Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

A look at African and European perspectives of migration with biblical heritage as a backdrop.
A boy receives a blanket from the ACT Alliance in the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Tens of thousands of newly arrived Somalis have swelled the population of what was already the world’s largest refugee camp. The ACT Alliance, working with the Lutheran World Federation, manages the camp. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

The Development of Faith During Migration

By Michael Nausner and Tsaurayi Kudakwashe Mapfeka

To say that the topic of migration currently tops the agenda of public discussion would be an understatement—and, clearly, the general view of migration is negative. As James Hoffmeier writes: “Illegal migration has become the major social and legal challenge facing the Western world in the 21st century.”1 For several centuries, aboriginal populations in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australasia, and even Europe have played hosts (at times forcibly) to various kinds of people—explorers, missionaries, invaders, colonialists, imperialists, expatriates, and more.

The second half of the 20th century was characterized by massive population movements across political borders. These population movements have been highlighted and conspicuously magnified in the world’s reality theatre through international media coverage as seemingly isolated incidents of human suffering. This is exemplified by the recent incidents of xenophobic unrest in South Africa and the ongoing “migration crisis” in Europe. Avtar Brah notes: “There has been a rapid increase in migration across the globe since the 1980s. These mass movements are taking place in all directions. The volume of migration has increased to Australia, North America, and Western Europe. Similarly, large-scale movements have taken place within and between parts of the [global] South.”2

Merging Perspectives

A worker for ACT Alliance member Hungarian Interchurch Aid offers an apple to a young refugee at Beremend, along Hungary’s border  with Croatia. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants flowed through Hungary in 2015 on their way to Western Europe from Syria, Iraq, and other countries.We, the authors of this article, believe that migration is not necessarily a crisis to fight but a basic living condition that has existed since humans first populated this planet. We are presenting our combined perspectives, hailing from and serving in different parts of the world.

One of us, I—Tsaurayi Kudakwashe Mapfeka—am a Zimbabwean who arrived in Great Britain in 2003 to serve the United Methodist Zimbabwean diaspora in England and other European countries. While we have lived in the United Kingdom “legally” ever since we arrived, we entered the country as fully formed adults, carrying many memories of life in Zimbabwe. While we have now fully “settled” within the British community and would do anything for its betterment, a part of us remains Zimbabwean.

While we have done our best to stay in touch with our family and friends in Zimbabwe, our life pursuits and interests have changed considerably. We are still holding on to Zimbabwe—but only precariously. We find ourselves perambulating in the zone of “neither-nor.” The elder of our two daughters is now blossoming into a fully grown woman at age 20. At our time of entry into England, she was only a child. She still has some memories of Zimbabwe, but her formation as a person has occurred on British soil. She is unlike her mother and me in many ways. Our 12-year-old daughter, born and raised in the United Kingdom, has her Zimbabwean experience limited to the family memories we share with her and to those rare occasions when we have visited our homeland to attend our annual conference or the funerals of family members or close friends. This is the family backdrop from which I engage with the world and read the Bible. As an Old Testament scholar, I enthusiastically follow the emerging diaspora discourse that, in so many ways, mirrors the stories of the Hebrew Bible.

The other one of us—I, Michael Nausner—am a half Austrian and half Swedish hybrid. Since the 1980s, I have lived on both the eastern and western sides of the Atlantic. Given my basic sense of “double belonging,” I have been interested—both as a minister and as a professor of systematic theology—in the nature of boundaries between cultural spheres. What happens to cultures and communities when people and traditions travel? Should they still be separated into neat categories that can be defined with the help of clear-cut boundaries? Or isn’t a certain sense of “mixing” an integral part of our cultural existence? And what does that mean for my identity as Christian? What is the relationship between my belonging both to a cultural community and to the worldwide Christian fellowship? I believe that these are crucial questions in times like ours, when the topic of migration in media and in the public discourse is often depicted as a key problem—if not a threat—to Western civilization.

A Biblical Heritage

Migration has many causes and comes in many shapes and forms. We are convinced that the Christian community is called to embrace this human condition as part and parcel of its very existence. After all, most of our parents in faith were migrating people, starting with Abraham and including John Wesley. So whatever else migration may be, it is always a chance and challenge to understand ourselves as a people of faith on the way toward new horizons.Refugees and migrants receive food and blankets from Anikó Lévai, the wife of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, as she volunteers with Hungarian Interchurch Aid, a member of the ACT Alliance, to provide support to the migrants as they leave the Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom and prepare to cross the border into Austria.

An increasing number of the world’s people today are not living in the communities where they were born. Many more have at least moved across the political boundaries of their native country. Some of the factors making movement necessary include war (or other forms of violence), political instability, famine, economic pressure, and natural disasters. Climate change is creeping up at considerable speed as a factor necessitating migration. The International Organization for Migration (IMO) has already published a position statement describing the intertwined relationship between migration, climate change, and environment as a “complex nexus.”3

Of course there are many good reasons to fight the conditions that lead to forced migration of different kinds. We believe that the Christian community is called to play an active role in this struggle. But we also see that migration is a reality, and we believe that it should not be approached as if it were a disease or an evil. Migration is the condition under which much of our biblical heritage developed. Biblical traditions portray ancient Israel as a perpetually wandering people faced with a continuous struggle to own land.

