The Blessing of the Other

Athena Evelyn Gorospe 02 May 2010

A response to Samuel Escobar’s ’Migration and Ethnic Conflict’ 

Samuel Escobar raised one of the main challenges of migration, which is the acceptance of the ’other’—the one different from us. Migrants, as the ’other,’ are often regarded as threats by the indigenous population. This is not only because of the migrants’ different culture and language but also because they are perceived to be competitors for jobs and economic resources, as well as potential rivals for political and social power.

Likewise, the Israelite migrants in the Book of Exodus were seen as threats, especially when they started to flourish economically and to grow in number. As a result, they were subjected to isolation and subjugation: harsh policies for population control, state labour and direct and indirect genocide.

This had not always been the case. In Genesis, Jacob’s family migrated to Egypt to escape the threat of extinction from famine. They had heard of a ’better life’ in Egypt, with one of their family members—Joseph—’making it good’ there. Egypt became a source of blessing as the family of Jacob settled in the rich land of Goshen. On the other hand, Egypt also was blessed and saved from dire economic threat through the wisdom and administrative skills of Joseph, who had once been a migrant slave and prisoner.

The experience of Israelite migrants in Egypt parallels some of the stories of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), who migrate, either temporarily or permanently, to seek better economic opportunities for their families. Like many migrants, OFWs are often seen as threats. This leads to the curtailing of their freedoms and to substandard living conditions.

In Hong Kong, for example, hundreds of Filipino domestic workers fill Statue Square in Central District on Sundays. This so alarmed the Chinese public in the early ’90s that calls were made to prohibit them from occupying the space.

In some places in the Middle East, male Filipino workers live a subaltern existence—desexualized, dehumanized and silenced by the rapid turnover of workers, tight restrictions on time and space to maximize productivity, employers who refer to them as ’dogs,’ ’tools’ and ’slaves,’ the hierarchy of difference that considers Asians lower than Euro-Americans and Arabs and the lack of institutional means for redress.

The Bible, however, shows migrants who are a source of blessing to their hosts. Along with Joseph, we could also consider Daniel, Ruth, Nehemiah, the Israelite slave girl who told Naaman about Elisha (2 Kings 5:1–5), Moses, even wily Jacob. All of them brought insight, hard work, knowledge, wealth, and skilled labour to their host family or community. Abraham’s migration resulted in the blessing of all nations.

In the same way, many migrants today, including OFWs, bring their skill, hard work, loyalty, a service mindset and willingness to do jobs that are considered menial to their host country. In doing so, they help sustain the host economy. Moreover, since many of them come from countries with a strong sense of community and deep spiritual roots, they contribute to the building up of the social fabric and model the value of community and spirituality to highly individualistic and secular cultures.

We often focus on the host country’s reception of migrants, as Escobar does. We may neglect, however, the role of the individual migrant—his or her perceptions, decisions, and transformations. The migrant is an agent of change.

According to Edward Said, exiles (and migrants) are able to develop a ’contrapuntal’ perspective. By virtue of crossing borders and breaking barriers of thought and experience, they become aware of simultaneous dimensions that make possible an originality of vision. This becomes a rich resource for the host culture to draw upon.

Often migrant churches are vibrant, growing, and mission-conscious. Moreover, they attract young people who are passionate about their faith, care about justice issues, and are more embracing of diversity. Perhaps this is because the migrants’ experience makes them more open to the ’other’—to God as the superior Other, who calls them to faith and obedience, discipleship and mission, as well as to others who are not like them. God’s presence calls them to compassion, commitment, and responsibility.

The cause of world evangelization would be better served if churches in host countries regarded the migrant churches in their midst as a catalyst for change. If we were willing to learn from them, the ’other’ would cease to be a threat, and become a blessing instead.

Athena Evelyn Gorospe is associate professor at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, the Philippines, and author of Narrative and Identity: An Ethical Reading of Exodus 4.

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)