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Migration Amidst Social and National Distancing: A Barrier or Opportunity for Mission During a Global Pandemic?

The COVID-19 virus emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and migrated to the rest of the world very quickly. By February 2020, several countries had reported their first COVID-19 cases. The virus has since rapidly spread across all continents with over 27.2 million people infected and close to 890,000 deaths globally by the start of September 2020. Testing and contact-tracing to curb the spread grew from national to regional and eventually international levels, along with social distancing within countries and national distancing between them. This has adversely impacted social and national relations with lives upended and social norms completely altered. The “new normal” and “social distancing” are terms that have already become too familiar to many during the pandemic. From the moment the World Health Organization (WHO) chief declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic and outlined various measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, life has not been the same. Some countries went into total lockdown, while others restricted movement across their borders.

Migration, too, has been affected; both international and intercontinental human movement has momentarily seized up. Migrants and travelers were caught up in the travel bans as many countries closed their borders at the start of the pandemic and grounded all international and national flights. Therefore, the coronavirus is not only a health crisis but also an international relations crisis as countries have been forced to both socially and nationally distance themselves. International travelers trapped in foreign countries have depleted their financial resources and run into a humanitarian crisis. Arising from restrictions on human relations to curb the virus spread, this humanitarian crisis has impacted social values such as hospitality to strangers, aliens, and sojourners. With 14 days of quarantine required for most people traveling during the pandemic, people cannot practice hospitality as they used to due to the physical distancing measures and advisory enforced by health experts.

In this article, I will first examine the impact of COVID-19 on migration globally to paint a picture of the crisis on migrants, sojourners, and aliens who were caught up amid national lockdowns. Second, I will explore Bible narratives, especially instances where sojourners were caught up by challenges during their movement, thus raising a humanitarian crisis. I will also reflect on the response from the church to practice hospitality in the hour of need. The Pentecost scenario in particular will be helpful as it provides similar circumstances related to migrants and foreigners with a missional dimension to it. Finally, the article will highlight how the pandemic has impacted hospitality for the migrant, sojourner, and stranger. Here, I will attempt to redefine hospitality to migrants, sojourners, and strangers during a global pandemic as a mission opportunity, in order to prepare the church for future pandemics requiring social and national distancing.

Two Countries, Two Tales

Rebecca1 and her colleague had traveled from Nairobi, Kenya, to Karachi, Pakistan, on a work assignment when all international travel was suddenly suspended, temporarily closing both the Pakistani and Kenyan international airports. The institute where the two were training was closed and all participants were told to return home. Rebecca and her colleague were the only non-Pakistanis at the institute. They were given two choices: either remain on campus, where there was no one else and no guarantee of food and other services, or live with a local family in Karachi. They opted for the latter. Here, a brief interview with Rebecca illuminates her experience of hospitality during two months of being a stranger in Karachi, Pakistan.

Interviewer: Briefly describe the family that hosted you for the two months in Karachi.

Rebecca: My colleague and I were hosted by a Christian family that we had no prior knowledge about. We were strangers to one another. They gave us rooms to stay in, fed us, and bought us anything that we needed to make our stay comfortable. They did not want us to spend any money on ourselves while staying with them.

Interviewer: What was the hospitality experience like for you?

Rebecca: It was a cross-cultural experience for us. The food was different from Kenyan. They spoke Urdu and a little bit of English. We communicated using English. Even though we’re culturally different, I was glad that we spoke the same Christian “language.” We could not believe that they all were that generous to us, as total strangers to them.

Interviewer: What lessons did you learn that can help the global church in showing hospitality to strangers for Christian missions?

Rebecca: First, a church doesn’t need to be economically endowed to show hospitality. Pakistan is a developing country just like Kenya. Yet each time we said “thank you” for the hospitality, the family said, “It is by God’s grace that we have all this to share.” Secondly, the phrase “social distance” has been exaggerated to deny people the chance to serve one another during this crisis. I believe we can love and care for strangers and still maintain a level of safety. Lastly, do the little that you can for a stranger in need; you never know the blessings you may be opening up for them, and in your own life. I led a teenager in that family to Christ.

