Diaspora Missions: When the nations far from God come near to us

Reaching the nations among us in Arkansas is not a new thing.  Yet, because people are currently more dispersed around the world than at any other time in history, it is perhaps more needed than ever.  Churches in collegiate towns have been partnering together for many years to minister to international students.  Every year the fruit of this labor results in a number of them following Christ and returning home to share with family and friends.  Furthermore, families have long been eager to welcome and come alongside refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing war and persecution.

Due to sustained ministry among immigrants and refugees, Arkansas Baptists currently have churches and missions worshipping in 10 foreign languages (Spanish, Mandarin, Hmong, Karen, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Marshallese, Hindi, and Chuukese).  New church plants are starting among Hindi speakers and other South Asian Indians.  Additionally, non-Baptist churches and fellowships worship in Tagalog/Filipino and Indonesian.  And there is real potential over the next few years to add missions in Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, and Punjabi due to their increasing populations and an increased interest among believers to reach them with the Gospel.  

God has brought the nations to us, and DIASPORA MISSIONS is the collective effort to reach these dispersed or displaced peoples wherever they are found.  Anyone living outside of their people groups’ homeland could be considered part of that group’s “diaspora” population.  In Arkansas alone there are over 76 Unreached People Groups (UPG) represented.  Some of the highest diaspora populations come from East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.  For example, South Asian Indians have come in large numbers to Northwest and Central Arkansas.  There are significantly more in places like Dubai, London, and New York City.  Each of these cities, and many more, have diaspora populations of South Asian Indians that represent numerous UPGs back in their countries of origin.  This story is true of almost every people group in Arkansas.

When we think about international ministry in Arkansas it is helpful to keep these larger networks in perspective.  Not only have those who are far from God come near to us, but God can use each of them to reach back into their home cultures as well.  A refugee or asylum seeker, while fleeing persecution, war, or natural disaster and looking for a fresh start in a new country, is often seeking to stay connected to other family members and sometimes even longing to eventually go back home.  An international student, immigrant, or migrant worker is simultaneously relating to others from their culture through travel, technology, and finances.  This creates the unique opportunity to reach individuals and groups here, there, and everywhere in between.  

There are three main categories of “dispersed” or “displaced” internationals in Arkansas: refugees, immigrants, and international students.  

  1. Refugees

Refugees, as well as asylum seekers, have fled their homes and have come here due to circumstances outside of their control.  Many of them are being persecuted simply for their ethnic or religious identity.  For these “forcibly displaced” peoples, ministry is often centered around tangible needs.  A refugee needs assistance with things like household goods, groceries, language learning, and help navigating the resettlement process.  This is not a short or smooth process, so there is a real opportunity to build meaningful relationships along the way.  

In Arkansas, most of our recent refugees have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In the past, however, Arkansas has either resettled or become the eventual home for thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Central and South America.  

2. Immigrants

While “immigrant” can be a broad category for anyone who comes to live here permanently, most of them will have come to either join family or to pursue economic and employment goals.  Immigrants’ needs will vary greatly based on their socio-economic status and their sense of community with others from a similar culture.  For example, those who are less prosperous and/or less populous might be more open to food assistance, children’s activities, and typical community outreach strategies.  Those who are more prosperous and/or can more easily find community among others from a similar culture tend to be harder to engage with normal outreach strategies.  They will require consistent and creative relational involvement from peers, co-workers, and neighbors.  

Diaspora populations among Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants, for example, have grown so much that many of them have their own local associations and religious establishments to meet many of the needs for which churches would otherwise provide a service.  Some of these groups are more capable of huddling together; therefore, intentionally building relationships with individuals will be the greatest in-road to reaching them with the Gospel.  

3. International Students

There are consistently over one million international students in the United States.  For the past several years Arkansas has averaged around 6,000 international students at colleges and universities, not including exchange students in high school.  An international student will have a lot of immediate needs their first few weeks in the states.  Oftentimes they can be identified and reached through some partnership with either their host campus or a Baptist Collegiate Ministry.  Sustained ministry will often take shape through conversation clubs, host homes, weekend activities, and holiday celebrations. 

Over half of our international students consistently come from some of the hardest to reach nations on earth.  These are often the best and the brightest coming from some of the most difficult and darkest places.  This creates the unique opportunity to advance the Gospel through a nation’s next generation of leaders and influencers.

A mixed multitude left Egypt with the Hebrews during the Exodus (Exod. 12:38, 48).  The foreigners among them were to be treated as natives in the Promised Land (Lev. 19:34).  Jonadab and the Rechabites were allowed to live among the Israelites and were promised to always have a descendent in service to God (Jer. 35:18-19).  Jews from every nation were gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:5-11).  The Ethiopian Eunuch believed the Good News on his way back from Jerusalem to Africa (Acts 8:27-28).  The exiles of the Dispersion, though sojourners, became a holy nation among the nations (1 Pet. 1:1, 2:9).  These are just a handful of biblical examples where the nations were dispersed from their homelands, and as a result became an integral part of God’s story of salvation.  

Fast forward to 2020 and you find thousands of international students, immigrants, and refugees who study, live, and work in Arkansas.  But, according to Acts 17:26-27, that is not the main reason they are here.  They represent over 130 unique people groups, each of whom can be reached with God’s story of salvation.  And each of them can be used by God to reach into some of the most unreached places on earth.   But first, each of them must encounter Christ through one of His ambassadors.

You are an ambassador for Christ.  

This is the first in a series of articles related to Diaspora Missions in Arkansas exploring the three main groups of internationals, ministry priorities, and roles of the local church.  If you would like further information on how to get involved in reaching the nations next door, contact Jamie Naramore at jnaramore@absc.org.

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