number of young members who opt out of the traditional Church (1998, p1).
There have been many explorations of similar ‘tugs of war’ for young people in the Western world through literature, such as Melina Marchetta’s book, Looking for Alibrandi, and through films, such as ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, which is about young Sikhs in Britain. However, there has been little systematic research about the faith involvements of second generation Australians.
Research on immigration, such as that of Penny and Khoo (1996) and Batrouney and Goldlust (2005), has found that the dynamics of the negotiation of culture and identity vary from one ethnic community to another. Factors such as cultural distance between the Australian and particular ethnic culture have an impact on the interplay between young people and the faith community.
There is evidence that while some faith communities heighten the tensions for young people between the homeland culture and the Australian society, others assist in integration into the Australian culture. One of the factors in this is how the faith community itself is relating to the Australian culture (Bouma 1997).
In 2014 and 2015, the Christian Research Association undertook a pilot study in this area. Researchers visited two churches: one of which was Sudanese and the other Chinese. Interviews were held in small groups among members of these communities including young people, parents, some older people and leaders of the church. In some instances, interpreters were used to assist in the interviews. Other interviews were conducted in English. Interviewers were used in appropriate gender and age-related ways. The interviewers asked questions about the differences between their homeland cultures and the Australian culture and how their interviewees were negotiating those differences. They also asked questions about differences in the expression of faith in the homeland and Australia and the development of their children’s faith.
A Sudanese Church
Many members of this Sudanese community had arrived in Australia between 2001 and 2006. Most of them had come from refugee camps in Africa and some had had traumatic experiences of war in South Sudan. Most had relatives who were still living in South Sudan or in African refugee camps. It should be noted that the observations below relate to one particular Sudanese community of one tribal group. The tribal group and the local church and denomination of which they were a part has not been identified in this article in order to maintain the confidentiality of these people. It should also be noted that the observations of this group do not necessarily apply to all groups of Sudanese who have settled in Australia.
Many members of the community were struggling with English: both in understanding English speakers and in making themselves understood. While many of the young people and some of the older people had become fluent in English, others found communication in English difficult. They spoke a variety of tribal languages. Many of those who had been to school in Sudan had learnt Arabic as their second language and the language for wider communication. After arriving in Australia, young people were placed in government schools with little assistance. They struggled, to varying extents, with their school education, partly because of a lack of fluency in English. Language was seen by some of those interviewed as the greatest cultural issue people from Sudan had to face in coming to Australia.
There were some tensions over language. Some young people noted that they had to do everything in English at school, but parents felt it was disrespectful if they spoke English at home. The parents felt it was important that their children learnt their home languages.
This Sudanese community had a strong culture of respect for older people and the expectation that younger people would not question their elders but would be obedient. Traditionally, in this tribal community, men receive a mark on their forehead for every decade of their lives. Hence, it is immediately evident to someone meeting them how old they are. The greater the number of marks on the forehead, the greater the respect due to them.
The young people themselves noted that they were expected to listen to and not argue with their parents. Even if they had the facts on their side what their parents said went: parents were ‘always right’. The young people said that that helped them in life, because it taught them to let things go. They saw this as quite different to the Australian young people whom, they felt, were often rude to their elders.
In general, the young people said they appreciated the values of family and respect for their parents. Nevertheless, it was evidently a cause of tension from time to time. Young people felt they could not be open with their parents and elders and bent the truth a little. They would tell their parents they were going out with church friends when they were actually going to parties where alcohol, and perhaps other drugs, would be made available to them. Young people felt that their parents did not understand Australian culture and its social patterns and that they could not talk easily to their parents about this. Parents were concerned that they did not always know where their children were or when they would be home.
Parents felt it was difficult to discipline their children in Australia. In Sudan, sometimes discipline occurred through withdrawing food and through physical punishment such as beating. However, the young people objected to beating and would threaten to call in the police or government family services. Withdrawing food would not work as food was easily available outside the home. In Sudan, the wider community assisted the parents in the discipline of the children. In Australia, that was not occurring. Another way of exercising discipline was to publicly ‘shame’ a young person. Again, this was difficult to do in the Australian context.
Another implication of the importance of age-related roles was that older young people were expected to care for their younger siblings. This was particularly seen as a burden by some Sudanese teenage girls. They felt under a lot of pressure with homework and with preparing themselves for future occupations. They also wanted to spent more time socialising with their peers, but they were expected to look after younger children and help in the home.
