Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
There is growing interest among the public, policymakers and academics in the importance of religion in defining identity and community, particularly among migrant ethnic minorities. In Europe as well as in Britain, the predominant focus on the place and role of Islam in shaping and sustaining understandings of cultural and religious difference has diverted our attention from striking new patterns and processes characterized by the rise of African Christians in Europe. Over the past two decades, there has been a remarkable growth of African diaspora congregations in the UK. For instance, there is hardly a city or town in Britain which does not host two or more Zimbabwean diaspora congregations. African migrant churches are not new in Europe or Britain, they date back to the early 1920s and accelerated from the 1960s. However, it was not until the 1980s that a significant population of African Christians migrated to Europe responding to colonial and postcolonial conflicts and due to the forces of globalisation.
As a member of the African diaspora, my research has sought to understand the role of religion in the diaspora with a particular focus on Zimbabweans. I learnt the challenges of doing ethnographic research on multiple sites, having to negotiate access and adjust an appropriate identity from one site to another. For example, I was a worshipper in one site and a pub customer in another. Drinking alcohol or visiting the pub and attending a church service are activities socially constructed as contradictory, according to church teaching. Thus, every time I visited the pub I was anxious not to be seen by anyone from the church. From analysing the in-depth interviews and ethnographic data, I quickly realized how the growth of African diaspora congregations in the UK must be understood within the context of hostility towards asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. I have described these diaspora congregations as a kind of a modern-day transnational extended family – which offers spaces for belonging and sociality. The absence of proximate extended family and friends in the diaspora mean that diaspora congregations are not only sources of spiritual solace, but provide social, material, and financial assistance to its members in times of need. For instance, diaspora congregations play a significant role in helping members cope with bereavement including repatriating the dead to their countries of origin. For most Zimbabweans, the idea of being buried in the diaspora is seen as unAfrican yet anecdotal evidence points to it being an increasingly common practice not least due to the cost of body repatriation but also in some cases the absence of kinship relations in the homeland. In the African diaspora, I have argued elsewhere, we are not only witnessing the dislocation of the traditional family but also the re-configuration of new forms of social relations; relations that are not based on blood or kinship ties but which are fortified by faith, national and pan-African narratives.
The majority of African Christian migrants, Zimbabweans in particular, perceive the diaspora as the biblical equivalent of Babylon and Egypt to describe not only the spiritual condition of Europe but also the hostile reception that migrants encounter in their everyday lives. Paradoxically, migrants seem to have decided to settle in it but remain insulated from its secular values and norms. Migrants perceive themselves as having the responsibility, in some cases divine mission, to transform Britain’s religious landscape. Although some migrants have settled and are doing well, many experience de-skilling and others are trapped in unskilled jobs with insecure legal status. For most Africans in Britain, immigration status can be understood as a creating class divide as it shapes the opportunity structures for migrants as well determine their everyday lives. A significant number of African migrants I interviewed have first-hand experience of dispersal, detention and in some cases deportation. For example, social exclusion and explicit racism experienced by Zimbabwean asylum seekers and refugees in Wigan make the construction of diasporic identities a collective project, and churches spaces for belonging and conviviality.
Undoubtedly, religion plays a central part in shaping individual and communal identities among African migrants, most of whom were already active religious practitioners in their countries of origin. One of the constant themes that emerged in my fieldwork is about the upbringing of children in the diaspora. Many African families consider the UK not only expensive for raising a child but also unsuitable for doing so. Cultures of parenting, teenage/youth culture and child rights legislation are often cited out as running contrary to ‘African values’ and ideas about parenting that emphasise the importance of disciplining children and cultivating respect for parental authority. It is within this context that African diaspora congregations play a significant role in the upbringing of children, as one the respondents explains: ‘It is good that we are going to church as migrants, it’s good for our children that they are removed from dangers that are inherent in the young of this society, the drug life, knife crime. The church is a sanctuary for them’. Let me conclude by pointing out that African Pentecostal churches reject ethnic labels, for instance being called ‘African Churches’ but prefer to call themselves ‘international churches’ to describe their international character and mission to re-evangelise the secular Britain.
Dominic Pasura joined the University of Glasgow in August 2015 as a Lecturer in Sociology. He is author of ‘African Transnational Diasporas: Fractured Communities and Plural Identities of Zimbabweans in Britain’ (2014). Dominic is the first co-editor of the forthcoming academic volume ‘Migration, Transnationalism and Catholicism: Global Perspectives‘ to be published by Palgrave.