Fatuma2 traveled from Kenya to the United States in February 2020 to visit her children, who live in Houston, Texas. Toward the end of March, which was about her time to leave, the American airspace was shut down—including foreign flights. At the time of writing, Fatuma is still stuck at her daughter’s place in Houston. The following is an interview with her.

Interviewer: Briefly describe the family that is hosting you.

Fatuma: My daughter and son-in-law are Christians who attend one of the largest megachurches here in Houston.

Interviewer: What is the hospitality experience like for you at your daughter’s?

Fatuma: I am grateful that I have a place to stay. However, life is so much of a routine, and with very little interaction with my children’s church, even remotely. I would love to be home right now.

Interviewer: What lessons learned can you share with the global church regarding supporting families that are hosting sojourners stuck in other countries due to the coronavirus crises?

Fatuma: People are using social distance to make excuses for not checking on their neighbors. It is high time that churches called families that are hosting sojourners to encourage them and stand with them. These are very stressful times and a call can make all the difference. I have learned resilience to manage psychological stress by myself.

The Pentecost: Crisis Turned into a Mission Opportunity

Many times, the Bible displays hospitality as an extremely evocative topic with political, cultural, and ethical overtones.3 It raises questions, as well as sets norms for how the traveler is to be welcomed abroad. Each culture has its unique interpretation of hospitality, especially among Christian communities. To some cultures, it is a personal trait attained by developing certain mindsets, habits, and character.4 To other cultures, hospitality to strangers is practiced communally. But this conventional definition requires a deconstruction in the event of a global crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hospitality to strangers evoked different emotions in Jerusalem during the Pentecost. For some travelers, it was an opportunity to fulfill their Passover rights and practice. However, for the disciples in the upper room, it was an opportunity to wait for the Spirit’s visitation (Acts 2). When the Holy Spirit finally visited, there was an explosion of new disciples who needed to linger in Jerusalem to listen to the apostles’ teachings. These new disciples rapidly became temporal migrants in Jerusalem. Over time, their resources were depleted and they began to be in need, creating what turned out to be an economic and social crisis for the hosts. The host church in Jerusalem had to rise to the occasion and provide for the people’s needs. The church, through the leadership of the apostles, had its members sell their property and bring the proceeds to the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:35). The money was distributed to any foreigner who needed it while the apostles ministered to them in the gospel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the presence of “forced migrants” in various countries due to national lockdowns and control of international travel. One difference between the kind of hospitality practiced in the early church’s crisis in Jerusalem and our current crisis of travelers caught up in foreign countries in the wake of national distancing is the dilemma of physical distancing. To curb the spread of the coronavirus, people are asked to “socially distance” themselves. The question is, can people practice safety and at the same time serve one another through hospitality? Travelers forced to live as sojourners in foreign countries need social cohesion, not separation. But how can the church practice that with caution? What if we began to ask ourselves how we can make as many social connections as possible, while still following the recommended government advice about physical distancing?5 Is this a barrier or opportunity for missions during a pandemic?

Redefining Hospitality to Forced Migrants

As people become more familiar with new phrases such as “the new normal,” it is also important for the church to become familiar with a new understanding of hospitality. Amid a global pandemic, the world needs to redefine, then address the needs caused by forced migration. Travelers caught up during countries’ lockdown measures that halted international travel should be considered forced migrants. Forced migration has been studied from a host of theoretical as well as methodological standpoints and disciplines.6 However, there are hardly any theories or methodological approaches that anticipated the forced migration as a result of a global and public health concern such as a novel coronavirus. Directives from the WHO regarding movement restrictions, which countries adhered to, created forced migrants in many countries. As of this writing, some countries have not yet opened up their international airspaces, hence people like Fatuma are forced migrants in the US to date.

