By Rick Maples
AIM’s Disapora Region Executive Officer
On a sweltering morning in August, seven of us gathered in a small Barcelona apartment. We were part of a larger short-term mission’s trip to four different port cities on the Mediterranean. A variety of people, from AIM and different partners trained us in street evangelism techniques, and we started our day praying God would lead us to people who were open to hearing the gospel.
AIM partners with ministries in several Spanish cities, and our goal for this trip was to visit these partners, encourage them, and look for people with whom we could share Christ. Armed with our own testimonies, a story that explained the gospel from Creation to Christ, and smart phoneapps that helped us bridge the language barrier, the seven of us boarded the metro and entered a neighborhood teeming with African immigrants.
We broke up into two groups, and my group stumbled into a park where many Africans sold scrap metal. We greeted a few people, and I struck up a conversation with Omar.
Omar grew up in Gambia. He was the son of his father’s second wife, and when he entered adulthood, he realized there would not be enough land for him to live on the family plot. This created such conflict with his family that he feared for his life. At the encouragement of his mother, he chose to take his chances and try to make the journey to Europe and start a new life.
His first stop was Agadez, Niger. He then paid for passage on the top of a truck to make the three-day trip across the Sahara Desert to the country of Libya. There he stayed for nine months, working to raise money to cross the Mediterranean.
For Omar, Libya was a difficult place. He kept his money in a hidden place in his room, but one day while he was at work, someone stolen it all. To make things more difficult, people know immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa are mostly alone and vulnerable, so many are held hostage. Because Omar’s family was not in the position to pay anything, he escaped kidnapping. However, he does have scars and a missing tooth to remember Libya.
When Omar finally had the money to cross the sea, he was swindled out of it and he was back to square one. This happened to him twice. Finally, through the help of a friend, he climbed into an inflatable boat headed to Italy.
This trip was much shorter, only four or five hours, though still very harrowing. The Italian Coast Guard is not permitted to assist people from a sound vessel, so the passengers slit the bottom of the raft when they spot the Coast Guard. Once the raft starts sinking, the Coast Guard steps in to rescue them. Sadly, since most Africans have not grown up around water and do not know how to swim, many immigrants drown. Omar was one of the fortunate ones; he was rescued and brought to Italy.
His journey, though, was far from over. He stayed in Italy for about a year but was unable to secure a job and housing, so he decided to go to Barcelona. I met him in the park about three months after he’d arrived. He was lonely and happy to have a conversation. Because he’d seen such hardship and I was willing to listen, our discussion quickly drifted to spiritual things. I was able to share with him a short story that covered the whole plan of salvation. His response was that big changes are taken by small steps.
God has a heart for the immigrants. The Israelites were immigrants in the land of Egypt. Most of the heroes of the book of Genesis were immigrates at one time or another. Jesus himself was an immigrant. Therefore, it is our duty to care for people who are living in a foreign land.
I met with Omar three times while I was in Barcelona and introduced him to a believer from our partner ministry who lives there. Omar has not yet chosen to follow Jesus, but I still pray for him, and we still communicate over WhatsApp.
Omar’s story is not unusual. There are tens of thousands just like him. All have had a horrific journey. All have seen so much pain and suffering. And all are struggling to get by.
African immigrants are not just in Spain. They are living throughout Europe, Brazil, the United States, Canada… Really all over the world. In the first three weeks of October 2017 alone, over 3000 people made the trip from Libya to Italy. African immigrants arrive as refugees, students, or people just looking for a better life. Africa Inland Mission has recognized this situation and, in 2016, launched a new region specifically focused on reaching the African diaspora. The Diaspora Region’s mission is to establish a viable gospel witness among every African unreached people group living abroad. To do this, we are placing AIM workers in strategic places around the world.
The Old Testament commands us to care for the immigrant, a person seen in the same class as an orphan or widow. God has a heart for the immigrants. The Israelites were immigrants in the land of Egypt. Most of the heroes of the book of Genesis were immigrates at one time or another. Jesus himself was an immigrant. Therefore, it is our duty to care for people who are living in a foreign land.
What’s so unique and exciting about sharing life with the African diaspora is we can share the gospel freely with people who’d normally live in a more religiously-strict country. Currently, we have AIM workers living among North Africans, Comorians, Senegalese, people from the Horn, and various non-African immigrants – and we praise God because we are seeing people from these places come to faith in Jesus.
The work is not easy. Living and serving immigrants is messy. Immigrants have a difficult and often long journey. But our people walk with them along this rough road, helping them with the national language, assisting them with paperwork, going with them to doctor’s appointments, teaching them to drive, and helping them with the process of residency and sometimes citizenship.
One of the encouraging things in working among the African diaspora is that we do it in countries with a strong, historical church. AIM workers are involved with their local churches, envisioning and training others in the congregation to reach out to the foreigner among them. How about you? Are there immigrants around you? It’s likely they need a friend. And they especially need Jesus.