Reaching out to diaspora Christians

San Lorenzo-Dufferin in Toronto has attracted a membership of around 500 parishioners, mostly new Canadians from Latin America. Photo: Sean Frankling
Published September 29, 2023

“When I came here [to Canada] in 1996, I was alone. I was lonely and scared. The first thing I looked for is a church,” says Cecilia Sibayan.

Sibayan and her husband are Igorot, originally from the northern part of the Philippines, where Anglicans are especially numerous in the otherwise mostly Roman Catholic country.

“For me, the important thing is that I go to church,” says Cecilia Sibayan. Photo: contributed

“I go to church because I believe in it, and my family came here and joined me because we believe in the church,” she says.

When she and her family arrived in Edmonton, they tried out a couple of different churches before landing at St. Matthias Anglican Church, near where they lived in the west end. Then, because Sibayan knew there were other Igorot immigrants in the area who were looking for a place to worship, it felt natural to invite them to join. That was in the early 2000s, she says, when she and her family were the only Filipinos she saw in the pews there. But the Igorot she invited passed the invitation on, spreading word through their community groups, and the numbers grew.

Today, there are enough to sustain their own congregation, St. Peter the Apostle, which is hosted in the same building as St. Matthias with membership of around 40 people on an average Sunday.

Hundreds of thousands of Christian immigrants like Sibayan and her family have made their homes in Canada over the past decade—a major influx in a country whose settled population has been falling away from mainline churches since the 1970s.

For some Anglican communities, these new Canadians have provided a welcome infusion of passion and people. Some leaders with professional experience in outreach to newcomers, however, say the church must take care to learn from what they bring to the Canadian Christian culture—and not see them as just a way to prop up shrinking congregations.

Services at St. Peter’s incorporate elements of its members’ home culture, including Filipino melodies incorporated into the liturgy, a 10-night tradition of meals hosted at a different parishioner’s house each night during Christmas and a monthly service where all the songs are in Kankanaey and Ilocano, native languages of many of the parishioners.

These familiar aspects of home are deeply important to some of her fellow parishioners, says Sibayan. Their church is a place to feel welcome while they get used to their new home in Canada. She says this is especially important since a tendency in Igorot culture to wait for others to initiate social interactions can make it tricky for them to be outgoing when it comes to fitting into congregations of lifelong Canadians.

“You’re looking for a group where you belong, right?” she says. “Suddenly [I’m] in a new place, I want to look for that place I’m familiar with … But for me, the important thing is that I go to church, regardless of whether it’s St. Peter’s or St. Matthias.”

In 2022, Canada saw record population growth of more than 1 million people, 95.9 per cent of which was due to people entering Canada from the rest of the world. And among those who arrived between 2016 and 2021, Christians make up the largest single group—527,420 compared to 260,300 Muslims and 268,240 people declaring themselves nonreligious or of secular perspectives, according to the 2021 census.

Tyndale Intercultural Ministries Centre at Tyndale University, a Christian university in Toronto, focuses on the ways in which various cultures and communities around the world influence and share faith with one another. Centre director the Rev. Tim Tang says Christian immigrants are a source of significant growth and vibrancy in Canada’s Christian community. This, he says, is because of a practice those who have lived in Canada since birth may be surprised to hear about: mission work.

For much of the past few centuries, Western nations have been used to exporting Christianity to the rest of the world. But Tang says the structure of global mission work has taken on a polycentric shape more recently. That is, multiple core communities of Christians in different cultures around the world are now reaching out to other regions of the globe to share the gospel.

In Canada over the last 50 years, he says, there have been several waves of church plants from cultures in East Asia—first Chinese and Korean, and then more recently Filipino, such as Greenhills Christian Fellowship, a Baptist church planting group that has established numerous churches in Canadian cities since 2007.

Canadian-born Christians may not be used to thinking of their home country as on the receiving end of missionary work. But these forms of Christianity are finding inroads into a country where the number of people reporting no religious affiliation has grown from 16.5 to 34.6 per cent in the last two years—a growth which is happening much more quickly among lifelong Canadians than among immigrants.

In some cases, like that of Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church, which has a Chinese-speaking congregation Tang estimates at 800 or 900 people, churches started by new Canadians have attracted huge congregations of other newcomers. “But their English congregation, which is often just seen as the children of [newcomers], they’re 400 or 500 strong. So they’re the secondary congregation and yet larger than most Euro-Canadian churches in Canada,” he says.

Sometimes different cultural groups even find common ground to join together, he adds. For some reason Korean communities and leaders, for example, have been making good connections with the Persian community. Many times, Tang says, Korean contacts have told him they’ve started a Persian house church.

“I’m like, ‘But you all speak Korean,’” he says. “And they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, but we connected really well, and we get along really well.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Okay, God bless you.’”

One Anglican congregation that has seen significant growth over the past couple of decades is the parish of San Lorenzo-Dufferin in north Toronto, which draws new Canadians and immigrants who come from Latin America, including countries like Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.

Twenty years ago, says the parish’s priest, Canon Hernan Astudillo, the congregation consisted of one family and the church building was set to be sold off.

Canon Hernan Astudillo leads prayer during a service at San Lorenzo-Dufferin, in north Toronto. Many of his parishioners, Astudillo says, come from the Roman Catholic tradition. Photo: Sean Frankling

“I begged them. I said, ‘Give me an opportunity. Don’t sell the building,’” he recalls.Since then, the church has grown to a total membership of around 500 parishioners, spread across three Sunday services, with plans to add an evening service and a midweek service in the works as well.

“Sometimes people don’t understand this is a process—and it’s a very slow process,” he says.

