Reflection: Digital Immigrants

by | Oct 7, 2019

How can we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?

Psalm 137:4

I hope you had a meaningful and worshipful World Communion Sunday weekend.  It was quite a busy weekend, including multilingual worship services, church gatherings, and a pancake breakfast.  I had the opportunity to worship in Claremont with the four faith communities housed at the site of Claremont Presbyterian Church:  Claremont, of course, and Emmanuel Hispanic, GPIB (which I think is Gereja Protestan di Indonesia Bagian Barat), and Claremont Korean Presbyterian.  Claremont and Emmanuel are chartered member churches of San Gabriel Presbytery.  GPIB is enrolled with the PCUSA as a “New Church Development.”  And Claremont Korean received seed funding as a possible new worshiping community. 

Speaking of new worshiping communities, I also had the opportunity to attend the one-year anniversary of First Progressive Church Los Angeles, started by a couple of alums from SFTS-Southern California.  It is a safe place for Asian-Americans to gather in an inclusive worship space.  Though the focus is on welcoming people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, it seemed that many of the attendees were heterosexual couples, which the pastor confirmed.  This was a reminder to me that when we welcome people who have been marginalized, there are others who love them who also want them to feel welcome, so how we connect with the marginalized can be a powerful witness to our understanding of God’s love for the world.

Another group that is considered a new worshiping community is GKI-LA (Gereja Kristen Indonesia Los Angeles), pastored by Rev. Pipi Dhali, who recently joined our presbytery.  GKI-LA, which is now worshiping at the Covina campus of their partner congregation, Praise Community Church (aka First Thai Presbyterian), hosted the Southern California meeting of NIPC (National Indonesian Presbyterian Council).  Pipi invited me to greet them, and it was a glimpse into San Gabriel Presbytery life—Indonesian church leaders meeting with Sean Chow, a Chinese-American who is on our national staff; myself, Japanese-American; Praise pastor Peter Tan-Gatue, Filipino-American; on the site of Praise, which is largely a Thai church.  Please note that this was actually a breakthrough, because there are significant cultural differences between northern Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese) and southern Asians (Indian, but also Thai, Cambodian, Indonesian, etc.).  So it was nice to have so many of us in one meeting.  For you old-timers, it was also great to see NIPC honor the memory of Jack Makonda, who was a member of our presbytery and was honored for translating the Book of Order into Indonesian.

But the personal breakthrough for me was what I learned at the event.  There was a training by a pastor who is also a therapist, and though most of the session was in Indonesian, some of the slides were in English.  She seemed to be focusing on generational differences and church family ministries.  One of the slides described “Digital Immigrants” and “Digital Natives.”  I think I have heard the term “Digital Natives” but never the former, and that really hit home for me. 

The trainer described the challenges for Digital Immigrants, including:  unfamiliarity with the technology, which leads to some level of fear dealing with it; unfamiliarity with the language associated with it; concerns about disruption of family life; and questions whether the risks associated with this new world outweigh its benefits. 

People new to this country experience many of these feelings—they are surprised at how foreign American culture and systems can be; they feel constrained using the English language; their children born in the USA are influenced by American norms and sometimes are put in a leadership position due to their familiarity with English; and the disruptions in community, status, familial relationships, and other elements of life can lead people to wonder if they really are better off in the US than back home.

On the other hand, Digital Natives are born into this world, so they don’t know anything else; not only are they comfortable with the technology, it’s the normal way for them to communicate with each other; it is the only way they know to access educational, policy, and information resources; and there is a social system and etiquette for this way of relating digitally that is foreign to those disconnected to the technology.

I have heard parents worry that their children are addicted to their phones or they are failing to develop socially due to their attachment to the technology.  The trainer at the NIPC gathering confessed that she sometimes thinks her child “loves her phone better than me.” 

This was great learning for me—and I was not expecting to learn it at a presentation given in Indonesian at a Thai church!  Isn’t God’s world grand . . .

Speaking of God’s world, I was contacted by my friends in Hawaii, because there are 11 churches in the Hawaii Conference UCC looking for pastors.  Often Presbyterians serve in the UCC because they are like the “state church” for Hawaii (the original missionaries were Congregationalists).  In my experience, the cultural fit is far more critical to pastoral work in Hawaii than denominational ties.  If you are curious, please let me know (I am comfortable talking with people about their call, and keeping it confidential)—or if you would rather, you can contact Rev. Richard Kamanu at  The PCUSA is in “full communion” with the UCC (as well as with the ELCA—Lutheran—and RCA—Reformed), so it is easier (but not automatic) for pastors from these denominations to serve in each others’ churches.

As I write this column, it occurs to me that we continue to find more kinds of people with whom we are not familiar, not only due to ethnicity and language but also generation, gender identity, denominational heritage, theological conviction, mental and physical ability, and others that we cannot anticipate.  I know that it can feel overwhelming if we see these differences as barriers.  My hope is that we get to the point when we can accept each other for all of how we understand ourselves—and the more we learn about each other, the more we understand that our most important identity is that of child of God, partner in Christ’s mission, and mere mortal empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Thankful for our partnership,