Asserting identity through transnational religious practices

Many social scientists have long predicted that religious practices and identities will fade and perhaps disappear with the triumph of modern science and technology. Contrary to these expectations, the influence of religion has expanded dramatically across the globe, thanks multinational capital flows, cross-border migration and increased electronic communication – ironically, the same secular processes some deemed a threat to religion in the first place.

For the past four years, York social science Professor Joseph Mensah (right), who teaches in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, has been working on a project funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada. Mensah’s research focuses on Ghanaian immigrants and the role religion plays in their new lives in Canada. While the majority of early immigrants to Canada were white Europeans, since the mid-1980s the immigration of visible minorities, such as Africans, has grown steadily. Though researchers have tried to learn about the cross-border economic activities of newcomers, Mensah’s Ghanaian Immigrants Religious Transnationalism (GIRT) Project is unique in its focus on the transnational religious practices of African immigrants – who, despite their growth in the country, have received little research attention.

Through the duration of the project, Mensah and his research team have sought to determine the function and role of Ghanaian churches in the Greater Toronto Area, paying particular attention to their cross-border connections to their homeland. Most of the data acquired came from in-depth interviews and surveys collected from The Church of Pentecost Canada, All Nations Full Gospel Church, The Ghana Methodist Church of Toronto and the Ghanaian Seventh Day Adventist Church of Toronto. Findings reveal that immigrant churches are used not only for spiritual support, but also to form social networks, affirm their members’ cultural identity and help sustain membership in multiple locations.

“Many of the churches examined are actively involved in the provision of social services, including offering support through English as a Second Language classes, marriage counselling, financing and legal assistance, conflict resolution, mentoring, sports and summer school programs,” says Mensah. “They’ve ventured outside of the spiritual realm to include services you’d typically see and access in the larger community.”

Mensah’s research raises as many questions as it provides answers. One of the biggest challenges to be tackled is determining whether or not these immigrant churches foster, or otherwise undermine, the integration of Africans in Canada. A shared religion can help Ghanaian immigrants adapt to life in Toronto by offsetting the cultural shock, alienation and discrimination that many find in their adopted countries. At the same time, these churches can promote the creation of ethnic enclaves that may prevent immigrants from integrating into the broader community.

“Whether African immigrant churches foster the incorporation or the excorporation of Africans in Canada is difficult to establish with any degree of certainty at this early stage,” notes Mensah. “Would Ghanaians feel the need to establish their own churches if they were accepted as Canadians and didn’t face the kinds of racism they do now? Is the growth of immigrant churches evidence of cultural tolerance or intolerance? What are some of the future implications of these churches for the settlement and integration of immigrants to Canada?”

These are some of the questions Mensah raised at a symposium on the GIRT project held at York on Oct. 24. The symposium connected Ghanaian leaders in the community with academics from the social sciences field. It is Mensah’s hope that the symposium offered a first step to raising awareness of the issues Ghanaian immigrants face and encouraging other researchers to explore the area of immigrant cross-border religious practices and identities further.

For more information, visit the Ghanaian Immigrants Religious Transnationalism Project Web site.