When I think of American immigrant stories, I think of my early ancestors who came from Europe, or the wave of Chinese immigrants in the last century, or the recent influx of immigrants from Mexico. Rarely would I imagine an immigrant who looks like me but grew up in a completely different cultural context.
My beautiful Ukranian cousin (since my ancestry is tied to the same region, we must be related in some way!) divulged me to a new immigrant story tonight. Tatiana has grown up straddling two worlds as she was formed by her Ukranian household and church community while being educated in the American school system. Now that she is married to a majority culture American, she continues to straddle that divide.
Much of the Slavic Christian community retains very conservative traditions to set themselves apart from the world that lives without God. As newcomers, these traditions may become of even greater importance as they seek to remain not only religiously distinct but also culturally continuous in a foreign land. But what happens when religion and culture are so tightly intertwined that one cannot be easily distinguished from the other?
As Tatiana and her siblings grow up in the US and as they raise their own children, they must determine how much of their Ukrainian traditions to hold on to and how much to assimilate into the American lifestyle. Unlike other communities, Ukranians often look like majority culture Americans and may be able to pass as people with generations of lineage in the US. But as they live between these two worlds, what will happen to their faith? If it is bound too tightly with their culture, might it be abandoned as they adopt new practices? If they give up their faith, does culture quickly follow? Or if they give up cultural traditions, do faith practices also disintegrate?
Some in Tatiana’s community have chosen to remain tightly connected to both culture and faith and attend a conservative Slavic church; they continue to worship God in the traditional ways they did in their countries of origin. Others of Tatiana’s generation rebel against these conservative traditions and enter a mainstream American church to the dismay of their parents.
Tatiana has chosen a difficult path but a rewarding one as she continues to straddle these two worlds. She has discovered a God whose Story and Character is consistent from culture to culture, and yet who is worshiped in as many styles as there are cultures to create them! She has discovered a love for contemporary American worship while still cherishing the faith traditions of her Ukranian community. In fact, she has loved her Ukranian heritage so much, she has chosen to return to Ukraine with her husband to serve in ministry to college students so they also might be faithful followers of Jesus!
I am honored to serve a God who can be worshiped and celebrated in so many languages, styles, and climates. This God is beautiful in his diversity. I am also delighted to have such amazing brothers and sisters in this global family who teach me more about honoring God through their cultures. Thank you, Tatiana, for the delicious nalisniki and your wonderful story!