Friday, October 16, 2015

Jacob Dharmaraj: Global Diaspora and Christian Mission Today

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

Having a conversation about the current global diaspora in order to find a speedy solution is like trying to nail JELL-O on a tree, as everything about human diaspora is fluid and flowing. That was how I felt recently when I was in Washington D.C., for the denomination’s Immigration Task Force meeting.

There is much complexity in the cause, process, and consequence of the phenomena of global diaspora, and no single discipline can enable us to explain the cause or offer solutions.  Diaspora mission is interdisciplinary, vast and varied. It involves national geography, cultural anthropology, political demography, mass communication, globalization, urbanization, ethnic and race relations, and active participation of multi-religious groups and communal agents at all levels. Most importantly, diaspora mission is multi-directional and it demands multilevel coordination and collaboration. 

Now that the global community has come to realize that the governments around the world must act immediately to alleviate the sufferings of the immigrants, refugees and asylum speakers, The United Methodist Church, along with its ecumenical partners and connectional components, is also determined to step in and take an active role in this vital ministry.

Diaspora and Migration
Migration is a phenomenon that has accompanied humanity since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But the recent forced migration has been accelerated by modern day globalization, wars, natural disasters, and intense persecution of vulnerable minorities on account of their religious convictions and racial or ethnic identities. Today a little over three percent the world's population live in a country other than where they were born. That is estimated at 250 million, up from 195 million in 2005. Females account for 49 percent of the total. Six out of every ten international migrants reside today in developed countries, and the majority of those originated in developing countries. This reality has deep implications not only for interactions among peoples and their religious beliefs but on Christian mission as well.

Diasporic mission is relatively a new area of mission engagement for the church, as it defies conventional modes of mission engagement which is lineal and mono-directional; sending rather than receiving, absorption rather than incorporation, assimilation rather than amalgamation. Unlike traditional mission, diaspora mission puts human physical needs ahead of spiritual needs; advocacy ahead of evangelism, and contextualization ahead of church planting.

Diaspora mission operates from a non-spatial, transnational, global, and "de-territorialized” zone. The missional approach, therefore, is mobile and flexible. In other words, the site of mission engagement in diasporic context is without social, cultural and religious boundaries, which are normative in traditional mission activities. 

Believers Being In-Betweeners
The current cultural, social, linguistic and religious divides are a formidable and complicated ball of wax. They call for people who have both skill and will to transcend culture, language, and other barriers; those who can serve as “in-betweeners,” to build bridges of understanding, mediate relationships, and negotiate partnerships in ministry,” as Paul Hiebert, a missionary and a mission theologian says.

What our changed world expects from the church today is to focus its attention from mere relief work to justice and advocacy ministries beginning from addressing the root causes of the problem. 

The changed world demands a changed methodology. Just like the government agencies alert and prepare people and nations from around the world long before tsunami, tornado, earthquake, and all forms of natural disasters occur, or even before medical epidemic and human health crises break out, Christian mission groups can set up one or more research centers and prepare an ongoing data-base to alert the appropriate mission agencies and groups about the looming or emerging problems. It can be accomplished easily in collaboration with our ecumenical partners and secular prophets like environmentalists, human-rights activists and others. I am not saying that this is a utopian project but at least, it will help those who are interested in the future of the church.

In the final analysis, diasporic mission is not about doing the same thing in a better way. Better is a mirage. It keeps us tethered to the same way of doing like others do. Better is temporary. It is a flimsy edge that can be tumbled. Diasporic mission is all about avoiding the crises to take epic proportions. Addressing the root causes of the problem is to strive for long term solutions and avoid band-aid relief.


  1. "Unlike traditional mission, diaspora mission puts human physical needs ahead of spiritual needs; advocacy ahead of evangelism, and contextualization ahead of church planting." Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists

    Our priorities must align with biblical priorities. A bifurcated mission that neglects evangelism and church planting is not a biblically sustainable model for mission. Granted, there are times when a particular human crisis would dictate that the church give temporary priority to the cultural mandate. However, we can never ignore the spiritual needs of those we attempt to reach with the gospel, even when we are engaged in crisis mission. We share a gospel that incarnates Jesus in word and deed. Suffering people deserve to know about Jesus’ love for them.