The biblical story is full of migrations, as Robert Carroll points out. It starts with Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden of Eden and continues with “the stories of the movement of Abram’s family, driven out (commanded) by God, from Babylonia to the land of Canaan, Jacob’s self-imposed exile from his homeland for crimes against his brother Esau, and his son Joseph’s deportation by his brothers (Jacob’s other sons) from their homeland to Egypt, followed by the consequent movement of all the sons of Jacob, and Jacob himself, to Egypt, and then their descendants’ expulsion from Egypt (back) to the land of Canaan.”4

By the middle of the 20th century, the historical critical method in the academic field of Biblical Studies had established that authors of biblical texts were not as concerned with historical accuracy as they were with making sense of the desolation of sedentary life. Increasingly, Hebrew Scripture as a whole was seen as a product of a postexilic community—a community that was shaped by exile and migration.

Newly arrived refugee children look toward Turkey—seen in the distance—from a camp for refugees on the Greek island of Chios.One text central to the self-understanding of biblical Israel is the creedal statement, which Gerhard von Rad argued to be the basis for the entire literary gamut stretching from Genesis to Joshua (the Hexateuch). This text is found in Deuteronomy 26: 5b-9: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

For Von Rad, it is the promise summarized in this creed about the “wandering Aramean” that forms the backbone of the first six books of the Bible. And Kevin Kenny concludes that, within this story, Jewish identity “was from the outset based on the idea of diaspora.”5

This is the root for a migratory understanding of Christian identity as well. The church has a lot to contribute in a situation where it becomes abundantly clear that migration is not just a transitory phenomenon but a universal condition of human existence. The Letter to Diognetus, a second century text from the formative phase of the Christian church, describes the migratory nature of Christian existence in a compelling way: Christians “live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. […]They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.” This also means that Christians are not only called to help those poor migrants “out there” but also to understand themselves as migrants in the deeper sense of the word.

A Positive Movement

Honduran men deported from the United States get a cup of coffee from volunteer Elena Turcio as they arrive at a church-run center in the San Pedro Sula airport. Christians, in other words, share the basic human condition of migration as part of their innermost identity of faith. From such a faith perspective, a migrant cannot be seen as a mere numerical figure anymore—either as an alien draining the life out of host communities or as an asset to distant home communities that receive the migrant’s remittances. The dichotomy of the migrant as the “other,” separable from the “self,” is a myth that must be exposed for what it is. What we conclude about others says more about us than it does about them.

Often our differences are not many, but they are magnified by our imaginations. For the church, migration is not just offering a fertile ground for mission but is providing an opportunity to be in ministry with fellow human beings who happen to be in a state today that we experienced in the past. If we ourselves have not been recent immigrants, then our ancestors were probably migrants and our progeny will most probably migrate as well. If our ministry as a church in relation to migration is to be consistent with the spirit of Scripture, we need to recognize the fact that our biblical and theological heritage presents migration as a basic condition of human life.

Dr. Michael Nausner is Professor of Systematic Theology, Vice Rector for Research, and Dean of International Affairs for the Theological School in Reutlingen, Germany. The Rev. Tsaurayi Kudakwashe Mapfeka is an ordained elder of the UMC in Zimbabwe and currently a Ph.D. student studying the Hebrew Bible at King’s College, London.

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, September-October 2016 issue. Used by permission.

NOTES

1 J. K. Hoffmeier, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), p. 19. While the authority cited here is concerned with “illegal migration” specifically, it is my experiential observation that the sentiment is true of migration in general.

2 A. Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 178.

3 While this is still a contested area, discussions are already under way. For instance, see “Research Round Up: Using Mobile Data to Understand Climate-induced Migration,” available at www.climatemigration.org.uk accessed on 7 June 2016.

4 R. P. Carroll, “Exile, Restoration, and Colony: Judah in the Persian Empire” in L. G. Perdue, ed., The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), p. 103.

5 Kenny, K., Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) p. 2.

Photos

A worker for ACT Alliance member, Hungarian Interchurch Aid, offers an apple to a young refugee at Beremend, along Hungary’s border with Croatia. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants flowed through Hungary in 2015 on their way to Western Europe from Syria, Iraq, and other countries. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Refugees and migrants receive food and blankets from Anikó Lévai, the wife of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, as she volunteers with Hungarian Interchurch Aid, a member of the ACT Alliance, to provide support to the migrants as they leave the Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom and prepare to cross the border into Austria. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Newly arrived refugee children look toward Turkey—seen in the distance—from a camp for refugees on the Greek island of Chios. Refugees are brought to the camp after crossing the Aegean Sea in small boats from Turkey. They are registered and provided with food and shelter in a reception center built with support from International Orthodox Christian Charities, a member of the ACT Alliance. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Honduran men deported from the United States get a cup of coffee from volunteer Elena Turcio as they arrive at a church-run center in the San Pedro Sula airport. The migrants were flown to the airport aboard a US government flight, then bused to a remote section of the airport where the Catholic Church operates a Center for Attention to Returned Migrants. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

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