For a number of years now the representatives of our foreign missionary societies have been crying with a loud voice for the best talent of America to go into foreign lands. Their cry has been heard, and each year the choicest best-trained young men and women from our various colleges and universities have given themselves heart and soul to that great enterprise. Has the time not come for us to raise our voices in behalf of the needs of our own land? What is necessary to make the church awaken to her great responsibility and duty? She cannot help but hear the cry of the man from Macedonia, pleading in an unknown tongue for help to learn about God. Will the young men and the young women of today turn a deaf ear to the call of the foreigner in America (Mangano, Sons of Italy, 226-227)?
That sounds familiar. In fact, I have personally written things that sound just like that. So have many others. These words have a contemporary ring. They are a call to action in the midst of a very present reality for North American churches.
Except they are not. That call to action was written exactly 100 years ago, in 1917.
If this is not your first time reading one of the articles here on the site, then you most likely know what the Peoples Next Door project is about. Our primary goal here is equipping the local church to think through the Great Commission opportunities presented to the local church today by immigration. At no time in the history of our country have churches been presented with the dizzying array of peoples from around the world. Many cities and neighborhoods now have unprecedented access to peoples from the hardest to reach places in the world. The peoples of the world are, in many instances, literally next door. That comes with a God-given responsibility. It is no coincidence that God is plucking up millions from the hardest to reach places in the world and dropping them in the heartland of evangelical Christianity.
And while it is true that this moment is unprecedented, at the same time, it is not completely new. There has never been this kind of radical diversity. Never before have peoples from Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist areas of the world streamed to America as they have in the last couple of decades. Yet, this is not America’s first wave of immigration. It is not the first time the American church had to consider its responsibility concerning immigrants and their need for the gospel.
From 1880 to 1920, the United States experienced what many call the first great wave of immigration. During this period, an average of six million people arrived each decade. During it’s peak between 1900 and 1909, over eight million immigrants moved to the United States (Ward, Cities and Immigrants, 53). Before this time, immigrants tended to come from areas where Protestant Christianity was the norm. In other words, most came from Britain or Germany, and many came as evangelicals. However, during this first great wave, the tides turned and the majority entering the country were Catholic or Jewish, both groups that evangelicals considered in need of the gospel. Additionally, thousands began to come from East Asia; Chinese and later Japanese people came with a very different religious background.
Evangelical churches in America were faced with a new missionary task. For almost a century, they had gladly participated in the modern missions movement. Countless missions agencies coordinated the efforts of thousands of local churches to send hundreds of missionaries overseas to some of the very places of origin for many of these immigrants. Now, peoples from these places were making American cities their home.
So what did they do?
As you can imagine, the responses were varied. Many, perhaps most, were up in arms about this new tide of foreigners. They were scared that Catholics and Jews would ruin the American way of life. Many decried the vast numbers of Italians as political and ideological radicals. They were all anarchists who would undermine American democracy. Unfortunately, church folk were no exception. Many wanted nothing to do with these foreigners they believed were ruining their country.
Ironically, no one today would consider Italian-Americans as a destructive foreign presence. No one today (except the crazies in the White supremacist fringes) think of the Jewish people in the United States as un-American. Same goes with all the Slavic peoples from the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and a dozen other countries that came during that era. They are a part of who we are, now. Back then, they were the threat to the American way of life.
Other churches took a different approach. They saw the call to love their neighbors as one that applied to all their neighbors, even the new ones that were culturally different than them. These churches truly believed the gospel, and its fruits, were for all people. They believed that God had commissioned his church and that it came with a responsibility, that evangelism was the task of every Christian not just the ones we send overseas.
Now, what did these churches do? Hear these words taken from the same home missions manual I quoted above:
An excellent way to get at the problem first-hand is for every church to appoint an energetic local missionary committee, whose duty it would be to make a careful study of the foreigners in the community, gathering accurate information through personal contact, about the social, economic, and religious conditions of their foreign neighbors. Then seek, through English classes, sewing schools, civic clubs, home visitation, and personal friendship, to bring them under the ministry of the church. What can any Christian American do to reach the foreigner? Let him play the host to the stranger. We too often blame the stranger within our gates for his un-American standards of living. How is he ever to attain the true American standard if he never crosses the threshold of an American home? Not long ago a well-educated foreign worker startled his audience by telling them that he had been laboring in their city for over six years and had never been invited to an American home. People are honestly seeking how to reach Italians, but they do not use the most potent means at their disposal to establish a point of contact—their homes (Mangano, 208).
Sound familiar? The American church has been here before. How easy we forget our past, and how often we overlook our responsibility to God and neighbor to bear witness to the gospel for their good and his glory.