ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2001-0116-PGM

Immigrants' Religion and Ethnicity: A Comparison of Korean Christian and Indian Hindu Immigrants

Pyong Gap Min

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch: Pyong Gap Min

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS of Pyong Gap Min. It is his generous gift to ICAS: sjk]


Published in
Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies
Volume 2 (2000), pp.1201-140
Pyong Gap Min
Dept. of Sociology
Queens College of CUNY
Flushing, NY 11367

*This is a revision of a paper presented at the Conference on Korean and Korean-American Christianity held at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in October 1999; the Conference on Migration and Culture Contact: Patterns of Confrontation and Coexistence in a Changing World held in Amman, Jordan in October 1999; and the annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society held in Baltimore, March, 2000.


This study compares Indian Hindu and Korean Christian immigrants in the United States in their different ways of preserving their ethnicity through religion. Hinduism is an Indian native religion, and thus Indian dialects, food, holidays, and other cultural elements are embedded into the religion. Therefore, Indian Hindu immigrants can and do maintain their cultural and sub-cultural traditions and identity by practicing their religious values and rituals at home without actively participating in a religious congregation. In contrast, both Korean Protestantism and Catholicism are "Western religions" that have been popularized in South Korea only recently. Since Christian religious faith and rituals are not directly related to Koreans' language, values, food, and holidays, they cannot maintain their ethnicity simply by practicing religious faith and rituals. Instead, they try to preserve their ethnicity by increasing their social networks and practicing Korean Confucian cultural traditions through their active participation in a Korean congregation. Despite their far more active participation in a congregation, Korean Christians have disadvantages compared to Indian Hindus in preserving their ethnicity through religion because of the incongruence between their religion and ethnic culture. The literature on religion and ethnicity in the United States is largely based on turn-of-the-century, Judeo-Christian, congregation-oriented immigrant groups. Consequently, it has emphasized participation in an ethnic congregation as the main source of ethnicity and neglected to pay attention to the nativity of a religion as significantly contributing to preserving ethnic culture and identity.

Religion plays a significant role in both Asian Indian and Korean immigrants' adjustments to American society. While the majority of Indian immigrants in the United States are Hindus (Fenton 1988: 28), the majority of Korean immigrants are Protestants (Hurh and Kim 1990). A number of studies of Indian Hindu immigrants (Fenton 1988; Kurier 1998 & 2000; Williams 1988) and Korean Protestant immigrants (Chai 1998; Chong 1998; A. Kim 1997; Hurh and Kim 1990; I. Kim 1981: 191-193; Kim and Kim forthcoming; Min 1991 & 1992; Min and Kim forthcoming; Park et al.1997) have indicated that both groups effectively use their religions in maintaining their ethnicity. However, they use their religions in significantly different ways to preserve their ethnicity. Since Hinduism is Indians' indigenous religion, Indian cultural traditions--language, food, dresses, holidays, customs, and values--are embedded into Hinduism. Thus Indian immigrants can preserve their cultural traditions simply by preserving their religious faith and observing religious rituals without participating in formal religious congregations.

In contrast, Protestantism is a Western religion transplanted in Korea by American missionaries at the turn of the twentieth century and popularized only over the last thirty years. In its adjustment to Korean society, Protestantism has incorporated some of Korean cultural traditions, particularly Korean Confucian and Shamanistic cultural elements (Baker 1997). Yet Korean Protestants' religious faith and rituals are not directly related to their ethnic language, traditional food and dresses, and national holidays. Moreover, as will be shown later, there are some tensions between some of the Korean Confucian and Protestant values and customs. Accordingly, Korean Protestants in the United States cannot preserve their ethnicity simply by adhering to Protestant religious values and practicing religious rituals. They maintain Korean ethnicity mainly by increasing their fellowship and social networks and practicing Korean ethnic customs and values, particularly Confucian customs and values, with fellow Koreans through their active participation in an ethnic congregation.

This paper compares Indian Hindu and Korean Christian immigrants in the United States in their different ways of preserving their ethnicity through religion. I lump Korean Protestants and Catholics together as Christians because neither is a Korean native religion and both groups use their religion in the same way to preserve their ethnic identity and cultural traditions. The first section reviews the literature on the ethnicity functions of religions for immigrant and ethnic groups in the United States. The second section provides survey data on Indian and Korean immigrants' self-reported religions and frequency of their participation in an ethnic congregation. The third section examines how Korean Christian immigrants preserve their ethnicity through their participation in an ethnic congregation. The final section discusses how Indian Hindu immigrants preserve their cultural traditions by practicing their religious values and rituals at home and at the temple.

