Jesus on the Diaspora RoadHow AIM wants to help the church in North America and Europe love its new African neighbors
By John Becker
Do you live in East Africa or the UK?” I asked my new Somali friend sitting next to me on a flight bound for London. He went on to tell me the struggle he has with immigration authorities since he is a Somali immigrant with a British passport. Our conversation throughout the remainder of the flight took many turns regarding the Word of God, the person of Jesus – whom he knew as Isa al-Masih (Jesus the Messiah in Arabic), faith, and his dreams and ambitions for his family. At the heart of this man was a desire to create a future for his family. He had even set up a local foundation to bring education to his clan back in his impoverished village in worn-torn Somalia.
This is just one illustration of why millions of Africans are hitching a ride on the diaspora road to find a new life and hope in the West. Today there are over five million African Migrants living in Europe and over four million living in North America. Africans are among the fastest-growing groups of immigrants to the USA, increasing by 100% since the beginning of the 21st Century. And the majority of these people are coming from non-Christian backgrounds.
Whether they are economic migrants, international students, undocumented immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers, one fact remains the same: they are the new neighbors our churches are called to love.
Though AIM has had a long history of ministry to diaspora Africans, these growing trends and a new perspective on mission in the 21st century is causing us to increase our efforts. First and foremost is our desire to come alongside the church in North America and Europe to equip them for effective outreach. Currently, AIM has workers who have “moved in” to African immigrant neighborhoods in several cities in Canada, Europe, and the USA. All of these workers partner with local churches to extend the Gospel reach to these communities in practical ways that demonstrate Christ’s love. Whether in home work clubs, moms and toddler groups, ESL classes, or at-risk youth mentoring, these workers want their African friends to know and experience life with Jesus.
Being able to speak their language and having lived in their countries of birth, many of these AIM workers are a crucial bridge between the local church and these new neighbors – a much needed bridge, because the gap is wide!
Stanley Jones wrote “Christ of the Indian Road” to share his experience of how Christ was being naturalized on the Indian road. In his book, he describes that sharing Jesus with Indians caused him to rediscover the person of Christ and to let go of the burden of tradition and history he was trying to convey in his failed efforts. In a similar way, Vincent Donovan rediscovered Christianity by communicating the Gospel through the means and traditions of the Maasai and appreciating their “communal faith”. These are just two treasures from the riches of lessons learned in contextualizing the Gospel in a foreign soil among a foreign people. The messenger being transformed and renewed by the recipients of the message.
We can testify to this in our own experience. My family served for many years in Kenya doing outreach and starting fellowships among the South Asian minority communities. We saw first-hand the beauty of a new culture or community embracing the Gospel. It’s like a brand new flavor being introduced to the ice cream family; it looks, smells, and tastes unique, but it is still ice cream. This phenomena is easier when we are guests and outside of our culture. To survive and to be effective, we must learn to adapt and only then can we communicate.
But when we are communicating Christ to foreigners at home, we invite people into our Christian culture. I will never forget an experience I had one year while on home-assignment in California. I was on my way to our church’s evening service when I noticed a Pakistani couple hitch hiking. I couldn’t pass this opportunity up, so I pulled over and offered them a ride. I took a chance and asked if they wanted to join me for the service. To my surprise, they agreed. I was shocked when we entered the service – it was patriotic Sunday – America the Beautiful and flag waving Boy Scouts. The service helped compound their presupposition that Christianity and American culture were one and the same thing. I don’t think they got the message that Jesus was for Muslims. I never heard from couple again. I don’t believe anyone from the church followed up on them either.
Most of our approaches to sharing the good news with our foreign-born neighbors are by inviting them into our Christian culture through the activities I mentioned earlier. All commendable efforts meeting felt needs. Yet, when our “guests” want to take the relationship further and follow Jesus they have to sacrifice quite a bit to be “one of us.”
The stakes are high for the thousands of Africans making the journey to Europe and North America each year, especially those who are undocumented – risking people smugglers, deserts, sea crossings, and the possibility of being sent home, all for the dream of a better life. Many lose their lives in the process.
Having migrated, many continue to make sacrifices by sending much of their income home to family they have left behind. Billions of dollars each year are sent back to Africa, and in some cases makes up a sizeable chunk of the home country’s GDP.
This challenges us to look at our African immigrant neighbors in a new light, with a new appreciation and a willingness to make a greater investment in bringing Christ to them.
One of my friends who I describe as my “adopted younger brother” is an asylum seeker. We first met during an outreach day in a local park. Mohammadi had spent much of his young life in a refugee camp. As a fifteen-year-old, his mom sent him off to find a way for the family to migrate to Europe. After a treacherous journey over land and sea, including being crammed in the back of a trailer, floating on a mattress on the sea and riding on the axel of a semi-truck, he declared himself stateless and requested asylum to the authorities who arrested him at the border. While he awaited his hearing, he was placed in a community home in our neighborhood. Here was this young Muslim immigrant who was hungry for community, open to Christ, and eager to learn as much as he could. We welcomed him to our home group and did all we could to help him.
Mohammadi was deported two years later. That didn’t deter him, and after a year, he hit the diaspora road again but this time landing in Italy and leaving a young wife and child back at the camp. Through frequent phone calls, I have journeyed emotionally with Mohammadi each step of the way, continually trying to connect him with Christians in the cities he finds himself. I don’t support his decision to leave and the means in which he makes passage, but none-the-less, he is my brother, and Christ calls me to love and serve him. Mohammadi has taught me so much!
AIM’s mandate is to see Christ-Centered Churches among all African peoples, which includes African immigrants in Europe, North America, and beyond. We especially desire to see those who are a part of unreached people groups embrace the good news of Jesus and to form new communities of faith in their heart language and culture. Those coming from these groups need a safe community in which to be themselves. They need the scandal of the gospel to be translated in living color as grace is being extended. And they need to be set to mission as they in-turn share good news with their spouses, children, fathers, brothers, sisters, and extended family back home.
The best way AIM is going to see this realized is by coming alongside the local church in the neighborhoods and cities where African immigrants are finding their new life. Many of the African migrants themselves are vibrant Christians and have established some of the largest churches in cities across the world. AIM wants to partner with these African believers and churches in reaching unreached Africans. We also desire to connect these churches to other local churches to build fellowship and partnership for city-wide outreach. We want to train and mobilize everyday Christians to “move in” and live as missional communities, dying to their culture and embracing their new neighbors’ culture, going to them and being Jesus on the diaspora road.