OAKLAND -- As thousands of refugees from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan migrate to the United States, an array of faith-based groups have volunteered to help them get adjusted to a new land. Some are also inviting the refugees to church services and converting them to Christianity.
Church groups say the refugees have explored Christianity, and, in some cases, Mormonism, of their own free will. Some refugee advocates counter that missionaries are taking advantage of an impressionable population and eroding cherished cultural traditions in the process.
"They need to learn about life in America, learn to speak English, learn to drive, learn to shop, learn to file taxes, and all of a sudden they are faced with people seeking to change them through a slow but concerted coercive strategy," argued Mihir Meghani, a Fremont physician who cofounded the Hindu American Foundation, a national advocacy group.
In the East Bay, several Bhutanese refugee families who were previously Hindu or Buddhist have joined local Protestant and Mormon churches that offered them help and invited them to religious services.
Meghani sees the church activities as troublesome, a form of "predatory proselytism" that divides refugee families and causes them to feel they should abandon ancient traditions and beliefs they are led to believe are inferior.
"If I had a neighbor moving in, I would like to welcome them for who they are," Meghani said. "Most of us would like to be accepted for who we are, not who we could be or what we could believe."
Two Bhutanese refugee associations in the East Bay attempt to maintain cultural connections and networks for new arrivals, including access to Hindu and Buddhist services, but both are run by volunteers who have full-time jobs. Secular organizations that contract with the government to help refugees in their first few months lose track of many refugees after the allotted services run out, and the groups also don't have the resources to regularly keep in touch with everyone. Well-meaning church groups have filled some of the void, providing newcomers with rides, gifts and fellowship.
"I would not be surprised, given what I know about the refugees coming from that area, if they are converting as a way to show appreciation for what's being offered to them," said Stephanie Nawyn, a sociology professor at Michigan State University who has studied how faith-based groups influence incoming refugees. "They will attend for maybe a year, and go elsewhere later on."
Many of the groups that contract with the federal government to provide financial help to refugees are religiously affiliated. But those groups, which include Catholic Charities of the East Bay, have become increasingly careful over the past few decades about avoiding activities that could cause refugees to want to change their religious affiliations, Nawyn said.
It can be a tough call, but ultimately it is up to the refugees themselves what path they take, and most churches should be aware of that, said Ashley Nichols, who mentors Bhutanese refugees in the East Bay about finding jobs and adjusting to American life. Nichols is a Christian and part of a group, Ethne Global Services, that includes many Baptists but is secular in its work with refugees, she said.
"I really think it's important for a family as a whole to make that decision together," Nichols said. "If it's something that they're pursuing, maybe they want to know more about Christianity. It can be a positive thing, but if it's something that will ostracize different (family) members, I don't think it's helpful."
The Rev. Mike Chantigian, pastor of a Baptist church in Alameda that has welcomed Bhutanese refugees and guided them to Christianity, said he could not disagree more with those who feel that churches such as his are unduly influencing a vulnerable population.
"The love of Christ expressed to all, both indigenous and newcomers to our country, transcends heritage and traditions alike," he said in an e-mail Friday.