Migration and Ethnic Conflict

Samuel Escobar 01 May 2014

In fifty years of life as missionaries, my wife and I have become familiar with immigration laws and offices in the countries where we served: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the United States and now Spain. Our most recent experience of standing in line for hours, filling forms and asking God for patience to cope with bureaucratic slowness was in Valencia, in 2007. Standing in those lines you hear amazing stories of joys, tragedies, dramatic expectations and disappointments for migrant people.

Situated geographically between Europe and Africa, and tied to the Americas by three centuries as an imperial power, Spain attracts migrants from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. The Catholic Church as well as the tiny minority of Protestant churches have had to face the challenge of this massive wave. It is a missionary challenge that forces churches to go to the roots of their faith.

During the night of May 4, 2002, in the town of Arganda just outside Madrid, a group of skinheads burned down a Romanian Evangelical church and painted its walls with swastikas and racist phrases. Pastor Joaquín Yebra, of the Baptist church of Vallecas in Madrid, has had his services interrupted by groups of young men whom he does not describe as skinheads, but as hooligans who have been drinking too much. Twice a week his church provides food and medicine for six hundred poor people, mostly immigrants from Morocco and Latin America. Some neighbours have protested because of the long lines that form for three hours, though most of the neighbours are understanding and sympathetic.

For the 2004 Forum for World Evangelization hosted by the Lausanne Committee in Pattaya, Thailand, the group that worked on “Globalisation and the Gospel” heard the story of how churches in Canada and Japan responded to the missionary challenge posed by migration and how they were transformed in the process. “We cannot underestimate the sheer power global migration has on the interdependence of our daily lives and collective fates, creating our larger common horizon of experience,”[1] their report read.

But the challenge and opportunity are nothing new. Migration was an important factor in the development of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Celebrations of the fifth centennial of John Calvin’s birth have brought back to mind the fact that he was a migrant who had to flee his native France. He became a refugee in Geneva, where 5,000 migrants joined a population of 10,300 in the years between 1542 and 1560. Historian Fred Brown describes “the terrific task facing church and state in Geneva to take care of the waves of people inundating the city.”[2] Calvin launched initiatives for the professional training of young people and the re-adaptation of adults to new jobs, and he preached clearly against those who wanted to benefit from cheap labour.[3]

In the New Testament we find migration as a key factor in the advance of the church. In Romans 16 Paul ends his epistle with a long list of persons to whom he sends greetings. He had met them during his trips through the Roman Empire, and they all have ended up in Rome. A constant migration took place within the frame of the Roman Empire, similar to our experience in the twenty-first century. Rome, the centre of cultural, economic and political power, attracted migrants just as today rich countries draw people from underdeveloped countries seeking jobs, security and a future they do not find at home.

Actually the whole New Testament allows us to see people on the move and Christian mission taking place within the context of that movement. The founders of the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19) were people scattered by religious persecution. In other cases voluntary migrants moved with a missionary purpose in mind. Paul himself describes how having completed his evangelistic task in the eastern half of the empire he feels driven to go to the western end of the empire seeking new fields for his evangelizing efforts (Romans 15:19, 23-24).

In Priscilla and Aquila, the first couple that Paul mentions in his list of greetings (Romans 16:3), we have the key to understanding one of the patterns of formation of churches in New Testament times. The two first appear in Acts, with Aquila described as a Jew from the region of Ponto who had to leave Rome due to the persecution of Jews (Acts 18: 1-4). Priscilla and Aquila supported themselves through a specialized kind of work with leather. Few tools were necessary for this trade, making mobility possible. It was an ideal occupation for a travelling man like Paul himself. Acts says that “he stayed with them and they worked together” (18:3), and that after “a considerable time” (v. 18) the trio moved on and landed in Ephesus. By the time Romans was written, this faithful couple had returned to Rome, where the Apostle praises them as people for whom he “and all the churches of the Gentiles” are thankful (Romans 16:3).

Through their journeys, voluntary and involuntary, Prisca and Aquila planted churches in at least three cities of the empire. The pattern continues in our time. British employees of a railway company planted many evangelical churches in Argentina in the early twentieth century. I have worshipped in churches founded or developed by Korean businessmen in Brazil, Peru and Spain. Spanish migrants planted Spanish-speaking churches in Germany in the 1960’s, which in 2009 are attended by Latin American migrants. More recently Filipino young people have planted churches in the United States, and Ghanaian migrants have done the same in the Netherlands. A notable case is Sunday Adelaja, a young man from Nigeria who went to study in the Soviet republic of Belarus with a communist scholarship. After the fall of the Berlin wall he moved to Ukraine and with seven people founded the “Word of Faith Church” in Kiev on 6 February, 1994. The church grew at an incredible pace and now claims 30,000 adherents, mostly white. Today it is known as the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations, with 700 branches in 35 countries including the US, Germany, and Israel. They have 217 centres to help drug and alcohol addicts and 27 educational institutions, ministering to 170,000 persons.[4]

Paul’s list of greetings (Romans 16) allows us to imagine at least five house churches in Rome. We find names such as Mary (v. 6), Andronicus and Junias (v. 7), as well as Herodion (v. 11), all evidently Jewish. Other names such as Phoebe (v. 1), Narcissus (v. 11), Ampliatus (v.8) or Urbanus (v.9) have a Gentile origin. Big cities are melting pots where different races and cultures meet. Sometimes the meeting is traumatic. Racism is not reserved for only some peoples and cultures. All of us humans are ethnocentric, and the acceptance of “the other,” the one who is different from us, may not always be an easy step. Times of social or economic crisis bring out the ugly ghost of racism, as in some European, Asian or African cities today. Racism and the reluctance to accept those who are different also affect Christians; we find the problem through the twenty centuries of Church history. If we take the whole body of the writings of Paul and the book of Acts we realize that the encounter of cultures and races caused many problems in the early church.

