How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Different churches, different cultures — all under the same roof

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Evangelical Christians have made headlines this year with their increased involvement in immigration reform efforts. One reason: The growing presence of Latinos and other minority groups who have embraced evangelism, with their presence influencing the discussion.

These changing demographics — and changing congregations — aren't hard to spot in Southern California. Take, for example, the west side of Costa Mesa, where a group of congregants sat down Sunday in a church parking lot to a Thanksgiving feast of fried chicken and chicken mole, pozole and pizza — a meal as diverse as the crowd itself.

The parking lot belongs to the Harbor Christian Fellowship, an evangelical congregation that's better known these days as Iglesia Harbor, Spanish for "Harbor Church." Housed under the same roof is a mix of evangelical churches emblematic of this evolving corner of Orange County.

Along with the mostly Latino Iglesia Harbor, there's the Palm Harvest Church, whose congregation skews toward white English speakers. There is the Marshallese Christian Center – a Pacific Islander congregation with roots in Marshall Islands. And there's Amor de Cristo, or "Love of Christ," a small church composed of Purépechas, an indigenous group from central Mexico whose native language isn't Spanish.

The churches have come together gradually on the same property in the last few years. On Sunday, after a joint service, they held their first-ever meal together, hoping to connect across the table.

Pastor Christian Parra of Iglesia Harbor encouraged people to sit next to someone they didn't know – and if they needed a translator, no problem.

"The biggest thing we are trying to accomplish today is just being one, that our people will understand, in all the churches, that we're the same," Parra said. "There are different colors, different backgrounds. In reality, if we look at our hearts, we are all the same. We should have the same respect, the same dignity."

Divides still exist among evangelicals as to their level of support for an immigration overhaul, the chances of which seem unlikely this year.

While Parra's church has taken a stand on reform, not all the churches who use the building have. Palm Harvest's lead pastor Mike Decker, whose congregation used to meet at a local high school before joining Parra in the building a year ago, is involved in a local religious coalition that addresses social issues, including immigration. But he considers the reform effort a political issue, and hasn't been involved in advocacy as Parra has.

Still, members of the different congregations say they’ve gained new insights into each other from sharing the same building.

"You know what, I don't look at people and say they're an immigrant. I don't say, 'I wonder how you got into this country' and if you've got papers," said Rick Denman, a Palm Harvest member.

"I came to this church when our churches blended together, and we share this property," he said. "What I see is people that spend a lot of time on family, a lot of time on recognition. Our church is learning so much from their church. What I see around me I like, and if that is immigration reform, I want that."

President Barack Obama is expected to continue pushing for immigration reform on Monday during his visit to San Francisco, before heading to Los Angeles.

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