Extensions of the Spirit: Religious Life

Religious activity is a very important part of daily life in most parts of Africa, and these practices are continued when immigrants make their new homes in the United States. The wide array of African churches, and more recently mosques, in the Philadelphia area is evidence of the need for and appreciation of spiritual support practiced in familiar ways.

The religious practices in these churches differ from American churches in various ways. There is an effort to recreate an atmosphere from the home country through music and singing. Swaying and rhythmic movement often accompany music. Church decoration may also be somewhat Africanized, and many worshipers dress in traditional clothing. The overall feeling is one of "home."

Sermon topics often address issues of immigration or events in the home countries. Religion seems to be a solace in particular for refugees who have lived through atrocities, been uprooted, seen some relatives killed and lost contact with others. Prayers are said for those living at home in uncertainty, for people biding their time in refugee camps where conditions are hard, and for the souls of those killed during civil war. Even pastors without refugees in their congregation, regularly address issues of immigration in their sermons. Prayers are said for immigrants who suffer discrimination due to nationality, color, or accent. Worship is thus used as therapy for the distress associated with resettlement and immigration.

When many immigrants choose a church, nationality or ethnicity may take precedence over denomination. Thus, Sierra Leoneans of diverse church backgrounds attend the Mt. Zion United African Church, of the United Brethren denomination, in order to be with others from their home country and to hear some Krio. Sundays may be the only day of rest for many hard-working immigrants, so Sunday worship takes on a festive quality.

Religious institutions often dispense not only religious, but also social, services. Some of these services may be informal – membership in a church brings with it social gatherings (marriages, baptisms, or picnics) and their healing effects. Sometimes these services are more formal. For example, a psychological counselor who attends the Swahili Church offered his services free to fellow churchgoers who are having trouble adapting to their new context. Some pastors dispense advice on issues of immigration papers and asylum cases. And the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church, attended mostly by Liberians, has collaborated with Lutheran Children and Family Services to create the African Immigrant Ministry, which helps immigrants to adapt to life in the United States and provide services such as counseling, English classes, and after-school programs for youth.