by P. Emil Chandran
Over centuries, and especially in recent decades, the South Asian diaspora has increased for demographic, economic, social and political reasons.
When the first group of astronauts arrived on the moon, they found an Indian from the Punjab state selling chappathi and tea under a thatched-roof shed, claimed a Kenyan-born South Asian church leader. This claim, though fictitious, illustrates the reality of the South Asian diaspora. The diaspora that originates from the seven South Asian nations—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—is spread across the globe in some sixty-four nations. The twenty-million-strong, worldwide South Asian community presents a challenging yet rewarding opportunity for cross-cultural missions in nations which are now their home.
In the Old Testament, the term diaspora refers to Jews living dispersed among the Gentiles after captivity. In the New Testament, it refers to the body of Jewish Christians living outside Palestine. In recent times, the word has broader meaning: the collective forced dispersion of a religious and/or ethnic group. Also attributed to diaspora is a collective memory that transmits both the historical facts that precipitated the dispersion as well as its cultural heritage. When this people group becomes a minority, it wills its culture’s survival by transmitting its heritage. It retains these characteristics over time.
The reasons for the dispersion are varied. Over centuries, and especially in recent decades, the South Asian diaspora has increased for demographic, economic, social and political reasons. In nations such as India and Bangladesh, population pressure (called a “push factor” in demographic language) and other changes have led citizens to emigrate. Colonization resulted in officially sanctioned and voluntary emigration. During British rule, Indians emigrated to several African nations to serve in the British administration and in building Africa’s railways. Abolition of slavery in 1833 led to thousands of Indians settling in nations such as Mauritius, British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica and South Africa.
More recently, internal strife in northern Sri Lanka, for example, has caused not only tens of thousands of deaths, but has also led hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, Tamils in particular, to flee to other nations as political refugees. Just as centuries-old trade links between India and Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Singapore were factors in emigration from India to these nations, opportunities in recent decades in education and employment in Europe, the UK and the US have opened doors for young people to leave their nations in the “brain drain.” The relatively low cost of higher education and use of English as a medium of learning in Germany and France attract growing numbers of South Asian students. The explosion in computer technology has drawn thousands of Indian software engineers to meet the West’s demand for computer software personnel.
Data on diaspora
According to Operation World (Johnstone and Mandryk 2001), the South Asian diaspora numbers more than 16.7 million. Saudi Arabia and the US each has more than two million South Asians. Malaysia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and the UK each has more than a million. Myanmar has close to one million, most of whom migrated from the Indian subcontinent. Canada, Oman and Trinidad and Tobago each has more than half a million South Asians.
Challenges of the South Asian diaspora
The foremost challenge of the worldwide diaspora is integrating with the native community. To preserve cultural and social identity, South Asians keep their social and religious traditions and faithfully practice them in the host environment. Parents in the South Asian diaspora, for example, not only arrange their children’s marriages, but also arrange them within their own caste. Often they look for a spouse for their son or daughter in the place of their origin. Clinging to their traditions at the expense of openness to the host culture can hinder their integration with the host community. This is often aggravated by the lack of receptivity, let alone hospitality, of the host community, which may view immigrants with suspicion. This results in ethnic ghettos, division and animosity between the host community and the diaspora.
Identity is a challenge specific to the second-generation diaspora, born and raised in a host culture. The question each second-generation diaspora person faces is whether he or she is Asian, African, American, British or European. Within the diaspora community, the gaping cultural gap between older and new generations raised in the host culture leads to conflict in matters of preserving tradition and cultural practices. Parents may want to arrange a bride or bridegroom for their child, but the son or daughter may want freedom to choose a spouse.
A third challenge, political in nature, emanates from host situations where a government becomes more nationalistic and perhaps antagonistic to the interests of the diaspora. With political power in hand, such a government can take punitive measures to reduce the economic interests of the migrant community. In extreme cases, this may include expelling the diaspora community from the host nation as happened to the Indian diaspora in Uganda during Idi Amin’s rule (1971-79). Ethnic or social antagonism can result in violence by a native community against the diaspora as in Kenya following a failed 1982 coup. Asians’ businesses were looted and vandalized, their homes were raided and Asian women were raped.
Uncertainties about their personal and business security have raised an important question for the diaspora who are establishing citizenship in nations that are politically fragile or unfavorable to their business interests. They may opt for dual citizenship in their homeland and the host nation. Alternatively, the extended family may divide into two or more groups: one part of the family remains in the host country while others live in their home nation where they feel more secure. Such situations have contributed to the diaspora’s lack of commitment to the host nation in general, and to its economic interest in particular.
Mission challenges and opportunities
In general, the churches’ response to the challenge of diaspora in host nations has been poor. With few exceptions, historic churches in the host nations have not taken up the challenge of reaching out to the South Asian diaspora. For example, as early as 1900, when Bishop Peel first visited East Africa, he was disappointed by the failure of missions to reach out to the demands of the Asian Indians in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa. Today, due to an influx of South Asians in the UK and US, the mission outreach to them has become urgent. In the absence of clear vision and strategy toward them, these communities have been striving to assert their cultural and religious identity by building mosques and temples. Even with a noticeable presence of Asian Christian communities, the lack of vision and strategy among churches in host nations to integrate them has led to the founding of ethnic-based independent churches. The cultural and religious challenges in reaching the worldwide diaspora should not diminish the importance of the biblical mandate and the mission opportunity to reach out to them.