The Literature Review

The literature on religion and ethnicity is largely based on experiences of the turn-of-the-century white immigrant groups. The earlier white immigrant groups--mostly Catholic and Jewish--were religious minorities in a predominantly Protestant country. Yet, these Judeo-Christian immigrant groups had much continuity with the previous Protestant immigrant groups in that they practiced their religious worship mainly trough their participation in a religious congregation. Because of their congregation-based religious activities, the literature on religion and ethnicity emphasized the role of immigrant and ethnic congregations in maintaining ethnicity for immigrant and ethnic groups (Greeley 1971;Rosenberg 1985; Smith 1978; Tomasi and Engel 1970; S. Warner 1993 & 1994; W. Warner and Srole 1945).

Closer examination of a religious congregation indicates that immigrant/ethnic congregations help to maintain ethnicity in two interrelated, but different ways. First, immigrant/ethnic churches enhance ethnicity by providing their members with fellowship and social networks with co-ethnic members, by meeting their need for primordial ties. African Americans before emancipation were completely alienated from the white society. Thus the black church served for them as the family and community center. As W. E. B. Du Bois put it in The Philadelphia Negro (1967: 201), "its family functions are shown by the fact that the church is the center of social life and intercourse; acts as newspaper and intelligence bureau, is the center of amusement--indeed is the world in which the Negro moves and acts." Meeting the need for primordial ties is also important for immigrants who are separated from their relatives and friends with whom they maintained close ties. As one of the Hebrew words for synagogue, Beth Haknesseth (place of gathering), denotes, the Jewish synagogue has probably provided the most important role in providing communal ties for Jews settled in the United States, as well as in other parts of the world. It is also a well-known fact that Catholic parishes constituted territorial enclaves for many European immigrants in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries (Linkh 1975).

Second, immigrant/ethnic congregations contribute to ethnicity by helping members of an immigrant/ethnic group to preserve its cultural traditions. In their classic study of assimilation patterns of Catholic and Jewish immigrant groups, Warner and Srole asserted that "the church was the first line of defense behind which these immigrants could organize themselves and with which they could preserve their group, i.e., system, identity (W. Warner and Srole 1945: 160). According to Tomasi and Engel (1970:186), the Italian Catholic parishes "functioned to maintain the ethnic personality by organizing the group around the familiar religious and cultural symbols and behavioral modes of the fatherland." Robert Ostergren (1981) further elaborated the various ways in which ethnic churches helped white immigrant groups to preserve their language and culture:

As the center of the community life, the church was charged with Responsibility of upholding the values and preserving the community with the cultural past. Most churches, for instance, made extensive efforts to preserve the language. Services in rural churches in the Upper Midwest were commonly held in the Old World language well into the early decades of the twentieth century. Church schools were established to instruct the young into the old language and congregations delayed as long as possible the eventual change to the keeping of official records in English. The church carefully observed the old holidays and customs, singing clubs preserved the traditional music, and women's organizations carried on folk crafts.

Contemporary, Third World immigrant groups have transplanted not only Christian, but also many other non-Christian religions, such as Isram, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to the United States. Following the same theoretical perspective derived from the studies of the earlier white immigrant groups, recent studies of new immigrant groups have also stressed the ethnicity functions of immigrant congregations (Bankston III and Zhou 1995; Hurh and Kim 1990; Kim and Kim 2000; Kurier 1998 & forthcoming; Min 1992; Williams 1988; Yang 1999: 132-162). For example, Kurier (1998: 59) has shown how Indian Hindus use their "religious organizations as means to forge ethnic communities and articulate their ethnic identities as Indian Americans." Analyzing data based on a survey of Vietnamese high school students, Banskton III and Zhou (1995: 530) concluded that "religious participation consistently makes a greater contribution to ethnic identification than any of the family or individual characteristics examined, except recency of arrival."

As reviewed above, immigrants can meet their need for primordial ties and preserve their language and cultural traditions effectively through their participation in ethnic congregations. Yet, many non-Western religions do not put as much emphasis on participation in a religious congregation as Judeo-Christian religions. Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists in particular usually practice their religion through family rituals or small-group prayer meetings without regularly participating in a religious congregation. The numbers of these three non-Christian immigrant groups have increased in the United States significantly over the last thirty years. We should not consider their lack of participation in a religious congregation as an indication of their religious inactivity, particularly about the role of their religions in preserving their ethnic cultural traditions.

The significance of religion for preserving ethnic culture is that the so-called "ethno-religious" groups have huge advantages over other ethnic groups in preserving their ethnic culture through religion because their religious values and rituals are inseparably tied to their ethnic values, customs, holidays, food, dresses, and even music and dance. The exclusive focus on ethnic congregations as the major mechanism for preserving ethnic culture and identity has also led researchers to neglect to pay attention to the different ways that observance of religious faith and rituals, and participation in ethnic congregations help members of an immigrant/ethnic group to maintain ethnic culture. Amish and Jewish groups as ethno-religious groups have been more successful in retaining their cultural traditions through religion mainly because their religious values and rituals are inseparable from their ethnic cultural traditions. Jewish religious holidays--Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--have become Jewish ethnic holidays, while kosher food symbolizes Jewish ethnic food. Thus Jewish Americans have been able to retain their ethnic culture and identity mainly by preserving their Jewish religious faith and rituals both through family rituals and ethnic congregations. Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholic groups are national-origin groups rather than "ethnic-religious" groups. Yet the three ethnic groups originated from the countries that are heavily Catholic; their ancestors respectively brought with them their nationalized versions of Catholicism. As such, many religious rituals these Catholics observe are closely related to their ethnic holidays, food, and traditions. For example, St. Patrick's Day is a national holiday in Ireland and an Irish ethnic holiday in the United States. Partly for this reason, these three Catholic ethnic groups have been more successful than other white national-origin religious groups in maintaining their ethnic traditions through religion.

