For most of the years we spent in Taiwan, in addition to Taiwanese churches we were involved in one or another English language congregation. The one in Kaohsiung offered our children a Sunday School experience as they grew up, and offered us a community of people with whose culture we were more familiar. The one in Tainan, where I was the leader for our final 18 months before retiring, gave me space to exercise whatever gifts in leadership and preaching as I have been given. In America, churches of sojourners and immigrants from other countries fill a similar role. We were with one of those over the weekend. It is a Taiwanese congregation on Long Island. The group just marked their 40th anniversary. Whether they make it to a 50th or further on as a TAIWANESE congregation is questionable.
My mother grew up in Minnesota, in a Dutch language enclave, but the church to which her parents belonged was “American Reformed Church”. Apparently the congregation was differentiating itself from the other Reformed church in town which was still worshipping in Dutch. It’s not an uncommon thing in some of those Midwestern communities to have a church with a name like “American” that goes back to the time when it was the congregation of the second or third generation after the founders had arrived in the land. The church where Char principally grew up, Rehoboth Reformed Church, in Lucas, MI, had used Dutch for worship until some time during the First World War.
At lunch with a couple members of the Long Island Taiwanese Church on Saturday I learned that they face a similar problem. The founding members of the congregation left Taiwan in the 60s to and 80s. Their children were born in America and grew up here, but the families held onto a portion of their ethnic and linguistic identities through the church. Now those founding members are aged. A man my age, 68, told me that he’s the youngest guy there. Over lunch we met a woman who had immigrated some time later, but even she is in her late 40s or early 50s. She said that she drove an hour to get to church, so only came a couple times a month.
One way that many of these churches are surviving is to appeal to people from China, who don’t speak Taiwanese. Worship is conducted in Mandarin. The immigrants from China are younger, their families more active, and the church eventually becomes Mandarin language on the way to becoming “American” (English language). It’s hard for the founding generation to watch this happen, because the identity moves away from being Taiwanese.
All that said, we had a wonderful time. It felt like going home again. We now know that when we need a dose of Taiwan, we just have to get onto the train at midnight on Friday and head for New York City. There’s a whole community there to receive us.
David Alexander now resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.