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Young immigrants to Canada passionate about spirituality

August 8, 2016

Vancouver Sun | Boh-Ryung Kim and her parents rarely attended religious events in their native South Korea.

But, since Kim arrived in Canada in 2000, Roman Catholicism has become a big part of her inner and outer life, offering hope and belonging.

“When we came to Canada, we didn’t have any family,” said, Kim, 22. “Going to church was a way to get to know people and have a sense of community.”

Much the same could be said for Ajaz Shaikh, 30, who arrived in B.C. from India four years ago. His devotion to Islam has grown deeper since he came to a country where he knew virtually no one, and halal meat was hard to find.

The spiritual commitments of Kim and Shaik illustrate a trend captured by Statistics Canada and pollsters at the Angus Reid Institute: Young immigrants to Canada have an unusually high rate of religious commitment.

Angus Reid discovered that younger immigrants, including millennials, are almost three times as likely as Canadian-born residents to take part in religious activities, whether Christian, Sikh or Muslim.

More than half recent immigrants between ages 18 and 49 told Angus Reid pollsters they attend a religious institution at least once a month in Canada, which is also a higher rate than among older immigrants.

 

As a result of in-migration, Canadian sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby says, institutional religion is far from dying in Canada, despite the emphasis journalists and academics place on the expansion of secularism.

Before Kim began attending St. Mark’s parish on the University of B.C. campus, where she is a science student, she had been going to St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church in Surrey, which has 6,500 members, almost all ethnic Koreans.

“My faith helps me adjust to a completely different environment, which can be tough. My faith gives direction in my life,” says Kim. “A lot of my friends are Catholic immigrants.”

Before Kim began attending St. Mark’s parish on the University of B.C. campus, where she is a science student, she had been going to St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church in Surrey, which has 6,500 members, almost all of them ethnic Koreans.

Five other Roman Catholic mega-churches in Metro Vancouver serve either predominantly Korean, Chinese, Filipino or Vietnamese members, largely in their languages. Scores of evangelical Protestant churches in Metro are ethnic specific.

Roman Catholics make up the largest immigrant group to Canada, with 478,000 arriving in the decade up to 2011. Those with “no religion” were the next largest group of immigrants, at 442,000. They were followed by 388,000 Muslims; 162,000 “other” Christians (mostly evangelicals); 154,000 Hindus; 108,000 Eastern Orthodox Christians and 107,700 Sikhs.

One thing that stands out about Muslim immigrants is their youth: 29 years of age on average. That makes Muslims the youngest immigrant cohort in Canada.

“In college in Mumbai (India), religion was not the most important thing to me,” says Shaikh, 30, who has found work in Burnaby in transportation logistics. “But when I came to Canada, where I didn’t know anybody, Islam gave some common ground. I also started understanding things for myself.”

Almost one in two immigrants to Canada now come from Asia, a vast continent that is home to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and much of the world’s Muslim population.

However, many new arrivals, including those from Asia, have also become the main reason many Christian churches in Canada are avoiding declines in attendance.

“Between 2001 and 2011, about 39 per cent of the people who came to Canada arrived as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists,” Bibby writes in the new book, Canada’s Catholics (Novalis), co-written with Angus Reid. “However, 44 per cent arrived as either Protestants (23 per cent) or Catholics (21 per cent). The remainder (17 per cent) had no religious affiliation.”

With people outside the West becoming more religiously committed than ever, Bibby believes Canada’s unusually high immigration intake will prove a “windfall” for religion and some forms of Christianity, particularly Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.

Father Rob Allore, priest at St. Mark’s Catholic parish at UBC, says the immigrants and foreign students who predominate at his church generally “stress the importance of community” more than Canadian-born British Columbians, who tend to be more individualistic.

Immigrants are also typically more socially conservative than Canadian-born people, particularly in regards to sex, marriage and relationships, said Allore, echoing research studies.

Farida Bano Ali, a prominent Vancouver Muslim, agrees that most immigrants are fairly religious in their early years in Canada.

“But once they become accustomed to freedom here, it’s a different story. Many drift away with their friends. And some are drawn to anti-social behaviour. Or just to making money.”

John Stackhouse, a Canadian professor specializing in Christianity and culture, believes many immigrants find practical value in joining a religious organization when they first arrive in Canada. It provides a sense of identity, plus job-market connections.

Unlike Bibby, Stackhouse questions whether most of the influx of immigrants — who account for 70 per cent of Canada’s population growth — will remain loyal to their faith groups long enough to have a lasting impact on religious attendance in Canada.

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