Some younger people felt their parents and other elders did not take a great interest in them as individuals. The men, in particular, were not involved in the lives of the younger people, although they had strong expectations about how the younger people should behave. Some younger people felt this ‘disregard’ contributed to a lack of understanding between the generations.
The lack of recognition of age-related roles was noted as having an impact on the relationships between Sudanese people and Australians. For example, it was noted that young Australians were often disrespectful when they entered the homes of Sudanese people. They would take food directly from the fridge, for example. They would not be respectful of older Sudanese people or wait for respect to be shown to them and be treated as guests.
The young people did not feel entirely comfortable with the attitudes of Australian young people. They described them as being ‘full on’ and not humble, particularly in the way Australian girls related to boys. Some Sudanese girls said they themselves were ‘more civilised’ than the Australians. On the other hand, they wanted to make friends with Australian young people and many said they did have good Australian friends.
It was noted that respect for age was seen as being more important than position within the church. Hence, it was considered disrespectful for a young church leader to take issue directly with an older Sudanese man. Rather, leaders in the church needed to speak with older members of the Sudanese community in a non-confrontational way and talk to them ‘adult to adult’.
In Sudan, there were also strong expectations associated with gender roles. Girls were seen as having responsibility primarily in the home, while men were expected to work for the family in the wider community. In general, women were expected to be obedient to their husbands. Women explained that in the Sudanese culture, if you want to bring honour to your house and your husband, then a wife could not disagree with her husband in public.
Some of the Sudanese girls were concerned that the boys did not get told off as much as they did. The boys did not have as many responsibilities, and they often treated the girls as inferior. As preparation for running the home, girls were expected to stay at home during their teenage years to learn how to look after the house, cook and look after younger children. They saw this as very different from the lives their Australian counterparts led. Some girls expressed the feeling that, as equals in education and living in a society which upheld women as equal to men, the girls had rights and they should be treated equally to the boys.
The girls noted that they were not allowed to date anyone until they reached an age when the family considered it appropriate. They could only date someone if they had their father’s approval. If they dated someone without that approval, they could be disowned by their fathers who would say that they were ashamed of them. They were not generally allowed to have male friends, either Sudanese or Australian, because this would be considered to be dating, although a few girls admitted they had boyfriends. In general, they could only interact with young males in a group setting. Boys noted that their parents wanted them to find nice Sudanese girls rather than dating someone with a different cultural background.
Some girls said that they could get beaten by their brothers or older siblings, or, if married, by their husbands, in Sudan, if they did not do what was expected of them: either in terms of fulfilling their duties, or because of the clothes they wore. They linked this to the fact that wives were purchased for a certain number of cows, and thus they were ‘owned’ by their husbands. The women felt good if they were worth a lot. On the other hand, some said the system of dowry payment de-valued them. ‘It’s saying you’re only property, you’re not a human being, you don’t have feelings’, one suggested. There was a concern that if they were sold in marriage and the marriage did not work out, they could not get divorced.
The men put it a little differently. A dowry was necessary for the family’s economic situation. While property was passed to the sons, some of that property was used in purchasing their wives. They noted how it was much cheaper to purchase wives in Australia, but part of that dowry went to help the extended family in Sudan. The dowry would be raised with the assistance of the friends of the groom. The wedding process was a multi-staged affair. There was first a cultural dance, then a discussion about money. A henna party in which the bride was decorated with henna marked another session. Finally, there was a wedding in which speeches were made. The process could take two years and the
couple could live together and start a family within that time.
The women noted that Sudanese men did not clean the house or cook, and thought it would be ‘magical’ if a man helped with the housework. The men saw this a little differently. They would be breaking the customs if they were in the kitchen, because this was the women’s area of responsibility.
In Sudan, women work as cleaners, maids and farmhands, but get little pay for long hours. Some men are farmers, but others have desk jobs. Either way, most income is paid to the men. However, in Australia, some Sudanese women could earn more than their husbands by cleaning or working in childcare. Some of the men did not have the qualifications or language skills for high paying jobs. One person said her father was wealthy in Sudan, but not in Australia.
This could lead to men feeling quite insecure in Australia. If their wives worked, had their own income and learnt to drive, they could leave their husbands. This would not only be a big embarrassment, but also a significant financial loss. The story was told of one Sudanese man who killed his wife because he felt she was becoming too independent.
In Sudan getting a good job was often dependent on personal connections: family connections or being from the right tribe. Some of those interviewed noted that, in Australia, it depended on your skills. There was a feeling that the Australian pattern was more fair, but made finding work more difficult for some members of the community.