The church must redefine hospitality in the context of COVID-19 forced migrants in various countries. They are forced in the sense that they are held in those countries unwillingly given the circumstances. Serving them, therefore, involves several things: first, knowing and connecting to the forced migrants in your community due to the pandemic. Know their names, where they are from, and with whom they are living. Are the host families Christians or part of the global church network? This connection can transform “social distancing” to “social cohesion” by helping the migrant feel at home away from home. A second way to serve them is by meeting the physical and spiritual needs that migrants might have during this period. Being away from home has both economic and psychological effects on the migrant. This presents an opportunity for local churches to minister to individuals and families who are stuck in foreign countries during the lockdown. With the new emphasis on virtual and online church communities, the gospel has reached so many people by leveraging various technologies. To break the social limitation caused by physical distancing, spiritual and physical needs can be met for sojourners through such technological solutions. Lastly, the future of global missions needs to be rethought. Support churches overseas are overwhelmed with meeting the needs exposed by the economic crisis, owing to the closure of church gatherings and consequent migration to virtual services. For churches that have previously relied heavily on itinerant missionaries, the focus should now be turned toward strengthening local leadership as support churches overseas are overwhelmed in this way.

Conclusion

In the history of world missions, the church has encountered various kinds of challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. It has forced the church not only to reconsider the way it conducts missions overseas but also to reimagine its service to immigrants in the community. The pandemic has introduced a “new” category of forced migrants with international sojourners caught up in travel restrictions. Social distance regulations make ministry among such a group very challenging. This ought to be seen by the church as an opportunity rather than a barrier to minister amongst pandemic-produced forced migrants. It is also a great lesson for the global church to consider stability and independence to strengthen mission work locally in developing countries to support work during future crises.

Written By

Martin Munyao is lecturer of theology, missions, and African Christianity at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. He’s also a former Global Research Institute (GRI) scholar at Fuller’s Center for Missiological Research, where his research focused on the intersection of Migration, Interfaith Engagement and Missions, which is the title of the book he is currently working on.

The COVID-19 virus emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and migrated to the rest of the world very quickly. By February 2020, several countries had reported their first COVID-19 cases. The virus has since rapidly spread across all continents with over 27.2 million people infected and close to 890,000 deaths globally by the start of September 2020. Testing and contact-tracing to curb the spread grew from national to regional and eventually international levels, along with social distancing within countries and national distancing between them. This has adversely impacted social and national relations with lives upended and social norms completely altered. The “new normal” and “social distancing” are terms that have already become too familiar to many during the pandemic. From the moment the World Health Organization (WHO) chief declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic and outlined various measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, life has not been the same. Some countries went into total lockdown, while others restricted movement across their borders.

Migration, too, has been affected; both international and intercontinental human movement has momentarily seized up. Migrants and travelers were caught up in the travel bans as many countries closed their borders at the start of the pandemic and grounded all international and national flights. Therefore, the coronavirus is not only a health crisis but also an international relations crisis as countries have been forced to both socially and nationally distance themselves. International travelers trapped in foreign countries have depleted their financial resources and run into a humanitarian crisis. Arising from restrictions on human relations to curb the virus spread, this humanitarian crisis has impacted social values such as hospitality to strangers, aliens, and sojourners. With 14 days of quarantine required for most people traveling during the pandemic, people cannot practice hospitality as they used to due to the physical distancing measures and advisory enforced by health experts.

In this article, I will first examine the impact of COVID-19 on migration globally to paint a picture of the crisis on migrants, sojourners, and aliens who were caught up amid national lockdowns. Second, I will explore Bible narratives, especially instances where sojourners were caught up by challenges during their movement, thus raising a humanitarian crisis. I will also reflect on the response from the church to practice hospitality in the hour of need. The Pentecost scenario in particular will be helpful as it provides similar circumstances related to migrants and foreigners with a missional dimension to it. Finally, the article will highlight how the pandemic has impacted hospitality for the migrant, sojourner, and stranger. Here, I will attempt to redefine hospitality to migrants, sojourners, and strangers during a global pandemic as a mission opportunity, in order to prepare the church for future pandemics requiring social and national distancing.