Data Sources

There are three major data sources for discussions in this paper. First, a telephone survey of Chinese, Indian, and Korean immigrants in Queens, New York City conducted in 1997 and 1998 provides data that indicate Indian and Korean immigrants' self-reported religions and their frequency of participation in a religious and ethnic congregation. The survey was conducted as a part of a larger study (a book project) that compares Chinese, Indian, and Korean immigrants in New York in ethnic attachment. Using twenty prominent Chinese, Indian, and Korean surnames, 600 households for the three groups--200 for each group--were randomly selected for a telephone survey from the 1997 Queens Borough public telephone directory. Queens is a convenient place for a survey study of Asian immigrants because approximately 45% of Asian Americans in New York City-70% of Koreans, 55% of Indians, and 35% of Chinese-- were concentrated in the borough. In 1998, the same survey with the same sample size was repeated to double the number of the respondents. As a result, 166 Chinese, 144 Indian, and 187 Korean adult immigrants (household heads or their spouses) were successfully interviewed by the phone.

Second, telephone interviews with 131 Korean pastors in New York City conducted in 1989 provide information about Korean Protestant churches' fellowship and cultural retention functions. The 1988 Korean Churches Directory of New York published by the Council of Korean Churches of Greater New York was used as the sampling frame. The directory included the names, addresses, and phone numbers of 290 Korean churches in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. One hundred and sixty-five of the 290 churches were located in the five New York City Boroughs. This investigator and two Korean bilingual students successfully interviewed 131 of the New York City pastors by telephone.

Third, this investigator's participation in Korean churches provides valuable information about the nature and social functions of Korean immigrant churches. He regularly participated in two Korean Protestant churches in Atlanta and one church in New York between 1975 and 1993. Between 1991 and 1992, he served as the principal of the Korean language school established in a Korean church in New York.

Finally, this investigator's personal interviews with twelve Indian Hindu immigrants, including three college professors, one priest and three students, provide information about Hinduism and Hindu temples particularly in the context of New York. The interviews were conducted between July and September 1999. The main goal of this paper is to provide preliminary insights on the different ways Indian Hindu and Korean Christian immigrants use their religions to maintain their ethnicity. This is a preliminary study; to provide more conclusive arguments, I need to personally interview more Indian Hindus immigrants and conduct participant observations of a few Hindu temples and several Hindu families.

Indian and Korean Immigrants' Self-Reported Religions and 'Frequency of Participation in an Ethnic Congregation

Table 1 shows the self-reported religions of Indian and Korean immigrants in Queens, New York City. Indian immigrants are a very religious group in terms of the rate of affiliations with religions. All but two respondents reported that they have a religion. According to the Religious Census in India, Hindus composed 83% of the population in India (Williams 1988: 37), although they were a minority in the state of Punjab. As expected, Hindus account for the majority of Indian immigrants (69%) in Queens. Indian Muslims usually use Muslim names and thus they were not included in my Indian surname sample. Four of the eight respondents classified in the other category in Table 1 were Muslims and they were interviewed by chance. Given that Indian Muslims compose more than 15% of Indian immigrants, the proportion of Hindus seem to account for no more than 65% of Indian immigrants in Queens. The reduction of the percentage of Indian Hindus from 83% in India to about 65% in Queens is natural considering that members of minority religious groups, such as Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims, have emigrated from India in greater proportions than Hindus.

Table 1: Korean Immigrants' Self-Reported Religions
144 (100%)99 (69%)19 (13%)8 (6%)8 (6%)8 (6%)2 (1%)
187 (100%)116 (62%)32 (17%)5 (3%)1 (1%)33 (18%)
Source: Telephone Interviews with Randomly Selected Indian, Chinese,
and Korean Surname Households in Queens, New York City in 1997 and 1998

Sikhs compose a tiny minority population in India, accounting for only 2% of the population; yet they make up the majority population in the State of Punjab, accounting for over 60% of the population (Williams 1988: 37). The Punjabi Sikh farmers composed the predominant majority of Indian immigrants in California at the turn of the century (Jensen 1988: 41). They are overrepresented among contemporary Indian immigrants too, as the immigrants from Punjab comprise as much as 20% of Indian immigrants (William 1988: 37). My Queens survey shows that Sikhs comprise 13% of Indian immigrants in the borough.