The Sense of Community
Community is very important to the Sudanese and the Sudanese people reported that no one in the Sudanese community would ever be alone, even if they were addicted to drugs and alcohol. They had large families and looked after each other. They would not let anything bad happen to someone. If something did happen, they said, there would be an ‘intervention’, a meeting where they would talk to the offending person.
Many of the adults spent their leisure time much as they would in Sudan. They went to each other’s homes, drank tea and talked. In Sudan, the children would play soccer. The Sudanese young people, particularly the boys, enjoyed sport, especially soccer and basketball.
The Role of the Church
All the Sudanese people we spoke to were highly affirming of the church they attended. ‘This is no ordinary church’ they said. They spoke of the practical help that had been offered them by the church. ‘The Church is like another family. It’s like home for us’ said some young people. They were greatly appreciative that everyone was welcomed and the church acted like a big family so that everyone would look after you and care for you. The women noted that the church had given practical assistance to the Sudanese women who were in Australia without their husbands. The young people appreciated very much that they could go to the church leaders if they had an issue. The young people said they could trust the leaders, and they appreciated that the church leaders trusted them.
Many of the Sudanese young people went every night to the various activities at the church. Some nights they played basketball. At other times they had youth group or music activities. They enjoyed excursions to the movies occasionally. There was some help with English and with homework at the church. Parents noted that the church leaders kept their young people busy. It kept them off the streets and out of trouble. They were exceedingly grateful for this.
They liked Sunday services, although some young people said ‘you have to be in the mood’. The main Sunday morning service was mostly in English with a Sudanese service Sunday afternoon. It was noted that the Sudanese services tend to be much longer than the Australian services, and the young people appreciated the shorter services. However, some of the men noted that some people struggled to understand what was happening in the English-language services, although others said that attending English-language services helped them in learning English.
There were good relationships between the younger Sudanese people and the small number of older Anglo people in the church, although the strength of those relationships varied from person to person. Certainly communication was not always easy between the Sudanese and the older people. ‘We try and talk to the older people’, some of the young Sudanese said, ‘but then we get caught up in the moment talking to friends’.
In general, the church leaders were praised for their understanding and cultural sensitivity, although it was noted that occasionally they did something that was culturally not quite appropriate. The church was not seen as a place where the differences of culture were generally negotiated. Rather, negotiating these differences, and working out what was right and wrong in the Australian context was something the Sudanese community had to do for themselves. They distinguished issues of culture from issues of faith.
There was a feeling among the Sudanese that their faith was much stronger than that of most Australians and that the people in Sudan had stronger faith than those who had come to Australia. They spoke of the fact that, in Sudan, there were droughts, severe shortages of food, and war. Yet, the Sudanese people had held onto their beliefs. Even when people died they would say ‘Thank you God’. There was a strong sense of gratitude to God in Sudan. They felt that the material things in Australia made people forget about God.
They noted that when people in Sudan fell ill, people prayed. The more people prayed, the more people were healed, they said. Indeed, people could sit and pray for days, they noted. They saw their prayerfulness as evidence of the strength of their faith.
Several of the younger people spoke about how their faith helped them in difficult times. They could depend on God and they could pray. Sunday services helped them to be happy. Young people suggested that their parents’ faith was often very strong because they had been through many difficult experiences.
One of the great desires of the Sudanese people was that the wider church would help them in assisting
their communities in Sudan. They were deeply anxious about their relatives in Sudan: about famine and war. They said that the Sudanese government had abandoned their people. Because of the war, they were not able to farm the land, even though it was fertile. They had no medicine to deal with sickness or with injuries. Many children were dying. They wanted to do all they could to help their community in Sudan. They would love to see the wider church support them in this.
The other practical form of help they felt they needed from the church was in relation to the education of their young people. Few of the Sudanese young people were achieving grades at school high enough to enter university. They felt that the future of the community in Australia depended on their young people getting a high quality education. They would be very grateful if additional ways of providing tutorial support for their young people were found so that they might have a greater opportunity to get to university.
The problems identified by Jemaima Tiatia were not evident in this Sudanese church. Tiatia (1998) saw the church as reinforcing cultural traditions in a way which made it difficult for young people of Tongan background to negotiate their place in New Zealand. Such problems were certainly present for the young people from Sudan. But the church was not seen as a place which reinforced the culture or made negotiation with the Australian culture difficult.