Two Countries, Two Tales

Rebecca1 and her colleague had traveled from Nairobi, Kenya, to Karachi, Pakistan, on a work assignment when all international travel was suddenly suspended, temporarily closing both the Pakistani and Kenyan international airports. The institute where the two were training was closed and all participants were told to return home. Rebecca and her colleague were the only non-Pakistanis at the institute. They were given two choices: either remain on campus, where there was no one else and no guarantee of food and other services, or live with a local family in Karachi. They opted for the latter. Here, a brief interview with Rebecca illuminates her experience of hospitality during two months of being a stranger in Karachi, Pakistan.

Interviewer: Briefly describe the family that hosted you for the two months in Karachi.

Rebecca: My colleague and I were hosted by a Christian family that we had no prior knowledge about. We were strangers to one another. They gave us rooms to stay in, fed us, and bought us anything that we needed to make our stay comfortable. They did not want us to spend any money on ourselves while staying with them.

Interviewer: What was the hospitality experience like for you?

Rebecca: It was a cross-cultural experience for us. The food was different from Kenyan. They spoke Urdu and a little bit of English. We communicated using English. Even though we’re culturally different, I was glad that we spoke the same Christian “language.” We could not believe that they all were that generous to us, as total strangers to them.

Interviewer: What lessons did you learn that can help the global church in showing hospitality to strangers for Christian missions?

Rebecca: First, a church doesn’t need to be economically endowed to show hospitality. Pakistan is a developing country just like Kenya. Yet each time we said “thank you” for the hospitality, the family said, “It is by God’s grace that we have all this to share.” Secondly, the phrase “social distance” has been exaggerated to deny people the chance to serve one another during this crisis. I believe we can love and care for strangers and still maintain a level of safety. Lastly, do the little that you can for a stranger in need; you never know the blessings you may be opening up for them, and in your own life. I led a teenager in that family to Christ.

Fatuma2 traveled from Kenya to the United States in February 2020 to visit her children, who live in Houston, Texas. Toward the end of March, which was about her time to leave, the American airspace was shut down—including foreign flights. At the time of writing, Fatuma is still stuck at her daughter’s place in Houston. The following is an interview with her.

Interviewer: Briefly describe the family that is hosting you.

Fatuma: My daughter and son-in-law are Christians who attend one of the largest megachurches here in Houston.

Interviewer: What is the hospitality experience like for you at your daughter’s?

Fatuma: I am grateful that I have a place to stay. However, life is so much of a routine, and with very little interaction with my children’s church, even remotely. I would love to be home right now.

Interviewer: What lessons learned can you share with the global church regarding supporting families that are hosting sojourners stuck in other countries due to the coronavirus crises?

Fatuma: People are using social distance to make excuses for not checking on their neighbors. It is high time that churches called families that are hosting sojourners to encourage them and stand with them. These are very stressful times and a call can make all the difference. I have learned resilience to manage psychological stress by myself.

