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Migration is a challenging experience. A study by Dinesh Bhugra and Michael A. Becker reveals that among the many challenges faced by migrants, cultural bereavement is one of the main factors.[1] They state that ‘migration involves the loss of the familiar, including language (especially colloquial and dialect), attitudes, social structures, and support network.’[2] 

In the midst of these changes and challenges, God is at work. He is revealing his purpose to the nations. The Lausanne Movement has recognized this mission of God through the concept of diaspora missiology, which is ‘a missiological framework for understanding and participating in God’s redemptive mission among people living outside their place of origin.’[3]

Hospitality provides an opportunity for churches to be Christ’s presence among people experiencing the loss of the familiar.

Yet mission to people on the move needs to be integrated with God’s compassion to foreigners through his commandment for hospitality (Lev 19:33-34, Matt 25:34-40). In the early church, John Chrysostom (347-407) enjoined Christians to set up a separate room for strangers in their houses, calling it ‘Christ’s Cell’.[4] In showing hospitality, this becomes the vehicle for gospel encounters. Hospitality provides an opportunity for churches to be Christ’s presence among people experiencing the loss of the familiar.

The focus of hospitality in diaspora mission is especially important in the context of Canada. Currently more than one in five Canadians are foreign-born.[5] This shift is nowhere truer than in Toronto, considered the most multicultural city on the planet. Census shows that since 2011, more than half of the population in the city are foreign-born.[6]

There is already a plethora of research and anecdotal evidence of the role of faith communities as the first point of contact for most immigrants in Canada. A study by the Angus Reid Institute revealed that religious communities have three roles in the lives of most immigrants: as a provider of material assistance, as a community and social network, and as spiritual homes during transition to life in Canada.[7] Thus, local churches are creating programs in these three areas as mechanisms for their mission work. This article seeks to highlight the settlement services of The Peoples Church as a model in hospitality and how this provides a reference for churches doing diaspora mission.

History of Diaspora Mission of The Peoples Church

The Peoples Church is a non-denominational evangelical church in Toronto that was founded by Oswald J. Smith (1889-1986), a Canadian pastor, author, and evangelist. Smith had always advocated for missions as the only calling of the church. For Smith, ‘the supreme task of the church is the evangelization of the world. Mission is not to be confined to an organization within the church. It is the chief work of the whole church.’[8] He never envisioned the formation of a church but rather a missions movement.[9] Today The Peoples Church is a multicultural faith community with more than 4,000 adherents representing more than 70 ethnicities.

Although the church was founded in 1928, its diaspora mission started only in 1993 through a partnership with the International Students Ministry of Canada (ISMC). The church made a significant step in hospitality for people in diaspora when in 2012 it became actively involved with the Toronto North Local Immigration Partnership (TNLIP), a federal government-funded coalition of settlement organizations. A key contribution of the church in this coalition was the spearheading of a faith and settlement forum, an annual gathering of faith communities and settlement organizations to promote collaborative settlement programs for newcomers to Canada. In 2013 the church established a newcomers ministry called Newcomers Network to provide direction for its diaspora mission.

The involvement with the TNLIP became the basis for promoting community engagement as one of the key principles of the Newcomers Network. Settlement program collaboration was initiated, where settlement organizations provided employment counseling, housing referrals, and other settlement services within the church facility. In the same year, the employment mentoring program was started, with church members in specific professions invited to provide career mentoring. Between 2015 and 2017, additional programs were established, including English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry, health services, and large social gatherings such as a summer picnic, a job fair, and Christmas dinner. The Newcomers Network led the church into significant mission work among people in diaspora and continues to catalyze other churches to replicate the model.

Mission Strategies

The diaspora mission of The Peoples Church is grounded on the following three key strategies:

1. Settlement support as an act of hospitality and mission

The settlement services and programs serve as missional platforms, as these draw hundreds of newcomers to be in a church’s physical space and experience its hospitality. The Newcomers Network primarily relies on partnership with the non-profit sector for the provision of settlement services to establish relationships with diaspora individuals. In going beyond the limits of the Christian circle, the church is able to reach out to a significant number of people coming to Toronto from different nations, which it could not have otherwise done due to its religious identity. From such connections, people from other faiths have accessed the services and many have been led to receive Christ. A case study of The Peoples Church’s experience in immigrant settlement and integration highlights the significance of partnerships with non-profit organizations as a model in hospitality ministry.[10]

Churches should not be isolated institutions. The call of the church to be a light to the city calls for active community engagement.

2. Volunteerism and relational evangelism

Volunteer involvement is the main factor in the effectiveness of mission work to diaspora communities, particularly in terms of the development of relationships leading to the sharing and inviting of diaspora individuals to receive the gospel. The Newcomers Network has more than 100 volunteers serving in various capacities as ESL teachers, Bible study facilitators, employment mentors, mental health counselors, and event facilitators. Their service demonstrates a compassionate and relational nature.

Another important feature is that most volunteers are themselves from the diaspora community. This has led many newcomers to speak with volunteers in their own language and to make the ministry culturally sensitive, highlighting the value of equipping diaspora Christians in building bridges with newcomers through shared experiences.

