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Pastoral Theology and Diaspora Community
In this reflection from the SWF Migration & Ministry conference, minister and not-for-profit practitioner Vaughan Jones presents a practice-oriented and theological reflection on migration, diaspora and ministry.

Pastoral theology and diaspora communities

I come to this subject not as an academic theologian but as a practitioner.  I have a professional background in the not-for-profit sector with well over thirty years’ engagement with migrant communities and the politics of migration.  As an ordained Christian minister,  I have also taken a leadership role in small, diverse congregations.  Currently, I am involved with the Migration Matters Trust which engages with leaders of business, trade unions and politics in re-framing the migration debate, particularly in the post-Referendum context.  So I offer you a reflection from praxis. That is praxis with both a small and a capital letter P as the organisation I founded and worked in for thirty years was called Praxis Community Projects.  For me, Pastoral Theology is rooted in the praxis model of action and reflection.

At the outset of the Hebrew Scriptures we are told of two brothers[1] – the first humans born of woman.  One farms in a static idyllic community and the other wanders – mazes – from place to place.  One a shepherd – as were the Israelites of the time – and the other a tiller of soil perhaps reflecting the emerging agriculture of the fertile near-East and the tensions it created.  The story of Cain and Abel defies attempts at making it a simple morality tale. Abel appears to be the virtuous one and Cain the anti-hero.  Although God’s role in discriminating between the value of different forms of religious practice is confusing – accepting the ritual sacrifice of the one and not the other.

This is a story of the murder of the nomad by the resident farmer – the murder of the mobile by the static person – the murder of the un-settler by the settled.  But there is no permanence – no stasis because at the end of the story it is the farmer who is expelled from his territory and forcibly displaced.  The story tells us something of the fundamental human condition.  Humanity (through its two first born) is bound by the violence provoked by land ie our relationship to place and diverse practices of religion (- the Midrash would add sexual relationships as well). Humans are both sedentary and nomadic and they constantly intrude upon each other.

Much missiological and pastoral engagement is rooted in a fundamental assumption about community and place.  People occupy place – village, suburb, ghetto, and nation.  We are conceptually defined as people in stasis, who have an innate entitlement to the land they possess.

Following the Peace of Augsburg (1555), the nation state in Europe has been inter-connected with particular branches of the Christian church.  The spoils of the land were divided between Catholics and Lutherans. There are vestiges of the principle of cuius regio, eius religio surviving in England with the Church of England still being an established church, whose priests make the claim that they are ministers to everyone in their parish, whether we want them to be or not.  Our Head of State remains the head of the church.  For some, this raises questions about the loyalty of new citizens of non-Christian faith to the place and people where they have made their new home.

The modern state is founded on a notion that people belong together through a system which takes its legitimacy of governance both from the consent of its people and established territorial boundaries.  Our recent EU Referendum exposed an underlying tension. Some of us understand that sovereignty is a shareable commodity and believe that in a world of rapid communications, globalised economies, and acute political tension it must be shared.  Others hold onto sovereignty as a shibboleth.  If sovereignty is conceptualised as belonging to the occupiers of a space to the exclusion of others, then it is logical, but not necessarily practical, to limit who can enter that space and claim the rights and entitlements that are contained within.

The problem with migration is not a problem of people who move but of the borders they are required to cross and the conceptualisation of the states into which they cross.  At least 10 million people in the world are stateless.  Whether we like it or not religion including secularism (nb France) has been used and is still used to define who should and who should not be part of that space.

Thomas Niall has identified four archetypes of the figure of the migrant[2].  They all are prevalent today and derive from deep rooted historical conditioning based on our understanding of space, country and community in stasis. Migration is seen as a threat.  His four archetypes are nomad, vagabond, barbarian and proletarian.  We can perhaps hear echoes of all of these in current debates.

Nomads are ‘economic migrants’ who don’t need to move but are just chancing it.

Vagabonds are people who are taking advantage of our soft benefit systems.

Barbarians are the ‘enemy within’ espousing an alien faith with the ultimate intention of overwhelming ‘our way of life.

And the proletariat are those who are useful to our economy – low paid workers who are exploitable in a way that would not be appropriate with those who belong under the umbrella of the sovereign state.

