Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Glory Dharmaraj: The Impact of Christianities in Motion

Today's piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women.

In an earlier article on “The Global and Local: A Mutuality of Exchange,” I referred to Odysseus and Penelope, protagonist and his spouse, in the twin epic, Iliad and Odyssey, in order to convey the complex nature of global and local mission. Penelope and Odysseus are no longer singular monolithic subjects representing changeless principles of rootedness and roaming. 

This article is about re-naming Penelope’s identity relative to migration, which is helpful for today’s diasporic mission, while making room for the Christianities in motion in the midst of us. In the Odyssey, Penelope is left at home to raise her infant son. Harassed by men and her family property stolen, she resorts to an upper room in the house, away from the public space in her house, and commits herself to the laborious task and cunning device of weaving and unweaving a shroud in order to ward off the advances of her suitors. Her son, grown up in the interval of twenty years, sets out to look for his father, and the epic story ends happily with reunions.

While acknowledging that Odysseus is not someone we would describe as a migrant, it is worth looking at Penelope’s human predicament as a spouse left at home to fend for herself and naming this condition. Far from the imperium-making routes of yester years, the major migratory routes of today are paddled with oars and made with shovels by those fleeing disasters, wars, oppressions, and persecutions. Migrants take multiple routes through multiple settings, but there are inseparable connections between the migrants and those loved ones left behind.

The erstwhile dichotomy of categorizing these two entities, Odysseus and Penelope, as mere “roaming” and “homing” does not do justice to naming their respective struggles, especially the ones left behind. Migratory interpretation of diasporic mission needs to factor in women like Penelope and their interconnectedness. Penelope is not identical or exactly the same as today’s people left at home by their migrant relatives abroad. But there are parallels between her condition and that of those left at home in modern day migration.

Penelope in Motion
For Paulo Freire, a great transformative educationist, re-naming is a form of radical action. For those engaged in diasporic mission, re-naming the weight of the human existence of one massive category of people left behind in the physical migration of their loved ones is a helpful way to formulate further actions.

Often missing in the migration mission narrative is a key insight that women, men, and children left at home in their home countries are also people in migration, since they, too, bear the painful and lonesome burden of migration, though differently. In a holistic diasporic missional understanding, beyond the “push and pull” forces in migration, there are fragile human links and relationships being lived out. A mere instrumental view of migrants as remitters of funds and boosters of their respective home economies, or potential tools for the host countries revitalizing our declining churches does not represent their gifting fully.

Recent research has shed more light on women and men left at home. Fifty percent of the world’s estimated 232 million worldwide migrants are women.  Advocacy organizations such as Women and Global Migration Working Group (www.wgmwg.org) lift up the migrants as agents of change. At the same time, with a focus on women, this advocacy group names the women left behind as “women in migration.” As a religious non-governmental organization (NGO), United Methodist Women works with such organizations that amplify the voices of the migrants as well as those left behind.

Christianities in Motion
Diasporic missional undertakings by Christian communities in the U.S. such as the Hmong, Cambodians, Filipinos, the Middle Eastern etc., among their own dispersed and displaced communities may not be fully visible on the missional radar of the structural United Methodist Church. The migrant church and its members are often alienated by the dominant culture and marginalized by settled Christianity. Often they are relegated to the status of belonging to a minority “foreign Christians.” There is much reluctance and hesitancy to cross the threshold of culture that separates us.

The church that embodies the mission of Christ cannot remain indifferent but must rather expose itself to the lived global Christianity in our midst by interacting with migrants in an ongoing basis. We simply cannot repeat the entrenched narrative. The experiences of migrant, refugee communities, their collective experiences, and their invisible network of relations with those left behind in their home countries or in a third country constitute the center of diasporic missional theology.

Here Be Dragons
Some of the ancient geographical maps had references to “here are dragons” (hic sunt dracones) pointing out the threatening nature of the unexplored areas. Maybe it is time to give ourselves to one of the following in this fall season:
  • Spend a Sunday immersed in a worship environment, not typically our own, but in a congregation comprised of migrant or refugee Christians.
  • Try to talk to a family and strive to understand their journey to this place by asking questions and listening to their stories, their community's history, language skills, linguistic challenges, and their traditional customs and norms.
Knowing something about their dreams, aspirations, and goals will indeed demonstrate that we care for them, and will also remove much of our anxieties that here be dragons. Seeing rightfully and acting justly draw us into the fuller circle of emerging Christianities in motion with our brothers and sisters in Christ.


  1. This is good. I would remind the readers that America's policy toward Middle East refugees has been to ignore the masses of religious minorities (non-belligerents) to include badly persecuted Christians. For example, over a third of the refugees flowing from Syria are Christian. However, only 0.4% of the most persecuted from Syria are among those who have been invited to resettle in America. One must question a national policy that ignores the most persecuted in favor of other religious populations, populations that include the belligerents. The plight of those who suffer from religious persecution should be a primary engine that drives America's immigration policy. Of course, in terms of law, it is. However, the administration has stated that it will not consider religion when making decisions about refugees in America. In practicality, we see how this new interpretation plays out in the real world of geopolitics. It continues the discrimination and abuse against the least of these my brothers. The glaring disparity must lead one to wonder if our current policy reflects a deeper national agenda since the 0.4% can't be accidental.

  2. Thoughtful piece. Picking up for UM Insight.