Immigrants revitalize the church

Joji Pantoja reminds me of how immigrants spread the gospel in the early church.

Like Lydia of Acts 16, Joji Pantoja is an international businesswoman and chair of the MWC Peace Commission. Born in the Philippines, she moved to Canada in 1986, then in 2006 returned home as a Mennonite missionary.

While in Canada, she received hospitality from a Mennonite congregation that was so diminished in numbers they almost closed. Instead, the church made space for Chinese, Filipino and Indian immigrants to worship in their own languages.

Children of those immigrants spoke English, and some joined the English congregation. Attendance grew tenfold to a youthful, multicultural body of 200.

“God intends the church to be a diversified farm,” says Joji Pantoja. “Having only one crop depletes the soil.”

Joji Pantoja knows farming – coffee farming. In the Philippines, she founded awarded-winning “Coffee for Peace.” Philippine farmers and investors with her company grow and sell coffee in ways that respect soil and workers. A quarter of earnings goes to peacemaking.

Migration like Joji Pantoja experienced uproots people from society and family, making Christian community attractive. Writing from Corinth, the apostle Paul in Romans 16 greets a long list of believers at Rome whose names indicate they were immigrants who found a spiritual home among Christians in Italy.

Today, Mennonite Brethren church leader José Arrais of Portugal welcomes changes African immigrants bring to congregations in Lisbon.

“We used to be very still,” he says with a smile. “African immigrants brought vibrant worship, energetic music, new food, a sense being family… and also are most likely to invite others to faith.”

In modern France, “Churches have become laboratories of anti-racism,” says Mennonite missionary Neal Blough, “just like when the early church was the only institution in the Roman empire where all races and classes mixed.”

The church today should view arrival of newcomers as an opportunity to show hospitality and expect that immigrants will bring spiritual and cultural strength to our congregations.

— J. Nelson Kraybill is president of MWC (2015–2021). He lives in Indiana, USA.

 

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2019.

 

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