Challenges.The South Asian diaspora communities are theistic. They hold strongly to the religion in which they are born. Hindus generally consider their religion a birthright and desire to be Hindu until death. Changing religion is a foreign concept considered a denial of that right and a sacrilege that violates dharma, or adhering to one’s station in life and fulfilling Hindu responsibilities.
The notion that Christianity is a Western religion remains a major barrier for the gospel. Many construe Christianity as a permissive religion that allows drunkenness and womanizing. The strong practice of vegetarianism in several South Asian religions may make it almost impossible for a vegetarian Hindu, Jain or Buddhist to accept Christianity. There is a need to clarify to an Asian that Christianity came from Asia where Jesus was born and lived. He was a son of a carpenter who was an Asian businessman.
Further, a syncretistic mindset often prevents those of the diaspora from accepting the gospel as the truth and Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. While there is recognition that God is truth, Asian religions hold that many paths lead to the same truth. Hinduism, South Asia’s largest religion, is pantheistic. Hindus worship 330 million gods, hindering them from believing that only Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Interestingly, this mindset has caused uncertainty and lack of assurance of a relationship with God in the minds of many deeply religious South Asians who genuinely search for the truth. As a result, many of them have accepted the gospel of truth in Christ.
Asian syncretism and pantheism, however, aren’t reasons for churches not to reach out. I have ministered to Hindus in diaspora who at first resisted the gospel but later accepted Christ as one among the pantheon of gods. In 1995, my wife and I were ministering with another couple to a group of strong, formerly wealthy Sri Lankan Hindus who had hung portraits of Hindu gods in their sitting room. Although they initially resisted the gospel, our concern and acts of love touched them. Ministry through word and deed and their experience of healing through prayer led them to accept Christ as a god-Savior. At the next weekly meeting, we saw Jesus’ picture hanging with the portraits of other gods. We continued teaching God’s Word to that searching and open-minded group, and expressed concern and love. They eventually accepted Jesus as their only Lord and Savior and salvation through him alone.
Another great challenge for South Asians is slow growth in Christian faith because of their inward struggle between the “old” and “new” religions. To an Asian, the old religion was a way of life that included practices like praying to many gods out of devotion and fear. Moving to something that is attractive, yet new and different, creates conflict in the mind of a religious Asian, thus slowing growth in his or her new faith. Yet, these fledgling believers have the new benefit of love and care in the fellowship of Christians. I have seen much growth in the lives of Asian converts through intimate and informal home settings. Formal, impersonal evangelism approaches that target masses with little, if any, follow-up are ineffective with South Asians.
Strong family ties characterize the diaspora, but they may be another barrier to the acceptance of Christian norms and living among those who have opened their minds and hearts to the gospel. Many will downplay their new Christian faith and not profess it openly for fear of alienation from the extended family or ethnic community. Many opt to believe secretly.
For six years my wife has ministered to a Hindu woman from a diaspora family in Kenya. The woman became a Christian but has not told her mother-in-law for fear of reprisals, even though her husband knows about her new faith and has accepted it. For years she did not know how to deal with the shrine in her home filled with images of many gods. It took years of encouragement and teaching the Word for her to choose to remove all idols from the shrine with her husband’s consent.
Seen from a Western mindset, this former Hindu’s delayed decision and hesitance to acknowledge Christ may be viewed as lack of commitment to her new faith. However, as an Indian who understands the social and economic dynamics of an Indian family, I see this behavior as ordinary in the Asian cultural setting, part of the process of a new follower growing out of the strongholds of her traditional religion.
Opportunities. In spite of mission challenges that the diaspora presents, opportunities abound to reach out to the Asian diasporas.
First, people of the diaspora are open to discussing God, religion and prayer. They do not consider religion a private matter. Some of our encounters with Hindus and Muslims suggest that South Asians, especially the physically, socially and economically needy, are open to prayer support regardless of their religion. This opens opportunities to share about God, his love and salvation as they have breakthroughs in their situations through prayer.
Second, the exposure of South Asians to a new culture leads to a reappraisal of their own culture and religion. Norms such as freedom, justice and equality, considered fundamental yet basically Christian in modern societies, challenge their own traditional and religious norms. The churches have a chance to show the diaspora community the Christian virtues of love, care and dignity that, in certain diaspora communities, are overshadowed by their cultural traditions. The Hindu caste system, for example, allows and perpetuates inequality in Hindu society. The expression of love to those considered lower by fellow Hindus opens a way for them to experience and understand freedom and equality in God’s love through Christ. The new-found Christian faith can be liberating to those who feel oppressed by the caste tradition.
Reaching out to individual members of the diaspora may open avenues to the whole family or community because of close-knit relationships. Due to my wife’s ministry to the Hindu woman in Kenya, both of her teenaged children are interested in Christianity.
The South Asian diaspora across the globe, especially in the West, is economically influential. When South Asians succeed in their work and businesses in host nations, they also contribute to the economic welfare of those nations. They are a significant audience for outreach. While history reveals many missed opportunities to reach out to them, churches across the globe still have open doors to share the gospel. In some African countries, rightly or wrongly, the Asian business communities are often stereotyped as “hoarders” of goods; however, when churches do not share the gospel, much more precious than material goods, they are far worse “hoarders.” As one Asian convert pointed out, “I have lost many precious years of my life without knowing Christ, as those Christians I came across did not share the gospel.”
Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Lifestyle.
P. Emil Chandran is associate professor of statistics and chairman of research and consultancy at Daystar University, Nairobi, Kenya. He has been a missionary from India to Kenya with the Church Missionary Society, UK, since 1985. He served the Anglican Church of Kenya as director of research for ten years before joining Daystar University in 1995.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 450-455. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.