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Understanding and Reaching African Immigrants

My name is Emmanuel Ambane, husband of Alison Ambane, and father of Camilla Ambane. Why are we here today? Today, we are here to talk about understanding and reaching out to African immigrant with gospel of Jesus Christ. Why will single word Africa represent the whole continent? Many may be tempted to think of Africa as a monolithic culture. Why in fact, Africa is made up of 54 countries, 1000 of languages and millions of people, groups, and cultures. In spite of these differences, we always share the same last name Africa, because we are one family.F

Now I would like to talk about some similarities that Africans immigrants share.
African can also identify each other by our names. For example, since many African culture, don’t have a suffixes like senior, junior, the first, the second, and the third. African name often repeat or triple their last name as suffixes. For example, with my father’s name being Emmanuel Ambane. My name is Emmanuel Ambane and Ambane. And if I have a son, his name will be Emmanuel Ambane Ambane Ambane. And if I have a grandson, his name will be Emmanuel Ambane Ambane Ambane, and so on. So name can also indicate a specific tribe or a specific religion.

Another similarity that Africans have in common is the phenomenon of chain migration that we can observe. And the phenomenon of chain migration consists of a setting pattern for pursuing similar career for a specific people group. For example, it’s very common to find refugees working in meatpacking plants or African from specific countries, working as medical doctors, computer engineers, tailors, or taxi drivers in larger cities like New York.

Let’s look at some of the difference that we observe among Africans immigrants. First of all, religions, one of the main differences that exist among African is in the area of faith. In fact, North Africa is heavily influenced by Islam while countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are often influenced by Christianity and traditional worship. As a result of religious differences, it is often common to see North African associating more with Muslim from the Middle East and Muslim from around the world. Whereas the Sub-Saharan Africans, usually form their friendship among themself and the Christian world.

As the Kenyan theologian and philosopher, John Mbiti remind us that wherever there is an African, there is religion. It is rare to encounter an African who will not identify as Christians, Muslim, or traditional worshiper, while many people in the west, North America and Europe are familiar with Christianity and Islam. Traditional worship consists of spiritual activities, such as prayers, Thanksgiving, and making sacrifice. For many African who perceive Christianity and Islam as imported religions, they have kept their worship to the God who is the creator of the world and who lives among the people.
One of the best ways to reach out to African Muslim is by letting them see Christ in our lives. To brew this in African pot, when someone has an ugly house, you do not tell that person to destroy his or her house because it’s ugly. Instead, you build a nice house next to that person’s house and invite that person to feel at home in your house.

Similarly, when Christian adopt a lifestyle of care, generosity and hospitality, Muslim get attracted to the Christian faith. In our gospel outreach to Muslim, we need to remember that the faith journey towards Jesus, it’s never a microwave process that happens overnight, but it’s more like a cook pot process of friendship and discoveries of the truth of the gospel.

After observing the prayer and service oriented life of his daughter during his visit in the U.S. a Muslim father from Burkina Faso, told his daughter that if he ever sees God after his death, he will hug him for showing the right way to his daughter. After hearing that Jesus was also available to him, the Muslim father embrace Christ. This is just one of a 1000 stories of Christian with a Muslim background who have come to faith because they saw Christ living among them. Sometime building a house speaks louder than talking about the material and details necessary to build a house. How do we build a relationship with Christian Africans and Muslims?

So now I want to talk about cross-cultural friendship, as wonderful as cross-cultural friendship can be. It never comes without cost of overcoming barriers and learning opportunities. Let’s talk about some barriers here that prevent us from befriending African immigrants. First of all, colonization, due to the fact that African countries with the exception of Ethiopia have been colonized by Europeans and Arabs. Many Africans are often on their guard and suspicious when Westerner reach out to them, even though the Westerner may come with good intention. As an African proverb teaches us that if you see the same tree twice in the forest you are lost. African are often suspicious of a hypocrisy that religion came with exploitation.

It is commonly said in Africa that when the missionary tell us to close our eyes to pray, by the time we open our eyes, our land was gone and we had chain on our hands. With a recent rise of social injustice in North America, many African of darker skin tone have left many white evangelical church that didn’t want to address the problem of racism in the U.S. While many people in the white churches say that they were sad to see their African friend leave their churches. The leader of those churches were not sad enough to address the issue of racism that the African congregant have experience. This hypocrisy of living half of a gospel can only bring some flashback of colonization among African. To illustrate the impact of this hypocrisy, a math professor from Benin. Say that, “if I have not been a Christian in Africa, I will have not become a Christian here in America.”

Another factor that can sometime make the outreach difficult to African is a paternalistic mindset because many African countries have been colonized by French, German, Portuguese, and British. It is sometimes difficult for African to trust Westerner that they may perceive as exploiter. The fact that Westerners sometimes take the initiative to do things in a western fashion is often perceived as an updated version of colonization. For example, when it comes to reaching an African community, Africans are never part of a conversation on how to best reach and address the needs of their community. For many Africans homegrown Ministry will have been their preferred recipe. In the word of John Mbiti, the days are over when we will be carbon copies of European christian. He told the New York Times, Europe and America westernized Christianity, but Orthodox easternized it. Now it is our turn to Africanize it.

Another barrier that we can notice among African immigrant is often the baggage of negative stereotypes. African often perceive have a stereotype of poverty, civil wars, diseases, and cultural values can be used to demean and ridicule them. During student orientation on the Midwestern, an African Dean of a university share his frustration about his colleague who had asked him if he grew up with lions and other animals as pet.