Christians, like Sikhs, represent another minority religious group in India, accounting for only 2.4% of the population (William 1988: 103). They are heavily concentrated in three states: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. A large number of Indian nurses have immigrated to the United States since the late 1960s, with a large proportion of them drawing from Christians in Kerala (George 1998). My 1997-98 survey conducted shows indicates that Catholics and Protestants combined account for 12% of the Indian immigrant population in Queens, much larger than their share of the population in India.

Christians compose about 25% of the population in South Korea, Protestants accounting for 19% and Catholics 6%, while Buddhists outnumber Christians with 29% (Park and Cho 1995). Both Protestants and Catholics, whose numbers have gradually increased since the end of Japanese colonization of Korea in 1945, are overrepresented in the urban, middle-class segments of the population in South Korea. Korean immigrants have drawn largely from the same segments of the population. Also, Korean Christians, regardless of their urban or rural background, have respond to the U.S.-bound emigration path more favorably than Buddhists or other Non-Christian Korean because of their perception of the United States as a Christian country. Consequently, the majority of Korean immigrants were affiliated with a Protestant or a Catholic church prior to migration. Various survey studies conducted in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Seoul have shown that 51-55% of Korean immigrants attended Christian churches in Korea (Hurh and Kim 1985: 129 & 1990; Min and Kim forthcoming; Park et al. 1989: 60).

Many Korean immigrants who were not Christians in Korea, including Buddhists, are affiliated with a Korean Protestant or Catholic church in the United States, as a Korean Christian church, as the major community center, provides various practical functions for Korean immigrants (Min 1992). This means that the Korean Christian population has increased with international migration while the proportion of Korean Buddhists has significantly decreased (Hurh and Kim 1990; Min and Kim forthcoming). The results of my recent survey conducted in Queens also support the previous findings that show a radical increase in Christians among Korean immigrants and the concomitant decrease in the Buddhist population. Sixty-two percent of the Korean respondents in Queens and 17% respectively chose Protestantism and Catholicism as their main religion, while only 3% chose Buddhism (see Table 1). As the mainstream media have often described, Korean immigrants are mostly Protestant and heavily Christian.

The vast majority of Indian Hindus (77%) and Sikhs (90%) participate in an ethnic congregation (the rest of them attending a congregation mixed with other South Asians), while all but one Indian Catholics and Protestants participate in an ethnically mixed or a non-ethnic congregation. The lack of Indian pastors, Indian immigrants' multilingual background, and their fluency in English all seem to explain why almost all Indian Christian immigrants in Queens participate in an ethnically mixed or a non-ethnic congregation.

The tendency of Korean Christians to participate in an ethnic congregation is even much greater than that of Indian Hindus or Sikhs who practice their indigenous religions. All but two Korean respondents--one Protestant and one Catholic--reported that they participated in a Korean congregation. This finding is not surprising at all, considering that Korean immigrants, coming from a culturally homogeneous society, participate in an ethnic congregation to enjoy fellowship with other Koreans and to maintain Korean culture through them (Min 1991; 1992). The tendency of nearly all Korean Christian immigrants to participate in an ethnic congregation set them apart from other Asian Christian immigrants. Not only Indian Christians, but also other Asian Christian immigrants tend to participate in a non-ethnic, white congregation. For example, more than 80% of Filipino immigrants are Catholics, and the majority of them attend non-ethnic churches (Pido 1986: 123). The results of my Queens survey also indicate that only 52% of Chinese Christian immigrants participate in an ethnic congregation.

There are two major reasons why almost all Korean Christians attend a Korean congregation. First, there are enough Korean pastors and Korean churches to provide Korean immigrants with native-language services. Because Koreans have one language, they have a huge advantage over other multi-lingual Asian immigrant groups, such as Indian, Filipino or Chinese immigrants, in establishing their own ethnic churches. Proportionally, more pastors have emigrated from South Korea than any other occupational group. In fact, there are too many Korean pastors in the Korean immigrant community, which has contributed to the increase in the number of Korean immigrant churches by causing existing churches to split into more churches (Shin and Park 1988).1 There are approximately 600 Korean churches in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area alone, and more than 3,500 Korean churches in the United States. Many Korean churches are competing to attract new immigrants to their own churches by providing all kinds of practical services (Min 1992).

The other reason Korean immigrants prefer a Korean church is their need for a communal bond. Due to their uprooting experiences, all immigrants seek a communal bond by establishing ethnic organizations. Yet, the need for a communal bond is strong especially for Korean immigrants because of their cultural homogeneity and their greater language barrier and other adjustment difficulties. Korean immigrants have come from a culturally homogenous society where there is only one native language and regional differences in culture are insignificant (Min 1991). Because of their cultural homogeneity, Korean immigrants try to confine their social interactions largely to fellow Koreans and stick to Korean language, customs, and values. Further, most Korean immigrants have severe language barriers and other adjustment difficulties due to cultural differences. Given their cultural homogeneity and culture shock, we can easily understand why Korean Christian immigrants prefer a Korean congregation. In fact, many Korean immigrants seem to participate in a Korean religious congregation to get involved in ethnic social networks and to enjoy ethnic culture.