Some of the house churches in Rome were made up of Jewish believers and others were made up of Gentiles. Some may have been mixed communities where a degree of mutual acceptance and welcoming took place. Paul encourages these varied Christians to receive or accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.[5] His exhortation has a definite theological connotation and a pastoral intention: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7.) By pointing to the way in which Christ receives those who come to him, this exhortation goes to the heart of the Gospel that Paul has developed in the first part of the Epistle. Such mutual acceptance included the disposition to accept cultural differences such as different eating habits and prohibitions that originated in the culture from which people came (Romans 14:1-6). Paul’s missionary strategy, as outlined in chapter 15, includes actions and teachings to foster mutual acceptance between Jews and Gentiles, such as the collection that the Gentile churches gathered at Paul’s initiative to help the impoverished Jewish believers in Judea (Romans 15:25-29).

Such mutual acceptance also had to be reflected in the practical ways of hospitality, which became a mark of the Christian churches in the first century. Paul’s words of commendation for Phoebe, probably the carrier of the letter to the Romans, could not be more specific: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16.1-2 NRSV).

Today, churches in countries flooded with immigrants especially need such a welcoming attitude. It is a great challenge not only in Europe and North America but in big cities of every country. The amazing growth of popular churches in the cities of Latin America can be partly explained by their welcome for persons displaced from rural areas. In many cases the embrace that the migrant receives in church becomes a symbol and a prelude to the experience of being received by Jesus Christ and finding salvation in him.

Migration presents a threefold challenge to mission-minded Christians. The first is the challenge to Christian compassion and sensitivity. Churches are challenged to provide funds and volunteers for an organized response to a massive flow of human beings, many of whom face hunger, homelessness, and marginalization. Recent decades have prepared evangelical Christians for that exercise of compassion, in part under the influence of the Lausanne movement and its emphasis on holistic mission. There is also the challenge to cooperate with secular NGOs patterned after the Christian model of volunteer involvement but usually very suspicious of the motivations of Christian churches.

The second challenge is the need for the Churches to take a prophetic stance in the face of injustices in the way society treats immigrants. Sometimes the biggest challenge is for churches to become a mouthpiece for the poor and downtrodden, pronouncing an unpopular critical word for a society experiencing panic in the face of waves of foreigners. The church must go back to the sources of her own faith but also to an ethical treasure of compassion that is a half-forgotten part of the Western and European heritage.

And the third challenge is seeing migration as an avenue for the evangelistic dimension of mission. Migrants are people in transition, people on the move who are experiencing the loss of roots. Such people are open to new commitments, ready to assume faith in a personal way. Historically, missionary Christianity has often flourished in the context of migration precisely because of the two-faced condition of the migrant experience. One is the painful side of homelessness and uprootedness, but the other side is a new freedom. As a further challenge, the presence of these new believers in old communities brings pastoral challenges as the church is forced to face “the other” in its midst.

In the face of massive migration, the teaching of Romans is extremely relevant. If churches in Europe reflect the embrace of Christ rather than the exclusion of a frightened society, they may become better bases for a new evangelization of Europe. Churches in North America may become the kind of prophetic community that will deliver the church from a cheap form of civil religion. If new migrant churches in these parts of the world hear Paul in Romans they will find ways to connect with long established churches in need of revival and a new missionary spirit. Meanwhile, in Latin America, Africa and some parts of Asia, where the church is growing and vital, enthusiasm must be matched by a striving towards maturity that will allow a faithful testimony in all areas of life. As in the first century, migration will be an avenue and a challenge that God uses for the accomplishment of Christian mission.

[1]           David Claydon, Ed. A New Vision, A New Heart, a Renewed Call, Volume One, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2005; p.23.

[2]           W. Fred Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary. John Calvin and his Socio-Economic Impact, Richmond:John Knox Press, 1971.pp 105-106.

[3]           André Biéler, Calvin’s Economic and Social Thought, Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches-World Council of Churches , 2005; pp.134 ff.

[4]           Philip Jenkins, “Godless Europe?” , in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 2007; p. 118. See also

[5]           New Testament scholar Paul Minear develops this theme in his book The Obedience of Faith. The Purpose of Paul in the Epstle to the Romans, London: SCM Press, 1971.

Peruvian missiologist Dr Samuel Escobar has ministered in Canada and Latin America with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, of which he is also a past President. He was chair of missiology at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, USA. His books include The New Global Mission. He was a member of the committee that drafted the Lausanne Covenant in 1974. Presently he lives and teaches in Spain.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)