"Migration and the Changing Ecclesial Landscape: Who is My Neighbor?" was the theme of a regional conference of the World Council of Church's Global Ecumenical Network on Migration held in Beirut, Lebanon, Dec. 5-7, 2011.
"Is migration a 'problem to be solved'? Or rather can this be viewed as an opportunity to discern how the Holy Spirit is prompting our churches to move and act?" Daniel Chetti asks. (Photo: ABTSLebanon.org)
It was followed up by an international consultation held in Geneva from May 7-9, 2012.
About 30 participants from across all the continents were part of this process of searching for authentic expressions of Christian unity and witness in the ever-growing context of migration, displacement and xenophobia.
Among the participants was Daniel Chetti, associate professor at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS). He later presented a paper, titled "Global Consultation on Changing Ecclesial Landscape," at the ABTS faculty council.
"There are right now 214 million international migrants in our world," Chetti said. "Forty-nine percent or 106 million of them are Christian; 27 percent or 60 million are Muslim; and the remaining 24 percent are Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and others."
International organizations, nongovernmental organizations and churches working with migrants define a "migrant" as "any individual who has been living for one year or longer in a country other than the one in which he/she is born."
By this definition, the majority of ABTS faculty and students are migrants. People may migrate for a variety of reasons: work, study, asylum seeking, trafficking, displacement and so on. Examples of all these categories of people can be seen in Lebanon.
In fact, following the trend of some other major European cities, Chetti noted that the largest Protestant-worshiping congregation in Lebanon on any given Sunday is not an Arabic-speaking congregation. It is a Full Gospel congregation of around 400 Ethiopian maids, worshiping in Amharic.
Too often our discussions about migration and demographics are driven by the state and political structures that set the policies.
Nations frightened and befuddled by the phenomenon of migration are building fortresses around their boundaries. The churches, by and large, end up meekly following and acquiescing to the views of the political structures.
"How do we as followers of Jesus Christ respond to these ongoing and impending changes? Is migration a 'problem to be solved'? Or rather can this be viewed as an opportunity to discern how the Holy Spirit is prompting our churches to move and act?" asked Chetti.
What does God have to say about how we are to view the migrant?
Plenty! Just look at the characters of the Bible:
- Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise and subsequently had to fend for themselves.
- Cain, having failed to recognize and love his brother, his neighbor, became a displaced person.
- Noah and his family were forced to leave their place of origin because of natural disaster.
- Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Lot were forced to leave their homes and search neighboring countries for survival.
All migrants! Jesus himself was a refugee, who fled to Egypt as a child. Later in his ministry, Jesus never ceased to cross the borders in order to reach those at the boundaries.
All of these migrants were valued and used in mighty ways by God.
Chetti shared in his paper that he believes the greatest untold story in the spread of the Gospel in the early centuries is that it was not primarily undertaken by a few famous yet dedicated evangelists, but by an untold number of ordinary folk.
These people were merchants, artisans, migrants – displaced people from Palestine and other areas who took the Gospel throughout the known world.
Migration and mission have always been an important part of the Christian story, and they remain central even today.
The question posed to modern-day Christians (particularly those in places like Lebanon, with its enormous migrant community) is: How will we respond to these realities?
How can the church be a welcoming community that facilitates the crossing of human boundaries, welcoming the stranger and the sojourner? How can we see migrants not as a problem, not as the "other," not as "objects" to be "pitied and tolerated," but as partners in our missional journey?
In the Kingdom of God, the migrant is a gifted and valuable resource.
Chetti believes that this is just the beginning of a discourse that needs to play a more significant role in shaping a new ecclesiology and theology.
Diana Farhood is project coordinator for the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. Her column appeared in the August ABTS newsletter and is used with permission.