3. Community engagement and church formation

The hospitality ministry of The Peoples Church is instrumental in developing a sense of belonging for many who have newly settled in the city. Relationships are built among the hundreds attending the different programs and services, leading to conversions and discipleship. This approach to hospitality acknowledges the struggles of newcomers in being situated in a new social, cultural, and geographic milieu. The formation of community for newcomers reflects Wieland’s idea of communitas that provides an equal space for newcomers so that the ‘potential for transformation may be grasped.’[11]

Implications for Diaspora Mission

How does The Peoples Church’s hospitality ministry serve as a model for mission engagement by the global church to diaspora communities?[12] Primarily, churches should not be isolated institutions. The call of the church to be a light to the city (Matt 5:14-16) calls for active community engagement. Collaborating with community institutions enables churches to be Christ’s presence in an aspect of the city that does not know or recognize God, while at the same time gaining access to community resources.

Secondly, the use of existing professional skills by newcomers ministry volunteers has enabled not just relational evangelism but encouraged vocational ministry. Church volunteers utilize their skills as health professionals, teachers, and profession-specific career counselors to connect meaningfully with immigrants. Hospitality is a significant relational evangelism tool available to any local church that wishes to share the gospel in word and deed while equipping the saints in ministry (Eph. 4:12).

The whole church leadership must support diaspora mission by incorporating it into other aspects of church ministry.

Lessons and Challenges

Diaspora mission needs to be embraced by the whole church rather than just by a ‘department’ such as the Newcomers Network. The whole church leadership must support diaspora mission by incorporating it into other aspects of church ministry. Crucial to this is celebrating cultures in worship services, reflective of the great multitude ‘from every nation, tribe, people, and language’ in Revelation 7:9—a challenge that needs to be given focus. An example of a meaningful worship format is that of Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto, and the Urbana Student Missions Conference, where different languages are used for worship songs.

Newcomers also need to be integrated into congregational life. The Peoples Church has taken the step of enabling different cultural fellowships to be welcoming to newcomers and putting them under the ministry supervision of the Newcomers Network. As these newcomers integrate into the new country, they are welcomed by congregants who share the same cultural background. Congregants and church staff also need to be equipped in hospitality through training in cultural sensitivity and intercultural competency.

The Peoples Church’s participation in the TNLIP can serve as a model for church engagement with the broader community. Currently, there are only a few churches that are involved in Local Immigration Partnerships (LIP). How can we mobilize more churches to be actively involved in partnerships with settlement organizations? As churches continue to consider diaspora mission, may the lessons and challenges of The Peoples Church serve as a helpful tool.

Endnotes

  1. Dinesh Bhugra and Matthew A. Becker, ‘Migration, Cultural Bereavement and Cultural Identity,’ World Psychiatry 4, no. 1 (February 2005): 18–24, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1414713/.
  2. Bhugra and Becker, ‘Migration, Cultural Bereavement and Cultural Identity,’ 19.
  3. Lausanne Movement, ‘The Seoul Declaration on Diaspora Missiology,’ November 14, 2009, https://lausanne.org/content/statement/the-seoul-declaration-on-diaspora-missiology.
  4. St. John Chrysostom, ‘Homily XLV,’ Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, n.d., 438–439, http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0345-0407,_Iohannes_Chrysostomus,_Homilies_Of_The_Acts_Of_The_Apostles,_EN.pdf.
  5. Andrew Griffith, ‘Building a Mosaic: The Evolution of Canada’s Approach to Immigrant Integration,’ Migration Policy Institute, November 1, 2017, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/building-mosaic-evolution-canadas-approach-immigrant-integration.
  6. 311Toronto, ‘Residents of Toronto- Foreign-Born,’ https://www.toronto.ca/311/knowledgebase/kb/docs/articles/economic-development-and-culture/program-support/residents-of-toronto-foreign-born.html.
  7. Angus Reid Institute, ‘Faith and Immigration: New Canadians Rely on Religious Communities for Material, Spiritual Support,’ July 9, 2018, http://angusreid.org/faith-canada-immigration/.
  8. Diane Roblin Lee, Into All the World: 75 Years of The Peoples Church, Toronto (Woodville, Ontario: Praise Productions, 2003), 29.
  9. Lee, Into All the World, 45.
  10. Mark Chapman et al., ‘Site Report: Toronto,’ The Role of Churches in Immigrant Settlement and Integration (Kitchener, Ontario: Centre for Community Based Research, November 2014), 24.
  11. George M. Wieland, ‘Finding Communitas in Liminality: Invitations from the Margins in the New Testament and in Contemporary Mission,’ in We Are Pilgrims: Mission From, In and With the Margins of Our Diverse World, ed. Darren Cronshaw and Rosemary Dewerse (Dandenong: UNOH, 2015), 75, https://www.academia.edu/33650300/Finding_Communitas_in_Liminality_Invitations_from_the_Margins_in_the_New_Testament_and_in_Contemporary_Mission_1.
  12. Editor’s note: See article by Cindy Wu entitled ‘We Too Were Once Strangers’ in the May 2018 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2018-05/we-too-were-once-strangers.

Nestor Abdon is currently serving as local and global missions pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Canada. Before this ministry role, he served at The Peoples Church as newcomers ministry pastor for six years. He is currently co-leading a Diaspora Ministry Coalition that seeks to gather diaspora church leaders to share mission models. He is also enrolled in the doctor of intercultural studies program of Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon (US).

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