Migration is often viewed as an inter-relationship between push and pull factors. We sympathise with the expelled – the forcibly displaced but hold those who expand their life chances by moving to another place with suspicion.  It is infinitely more complex.  Contemporary experience of migration is a product of extreme turbulence in our social, economic, ecological, military, cultural and political context. It is not abnormal but a constant within human history and our epoch is not different to any other, only the form and intensity vary.

We can think of it as we do our weather systems.  There are patterns, increasingly predictable, and there are events, forces, which take us by surprise.  The movement of people, is sometimes a regular flow and sometimes an eruptive large scale movement.  For the people involved it is an adaptation strategy to changing realities as have been employed over centuries and will continue to do so.

Much of the information we are given about refugees and migrants is wrong.[3] Our counting is on the basis of stasis.  We count stocks rather than flows of migrants.  We include someone who has lived in the country with someone who arrived last week.  We include a PhD student who is participating in a learning exchange for a few years with someone who has left a war-torn country to which they know there is no hope of a return.  We say there are 60 million refugees greater than any time since the Second World War. But there were only 2 billion people then so 3% of the population were refugees.  Today there are 7.5 billion people meaning that the percentage of the population who are refugees is much lower.  We are also economically much more stable.  So in telling the story we must say that 60 million is a lot of people but it is also much more manageable than at other times of crisis in Europe. Perhaps the word crisis is overused.

In summary – migration is a consistent part and parcel of the human story, which began with Cain and Abel and continues to produce vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity to decision making, politics and communities.  The migrant appears and reappears in different guises throughout the human story and the reaction, a la Cain, is depressingly familiar.

So in response to this, how do we construct a paradigm within Christian theology, specifically in the eclectic disciplines of pastoral theology and missiology?  Whatever paradigm we adopt depends on the view we take of the migrant and migration.

It may be a caricature, but not entirely, to say that missionaries eye nomads, vagabonds, barbarians and proletarians as a lion their prey.  If we unconsciously embrace the prevailing hegemonic perception of migrants then we risk seeing the migrant as an object – a person to be converted, to be helped, to accept, to give shelter and Christian love. They are the Other to whom we reach out, welcome, and induct to a new language, culture and a new faith and its rules. It assumes stasis of place, community, dogma, culture into which the new citizen can be inserted or included. We are defined as citizens and as members of faith communities as much by the people we are not as the people we are.

There is a vested interest among NGOs and faith groups in portraying the migrant as victim and vulnerable.  Of course, there is vulnerability but there is also choice.  There is both resilience and power within the migrant community.  And there is faith.

It is easy to see the migrant as being tossed on the waves of time, restless, rootless.  Whilst not denying moments of vulnerability and the impact of expulsion and expansion on the lives of individuals and their families, the realities of trauma, the injustices and bureaucratic failures, the homesickness and day-to-day challenges, migrants are agents of history, we can say that communities are transformed by migration.  Economies are stimulated. And history is made by their ingenuity and resilience.

This phenomenon has been observed in the missiological field.  It has been described as ‘the return of the spermatic logos’ or the ‘missionary boomerang’ reminds us that a colonizing missionary endeavour of earlier generations is now bearing fruit in Latin America, Asia and Africa whilst its parent church declines at an alarming rate.  Is there hope for renewal through migration?  Some Christians are excited at the prospect of halting decline through migration. It is attractive as an idea but it still bears the hypostatic conception of ‘them’ renewing ‘us’.  These power imbalances and patronising demeanours are insidiously difficult to recognise.

It also begs a question as to whether the faith that arrives back in Europe is the same as the one which left – whether the Europe which sent out missionaries has remained in stasis.  Tennent describes a ‘seismic shift in the centre of Christian gravity’[4].  He demonstrates that Christianity’s statistical centre which began in Jerusalem over two millennia ago moved eastward through Europe but in the latter part of the twentieth century, took a dramatic turn south and is currently centred in Timbuktu. Christianity is not a European faith but a mercurial fusion of trans-migratory narratives, ideas, legends, liturgical and pastoral practices.  Christianity has North and South American, Asian, African and European expressions, accents, and histories and it is difficult, apart from the language of the founding myth, to find coherence within it.

However, the vision of the Church Catholic – a Holy Roman Empire – a Christendom is deeply engrained in the European psyche.  We can describe the church as transnational and some elements of it as transnational institutions.  To some extent it has adapted well within the hierarchical schema of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.  Priests can move from place to place as the faithful move from place to place.  Westminster diocese has chaplains for the variety of people who make up their Sunday congregations, whether that be Poland or the Philippines or any other Diaspora community from a country with a significant Catholic population.

