Monday, September 20, 2021

Rosemarie Wenner: God is on the Move – A Call to be the Church in a New Way

Today's post is by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. Bishop Wenner is a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, having led the Germany Central Conference, and is currently the Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council.

As I noted in an earlier piece, in my role as Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council to connect the World Methodist Council (WMC) with the World Council of Churches (WCC), ecumenism is my daily work. In my previous blog, I discussed new expressions of ecumenism. Now, I would like to turn to the topic of migrants, mission, and ecumenism.

Methodist history has been influenced by migration. In the 18th and 19th century Methodist ministers and lay preachers served those immigrants to what is today the USA. They offered spiritual support to those who settled on the East Coast and accompanied those who went westwards.

German settlers came to personal faith in Methodist congregations in the USA. They became instrumental in sending missionaries to their home country which led to the foundation of Methodist congregations in Germany.

Migration is an opportunity to share Gods love also in our days. According to the 2020 World Migration Report of the International Organization on Migration, in the year 2000, 2.8 % of the world population were migrants, and it increased to 3.5 % in the year 2019. Unfortunately, the growth of refugees is even higher: In 2000, 14 million people were forced to leave their homes; in 2020, 25.9 million people seek refuge in a foreign land, and 41.3 million people are internally displaced.

In several countries, including Germany, discussions of migration have the potential to divide society. Fear of an increase of migration is nourished by the false assertion that migrating people are enemies of the “Christian Occident” because they belong to other religions and potentially bring fundamentalistic Islamic beliefs.

Statistics prove, though, that 55 % of the immigrants to Germany are Christians. Many of them worship in so called migrant congregations. These congregations often operate separately from the well-established churches. If anything, there are only loose links to the national or regional ecumenical councils. Even on a local level we rarely interact in worship and service.

Churches in countries where many people leave for economic reasons or because of conflict or climate change often seek to accompany their migrating people. We see this phenomenon within the World Methodist Council. The Korean Methodist Church established congregations all over the globe. The United Methodist Church in the Philippines responds to the call of the huge number of migrant workers by sending pastors or officially recognizing lay preachers in the Middle East, in Europe, in several Asian countries and in Australia. The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe formally registered in Great Britain to serve their members in the British diaspora. The Methodist Church Ghana supported the inclusion of Ghanaian Methodist congregations into the UMC in Germany. In North America though, a mission diocese was established.

These migrant churches are outposts for mission, evangelism, service, and advocacy mainly for migrants of the same country of origin. Long established Methodist and Wesleyan churches in the various countries where migrant congregations are formed, though recognizing the spiritual needs and missional opportunities of the migrating siblings, often receive the formation of new Methodist churches as a lack of ecumenical courtesy, if not as offence.

In June 2019, the World Methodist Council organized a Consultation on Migrant/Diaspora Churches at the Heigh Leigh Center near London, UK. Church leaders and practitioners from both migrant sending and receiving countries listened to reports from the various regions and engaged in honest conversations. Those who are long experienced in humanitarian aid and advocacy to refugees and asylum seekers shared experiences with those from countries like Bangladesh or Peru, where the work with refugees is relatively new and often the needs are overwhelming. Stories were shared of mission activities, of struggles to overcome the trauma many migrants face, of gracious ways to support refugees, of pain because of a lack of mutual understanding, and of cooperation and growth in building diverse communities.

The participants worked on a statement: “God is on the Move – a Call to be the Church in a New Way.” It is an invitation to intentionally re-think theology, relationships, and mission in the light of migration and it offers joint principles: Being “in mission together” shall be expressed by “collaboration through partnership and mutual accountability,” “intercultural awareness” and “advocacy and humanitarian assistance.”

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted efforts to intentionally overcome silos between “old” churches and “new” congregations. Plans to organize round tables to establish formal partnerships had to be postponed. People got stuck when boarders were closed. Online worship services and webinars offer possibilities to connect with home churches, which is well received by migrating people. Yet uprooted people need more then virtual worship services; they need fellowship and accompaniment just where they are right now. This is especially true for migrating children and youth.

COVID-19 increases the vulnerability of migrants and refugees. Immigrants who are illegally in a country do not dare to ask for vaccination. Workers in precarious conditions lost their jobs. Do established churches see the siblings in Christ who are on the move? To be the church in a new way not only calls for acts of mercy, but also for repentance and restauration of those who build their economic wealth and their intellectual superiority on the exploitation of other people and of mother earth.

We have to take into action what the participants of the WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in March 2018 in Arusha, Tanzania, stated, when they called Christians to “transforming discipleship”: “We are called to break down walls and seek justice with people who are dispossessed and displaced from their lands—including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers—and to resist new frontiers and borders that separate and kill (Isaiah 58:6-8).” And: “We are called to follow the way of the cross, which challenges elitism, privilege, personal and structural power (Luke 9:23).”

Whilst we are waiting for opportunities to learn from one another at the World Council of Churches 11th Assembly August 31 to September 8, 2022, in Karlsruhe, Germany or at the World Methodist Conference on the theme “On the Move” postponed to 2023 or 2024, we can intentionally reach out to those who bring Global Christianity to our neighborhoods. Perhaps we might host angels as we create platforms for mutual learning and Christian fellowship (Hebrews 3:2).

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