Korean Christians, especially Korean Protestants, participate in an ethnic congregation not only in higher proportion, but also far more frequently than Indian Hindus. As shown in Table 2, 82% of Korean Christians--84% of Protestants and 72% of Catholics--attend a religious (ethnic) congregation once a week or more often. Given that nearly 80% of Korean immigrants are Christians, approximately two-thirds of Korean immigrants go to a Korean church every week or more often. In contrast, only 22% of Indian Hindus go to a temple weekly, while 46% go there a few times a year or less frequently.

Table 2: Indian Hindu and Korean Christian Immigrants' Frequency of Participation

In a Religious
Less than
once a year
Once or a few
times a year
Once or twice
a month
Once a week or
more often
Indian Hindus21 (21%)25 (25%)31 (31%)22 (22%)99 (100%)
Indian Christians3 (9%)3 (9%)3 (19%)7 (44%)16 (100%)
Korean Christians5 (3%)6 (4%)16 (11%)120 (83%)147 (100%)
Source: Telephone Interviews with Randomly Selected Indian, Chinese,
and Korean Surname Households in Queens, New York City in 1997 and 1998

The differences in worship style between Christian religions and Hinduism partly explains why Korean Christian immigrants participate in a religious congregation far more actively than Indian Hindus. While Christians perform religious service mainly in a church as a group, Hindus usually have worship at home individually or in a small-group setting (see the next section). In fact, several Indian informants told me that Hindus in India less frequently participate in a temple than Indian immigrants in the United States do.

Yet, Korean Christian immigrants participate in a religious congregation far more frequently than even other Christian immigrant groups. The same table shows that only 44% of Indian Christian immigrants go to church at least once a week. The same data set also reveals that only 41% of Chinese Christians participate in a religious congregation every week. Results of the national studies of racial and ethnic Presbyterians also show that Korean Presbyterians participate in a congregation far more frequently than either Balck, Latino, or white Presbyterians (Kim and Kim forthcoming). Almost all Korean Christian immigrants' affiliation with an ethnic church and their active participation in it can be explained by a combination of the social and psychological functions of Korean ethnic churches (Kim and Kim forthcoming). Since a Korean immigrant church serves as a Korean community center by providing all kinds of services (see the next section), it is practically difficult for a Korean immigrant family to survive without attending a Korean church regularly. But the Korean church's various social functions alone may not be enough to make approximately two-thirds of all Korean immigrants to participate in it every week. Because of their great adjustment difficulties--including their language barrier and long hours of work in general and their experiences with downward mobility in social status in particular--most adult Korean immigrants need to turn to religion to find a new meaning of their lives.

Korean Immigrants' Active Participation in Ethnic Church Facilitates Their Fellowship and Retention of Confucian Culture

We have noted above that Korean Christian immigrants participate in an ethnic congregation far more frequently than Indian Hindus do. Korean immigrants' active participation in an ethnic congregation contributes to their ethnicity by increasing their ethnic networks on the one hand and by helping them to preserve Korean cultural traditions on the other.

As previously noted, one major reason why a predominant majority of Korean immigrants actively participates in a Christian ethnic congregation is their need for primordial ties deriving from their sense of alienation from the larger society. Korean immigrant churches are organized and operate in such a way that they indeed meet this need for communal bonds. All Korean churches have a fellowship hour after the Sunday service during which church members exchange greetings and enjoy informal talks with their "brothers and sisters." Almost all Korean churches provide refreshments during the fellowship hour. Twenty-eight percent of the Korean churches interviewed in 1989 were found to provide a full lunch or dinner after Sunday service. In these churches, each member prepares Korean meals on a rotating basis. Almost all Korean churches surveyed also have parties after services to celebrate important Korean traditional and Christian holidays. In addition, most small-scale Korean churches have birthday parties for children and elderly people, with cakes, food and gifts prepared.

Korean immigrants attending a small church enjoy close friendship networks with church members not only inside the church, but also outside of it. It is important to note that 45% of those Korean respondents in Chicago with one or more close Korean friends in the same city reported that they made friends in the same ethnic church (Hurh and Kim 1990). Two of my best Korean friends in New York are also parents of my children's friends in the same church. We made friends through frequent meetings for our children when the children belonged to the church youth group.