But the Spirit moves as it wills and there are a myriad of varieties of Christianity some barely recognisable.  And this is not only a European bewilderment.  Latin American Catholics will speak of the ‘cults’ and Latin American Pentecostals may describe themselves as being brought up Catholic and then becoming Christian.  We can take an emic view that anyone who calls themselves ‘Christian’ is Christian.  However, where does that leave the lifetimes spent by systematic theologians plotting the parameters of the faith?  Let’s go further – has migration undermined the visionaries of the mid twentieth century?  Where does ecumenism go once the dialogue ceases to be between European historic churches and their predominantly white male leaders?

The bitter controversies over gender and sexuality are dividing the younger churches from the more liberal of the older churches.[5]  But there are radically different approaches to social justice, faith healing, church polity and liturgical practice.  Can the instinct toward unity smooth over differences of faith or is the variety now so wide that the term ‘Christianity’ has little value?  Do we view it as a blanket term – a construct which simply describes a wide spectrum of people who employ the language of the same sacred scripture albeit with contradictory meanings?

If the church is transnational then it will be constantly inter-connecting with transnational communities.  It isn’t just people but faith itself which is on the move. People who live in Diasporas identify beyond their immediate location.  The concept of the parish or the neighbourhood church is inadequate.  Any Sunday afternoon in London will see Christians in their Sunday best driving across the city to wherever their community is gathering.  Worship requires a cultural rather than geographical reference point.  Language and liturgy are very important.  The language of faith is not everyday language so even if a person is relatively fluent the esoteric language of the liturgy can be problematic to second, third and fourth language speakers. Once the Reformation and eventually Vatican ll removed Latin as the universal language of liturgy then inculturation became a standard missiological tool.  But how do you inculturate a faith in a city, like London, in which over 300 languages are spoken.

My Nain – (grandmother) – used to tell a story of a young Welsh girl who went into service in London.  The family she worked for invited her to their church on a Sunday morning. The girl refused as she wanted to attend the Welsh speaking congregation.  ‘But it is the same God isn’t it?’ responded the mistress. ‘Yes’ came the reply ‘but when my God speaks to me he speaks in Welsh.’  We pray in mother-tongue. What is right and what is wrong in liturgy, ethics, doctrine are defined much more by cultural heritage and tradition than they are the aetiology of the faith.

To engage with diaspora communities, then, is to be an outsider looking in rather than an insider offering an invitation of inclusion.  For my part, there is a political agenda to pursue and the revitalisation of a radical faith.  We need to reconceptualise the notion of nation from owned space to borderless communities of people.  You are Somali whether or not you live in Somalia.  This is why many countries of the global South see their Diasporas as intrinsic to their prosperity.  They are not lost to their identity but just living in a different space.  Countries with large Diasporas prosper – India and China for example, through the international interaction and cultural exchange which takes place.  Countries who have Diasporas within their overall population benefit from the cultural and economic benefits.  The entrepreneurial drive of migrants is phenomenal because migration is risky and provokes a survival instinct and unleashes natural human resilience.

The Bible is rooted in Diaspora experiences.  We know that the defining historical events which created theological paradigm shifts were exodus, exile, return and restoration and the destruction of the Temple.  The missionary journeys of Paul were to the dispersed ‘scattered’ people and James writes to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.  Israel was never a land it was a people. ‘A wandering Aramean was my father.’  But there was a centrifugal force – that of the Temple – to which pilgrimage would be made and tithes paid. It became a focus for power struggles and debate precisely because it was the centre of gravity for the tribes no matter where they lived.

The fundamental question that a Diaspora theology needs to address is the simple – yet incredibly complicated – question ‘where is home?’ – Where is the centre?  Is it Wales, or Rio de Janeiro or Lima or Lisbon, Prague or Pyongyang, Melbourne or Mumbai or is it Jerusalem – either as a political ‘restored Zion’ of the fundamentalists’ dream or a mystical experience – or is it the unnamed ‘city yet to come whose architect and builder is God’[6].  Ultimately, this is an eschatological question.