Astudillo attributes the church’s growth to two things: the Anglican virtue of acceptance and the parish’s extensive community involvement, centred on ministry and care for the poor.

He says many of his parishioners come from the Roman Catholic tradition, where back home they would not have been allowed to receive communion anymore because they were not married by the church or because they are divorced for reasons the church would not consider legitimate.

“And I don’t need to punish here. I say ‘Welcome,’ and they feel in shock. ‘Welcome, even though you are not married by the church, welcome to receive the holy communion, even though you didn’t confess.’ And they come because they feel accepted. In another church, they are rejected,” says Astudillo.

“I am not inviting you to be converted. I’m inviting you to share the wonderful gifts of the Anglican church. I really believe the Anglican church is a beautiful church. A church with equity, a church with many gifts. Many people who are inside the Anglo-Saxon context, they don’t see that.”

But what he says is the welcoming nature of the Anglican church is only half of the formula he describes. The other has to do with a commitment to visibly and accountably reaching out to and serving the poor in the community. San Lorenzo runs a Spanish-language radio station, feeds around 300 people every week thanks in part to a partnership with Cobs Bread and, Astudillo says, has around 10 people sleeping downstairs in the church building on a given night.

The duty of the church, he says, is to extend a hand to people when they are in need, especially when they have nothing to give in return. That’s what attracts people to San Lorenzo. And the miracle, he says, is that meaningful, empowering charity creates lifelong relationships with parishioners who may one day have both the resources and the heart to reinvest in the church and in their communities.

When the Anglican Journal visited San Lorenzo, there were three 31-gallon storage bins stacked with bread and baked goods from Cobs Bread. By the end of the service the bins were empty, as some among the parish came up and took home what they needed, even offering some to the Journal’s reporter. And the offering plates passed forward during the offertory came back piled with bills between $5 and $20.

Astudillo is working on a program that will reinvest some of that money in the communities where some of the parishioners were born, beginning with Ecuador, where he’s coordinating with the mayor of Guaranda, a city in the central part of the country, to provide medical supplies. Raising up parishioners, lay leaders and deacons to participate in this work is foundational to building a lasting church community, he says.

“Now you have money, how can you empower your community?” is the key question facing these parishes, he says, and answering it, ideally, both strengthens the community and cements parishioners’ sense of responsibility for and belonging to it. “We’re showing in the practical language what we have to do.”

While some churches have seen encouraging results in attracting new Canadians from their communities, there are some caveats. For one thing, says Tang, there is the issue of integrating congregations made up of a singular cultural group with the rest of Canadian society. Holding services primarily in Cantonese at a church of Chinese newcomers puts a limit on its ability to reach out to other cultural groups and Canadian-born people, who may feel like outsiders joining a church where everyone else is from the same country—even if the church also holds a service in English.

Welcoming in more diverse cultural groups is exactly what St. Peter’s has been hoping to do, says the Filipino congregation’s senior pastor, the Rev. Eric Kregel. For years, St. Peter’s members and clergy have been hoping to build up enough money to buy their own building and establish themselves as a parish. Having their own building, he says, could be an opportunity for them to form relationships with people in the neighbourhood—and to be seen as an independent part of a local community rather than a mono-ethnic third service sharing with another church.

Unfortunately, while the parish was well on their way toward that goal in 2019, the pandemic stymied their plans. Numbers—and therefore donations—were slow to bounce back after the lockdowns as they were for many churches, though they’re starting to show improvement now, Kregel says.

So while there is definitely a ministry opportunity to be found in seeking out and welcoming cultural groups looking for a church to call home, that doesn’t mean parishes that succeed in doing so are immune to the challenges that face the church as a whole.

“We’re struggling with the same things everyone else is. [Immigration] isn’t the silver bullet. We still worry about inviting people, bringing people. But since we’re an ethnic congregation, we’re limited by ethnicity,” says Kregel.

Likewise, Tang adds, while there is a great deal of faith and vibrancy entering Canada with Christian immigrants, it’s important not to view them simply as a resource that can help pump up dwindling numbers in the pews.

Some shrinking Protestant denominations, he says, “see new Canadian congregations in the community only through the lens of potential renters and potential people just to keep them afloat financially.”

And so it’s vital for churches hoping to minister to new Canadians to check their motives and methods, he says. They should be looking for real kingdom partners, not financial answers.

Tang says the arrival of so many Christians from around the globe is likely to transform the traditional denominational landscape of Canadian Christianity. Out of those 527,420 Christians who immigrated to Canada from 2016 to 2021, Statistics Canada records only 6,570 reported themselves to be Anglican—little more than one per cent. And these new arrivals are bringing their own traditions and expressions of worship with them, says Tang, many of which may be unfamiliar to Canadians of European descent. But he’s also quite certain that their flourishing represents a clear sign that God is working in Canada, even if not entirely through the denominations that were already here.

For established parishes that do want to reach out to new Canadians, he says there are certainly plenty of opportunities to connect. If the Anglican church hopes to minister to them, he says, it will be less a question of how a shrinking congregation can find some immigrants to shore up its numbers and more a question of which churches are best placed to serve which communities. The next step is identifying the needs of the specific people who have settled nearby and finding ways to meet them.

“For some churches across Canada it’s about the newest Canadian that’s landed in the last two years. But for other communities, it’s very much about migrant workers [who are] coming in by the hundreds,” he says, echoing Astudillo’s belief that finding people in need nets better results in the long run than looking for people who can help the church.

Those relationships might be less direct paths to reversing membership decline, but in the long term, they’re also much more fruitful than just asking, “Did we get them to show up on Sunday and sit in our hour-and-a-half service?” he says.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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