A large Korean church is less effective than a small church for meetings the needs of Korean immigrants for an intimate social environment. Yet, even large churches have made adjustments to facilitate the immigrants' primary social interactions. Korean immigrant churches usually divide church members into several different groups by the area of residence and help each group to hold regular district meetings called kuyok yebae, or "cell group" meetings (Kwon et al. 1997). Each group usually holds a meeting once a month. Nearly 80% of the surveyed Korean churches in New York City were found to have district groups. A district meeting combines a religious service and a dinner party at a member's private home, which provides district members with ample opportunity for informal social interactions. Victoria Kwon and her associates (Kwon et al. 1997) indicate facilitating the settlement process, providing emotional support, giving status reward for lay leaders, and facilitating business contacts for Korean entrepreneurs as the major social functions of district meetings.

Korean ethnic congregations also contribute to maintaining Korean ethnicity by helping to preserve Korean cultural traditions. First of all, the Korean language and customs are more strictly observed inside the church than outside of it. Sermons are given in Korean in all main services prepared for immigrants. As shown elsewhere, even children's services are provided bilingually or in Korean more often than in English (see Min 1992). Many Korean children practice the Korean language to attend a Korean-language or bilingual service. Moreover, almost all large Korean churches in New York--half of all Korean churches--provide the Korean language program for second-generation Korean children. The Korean language programs provided by Korean churches are vital to the second generation's language retention, because the vast majority of Korean children (about 80%) attend an ethnic church every week and because there are few Korean language programs offered by non-church organizations. Although most Korean language programs established in churches provide an one-hour class before or after the Sunday main service, about one-fourth of them provide a three- or four-hour class Saturday morning. Church youth programs that usually have meetings on Friday teach children not only the Bible, but also Korean culture and history. Several Korean churches in New York provide summer schools ranging from two weeks to two months, focusing on teaching the Korean language and culture that target not only the children of their church members but also other Korean children.

Exposure to Korean culture is not limited to the Korean language. All Korean immigrant churches celebrate not only religious holidays, but also all Korean traditional holidays (Lunar Near Year Day and Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving Day, in particular) and national holidays (the March-First Movement Commemoration Day and the Korean Independence Day). On traditional Korean holidays, churches serve a variety of traditional Korean foods, with many church members wearing traditional Korean costumes. Almost all Korean immigrant churches celebrate the year-end party at a member's private home on New Year's Eve, and participants usually play a traditional game called yoot at the party.

Korean pastors often emphasize Korean values in their sermons, and this is another way Korean churches contribute to preserving Korean culture and identity. Korean pastors as a group seem to be more conservative than other college-educated Koreans in their attitudes toward American mass culture in general and American youth culture in particular. Many Korean pastors tend to think that American society, which originated from migration of Puritans from European countries, is turning against Christian values. They argue that Korean traditional values, such as respecting adult members, are more consistent with Christian values than American "individualism." They frequently tie certain Korean traditional values to a paragraph from the Bible and preach their church members to preserve those Korean values to live as sincere Christians.

Confucianism, which started in China in the fourth century before Christ, has had a powerful influence on Korean culture. Respect for the older persons and the elderly and subordination of women to men are two of the central elements of the Confucian ideology as applied to Korean society. These Confucian cultural elements are incorporated into Korean Christian religions, particularly in church hierarchies and structure (Baker 1998: 196; Cho and Park 1995).

Under the impact of Korean Confucian cultural traditions Korean immigrant churches are hierarchically organized based on age and gender. A small number of ordained elders, who usually hold the position until they retire, exercise a great power and authority in Korean immigrant churches. An analysis of comparative data by Kim and Kim (forthcoming) reveals that elders in Korean immigrant Presbyterian churches are significantly older than those of other ethnic groups and include much fewer women, and that women elders have higher levels of education than men elders. The Korean Churches Directory of New York includes the names of head pastors for all Korean churches in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area with their pictures. The 1999 directory shows that women serve as the head pastors only for four churches out of the nearly 600 listed churches, although women are more active in Korean immigrant churches than men.2 Women are usually involved in fundraising, prayer meetings, visiting the sick, and the forth, all related to women's traditional roles as nurturers and caretakers, while men hold important positions that involve decision making in organizational and financial affairs (A. Kim 1996: 76).

Indian Hindus Maintain Ethnicity through Preservation of Religious Values and Rituals

We earlier noted that Indian participate in Hindu temples much less frequently than Korean Christians. Indian Hindus' lack of participation in religious congregation is reflected in a small number of Hindu temples. The Indian population in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area is twice as large as the Korean population. But there are only about twenty Hindus temples in the area, compared to approximately 600 Korean churches.

One major reason why the Indian community has a small number of Hindu temples compared to the Korean community is that it costs a lot of money to build an "authentic" Hindu temple that requires unique architectural designs and sculpture. In contrast, Korean Christian immigrants can use American church buildings or rent private building for services. My 1989 survey showed that only 24% of Korean churches in New York had their own building and that the rest either use American churches (59%) or rent private buildings (17%). Indian immigrants also have greater difficulty establishing their Hindu temples than Koreans partly because there are many variations, regional variations being the most significant, in Hindu religious forms--language, rituals, deities, sacred texts, and religious values. Indian Hindus speak dozens of languages. The New York-New Jersey is the largest Indian community in the United States. Yet, even in New York, there may not be many Telugu- or Bengali-speaking Hindus enough for their own local-language temples in a particular locale.

