RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- A missionary with years of experience in the Muslim world was visiting back home in the United States when he struck up a friendly conversation with an immigrant shop owner.
"I said, 'Thanks for coming to America,'" the missionary recalls. The shop owner was moved almost to tears. "He put his arms around me and said, 'You're the first person who has ever welcomed me to this country.'"
During the same U.S. stay, the missionary spoke at a church in a Southern town. Before he arrived there, a member of the church surveyed the community's 20 or so Muslim families. Some of them had lived in the area as long as 10 years. The church member asked them if anyone in town had ever visited to tell them about Christ. No, they answered. Had anyone ever mentioned the name of Jesus to them? No. What was their chief emotion about living in America?
"We're so lonely," they responded. "No one ever talks to us. No one wants to hear our story. No one wants to have a meal with us."
The immigrants arriving in America these days include people who are very hard to reach with the Gospel in their home countries. Here, they can be reached by crossing the street.
But you have to cross the street.
"God is giving us a second chance. He is bringing the nations to us," the missionary says. "But we're running from the nations in our midst. Having Muslims in our homes is not brain surgery. But the thing that is driving the church is fear. Until we get over our fear, we will not welcome the lost in our midst. We're afraid of Muslims and we're afraid of foreigners. These people are so lonely and isolated. Get out of your church. Go to their homes. Invite them to your home. Shop where they shop.
"We're in a free country, and yet we're not exercising our freedom to witness to the nations in our midst."
What are we afraid of? Lots of things. Fear or suspicion of the stranger, the foreigner, the "other" is part of human nature. The United States has alternately welcomed and shunned immigrants over the past century, opening and closing its borders depending upon events, political-economic forces and social attitudes. More recently, the flood of illegal immigration, the competition for jobs in a recession-ravaged economy and the ongoing reverberations of 9/11 have played into the mix. And racism, even in our supposedly enlightened era, still poisons minds and hearts.
Within the church, there's another dynamic worse than fear or resentment: indifference. If we're not sharing the Good News with neighbors we've known for years or a lifetime, we're not going to share it with newcomers who don't act and talk like we do.
We need God's perspective. He told the children of Israel again and again to welcome the "stranger and the alien in your midst," reminding them that they once were aliens and refugees in Egypt.
Throughout history, observed the late, great missiologist Ralph Winter, God has been "kicking people out of one culture into a new one" -- from Abraham's move to Canaan, to Christian slaves carried off by pagan conquerors, to the present day.
God often uses such migrations, forced or otherwise, to place believers in cultures that haven't yet heard He is Lord. Alternately, He moves nonbelievers into cultures where they can hear the Good News, then sends them back to their own people groups to spread the Word.
The United States leads all nations of the world as a destination for migrants, according to new findings from the Pew Research Center. No surprise there. With 43 million foreign-born residents, our country counts more than three times as many migrants as Russia, the second-place destination. America is home to one of every five migrants worldwide.
"The United States has been the leading destination for many, though not all, religious groups," Pew reports. "The U.S. also has been the top destination for Buddhist migrants ... and for people with no particular religion (including many from China). The U.S. has been the world's second-leading destination for Hindu migrants, after India, and for Jewish migrants, after Israel." More than 2 million Muslim immigrants were living here in 2010.
According to mission research, nearly 600 unengaged, unreached people groups can be found in North America -- many of them in urban areas. They haven't heard the Gospel in ways they can understand it and respond to it, and no evangelical group currently has a viable plan to reach them. Up to eight of every 10 refugees resettled in the United States come from unreached areas of the world.
As participants in the recent "ethnéCITY: Reaching the Unreached in the Urban Center"* conferences have learned, many of those new arrivals are moving to medium-sized urban areas and suburbs, rather than the traditional ethnic enclaves of big cities. By 2010, slightly more than half of all immigrants could be found in suburbs.
According to The Brookings Institution, the number of foreign-born people in the United States topped 40 million in 2010, a 28 percent increase since 2000 and about 13 percent of the nation's total population. More than a third of new immigrants during the decade came from Asia, while the fastest-growing group came from Africa.
The five cities with the largest foreign-born populations are New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Houston. But the fastest growth is happening in smaller and midsize cities. Brookings reports: "A swath of metro areas from Scranton (Pa.) stretching southwest to Indianapolis and Little Rock and sweeping east to encompass most of the Southeast and lower mid-Atlantic ... saw growth rates on the order of three times that of the 100 largest metro areas' rate. These include Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville and Indianapolis, all of which passed the 100,000 mark for total foreign-born population by 2010." Similarly, the states with the fastest-growing foreign-born populations are North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Nevada and Tennessee.
That's essentially the Bible Belt, folks. How will we respond?
As a mission worker in a Muslim country used to tell me: "These people haven't rejected the Gospel. They haven't heard the Gospel."
Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.
*Co-sponsored by IMB and the North American Mission Board, ethnéCITY is the first tangible expression of a new partnership between the two mission entities, reflecting the reality that national borders no longer define the task of missions in a globalized world. The next ethnéCITY conference is scheduled for May 3-5 in Vancouver, one of Canada's major urban centers. To find out more or register, visit www.ethnecity.com.
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