The Role of the Church in Preserving the Arab American Heritage
Photo: Basilica of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, Livonia, Michigan
Meriam Helal/ Arab America Contributing Writer
The Arab world is diverse with different denominations of Christians. But unlike other ethnicities, Arab Christians have a stronger relationship with the faith and the church.
There are various denominations of Christians in the Arab world, such as Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and Protestant, all with strong ties to the church.
“The Arab American church was established in the U.S. well over 100 years ago, and it continues to maintain its focal point as a center of culture and traditions,” said Tom Lazieh, a former mayor, government administrator, and parish council president at the Church of St. Basil the Great Melkite Catholic Church, located in Lincoln, Rhode Island.
In the Arab world, attending church is a regimental and normal practice. It is not only a religious experience, but also a social event, where people come together after church, while teenagers attend Sunday school, participate in activities, and go on field trips. To some parishioners, church events are their only social interactions; they use the church to seek help with their personal lives, to network with fellow parishioners, and to make connections.
When Arab immigrants move to other countries, they often find an Arab church in close proximity which helps them get accustomed to their new environment. As Father George Shalhoub, pastor of the Basilica of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, said, “the church in the Arab American community is a ship that gathers people and makes them feel welcome.” He went on to say, “the church helps immigrants connect with other Arab immigrants and makes them feel closer to home with the same prayers and hymns they experienced in their neighborhood churches at home.”
The church becomes their home away from home because it lessens the anxiety of being alone in a strange country by creating a community which brings people together who share the same identity and culture.
Lazieh explains that the church “serves a variety of duties: first is spiritual, allowing for new immigrants and second or third generation Arab Americans to follow the religious traditions of their grandparents and to practice according to century-old traditions.” Furthermore, the church helps Arab immigrants keep their heritage alive by organizing Arab festivals, Arabic classes for their children, preparing and serving Arab food at haflas (parties) and festivals.
Photo: St. Basil’s Melkite Catholic Church, Lincoln, Rhode Island
Shalhoub added that “the church in itself transforms culture, bringing us language, food, and music–whether at a wedding, baptism, or funeral.”
More recently, the church has become a refuge for immigrants who do not have families in the countries they are immigrating to. Shalhoub stated that “we have been receiving new refugees and the church has helped them find a job, a place to stay, and funds for their children to go to school.” Also Lazieh, as a former mayor, has guided the churches in Rhode Island and other entities to help immigrants in wake of the current refugee influx. “We (the churches) continue to help refugees primarily from Iraq and Syria, despite the refugee crisis we are experiencing with the current administration.”