Hindu temples usually provide religious services Friday evening, throughout Saturday and Sunday, and Monday evening. Indian Hindus go to a temple on one of the days depending upon their convenience. But most Hindus go to a temple only on most of a dozen religious holidays per year. A Hindu priest and college teacher of Hinduism told me that participants in Hindu temple services do not consider themselves "members of a congregation" because they have neither exclusive relations with the temple nor close social relations with other participants in it. Unlike Korean Christian churches, Hindu temples do not provide various practical services--immigration orientation, job referral, family counseling and after-school programs-- for the participants. By virtue of a large number of medical professionals available, a Hindu temple usually provides a health clinic per year. But there are no more social services for the participants than that. When called upon, priests in a temple visit Hindu families to preside over many religious rituals that are given following life cycles. But these families who get services do not have to be the participants in the temple. A Hindu family that regularly goes to a temple often has a special ritual under the guidance of a priest in a separate room in the temple with its relatives and friends invited. But this is an individual family affair to which other participants are not invited. Thus a Hindu temple is much less important for providing social services and fellowship for the participants than a Korean Christian church.

Although a Hindu temple is not significant as a social center, it is an important cultural center for Indians. An ethnic church is important for Korean immigrants more as a social and cultural center than as a place of worship; they maintain Korean culture by practicing and teaching Korean cultural traditions there. In contrast, a temple is far more important for Indian Hindus as a place of worship. However, Indian Hindus can maintain ethnic and subethnic cultural traditions through their participation in worship there because their religious worship is inseparably tied to their culture. First of all, the temple itself, with its traditional Indian sculptures, symbolizes Indian culture. For religious services, participants read scriptures written either in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, or translated into a local language. They sing, pray, and chant in either language. The deities they worship are closely related to their local culture and history. The religious values Hindu priests preach, such as non-violence, peace, truth and duty, symbolize Indian national values. On major Hindu holidays, a larger number of Hindu immigrants go to a temple, usually accompanied by their children, to celebrate the holidays. By celebrating their religious holidays in the United States, they celebrate their Indian national holidays.

Few colleges and universities in the United States offer one of Indian languages because of Indians' multilingual backgrounds, while numerous colleges and universities offer three East Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese and Korean). Thus second-generation Indian students have disadvantages for learning their native language. But almost all Hindu temples provide a Sanskrit and/or a Hindi/local language class for second-generation children. They also offer courses to teach Indian children Indian dance and music. Thus Hindu temples play an important role in teaching the second generation their languages and culture. Because of the complexities of religious rituals performed, only a small fraction of Indian children participate in religious services performed in a temple regularly.3 Indian religious leaders consider simplifying Hindu rituals to attract more second-generation children.

As noted above, only 22% of Indian Hindu immigrants go to a Hindu temple every week or more often. Their children, according to my informants, participate much less frequently than their parents. If participation in a religious congregation is the only way members of a group can maintain their ethnicity through religion, then Indian Hindus have disadvantages compared to many Christian immigrant groups in general and Korean Christian immigrants in particular. However, almost all Indian Hindus, regardless of their participation in a temple, have a family shrine to worship deities and perform other religious rituals. Hindus have worship individually at home every day, usually after bath.

They also perform a number of religious rituals following changes in a person's life cycle. For example, when a child is born, they have a ceremony to shave him/her completely. When the baby becomes one year old, they have another ceremony to start the baby solid food. When he/she is three years old, they have another ceremony to teach him/her the alphabets. At the age of twelve, they perform another ritual to induce him/her to the study of scriptures. Hindu norms require more complicated ceremonies at the times of marriage and death. My informants told me that most Hindu families perform some of these ceremonies at home usually under the guidance of a priest. They also cerebrate Hindu religious holidays at home. Many Hindu families remain vegetarian following Hindu rules. Because these Hindu rituals and values are very Indian, they can maintain their ethnic cultural traditions effectively by practicing Hinduism.


Students of religions and minority/immigrant groups have long taken for granted the positive effects of an immigrant or ethnic group's religion on its ethnicity. Yet they may not have taken pains to explain how a religion helps immigrants and members of an ethnic group to maintain their ethnicity. Theoretical discussions about the ethnicity functions of religion in the United States are largely based on turn-of-the-century, congregation-based, Judeo-Christian immigrant groups. As a result, researchers at the least in the United States have emphasized the role of immigrant and ethnic congregations in preservation of ethnicity for immigrant and ethnic groups. Also recognized, but less emphasized is the fact many non-Protestant white ethnic groups, including the Amish and Jews, have maintained their ethnicity through preserving their religious values and rituals. It has been possible for them to do so mainly because of the inseparable connection between their religious values and rituals, and their ethnic culture.

