Faith Rooted in Migration Stories

Photo: CAFOD Photo Library/Flickr

From The Catalyst, Spring 2016

by Naomi Kabugi

The spirit of migration permeates, and to a large extent defines,the biblical narrative. This theme is found in Genesis, the Psalms, and Revelation.

The book of Genesis might as well be named the book of migrations. The first people, Adam and Eve, were banished from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23). Cain was condemned to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth (Genesis 4:12). Many of us can recall the Sunday school stories about Noah and the Ark, with his family and a number of living creatures. The disaster they encountered echoes contemporary images of refugees travelling by boat to more secure lands. Later in the book of Genesis, God tells Abraham to “go to the land that I will show you.” These are some of the numerous stories told in the backdrop of God’s intentions to save lives amid the trauma of travel, displacement, uprootedness, and migration.

The experience and the image of a sojourner in Psalm 121 suggests that the greatest barrier to knowing God is not our displacement. Rather, it comes from a sense of security that we develop when we think that we have ‘arrived.’ At times, this feeling of security can be expressed in our doctrine and liturgy. But faith is a pilgrimage, and so our worship should reflect this. Without this perspective, we are dead to ourselves and our worship is hollow.

Nearly 60 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

The relationship between human mobility and divine purpose is also reflected in the story of the Apostle John in Revelation. Because of the “word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” he was exiled on the island of Patmos where he saw a series of visions (Revelation 1:9).

Today, due to widespread changes especially precipitated by war, more people are migrating than ever before. The latest statistics show that nearly 60 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes. The longstanding and accelerating reality of global migration presents us with an opportunity to ground our faith in a specific social location. This emerges from the joy and hope, as well as the grief and anxiety, of many immigrants and refugees. In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, stories of strength and resilience have emerged as refugees look in wonder at how they ever made it. God is still working miracles, and we can behold his glory and power. But looking at God’s mercy also leads us to think about the suffering of those who never left and the lives lost for those unable to complete the journey.

Migration is a volatile and contentious political issue. The debate around it can be confusing. But people of faith need to be grounded in the fact that immigrants and refugees are not defined by their political status. They are human beings.

Identifying migrants, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers primarily with their political status has several negative effects. First, it leaves migrants and refugees vulnerable to control and manipulation. Being reduced to a political status creates a form of psychological colonization (a term no one wants to be identified with in the 21st century). Second, identifying migrants and refugees in terms of their political status denies them the personal and relational nature of human existence, as well as the mystery of human life as part of the mystery of God. Human beings are created in the image and the likeness of God. Our communal and individual mission of faith is to bridge the gap created by the dehumanizing experience of migration.

We are called to help those on the move discover an inner identity that fosters their own agency, rather than an imposed external identity that increases their vulnerability and subjugation. This is why people of faith need to stand in support of churches and justice organizations that promote the dignity of migrants and refugees. Individuals participating in such activities become part of the mystery of creation as they apply their calling and faith to the reality of biblical truth.

Rev. Naomi Kabugi is a Priest in the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa and a member of CPJ’s Board of Directors.