Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

“On the move”

Two hundred years of Methodist mission among migrants and refugees

by Benjamin L. Hartley*


Methodist ministry among people “on the move” can be seen in every generation of Methodism on nearly every continent. This should not come as a surprise. Migrants and refugees emerge again and again in Scripture, even if we too often fail to see it.1 Abraham travels to the Promised Land; Hebrews endure exile in Babylon; Mary and Joseph flee with Jesus to escape oppression and violence in Judea; Greek-speaking widows of the diaspora return to Jerusalem and prompt the disciples to set aside “the Seven” to minister with them. The list could go on. Among the people called Methodist, a similar list could be drawn up from the very beginning of our movement. Early Methodists ministered with migrants whether they were African slaves in the Caribbean, French prisoners of war in England, German migrants in Ireland, or Cornish tin miners in Australia.

In 2018, the plight of refugees and migrants in the United States and in Europe is a lightning rod for political debate, but the rancor surrounding migration today is not that different from when the Methodist Missionary Society began 200 years ago. After just a decade of Methodist work among the Wyandot Native Americans in Ohio—which inspired the establishment of the Missionary Society in 1819—missionaries and Native American Christians themselves confronted state and federal laws that pushed for forced removal of Indians west of the Mississippi River. Methodist missionary to the Cherokee, Rev. J. J. Trott, and Superintendent of the Methodist Cherokee Mission, Rev. D. C. M’Leod, were both arrested because of their opposition to a Georgia law in the late 1820s that permitted taking Cherokee lands and homes to push them west.2

Fifteen years after the Missionary Society’s establishment, Methodist missionaries in Oregon also faced the challenge of migration—this time caused by epidemic disease rather than U.S. governmental policies. Between 1830 and 1841, the Native American population in Oregon (which was not yet a U.S. territory) declined in some regions by as much as 88 percent.3 When Methodist missionaries arrived in 1834, they immediately came face-to-face with this demographic catastrophe and tried their best to meet the needs of children orphaned by the tragedy that was unfolding before them. An early missionary layman, P. L. Edwards, gets at some of the bleakness of what was occurring as he paddled up the Willamette River by canoe: “I have counted nine depopulated villages; in some instances, whole tribes were nearly annihilated, and the few desolate survivors fled from the abodes of death, and identified themselves with their less unfortunate neighbors.”4 Methodist missionaries in Oregon—who were, of course, migrants themselves—ministered as well to Native Americans brought against their will from other regions and held captive by native peoples hundreds of miles away from their homelands.

Immigrant ministry in U.S. cities

Rosaura Pineda and her children, Isaac and Celeste, pose at a Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) shelter supported by a coalition of churches in San Antonio, Texas. Pineda was released by U.S. Immigration on the condition that she wear an ankle monitor and show up for her asylum hearings. PHOTO: PAUL JEFFREY

As immigrants from Europe fled strife at home and came to cities along the east coast of North America, Methodists again sought to provide hospitality even in the midst of many Americans’ fear of these migrants and their strange southern European customs and Roman Catholic faith. In the 1840s through the 1880s, violent riots occurred in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia; some Methodists were at the forefront in stoking fear of Catholic immigrants who, they argued, were ruining America. In the midst of this discord, many Methodists began innovative ministries and new churches for immigrants. By the late 1890s, Methodist pastor Rev. Gaetano Conte, a newly-arrived Italian immigrant himself, established an Italian congregation of nearly 500 members in Boston and was even invited to the White House to celebrate his leadership of other ministries among immigrants.5 In the late 19th century, ministries among immigrants from a variety of countries in southern and central Europe were also a key aspect of Methodist Episcopal deaconesses’ work in two dozen cities in North America. The hospitals many of these Methodist deaconess groups established still care for immigrants today.

Russia and Asia

Above left: Seniors of Soochow Woman’s Medical College, and four faculty members, Ethel Polk, MD, Louise Ingersoll MD, Alma Pitts, RN, and Mary Hood, RN, answered the call of the American Red Cross to give six months of service at Vladivostok, Siberia, in ministry to the Czech-Slovak refugees. Circa 1920s. PHOTO:GCAH MEC COLLECTION, WORLD OUTLOOK

Just as the volume of immigrants coming to North American port cities began to subside in the 1920s, Methodists from the American South launched an initiative to work with migrants on the opposite side of the world—in Harbin, China, and Vladivostok, Russia. Filled with missionary enthusiasm resulting from the celebration of the Missionary Society’s Centenary in 1919, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, began a fundraising campaign that increased giving to church missions by over $4 million in four years. It was not only American Methodists who started new work in these cities either.

Chinese and Korean Methodists—who were also inspired by the 100th anniversary of Methodist mission—similarly raised funds to begin ministry in those places. When the mission in Harbin began, it was probably the most European-like city in China. Russian and Polish refugees had poured into the city to escape the Bolshevik revolution that had started a few years earlier. Japanese and Korean migrants were there as well. By 1925, the Korean part of the ministry alone had 26 churches which were attended by 3,600 people; the church stated schools, a medical clinic, and even a theological seminary.6

MCOR begins in 1940

In the midst of World War II, in 1940, it became increasingly clear to members of the Methodist Church in the United States that it would be helpful if a new organizational structure were implemented that focused particular attention on assisting persons suffering from the ravages of war and poverty and the migration that so often accompanied catastrophes. As noted above, Methodist mission efforts prior to the establishment of the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief had worked with people in the midst of upheaval for well over 100 years, but in 1940, a greater measure of specialization was put in place “for the relief of human suffering,” – MCOR’s early motto.

Above: Union High School Feeding Station, 1940s, China Relief work after WWII, MCOR’s first work. PHOTO: GCAH MEC COLLECTION, WORLD OUTLOOK

Most Americans are surprised to learn that, in the 1940s, the region of the world that received the most attention from MCOR was not Europe but China, a country that had received many American Methodist missionaries in previous decades and was suffering under Japanese occupation and (after 1945) a civil war. In the 1950s, MCOR also took the lead in helping people displaced by the Korean War.

Packing clothes for French war orphans 1918.jpg
Workers of the Mission Board pack clothes at the 5th Ave. Methodist Book Concern/Mission Board agency in New York City to be shipped to France for French war orphans of WWI, 1918.PHOTO: GCAH AMERICA #3, P. 176

There were two aspects of MCOR’s work that made it distinctive. The first of these was MCOR’s policy of working closely with other organizations in its relief work. Ecumenism was not just a good idea, but a core aspect of how MCOR did its work. In the first 25 years of its existence, MCOR gave over half of the money it raised to other organizations such as Church World Service, CARE, etc. Because of its specialized function as a relief agency of the Methodist Church, MCOR also began to get more involved in U.S. policymaking at the federal level. In 1948, the Displaced Persons Act was passed by the U.S. government to help resettle refugees from World War II and the 900,000 Palestinians—Arabs and Jews—who were uprooted by wars in that region at the time. A number of Methodists played a role in crafting the Displaced Persons Act and getting it passed by the U.S. Congress. By 1960, MCOR had helped to resettle over 12,000 refugees through its networks in Methodist congregations and beyond.7


Since 1968, The United Methodist Church’s work with migrants and refugees has not abated in the least and continues to take on new forms of ministry as United Methodists seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus in a world of 65 million refugees and displaced persons today. Integral to being faithful in a world of migrants is recognizing that migrants and refugees are not only victims. Migrants are also missionaries around the world and are often starting new churches or revitalizing older ones by their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Migrant remittances (money sent back home) help churches flourish thousands of miles away from where migrants have resettled.

The United Methodist Church is staying true to ecumenical commitments it has had for generations in working with migrants and refugees. Our partnerships with Church World Service and Justice for our Neighbors help us to be involved in finding new homes for migrants and, in the case of Justice for our Neighbors, helping them to know their legal rights in their adopted homes and advocating for them in the American court system. Ministry with migrants can be very complex and often requires the professional expertise of lawyers and others. But it also can be as simple as being neighborly. Chances are, most United Methodists are in regular contact with someone who is either a migrant or is related to someone who is. How can we all grow in the “art of neighboring” these new people in the places we all call home?8 The possibilities are even more numerous than the biblical and historical examples of ministry among migrants that I have shared here. May these stories from our past continue to inspire us in our work in the present and future as we follow Jesus in his love for the strangers and neighbors in our midst.

*Benjamin L. Hartley is the Associate Professor of Christian Mission, College of Christian Studies, George Fox University, in Newberg, Oregon.

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Fall 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.

1 For one of the best articles outlining a theology of migration, see Daniel G. Groody, “Crossing the Divide: Foundations of a Theology of Migration and Refugees,” Theological Studies, 2009, p. 70.
2 Wade Crawford Barclay, Early American Methodism, 1769-1844, Volume Two: To Reform the Nation, The Board of Missions and Church Extension of the Methodist Church, New York, NY, 1950, p. 130.
3 Robert T. Boyd, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874, UBC Press, University of Washington Press, Vancouver/Seattle, 1999, p. 84.
4 P. L. Edwards, “Sketch of the Oregon Territory or, Emigrants’ Guide,” The Herald, Liberty, Mo, 1842, p. 15.
5 Benjamin L. Hartley, Evangelicals at a Crossroads: Revivalism and Social Reform in Boston, 1860-1910, University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 2011, pp. 157-58.
6 For more details on this mission, see Dana L. Robert, “The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Mission to Russians in Manchuria, 1920-27,” Methodist History 26:2, January 1988. In these years after World War I, the number of refugees in Europe was also extremely high and Methodists reached out to them through a dizzying array of organizations, such as the YMCA, European Student Relief, the American Red Cross, as well as through Methodist churches that had been established in a number of European countries for decades.
7 For more details on the first 28 years of the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief,
see Benjamin L. Hartley, “’For the Relief of Human Suffering’: The Methodist Committee on Overseas Relief in the Context of Cold War Initiatives in Development,” Methodist Review 6, 2014.
8 A helpful resource in this regard is Jay Pathak’s and Dave Runyon’s The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2012.