One of the reasons for this may be the fact that the leadership of the church was in the hands of leaders with an Anglo background. Thus, the major services were in English rather than in a Sudanese language or Arabic. The church was not seen by the parents or the young people as a place in which the language of the homeland was reinforced. Similarly, the parents did not generally expect the church to play a major role in reinforcing cultural norms or, for that matter, the age-related and gender-related role models.
The Sudanese people felt that the cultural patterns, for example, in relation to dowries, needed to be worked through by the leaders of the Sudanese community rather than church leaders. They were seen as cultural matters and not as matters of faith. In this particular community, the leaders of the ethnic community and the leaders of the church were not the same people. The Sudanese people hoped that both the local and the wider church would be sensitive to the different values and ways of thinking when dealing with the Sudanese people.
Many of the Chinese people who constituted this particular church came to Australia in the 1980s bringing young families with them. Some came from Hong Kong, others from other parts of China, and a few from Vietnam. Many of them came with young families. It was the period when Hong Kong was being handed over by the British to the Chinese government. Thirty or more years later, many of these older people have grandchildren.
The young adults in this Chinese church were mostly in their 20s and came to Australia as students between 2008 and 2010. Three of the eight interviewed came as single young adults without any other connections. Others had one or more members of their family in Australia: a sister, wife, or whole family. These young adults were not related to the older people in the church.
Some of the older members of the church said that their own children no longer attended church, that they were too busy. They explained that it was not a matter of faith, but that their children had responsibilities with work, study and family that made them unavailable to come to church on Sunday mornings. Some parents with teenage children noted that their children were attending an English-language church while they continued in the Chinese-speaking context.
Differences in Chinese and Australian Cultures
In general, most of the people we interviewed said that the differences between the Chinese culture and the Australian culture were not great, although a variety of cultural differences were identified. The older people, for example, spoke about the ways that Chinese show respect to older people and to employers. They would not call an older or more senior person by their first name. They noted that there was a greater sense of equality among Australians and that Australians were more relaxed in the ways they spoke to older people.
In general, however, they said that Chinese people were more reserved and they would not express their feelings and their opinions as easily to others as did Australians. They spoke of Australians being more passionate, affectionate and interacting more easily. They said they had found the Australians welcoming.
It was noted that parents were treated a little differently in Chinese families than they were in Australian families. In Chinese families, parents tended to be more authoritative. However, they did not feel there was very much difference in the processes of dating and marriage between Australian and Chinese young people. There might be a greater tendency for Chinese families to have more influence than Australian families on whom their children married. They would try to match the young people with members of their friends’ families. However, the decision would be made by the young adults themselves. They indicated that they would not put obstacles in the way if one of their young people
decided to marry an Australian young person, although they were aware that it could mean language problems for them. What was important was the young people’s happiness.
It was noted by some people that attitudes to money and work were a little different in the Chinese and Australian communities. In China, many people worked very hard in order to feel secure, because there was no welfare system on which to depend, they explained. They much preferred the balance in work and life that they found in Australia.
However, some of the students noted that they did not have families to provide homes and other resources for them. They had to work very hard to survive in Australia and had to be very careful how they spent their money. In contrast, it was implied that children growing up in Chinese families in Australia often did not feel the same pressure to work hard. They had their parents’ support and were looked after well by their families.
Gender roles did not raise major issues for the Chinese as was the case for the Sudanese. The Chinese people interviewed indicated that they were quite happy with both men and women being involved in the workplace as well as in family life. Any differences had more to do with the physical demands of work rather than roles and expectations related to gender.
Attitudes to the Church and to Christian Faith
Most of those interviewed felt that the attitudes to religious faith in Australia were similar to those in China. They noted that, in both countries, the majority of people did not take religious faith very seriously. Most Chinese, like most Australians, were more interested in the non-religious dimensions of life such as making money and family life. A minority of people took religion seriously in both Australia and China.
The services at this Chinese church were all in Cantonese, although translation both to English and Mandarin was available through headphones. The leader of this church was Chinese. It was evident that the church had provided a strong community for this group of Chinese people.
However, the children of the first wave of immigrants had mostly left this church and some did not attend a church at all. A few were attending a neighbouring church where the services and children’s activities were in English. In a few cases, families were divided with the parents attending the Chinese-speaking church and their children, including some in their teenage years, attending an English-speaking church.
