How Christian churches in Canada are helping Chinese immigrants find community

Toronto’s Chinese Christian community booms as churches provide social connection and spiritual growth

A man sits in a church
Vincent Liu sits during a worship service at the Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church. (Yuan Che/Toronto Observer)  

From a military job in China to a leadership role in a Toronto church, Vincent Liu’s journey to faith is anything but typical. Once an avowed atheist, his first visit to the church was to save his marriage. 

In the early 2000s, Liu immigrated to Canada with his wife to start their new life in Toronto. Neither of them had any religious background in China, but his wife began attending church after settling in Toronto.

“I used to be an atheist and believed there was no saviour in this world,” said Liu.

But Liu, too, eventually found his way to the church community. The 56-year-old Chinese immigrant now co-ordinates all of the volunteers for the Mandarin-speaking congregation in Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church in East York. He’s responsible for general affairs from welcoming new members and organizing events to renovation, earning him acclaim and respect among church members. 

Without immigration, he would never have stepped into the church. Now , however, attending services has become an integral part of his life. His journey to faith was a struggle that took almost eight years. 

At first, Liu resented his wife, who immediately converted to Christianity after arriving in Canada in 2001, preaching the gospel to him, and caused frequent arguments due to their religious differences. 

In an effort to repair their relationship, he joined the church in late 2003. In the years that followed, he found it to be a valuable channel for building social connections, acquiring information, and alleviating feelings of loneliness and isolation. The ability for the churchgoers to open up to each other was quite an emotional support to him when he had just arrived in Canada.

Like Liu and his wife, many immigrants to China convert to Christianity after making the life-changing decision to come to Canada. In churches, they find practical, social and spiritual support. They also connect with other new immigrants who are facing similar challenges.

Watch Chara Che’s report from Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church:

The Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church, located on Woodbine Avenue in East York, is a brick building with ample interior space. Established in 1979, the church currently boasts around 120 registered members who regularly attend services. The church is committed to reaching out to the local Chinese community, offering outreach ministries to newly landed immigrant families and international students, and providing assistance with settling and adjusting to life in a new culture.

Religion as a remedy for immigrant struggles

In an interview, Prof. Ka Tat Tsang, who specializes in immigration and settlement issues at the University of Toronto, explained that religion operates “as a social institution that provides certain programs and products to address human needs, such as social and network support in everyday life, which may not otherwise be available.” 

He said, new immigrants often experience confusion and uncertainty, and religion can be “a very good antidote” to mitigate those feelings.

Prof. Ka Tat Tsang, shown here during an interview in downtown Toronto, said the church helps Chinese immigrants with both life and spiritual needs. (Yuan Che/Toronto Observer)

By attending church, immigrants can find a sense of community and connect with others who have had similar experiences, such as “social exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice.”

These shared experiences create an understanding and supportive environment, Tsang said.

Social connections drive Christian churches’ success

According to data from the 2021 census, there are 658,910 residents of Chinese descent in Toronto, which accounts for almost 12 per cent of the city’s population. As the number of Chinese residents continues to grow, Christian churches are facing a significant impact.

In 2001, 26 per cent of Chinese Canadians identified as Christians across the country. As of 2022, there are 505,770 people of Chinese descent identified as Christians, making up approximately 30 per cent of the Chinese Canadian population. In comparison, only 122,975 Chinese Canadians identified as Buddhist, representing seven per cent of the Chinese community in Canada.

Tsang highlighted that Christian churches have been highly organized for 2,000 years and have relied on “volunteer manpower,” making them particularly successful compared to other religions.

If someone attends a church even once, they are likely to be invited to join a fellowship and become a member.  

“With their membership and volunteer system, they get people connected,” he said.

Read more from the Toronto Observer:

“Social [connections] bring them into the church, and the spiritual peace grows deeper into them,” said Brian Quan, the lead pastor of Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church.

Members of the Cantonese-speaking congregation at the Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church gather for worship. (Yuan Che/Toronto Observer)

Although it can be challenging to reach out to younger newcomers, including international students and young immigrants who may feel a cultural disconnection with the church; Liu emphasized the importance of patience, sincerity, and love in fostering genuine relationships with them. 

For the upcoming Easter worship, Liu was diligently organizing the chairs in the congregation. With a focused gaze and steady hands, he ensured each seat was perfectly aligned, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for all who attend.

“I believe that the newcomers can always find answers to their fundamental questions through the church,” he said.

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Posted: Apr 16 2023 11:39 am
Filed under: Arts & Life Features