Attentiveness: Migration - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Migration

“I am from Sulawesi, sir . . . Indonesia.”

“We are from the Celebes, the city of Manado.”

Arriving at a small town in New Hampshire for a presbytery meeting, I did not expect to be greeted by twenty or thirty brightly dressed Indonesians. Breakfast was nasi goreng with some chili sauce, eggs, and bacon.

At breakfast I sat next to a very tall gentleman who, I guessed correctly, was from South Sudan. I learned after some conversation that he was the pastor of a Sudanese congregation in Maine. He already had a Gordon-Conwell Diploma in Urban Ministry and was interested in finishing a master’s degree. In addition, when two Indonesians found out I worked at Gordon-Conwell, they inquired about studying the Bible and ministry at Gordon-Conwell.

Most of the younger people I met were Indonesian or Sudanese. Here are some reflections on my surprising presbytery experience in rural New Hampshire.

First, the hospitality from the Indonesian congregation was noteworthy. About thirty church members took off the day to fix breakfast and lunch and to serve communion for the members of presbytery. The joy, abundance of great food (“Please, sir, take some home with you.”), and youth of the congregation was memorable. I have never been to a presbytery meeting where so many people from the congregation were so involved—including time from well before the meeting until late in the afternoon cleaning up.

Secondly, the interest in seminary (especially studying the Bible) was also remarkable. From the time I was ordained in 1987, I have been attending presbytery meetings as a seminary professor. This is the first time, in my experience, that there has been so notable an interest in pursuing a seminary education from those attending the meeting.

Thirdly, I saw a dynamic picture of migration. It has been over ten years since I wrote a chapter in one of my books about mission and migration.[1] At the time most of my research came from library research. I had some experience with the impact of migration in the West with Korean and Latin American migration, but this past weekend was different. The Celebes is mostly Muslim and so is Sudan where the Dinka and Nuer call home. Both the Indonesians and the Sudanese came to the U.S. out of powerlessness, and now they express a new type of strength and joy: a Christian strength. Today they bring some of the greatest vitality to our presbytery. For example, when the youth were describing their work in the church they focused on mission. The church takes a separate mission offering each week. The teenagers also talked about a local shelter where they volunteer caring for old New Englanders who have come upon hard times. We learned that the Indonesian congregation is involved in four different types of local and global mission outreach. I saw how immigrants themselves are in mission to the U.S.

Fourthly, these immigrants came from areas where, in earlier years, Presbyterian missionaries had served. I know some about the work of Presbyterians in Indonesia (British, U.S. and Dutch Reformed missionaries), but I know quite a bit about W. Don McClure’s pioneering work among the Dinka, Nuer, and others in Sudan and Ethiopia. McClure was martyred in Ethiopia by Marxist rebels in 1977. He is memorialized for his work in saving lives, translating the Bible, and planting churches in two ways: a book (written by his son-in-law, Dr. Charles Partee) and an endowed seminary chair at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary named after him.[2] Bringing the gospel to nomadic tribes like the Nuer and Dinka involved much suffering and death. Yet now they return to us as bearers of hope and the challenge of the gospel.[3]

As we consider modern-day migration, we must not lose sight of the obedience, witness, and suffering of Western missionaries with the faithfulness and witness of Africans and Asians who are now our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Faithfulness in mission has brought about the possibility of renewal and revival in the West . . . if we can only listen and learn. Whether through intentional mission (the missionary movement) or by accidental mission (migration), the gospel has power to cross cultural barriers to reach all the nations of the world, even New Englanders.

[1] The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Christianity: 1900-2000. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) chapter 5, “On the Move: Christianity and Migration.”
[2] I served for 14 years as the first inductee in the W. Don McClure chair of evangelism and mission at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
[3] The suffering of missionary families is an important theme to remember both biblically and theologically. Here Partee describes some of the suffering to bring the Gospel to the Nuer and Dinka.

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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