Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

How Migration Affects Christian Mission

By Elliott Wright*

Migration, especially a record number of involuntarily displaced people, is a major factor affecting the worldwide mission of The United Methodist Church today.

This was the message of the denomination’s chief mission executive to directors of Global Ministries at the agency’s spring board meeting on April 20 to 22 in Atlanta.

Thomas Kemper, Global Ministries’ general secretary, said there are currently 65.3 million people involuntarily displaced outside their home countries, of whom 21.4 million are refugees recognized by the United Nations. He explored the ways in which such massive migration both challenges and blesses the church.

nigeria-refugees- 2016.jpgPeople who have fled violence in Karim Lazai, Garin Mashi, Lushi and other communities in Nigeria are taking refuge at the United Methodist Church in ATC/Nukkai in Jalingo. PHOTO: THE REV. ANDE I. EMMANUEL

The challenge to respond to the physical needs of migrants is complemented by the fact that migrants help to spread the Christian gospel. He cited contemporary situations in the Middle East, Canada, and Europe in which Methodist migrants from the Philippines and Africa are starting new churches or revitalizing existing ones.

Kemper surveyed a broad range of United Methodist ministries with migrants, demonstrating justice and mercy, including those of Global Ministries and partner organizations and other denominational agencies. Representatives of 10 agencies met on March 31 to share experiences with migrants and to pull together in response to the crisis.

GBGM-Spring-Board-Meeting-GA-20170002.jpgThomas Kemper welcoming staff and board members at the opening worship for the spring board meeting. PHOTO: CINDY MACK

Global Ministries highlights cited by Kemper in his report included:

• The response of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to refugees and other migrants displaced by natural disasters, wars, and persecution; for example, some $5 million has been allocated in the last five years to projects assisting refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

• Global health programs among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda displaced by civil war and famine.

• Focus on unaccompanied children—70,000 in 2014—from Central America arriving in the United States. 

• Increasing numbers of missionaries and young adult Global Mission Fellows (GMFs) working primarily with migrants (currently 41 out of 340), with the most serving in Europe where churches help to receive refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and Africa.

• U.S. racial/ethnic ministry plans that reach across international borders in church development and service. Global Ministries administers four such plans involving Asian American language groups, Korean ministries, Hispanic/Latino ministries, and Pacific Islanders.

• Support for Church World Service, an ecumenical partner and one of nine agencies certified by the federal government to resettle refugees in the United States—a program hard hit by the Trump Administration reduction from 110,000 to 50,000 refugees that can be placed in the United States during 2017.

• Assistance to National Justice for Our Neighbors, a UMCOR-founded, now separately incorporated, program providing free legal assistance to migrants in the United States.

Kemper pointed out that the number of refugees accepted by the United States is a pittance compared to the displaced people in other countries. Turkey today has 2.5 million refugees, Pakistan 1.6 million, Lebanon 979,400, Ethiopia, 736,100, and Jordan 664,100, according to figures from the United Nations.

Statistics and Graphics.png

Statistics and Graphics Credit: UNHCR

Kemper also noted the extreme vetting that refugees to be resettled in the United States undergo, including checks by eight government agencies, against five security databases, five background checks, four biometric checks, three in-person interviews, and two interagency security checks. If this is not all accomplished in a set time period, the process begins all over again.

In considering the attempt of President Donald Trump to ban migrants and refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries, the mission executive recommended and quoted extensively from the book Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Abingdon Press) by retired Bishop William Willimon. The bishop investigates from a biblical perspective Christian response to xenophobia—fear of “the other.”

The book is rooted in a passage from 1 John 4 that reads, in part, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear . . . We love because he [God] first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brother or sisters are liars . . . The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters.”

Willimon also writes: “Mission is the name for when the Christian goes to, listens to, presents to the gospel to, dare to serve, and risks being change by the Other.”

Kemper illustrated the role that migrants have in spreading the gospel and revitalizing the church with photos from Ireland, Germany, and the Central Asian Republics, as well as film clips from worship services at three United Methodist congregations founded by migrant workers from the Philippines in the United Arabic Emirates. He visited the Emirates a few days earlier to take part in the tenth anniversary celebration of the First United Methodist Church of Dubai.

In a question and answer session following his report, Kemper said that Global Ministries will soon be designating the pastor of a community of United Methodist migrants from Zimbabwe, currently in Canada, as a missionary. The arrangement is in partnership with the United Church of Canada, with which the Methodist Church of Canada united decades ago.

“We want the Zimbabweans to retain their Methodist heritage while honoring the ecumenical nature of the existing United Church.”

*Elliott Wright is information consultant for Global Ministries.