Migration as Blessing
by Thomas Kemper
Human migration is as old as human history,” states a resolution on “Global Migration and the Quest for Justice,” a resolution adopted by the 2016 legislating General Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Helene Bindl, a UMC member in Linz, Austria, teaches German to young Afghan asylum seekers at the Zentrum Spattstrasse, a shelter owned by The United Methodist Church and part of Diakonie, an ecumenical network that is a member of the ACT Alliance. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
A great deal of hardship results from being displaced by war, natural disaster, or political turmoil, or from a desire to improve economic or social conditions by relocating from one place to another. And never in human history has there been as many migrants as today.
To suggest that migration might be a blessing sounds somehow subversive. But even a quick glance at the historical record indicates positive results from the movement of people. Migration can be life-saving. Migration into Egypt in the book of Genesis saved the Hebrew tribes from starvation; migration out of Egypt under Moses led to the Promised Land.
Migration helped to spread the Christian gospel. Some of the original followers of Jesus, at least according to tradition, became migratory evangelists—St. Thomas to India and St. Mary to Egypt, and Acts chronicles the migratory mission trips of St. Paul. In fact, Acts seems to expect evangelism via migration. In chapter one, the disciples are told to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth.”
Mission by migration is part of our United Methodist heritage. The first Methodists in North America were migrants from Ireland and England. German immigrants to the young United States returned to my own homeland taking Methodism back with them—part of the Evangelical United Brethren history of our denomination. That migratory mission is why I am a United Methodist.
The process is still happening. As Professor Dana Robert of Boston University School of Theology has pointed out, with globalization, we now have “a matrix of movement in which mission is taking place.”
The origins of today’s Methodist movement in large parts of Southeast Asia lie with refugees who left the area after the Vietnam War, became United Methodists in the United States, and returned to their homelands as migrant missionaries. In the United States, missionaries from China and Brazil have come to serve migrant communities from their home countries. Ghanaian migrants are helping to transform and revitalize Methodist congregations in Italy and Germany, often in close cooperation with the Ghanaian Methodist Church.
Notably, in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf States, the only Christian a young Saudi may ever meet is a Filipino maid or other migrant domestic worker. Faith in Jesus Christ goes with these migrants and they witness as situations permit—mission through migration.
The church today has the responsibility of advocating for migrant welfare, reform of national and international migration systems, safe passage, and humane treatment of returnees. We must welcome strangers and work to unite families separated by migration policy.
We also should recognize and thank God for these opportunities for service and also for the blessings brought by mission through migration.
Thomas G. Kemper is the General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries