A Response to Samuel Escobar’s ‘Migration and Ethnic Conflict’
Samuel Escobar offers three challenges to the church in his essay on migration: the challenge to show compassion toward migrants, the need to take a prophetic stance against unjust treatment of immigrants, and the challenge to see migration as an avenue for the evangelistic dimension of mission.
To these (mercy, justice and evangelism), I would add a crucial fourth: The challenge to recognize that God often uses cultural outsiders to prophetically challenge us in our comfort, affluence and cultural insulation.
When Abraham welcomed three strangers into his shady tent one scorching hot noon day, Scripture implies that he was in some way welcoming the divine (Genesis 18:1). Later, Jesus drove this idea even further when he claimed that hospitality toward a stranger would be considered a welcome of Jesus himself (Matthew 25:35). And the writer of the letter to the Hebrew church reminded them, ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:2, NIV). Throughout the Bible, we are offered the tantalizing hint that in welcoming strangers we may somehow be welcoming the divine. And with it, the divine Word.
But even without this mystical component to inspire (and puzzle) us, biblical history is rich with stories of God using migrants and cultural outsiders to impact entire nations and bring about his kingdom purposes. Some like Ruth were economic migrants. Desperately searching for a better life, she showed up in Israel so poor that her first year in town she was forced to scavenge leftovers. The point stressed most frequently in the story is that Ruth was a foreigner. Still, Ruth the outsider comes to share in the salvation and heritage of Israel.
Joseph was forced into exile in a country he had not chosen. Esther was an orphan in a foreign land. Others like Nehemiah had more resources at their disposal, but nevertheless were migrants. Each of these, and many more, were used by God to impact their new homelands, and sometimes beyond. They were outsiders, used by God to accomplish his purposes in a new place. Perhaps this is why part of the plan for Jesus’ incarnation among us was for him to become a refugee himself, fleeing violence to Egypt (Matthew 2:14).
My pastor came to North America eight years ago as a refugee fleeing war in Burundi. Like Ruth, Joseph and a long line of migrants throughout biblical and secular history, Emmanuel was so poor when he arrived in Canada that he faced the probability of homelessness. But God led him to one of our church-related ministries, a transition home that provides space for migrant refugees to find their feet. Before long, Emmanuel became an integral part of our church. And, in a beautiful example of blurring the lines between those serving and those being served, Emmanuel eventually became our pastor.
Does Emmanuel, as a cultural outsider, have an important role to play in building God’s kingdom in North America? I believe so. Every nation on earth desperately needs prophetic outsiders who will bring an alternative perspective. This is because every culture and society will have its own peculiar blind spots. These can usually only be identified and challenged by outsiders, called by God, who will come in humility and courage to speak truth and love.
Emmanuel consistently brings that outsider’s perspective to our congregation, steeped in North American individualism and materialism. For example, he gently reminds us of our relative prosperity, even when our economy is in turmoil.
In Asia, I made my home as a migrant stranger in the slums for six years as part of the incarnational mission, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor (servantsasia.org). I was able to offer a unique outsider’s perspective on the orphan crisis facing Cambodian communities stricken with AIDS. My neighbours had experienced only institutional responses to the needs of orphans. Stuck on the idea of orphanages, they urgently needed fresh ideas and new perspectives, offered in humility. Out of our conversations, a movement was born and hundreds of orphans are now being discipled across the country by Christian young people through a new ministry, Big Brothers and Sisters of Cambodia.
For some reason, God has frequently chosen to use outsiders, migrants, strangers and foreigners to bring his prophetic word to people insulated within their culture. This reminder of the significance of migrants in God’s new society comes home to me every time I see our pastor Emmanuel, whose name means, of course, ‘God with us.’
Craig Greenfield is author of The Urban Halo and international coordinator for Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor (servantsasia.org). Craig and his wife, Nay, spent six years living in slums in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
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)