For the European, to truly understand church as Diaspora is to subvert over four hundred years of struggle in creating the secular nation state. Rather like the early Christians accommodating themselves to the Roman Empire, we must view ourselves as having an allegiance to Jesus Christ through the Temple of his Body whilst coexisting within a political order to which their faith found problematic.

To whom do we owe our allegiance?  Is it to an institution called church with all its historic accretions of European supremacy? Is it to the vast variety of ideologies, doctrines, liturgical twists and turns that make up contemporary ‘Christianity’ despite its inherent contradictions?  These are ecclesiological questions. We might also ask – is it possible to reframe our allegiance to those people Jesus referred to as blessed – the poor, the hungry for justice, those who are dispossessed, those who mourn for the sins of their country, those who seek to make peace and those who are persecuted.  Are we ‘Christians’ or Disciples of Jesus? How we view the migrant – how we want the nation to shape its policies – how we make decisions about our careers, our relationships, our spiritual lives will be radically different depending on how we define our allegiances to nation, church and gospel.

Diaspora is the space between the ancient gods we leave behind and the coming Messianic reign – between yesterday’s home and the home of tomorrow. It is therefore the space for all followers of Jesus Christ – for Jesus marked a rejection of a tribal god locked in a physical earthly dwelling place – a holy of holies.  The centrifugal force of his Diaspora (scattering) is simply where two or three are gathered together.  Or in the words of the Didache ‘this broken bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered, became one mass, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom.’

Jesus’ Parable of the sheep and the goats recorded in Matthew 25 envisages the eschaton as a dramatic division of people.  It is often seen as an imperative to care for the destitute and the stranger.   ‘inasmuch as you do it to the least of these my little ones, you do it to me.’  It is a passage that needs caution for Matthew is talking about the church not the wider social sphere.  Robert H. Gundry in his commentary[7] writes: ‘”These littlest brothers” can hardly denote an elite corps of Christian preachers in the church; for all those who do the will of the Father belong to the brotherhood (12:48-50) and the “little ones” refers especially to obscure people in the church who are easily despised and prone to stray but whose low position ecclesiastical leaders must themselves assume (18:1-14).’  What if the least of my brethren (sic) are all those pastors who work on low pay throughout the week, some with immigration problems themselves and their own experience of trauma.  They are building tiny flocks in church halls or community centres.  Meanwhile the so-called mainstream churches hoard their property for tiny congregations and establish nothing more than a landlord/tenant relationship with their brothers and sisters.

The missiological and pastoral task is eschatological in that it is Kingdom-driven. It is to be a challenge to the hegemonic forces which drive expulsion and exclusion, exploitation and the apartheids of race, gender, sexuality, class and faith.  It is also to delight in the opportunities to break the bread of hospitality, to hear the comforting language of home in praise of a protecting God, known – to wandering ancients in pillars of cloud by day and pillars of fire by night – and to today’s migrants and refugees in the miracles, rescues, healings, and graceful communities, who faithfully sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. For we will all know migrants and refugees who attest to how in their ‘mazing’[8] they find amazing grace, despite all the travails. Christian hospitality has only one Host – one Bread, one Body – and all of us are guests in the resting places on the journey to the reign of God.


[1] Genesis 4

[2] Niall Thomas The Figure of the Migrant Stanford Press Stanford 2015


[4] Tennent Timothy C. Theology in the context of world Christianity Zondervan Grand Rapids Michigan 2007

[5] Jenkins Philip The new faces of Christianity  Oxford University Press Oxford 2006

[6] Hebrews 11.10

[7] Gundry Robert H. Matthew a commentary on his handbook for a church under persecution Eerdmans 1994

[8] Mazing grace is a phrase from Mark C Taylor quoted by Claudio Carvalhaes (Union Theological Seminary) in her paper A Limping A/Theological Thought in Brazil


Vaughan Jones  has worked in the field of migration for over 30 years. He was the founding Chief Executive of Praxis Community Projects, which provides services and support to vulnerable migrants in the UK. He serves as Trustee of the Refugee Council and is actively engaged with the Migration Matters Trust in stimulating fresh debates on migration in the light of the Referendum vote. He has established a number of training and empowerment programmes for diaspora communities. Vaughan is a Minister at Union Chapel Islington and has an MTh in Pastoral Theology from Heythrop College.


Associated websites:

Migration Matters Trust

Union Chapel

Refugee Council