    Additionally, no matter how tempted we are to prioritize social justice ministries, we should remind ourselves that social justice is not the primary mission of the church. Additionally, in terms of our biblical faith, the term "secular prophet" is an oxymoron. Activists who minimize the name of Jesus and disavow his lordship may partner with the church in social justice witness to the extent that it aligns with God’s purposes. However, such people are not prophets. Biblical prophets give witness to the reign and righteousness of God as they invite people to align themselves with God's rule.

    When the Jerusalem Church was scattered due to persecution, the members went in all directions evangelizing and church planting (Acts 8:4). To a lesser extent, the Jewish diaspora witnessed to the world when it scattered. These are biblical examples that we should remember when considering diaspora mission. Immigrants to Europe and America often see themselves as missionaries and have a strong desire to reach their people and the larger community for Christ. For example, my international students and immigrant students have planted strong ministries with Africans, Latinos and Asians.

    I wish that all could see how the African Diaspora in Columbus, Ohio is planting churches everywhere. They are reaching 1000s of African immigrants for Christ. They are also reaching secular Americans who are drawn to their spiritual vitality and their clear witness of faith. They are partners in mission; not mere recipients of western hospitality. They have much to teach the western church about faith sharing.

    When pastoring in a southern state from 1998-2001, I partnered with a Hispanic immigrant to form an outreach ministry that evangelized and discipled hundreds of Latino immigrants who did not speak English. Not only did we outgrow our facilities and plant external ministries in the surrounding urban areas and rural migrant camps, we also fed the hungry, provided housing, worked with a healthcare clinic, provided transportation, and taught them English. All of it was done in partnership with the immigrants. Mission and advocacy do not need to be separated.

    Like it or not, Christian immigrants plant churches and talk about Jesus even when the official churches are fixated on political advocacy and material needs. We should remember that many immigrants were not allowed to witness openly in the places from which they have fled or immigrated. The hordes of Christians escaping from Syria can vouch for this. A holistic mission strategy should seek to form partnerships that enable the immigrants to evangelize their people. Such a strategy would allow the immigrants to set their priorities and would honor and utilize their gifting. In the end, it would balance word and deed mission.

  2. Two notes: First that Jacob Dharmaraj is persuasive in noting that the arrival of immigrants requires a rethinking of our understanding of mission. The situation of the migrants (for there is no telling whether they will be immigrants or are in transition) is different from either previous groups arriving in our countries world wide, or from those who remain in desperate need of help in their homelands. And Two: Dr Payne is right in reminding us that evangelism remains a critical part of our mission. One characteristic of migration (and I say this as one who has lived for significant periods in four different countries in the last 30 years, and whose family has further diversified in this regard) is a process of disintegration and reintegration, often multiple times. Identities come under stress, are rethought (and that differently by different generations), and are reformed. Christian evangelists have no business taking advantage of this process to target the emotionally vulnerable. But we also have no business assuming that in new situations the structures of meaning from the past will be channels through which God's grace is known in the future. It seems to me arrogant to advance any theory that presumes on knowledge only God can possess concerning the present or future state of individuals in relation to God. And thus in humility we must offer what we know about the grace we have received in Jesus Christ. Having no other gospel to offer those in desperate need of good news we must teach about Christ. Having no other community to offer those who are been wrenched free from the communities we can only offer a home (temporary or for a longer term) in ours. My congregation in Vienna was a permanent home to many immigrants, and a temporary home to many migrants. Some found God's grace in Jesus Christ, others found a Christian fellowship a caravansarai on the way returning to some other home, or forward to a new home they couldn't imagine. I think God will judge us for our hospitality, which cannot but speak of the grace and love so many on a frantic journey into the unknown need.