In maintaining their ethnicity through religion, all religious groups utilize both mechanisms--participation in an ethnic congregation and the association of religious faith and rituals with ethnic culture--outlined in the foregoing paragraphs to some extent. But some religious groups depend upon one mechanism to a far greater extent than the other. As examined in this article, Indian Hindu immigrants maintain their ethnicity largely through preservation of their religious values and rituals at home without actively participating in an ethnic congregation. In contrast, Korean Christian immigrants maintain their ethnicity mainly through their active participation in an ethnic congregation.

It is important to note that Korean immigrants actively use their Christian congregation as a place for fellowship and preservation of Confucian culture. Yet, even more important to note is that their religious practices do not directly help them to maintain Korean culture and identity because of their weak connection with Korean folk culture. The literature based on congregation-based, Judeo-Christian, white ethnic groups leads us to conclude that Korean immigrants have a huge advantage over Indian Hindu immigrants in retaining their ethnicity through religion because they participate in ethnic congregations far more actively than Indians. However, Indian Hindus have an advantage over Korean Christians in maintaining their ethnic culture and identity through religion mainly because Hinduism is their native religion. Their religious faith and rituals are inseparably tied to their language, values, customs, food, holidays.

To what extent the children of Indian Hindu and Korean Christian immigrants will inherit their parents' religion and ethnic culture is beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, I like to suggest that Indian Hindus' advantage over Korean Christians in maintaining their ethnicity by virtue of the nativity of their religion is even more significant when we consider the intergenerational transmission of culture and ethnic identity. The children of Indian Hindu immigrants have more difficulty inheriting their parents' religion than those of Korean Christian immigrants because of many non-Western elements of Hinduism. Yet almost all children of Indian Hindu immigrants practice some Hindu rituals, eat Hindu religious food, and celebrate some Hindu religious holidays at home. Since these religious rituals, food, and holidays are uniquely Indian, they can be the symbols of second generation Indians' ethnic identity as well as their religious identity.

The children of Korean Christian immigrants can inherit their parents' "Western religion" more easily than the children of other Asian immigrants, including Indian Hindus, who have brought Asian religions to the United States. In fact, the results of a survey study of 1.5- and 2nd-generation Korean young adults reveal that the children of Korean Christian immigrants, those of Protestant immigrants in particular, mostly have preserved their childhood religion and that most go to church weekly (Min and Kim 2000). No doubt, 2nd-generation Koreans, like other 2nd-generation Asian Americans, experience racial barriers and they seem to feel more comfortable attending a Korean or pan-Asian congregation than a white congregation. However, 1.5- and 2nd-generation Christians have revised Koreanized, especially Confucianized, Christian religions so much that their Christian religious practices may be more similar to white Americans' religious practices than to their parents' religious practices. A number of studies reveal that second-generation Korean Protestants have challenged the Confucian elements of their parents' religious practices and that they rarely celebrate Korean traditional or national holidays in a religious congregation (Alumkal 1999; Chai 1998 & forthcoming). Furthermore, the same studies show that, second-generation Korean Christians see tensions between their Christian and ethnic identities and that being a Christian is their primary identity while being a Korean or Asian American is their secondary identity. This makes a sharp contrast with second-generation Indian Hindus most of whom may find the major source of their ethnic identity in their religious rituals.

Ironically, Indian Hindu immigrants seem to be fairly successful in using their religion to transmit their culture to their children without transmitting their religion, while Korean Christian immigrants have generally succeeded in transmitting their religion to their children without necessarily transmitting their culture.4 These opposite results are possible mainly because of the differential levels of the nativity of the two religions and their different modes of religious practices.

To substantiate my tentative conclusions provided in this article, we need further studies using data relating to Korean Christian and Indian Hindu immigrants and their children's religious practices. Future studies should include data on how Korean Christian and Hindu immigrants and their children practice their religion at home, as well as in a religious congregation.


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1. Given that many immigrants groups have had difficulty providing their native language services due to a shortage of their own clergy leadership, the abundance of Korean immigrant pastors is a unique aspect of Korean immigrant congregations. See Stephen Warner (forthcoming).

2. Results of a random-sampling survey conducted in 1998 shows that 79% of Korean immigrant women in New York, compared to 67% of men, were Christians. See Min and Kim (forthcoming).

3. According to Hindu religious leaders, less than 10% of Hindu high school students in New York go to a temple every week.

4. I do not mean to suggest here that Korean immigrants have disadvantages compared to Indian immigrants in transmitting their culture to their children. Because of their cultural homogeneity in general and monolingual background in particular, Korean immigrants have advantages over other Asian immigrant groups in transmitting their culture to their children. Also, because of their sub-cultural differences and multilingual backgrounds, Indian immigrants have disadvantages in intergenerational transmission of their culture. My point here is that Indian Hindu immigrants have advantages over Korean Christians at least in transmitting their cultural and sub-cultural traditions to their children through religion.

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