Lastly, when it comes to identity, African students, especially of darker skin tone can often feel overlooked compared to their international friends from other cultures. On many campuses, African students often feel overlooked in friendship and leadership opportunities though this is never voiced by volunteers. We rarely see volunteers being fond of African student and their culture in International Student Ministry. When I asked an international student from Ivory Coast about the small presence of Africans in International Student Ministry, he told me that International Student Ministry never feels like it’s for us, but for other culture who had more students and whose culture appear to be more exotic.

Another barrier that we see when it comes to reaching African immigrants could be the language barrier. Many African Christian will sometime prefer a fellowship in their own languages and among their own people instead of joining a diverse church. For example, many African community in certain parts of the U.S. are organized in association in which they discuss issues and need of their community. It has been very encouraging to see churches empowering African immigrants to reach out to their countrymen and women in their heart language.

Hospitality is the bread of, and butter of any ministry, especially when it comes to reaching those who are from group oriented culture. For many group oriented cultures. It is common for immigrants to grow up around parents, grandparents, cousins, and uncles. The concept of community in their transition to North America is often a priority need. However, in many community events, African often feel like the setting doesn’t allow them to be themself. Though people are coming together for an event, the interaction remain distant and disconnected.

To put it differently it seems like community in Western culture is more like a popcorn approach where kernel of corn comes together without being connected to other kernel. Whereas in the African context, community is more like a spaghetti approach, where the lives and the story of individual intertwine. It is very common for African to be dissatisfied and disappointed when people that they consider family seem to have no time and space to fellowship with them. African immigrant generally feel like friendship with Westerner is shallow and can sometime expire after being part of a small group, a project or after graduations.

Just like we have seen some barriers, there are also opportunities to reach out to Africans. If we were to love their love languages, just like every culture has his love languages. African can see the love of Christ shine in the different ways. First of all, soccer, for many African soccer is the anchor of community. It’s usually on the soccer field that African loves to gather for networking to find jobs and we order resources in the community. Soccer is more than a game because it brings family, religions and languages together. Every soccer game is like a flashback of the day of Pentecost where you can hear player talking in Arabic, Twi, Yoruba, Igbo, Swahili and many other languages.

As the Lord, Jesus has modeled his international lifestyle before us. It is very important for us to meet Africans where they are with what they love instead of expecting them to come to us. Because in Africa, the friends of my friends are my friends, a generous hospitality of food and gift, we pay great dividends among African Christian and Muslim. Usually if one African feels welcome somewhere, he or she will bring others along.

Since many Africans find themself overseas, due to some push factors, such as civil wars or some pool factors such as education, jobs opportunity. It is important to learn and support our friends on their journey. Just like the chicken doesn’t talk about dentistry because it has no teeth. We cannot pretend to be expert on our friend’s journey, but we should ask them to educate us on their experience. It may also be important to champion them by encouraging them, by avoiding negative stereotypes, such as Africans are poor, savage, dumb or inferior.

In Ohio, the Christian Missionary Alliance Denomination is subsidizing the salaries and buildings of Eritrean immigrants so that they can reach out the Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants in their language of Tigrinya and Amharic.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about strategy, with more than 631 million Christian living in Africa and an additional 141 million Africans living overseas. The global church has a significant opportunity to reach every corner of a globe with a gospel, thanks to the multi-ethnic background of navigating languages and their concept of family and joy. African can play a significant role in the advancement of a gospel to every corner of the world. To illustrate this many Africans have grown up speaking more than one language and have been trained to navigate the myriad of culture and people group within their own countries. To put it differently Africans are by therefore cross-culturally trained missionaries without assignment, knowing that Jesus love people more than they do.

In many African culture, in which the word stranger or adoption don’t exist. African always perceive everyone as family. This is why it is very common among African to refer to different folks that they meet in church or at school, in terms of uncle, aunt, fathers, brother, mother, and sister. This is often shocking and sometime makes some white people uncomfortable because they do not perceive themselves as African whereas African just perceive them as one family.

During his first year of teaching seminary in Cameroon, an American faculty got confused, when one of his students asked permission several times throughout the year to go to his father funeral. In the mind of American faculty, he just assumed that everyone has one father. So after many funeral requests, he asks his student, how many father does he have? And the student answer by saying, he has many fathers, including the American faculty himself.

The impact of African overseas can be seen clearly in Canada, where a Ghanaian pastor led a multi-ethnic of more than a 100 different nation. In addition, one of the biggest churches in Europe is a multi-ethnic congregation led by a Nigerian pastor in Ukraine. Also we see many African students and immigrant building Christian fellowship in China, in Singapore, and today with the new digital platform, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, Instagram. The internet has become the new talking job that brings the whole village together, sermons being pushed in Africa, by African pastor are now broadcast around the world to 1000s of viewers, even in African villages where everyone has a cell phone. As an African proverb reminds us that alone you can go fast, but together we can go further. My hope and prayer is that the global church will recognize the strategic impact of the African continent, who has turned from a missions field into a mission force.

Understanding and Reaching African Immigrants


Africa is a big continent of many nations, people groups, and religions. What are some similarities and differences among African countries? What are common barriers to engaging Africans? Emmanuel shares his experience and gives a vision of the global impact African Christians can have.

Africa is a big continent of many nations, people groups, and religions. What are some similarities and differences among African countries? What are common barriers to engaging Africans? Emmanuel shares his experience and gives a vision of the global impact African Christians can have.