Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Migration, Diaspora Mission, and Religious Others in World Christianity: An African Perspective

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Migration, Diaspora Mission, and Religious Others in World Christianity: An African Perspective

Article excerpt

In this article we celebrate Jonathan Bonk and his passion for hospitality. Jon has long demonstrated a conscious concern for the marginalized religious and ethnic other as part of Christian mission. When in 20121 was a senior resident scholar at the Overseas Ministries Study Center and there encountered an Iraqi refugee family that he had hosted, immediately the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan came to mind (Luke 10:25-37). I celebrate Jon's mission efforts here by reflecting on African diaspora churches, which is part of immigrant Christian mission activity in the North. This is an issue to which Jon gave some attention as editor of the IBMR, especially through a 2003 essay by Jehu H. Handles. (1) African immigrant Christianity is part of the story of world Christianity. The churches and Christian communities concerned are manifestations of the much-talked-about shift in the demographic center of the Christian faith from North to South. "The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes," says Philip Jenkins, and "the day of the Southern churches is dawning." (2) African immigrant Christianity in the Global North, although too often held in low esteem or dismissed as mere social safety nets for despondent strugglers in foreign lands, powerfully illustrates the renewal of Christianity as a non-Western religion. For some "Levites" and "priests" in our time African diaspora Christianity, despite the renewal abundantly evident in it, has become a new religious other, for it is culturally different, theologically fundamental, and even aggressive, and it seeks to reverse the old paradigms of mission in which Christianity was considered essentially a white man's religion.

The primary question motivating this article is, What does the presence of African Christians living their faith outside their historic geographic boundaries say about the changing face of world Christianity generally? In particular, what does it say to their Western compatriots? For many such immigrants--coming from Africa, Latin America, and Asia--their Christian faith has been fundamentally empowering and affirming in spiritual, social, and economic ways. Thus for Wonsuk Ma, a Pentecostal missionary from the Philippines currently serving as executive director of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, a non-Western institution in the U.K., it is the turn of the churches in the Global South to revive the Western church. The role of the diaspora in the midst of the secular West, Ma notes, is therefore critically important. (3) Immigrant churches have been defined in terms of their ethnic identities and their provision of religiosocial spaces as safety nets for foreigners in alien lands. Many, like the man in Jesus' parable who fell among robbers, are wounded through the harsh realities of economic life in Africa and oppressive immigration conditions and are looking for some warm embrace from brothers and sisters in the West. But do they find it? Even further, we can ask, Is this "immigrant Christianity" considered authentic? Is it in fact a significant part of world Christianity?

Immigrant Christians as Religious Others

The significance of the new type of Christianity, as I will argue, lies in the perception of its bearers that the North needs Jesus Christ, who is nothing other than "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Unlike Old Testament Israel, which for the most part refused to live out their covenant with Yahweh within their depressing exilic conditions, African diaspora Christians, many viewing their communities as the new Israel, are convinced of the relevance of prayerfully living out the Gospel under difficult circumstances. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they seek to sing the songs of the Lord in foreign lands. Sadly, Western Christians have often viewed African immigrant churches as religious others, in some instances even lumping them together with non-Christian religious traditions. These attitudes occur because, as Jenkins notes, a number of radical writers still link Christianity with Western imperialism and do not recognize the ways in which Christianity has been transformed through African hands. …

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