The Pentecost: Crisis Turned into a Mission Opportunity

Many times, the Bible displays hospitality as an extremely evocative topic with political, cultural, and ethical overtones.3 It raises questions, as well as sets norms for how the traveler is to be welcomed abroad. Each culture has its unique interpretation of hospitality, especially among Christian communities. To some cultures, it is a personal trait attained by developing certain mindsets, habits, and character.4 To other cultures, hospitality to strangers is practiced communally. But this conventional definition requires a deconstruction in the event of a global crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hospitality to strangers evoked different emotions in Jerusalem during the Pentecost. For some travelers, it was an opportunity to fulfill their Passover rights and practice. However, for the disciples in the upper room, it was an opportunity to wait for the Spirit’s visitation (Acts 2). When the Holy Spirit finally visited, there was an explosion of new disciples who needed to linger in Jerusalem to listen to the apostles’ teachings. These new disciples rapidly became temporal migrants in Jerusalem. Over time, their resources were depleted and they began to be in need, creating what turned out to be an economic and social crisis for the hosts. The host church in Jerusalem had to rise to the occasion and provide for the people’s needs. The church, through the leadership of the apostles, had its members sell their property and bring the proceeds to the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:35). The money was distributed to any foreigner who needed it while the apostles ministered to them in the gospel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the presence of “forced migrants” in various countries due to national lockdowns and control of international travel. One difference between the kind of hospitality practiced in the early church’s crisis in Jerusalem and our current crisis of travelers caught up in foreign countries in the wake of national distancing is the dilemma of physical distancing. To curb the spread of the coronavirus, people are asked to “socially distance” themselves. The question is, can people practice safety and at the same time serve one another through hospitality? Travelers forced to live as sojourners in foreign countries need social cohesion, not separation. But how can the church practice that with caution? What if we began to ask ourselves how we can make as many social connections as possible, while still following the recommended government advice about physical distancing?5 Is this a barrier or opportunity for missions during a pandemic?

Redefining Hospitality to Forced Migrants

As people become more familiar with new phrases such as “the new normal,” it is also important for the church to become familiar with a new understanding of hospitality. Amid a global pandemic, the world needs to redefine, then address the needs caused by forced migration. Travelers caught up during countries’ lockdown measures that halted international travel should be considered forced migrants. Forced migration has been studied from a host of theoretical as well as methodological standpoints and disciplines.6 However, there are hardly any theories or methodological approaches that anticipated the forced migration as a result of a global and public health concern such as a novel coronavirus. Directives from the WHO regarding movement restrictions, which countries adhered to, created forced migrants in many countries. As of this writing, some countries have not yet opened up their international airspaces, hence people like Fatuma are forced migrants in the US to date.

The church must redefine hospitality in the context of COVID-19 forced migrants in various countries. They are forced in the sense that they are held in those countries unwillingly given the circumstances. Serving them, therefore, involves several things: first, knowing and connecting to the forced migrants in your community due to the pandemic. Know their names, where they are from, and with whom they are living. Are the host families Christians or part of the global church network? This connection can transform “social distancing” to “social cohesion” by helping the migrant feel at home away from home. A second way to serve them is by meeting the physical and spiritual needs that migrants might have during this period. Being away from home has both economic and psychological effects on the migrant. This presents an opportunity for local churches to minister to individuals and families who are stuck in foreign countries during the lockdown. With the new emphasis on virtual and online church communities, the gospel has reached so many people by leveraging various technologies. To break the social limitation caused by physical distancing, spiritual and physical needs can be met for sojourners through such technological solutions. Lastly, the future of global missions needs to be rethought. Support churches overseas are overwhelmed with meeting the needs exposed by the economic crisis, owing to the closure of church gatherings and consequent migration to virtual services. For churches that have previously relied heavily on itinerant missionaries, the focus should now be turned toward strengthening local leadership as support churches overseas are overwhelmed in this way.

Conclusion

In the history of world missions, the church has encountered various kinds of challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. It has forced the church not only to reconsider the way it conducts missions overseas but also to reimagine its service to immigrants in the community. The pandemic has introduced a “new” category of forced migrants with international sojourners caught up in travel restrictions. Social distance regulations make ministry among such a group very challenging. This ought to be seen by the church as an opportunity rather than a barrier to minister amongst pandemic-produced forced migrants. It is also a great lesson for the global church to consider stability and independence to strengthen mission work locally in developing countries to support work during future crises.

Martin

Martin Munyao is lecturer of theology, missions, and African Christianity at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. He’s also a former Global Research Institute (GRI) scholar at Fuller’s Center for Missiological Research, where his research focused on the intersection of Migration, Interfaith Engagement and Missions, which is the title of the book he is currently working on.

Up Next
Fuller Magazine

Kirsteen Kim, Paul E. Pierson Chair in World Christianity and associate dean for the Center for Missiological Research, reflects on the theology of hospitality and its need to be reimagined in light of a theology of migration