"When the people move, the church moves" : a critical exploration of the interface between migration and theology through a missiological study of selected congregations within the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa in Johannesburg.
Is the Church a Host, Home or Hostile to migrants in the face of a global migration crisis which has fuelled mixed reactions? What are the mission-ecclesial implications of human migration and what does it mean for a local congregation to have over 90% of its members being foreign migrants in an increasingly hostile context with xenophobic attacks? This study explored these questions through a mission-ecclesial examination of the lived experiences of migrants with the UPCSA selected congregations in Johannesburg. The main objective of the study was to establish contours for a theology of migration in South Africa with a view to enabling South African theological scholarship to explore the multiple challenges related to migration. This was done through a theological reflection on themes that emerged from the sociological examination of the lived experiences of migrants. In responding to research question on experiences of migrants, the study demonstrated how migration (like any other phenomenon) gives birth to hybrid contextual theologies as congregations are constructed or de-constructed by mission-ecclessiological and intercultural forces of migration calling into question their identity, vocation and witness. The thesis of the study argued that, ‘when the people move, the church moves’, as an assertion that the church is not the temples built in local communities, but it is a lived religious experience embodied by people who belong together through a family or community called church. As people move, they do not leave behind their religious experiences (faith/beliefs); instead, they move with them and articulate their migration experiences in the light of these personal religious convictions and draw on them for the perilous journeys and as survival strategies in host communities. The study found that migrants are in the majority of all selected congregations but despite these demographics; but despite these demographics, congregations continue to conduct services in old liturgical fashion, oblivious of the changing membership profile and cultural diversity which now characterises their composition. Therefore, study contends that local congregations should not treat migrants as ‘hosts’ or people who are temporal guests and need to be taken care of; rather they are partners whose agency should be valued. The study also argued that the congregations experiencing changes in membership are not “dying or dwindling,”1 but they are transforming into new multicultural and transnational Christian communities which provide a safe space for migrants to preserve their cultural identity, find meaning for their faith and network as part of the survival quality of life strategies. However, the study alluded to the tensions between what the church preaches and what it practices with regards to hospitality and care for strangers noting that migrants live “in between homes. The research also demonstrated how migrant communities appropriate their vulnerability and marginalization to reinvent and recreate metaphors of survival through constructing or deconstructing new forms of identity in these contested spaces characterised by multiplicity, cultural diversity, crime and vulnerability within the Johannesburg CBD. The role of the church (or lack of it) in the life and wellbeing of migrants was investigated and study found that most all selected congregations were not competent and study made recommendations to guide the design and implementation of programs aimed at ensuring that the selected congregations are spaces of safety for migrants. This study argues that the untapped theological and spiritual dimensions of migration, if properly understood and natured; can leverage effective responses to the needs of migrants and re-position the church for transformation, playing a prophetic role in the lives of the marginalised of society. In attempting to identify theological resources on the migration experiences, study suggests that any authentic Christian theological reflection must address all forms of tribal, ethnical and national divisions and promote relationships through acknowledging diversity, arguing that much as South African churches were the meeting place against colonialism and apartheid, the post-Apartheid church must continue to take sides with the oppressed and marginalized people. In the light of these observations, Christian experience can be a resource in dealing with xenophobia and intolerance not just in the church but also in communities where there are tensions between locals and foreign nationals. Given the new forms of identities and communities that emerge from these encounters, a clearer understanding can contribute immensely to the human psyche and in particular; to the church’s ecclesiological practices and mission. By exploring the lived experiences of migrants, the study unmasked the dominant ideologies around the experiences of migrants and refugees, exposing the double standards and poor government policies that perpetuate their exploitation (particularly with regards to women and children) citing government’s gender insensitive migration policies as a challenge that needs to be addressed. Study demonstrated that there are intersections between gender, migration and some biblical narratives noting that these biblical texts should help us to read and interpret scriptures with new lenses. There is a changing landscape in the face of intensified human mobility as more women are now active beyond the traditional roles and the South African experiences of the African migrants selected for this study, attested to this phenomenon. Study concluded by a summary of the findings and offered guidelines and recommendations for the government and local churches towards a contextual theology of migration which seeks to appropriate the agency of migrants at the centre of theological reflection as a way of developing transformative models of integration, assimilation and social cohesion through mission engagement with migrants.