The issues identified by Jemaima Tiatia (1998) of the church being seen as bulwark for cultural traditions in a way which is problematic for young people trying to negotiate their place in Australian culture had occurred at some level in this church. The children of these Chinese immigrants had not continued attending the Chinese-speaking church. While the research did not allow us to explore the reasons for their departure as we were unable to interview those who did not attend, one can assume that they did not wish to worship in Chinese and they did not feel comfortable in the neighbouring English-speaking church.
There were also some hints among the young people in this church that they felt a little isolated. While they preferred to worship in a Chinese language, the opportunities to be involved in wider denominational activities appeared to be a somewhat limited by their capacity to communicate in English. There were also hints that some felt a little trapped with the responsibilities which had fallen on them because of their age and abilities for leading worship and particularly the music at the Chinese-speaking church.
General Observations and Conclusions
These two churches were at different points in their relationships with the Australian community. The churches were also acting in quite different ways. The Chinese church was doing more to preserve the traditions of the Chinese culture than was the Sudanese church. Language was a large part of this. The Chinese church used only Chinese in worship, while the Sudanese church mostly used English. The use of English in the Sudanese church was a challenge for some of the Sudanese, but meant that the Sudanese young people identified more readily with it than had the young people in the Chinese church.
Negotiating the changes in language use and culture as the second and third generations assimilate aspects of the Australian culture is often problematic. What language should the church use? Is it possible to use more than one language in a service? Or should there be different services in the one church? Different services in the one church might solve the language problem, but would it solve other cultural differences?
The second and third generations of most immigrant groups continue to hold onto many of their cultural patterns and often do not feel fully at home in an Anglo-type of environment. They may speak English, but still prefer ‘rice over bread’, as one person put it. On the other hand, some of the families, and particularly their children, wanted an English-language context and had moved to another church for that reason. The process had split the community and some families.
These issues add to the issues of generational difference found throughout churches because of the rapid changes in Australian culture. In general, older and younger people relate to faith differently. They enjoy different sorts of music, different levels of formality in their worship, and think about faith in different ways. Consequently, many churches offer a range of services, both contemporary and traditional, to cater for these different tastes and different ways of seeing life.
Some other issues also emerged in the course of this study. Leaders noted that denominational gatherings and denominational leaders were not always sensitive to cultural differences. When food was provided, it was almost always Anglo food and did not allow for other cultural preferences. It was suggested that non-Anglo leaders were not regarded as equal with Anglo leaders irrespective of the levels of training and experience. They were given the responsibility of leadership within their ethnic communities, but their contributions to other aspects of life within the denomination were often not welcomed or affirmed.
Most denominations in Australia are, to some extent, multicultural. The multicultural dimensions of faith are challenging as they mean that, at all levels of leadership, people need to be aware of cultural differences and sensitivities. The deep roots of cultural differences are often not well recognised and it is assumed that people can easily accommodate differences. These differences are not just about the ways people live, but the values of community, of tradition, of the very ways in which roles and responsibilities are formed and negotiated. People do not easily change deeply embedded cultural patterns. Immigrants have brought great richness to Australian churches. They have brought new emphases in faith and have re-vitalised many churches. They offer to the churches a variety of arts and culture and networks through which churches can grow in their expressions. Many migrants are deeply committed to their church communities and have challenged Australians in their dedication. In many places, they have re-balanced the ageing profile of Australia’s churches.
Being sensitive to the differences of culture and expressions and forms of faith is a challenge for leaders of all church communities. Sensitive negotiation must occur as leaders from these communities enter leadership within the churches. There are also sensitive negotiations that are needed in helping immigrant families negotiate their place in the Australian culture. With cultural sensitivity, churches can play an important role in confirming the worth of immigrant families and helping them find a place in Australian society.
Batrouney, T. and Goldlust, J. (2005) Unravelling Identity: Immigrants, Identity and Citizenship in Australia, Melbourne: CommonGround.
Bouma, G. D. editor (1997) Many Religions, All Australian: Religious Settlement, Identity and Cultural Diversity, Melbourne: Christian Research Association.
Hughes, P. (2007) Putting Life Together: Findings from Australian Youth Spirituality Research, Melbourne: Fairfield Press.
Hughes, P. (2012) ‘The Impact of Recent Immigration on Religious Groups in Australia’, Pointers, Vol.22, no.4. December.
Hughes, P. and S. Bond (2005) A Handbook for Cross-cultural Ministry, Adelaide: Openbook.
Tiatia, Jemaima (1998) Caught Between Cultures, Christian Research Association, Auckland, NZ.
Penny, J. and Khoo, S. (1996) Intermarriage: A Study of Migration and Integration, Melbourne: Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research.