In an extraordinary example of everywhere-to-everywhere mission, Serah Wambua, one of the founding leaders of CMS-Africa and Wayne Wong, a team leader with OMF who moved to Kenya in 2014, are in the early stages of a joint strategy to help the African Church grasp the opportunity to share the gospel with the ever-growing Chinese population on their doorstep.
Can you briefly summarise the history of Chinese migration to Africa? What brings them there?
Wayne: About 100 years ago small numbers of Chinese people began moving to South Africa, mostly from the Southern provinces. In the 1960s Chinese people from Taiwan and Hong Kong also began moving to South Africa. The biggest movements have occurred in the last 10 years, from mainland China. This is due to vast Chinese business investment throughout Africa. We are talking about 1.5–2 million Chinese people living in Africa now. In Zambia and DR Congo there are a lot of Chinese miners and small traders. In Kenya, Chinese people are often executives, engineers, technicians, skilled professionals and entrepreneurs. The Kenyan government will largely only permit entry to those with professional skills. There are 50-100,000 Chinese people in Kenya alone.
Serah: In Kenya there are huge construction projects happening due to Chinese investment and large infrastructure changes, including the building of a huge railway. This requires thousands of technicians and engineers. So we see Chinese people everywhere. If you walk around Nairobi, you can’t not bump into Chinese people. One of the conditions of them being here is that they work alongside Kenyans; the idea is that there will be a transfer of skills and knowledge.
From your perspectives, what are relationships like between Chinese and African people?
Serah: There is a bit of a love-hate relationship. While Chinese industries have created vast employment opportunities for thousands of Kenyans, sometimes they are accused of taking jobs Kenyans can do.
Wayne: I think there was a journalist who said that the African-Chinese relationship is business-oriented, but there is little cultural and personal relationship outside of business. Many of the Chinese employees live on a separate campus. It’s self-contained; food and entertainment are provided so they don’t have to mix with Africans much if they don’t want to. The camps are largely for a perceived security need. Chinese executives can choose to live in different places. In Kenya Chinese people are concentrating in certain upmarket areas.
I’d say there is a certain amount of fear, suspicion, misunderstanding and prejudice. Few Chinese people have African friends. I recently spoke to a Chinese person who has been here for 15 years and doesn’t have any African friends. Why is this? I think there has been a lack of effort both ways.
There can be a Chinese-centric worldview. Some come to Africa feeling a bit superior, as China has become a superpower. Many Chinese see themselves as benefactors or contributors to Africa. They come to Africa as employers, managers, leaders; they become the ones in charge so this can add to a sense of superiority and some tension.
Before this massive migration to Africa, did African Christians try doing mission in China? To what effect?
Serah: There have been limited efforts by African Christians to reach Chinese people in China. About four or five years ago my church in Nairobi sent some short-term missionaries to China. They returned with little to report. Chinese people historically have been so far removed from Africa geographically, linguistically and culturally. These are big barriers.
African churches have had an interest in mission to Chinese people; we have prayed for them, but they have been so far away until now. With the geographical barrier removed, we can address challenges of language and culture.
Wayne: There are few African missionaries reaching Chinese people in China. There are a good number of African students in China, many of whom are Christian. These students could be mobilised but they are constrained by their foreign student status. They are monitored by authorities. There are African Christian fellowships in China and there are African pastors in China that lead Chinese churches (not house churches). There are Africans in the business community in China but they don’t tend to stay long term. I don’t know of much intentional outreach.
How did you meet each other?
Serah: CMS-Africa and Asia CMS recognised that there is a great cross-cultural mission opportunity here. Because of my interest and work with CMS-Africa in cross-cultural mission, Kang San Tan (AsiaCMS executive director) introduced me to Wayne and we started planning the Chinese Awareness Forum for African church leaders, which took place in September 2015 in Nairobi.
The conference was an eye-opener to me. I started looking at Chinese people in a different light. I had previously seen them as business people coming to Africa to make money and I wasn’t sure how to react or respond. After the conference, because I had heard about some of their struggles from Chinese leaders (not all were Christians) I felt a burden and love for them. I was praying about what I could do and Dennis Tongoi, CMS-Africa international director, asked me to work with Wayne and champion this area of mission. I know that one by one we can reach Chinese people with the love of Jesus. Even though I am officially retired, I have entered a new phase of work and together we are working on strategies.
Through Wayne I am making more Chinese contacts. They have been lovely and friendly. Wayne and his wife Irene are committed to the Kenyan church and it is a joy to work with them.
Serah, what were some of the struggles described?
Serah: Many of their struggles revolve around being mistreated by police.
They are often looked at as people who have money and corrupt police target them; they are stopped and questioned more often and taken advantage of.
Some Kenyans take advantage of the language barrier and try to con them. I realised I had never thought about this. I never thought of Chinese people as struggling at all.
Wayne: Interestingly, at the conference, a Kenyan Christian stood up and said he had never thought about Chinese people needing God because, he said, “They can do so many things. They are so capable.” It really highlighted the need for awareness that we were trying to address.
And it showed that there is a need for African Christians, especially in business circles, to engage with Chinese people.
So what is being done to reach Chinese people in Africa?
Wayne: For the past few years OMF has worked closely with Parklands Baptist Church in Nairobi. We have formed a Chinese Ministry team and this core team puts on outreach activities like outings, Chinese cultural celebrations and festivals. In February we started a bilingual church service. There is an emerging congregation of Chinese and African people worshipping and learning together. The core team has about eight people; the service has about four Chinese believers and some seekers who are not yet consistent in their attendance. We haven’t promoted it much yet.
We are trying to develop a model that specifically works with and through African churches that can be replicated elsewhere in Africa. This strategy might be difficult for some Chinese Christians to understand or embrace because it’s slower. Having Chinese Christians plant Chinese churches might seem more expedient. But we really want to come alongside the African Church and work together. And we do see Chinese people coming to faith. Hopefully we will see more African partners like CMS-Africa join in.
I’ll share a story of a couple: L and J. L left his job as a departmental head of a large state-owned company in China and moved to Nairobi in August 2014 to be close to J, who has worked in Nairobi since early 2014. They both joined a bilingual Bible study at our flat together with Kenyan Christians. Initially, L was wary of the Kenyans because of misconceptions he had developed. In the first two months, he regretted his decision to move to Kenya.
But they kept coming to the Bible study and later the bilingual service and they became believers. Their relationship with Kenyans also started to blossom. Early this year, L told me, “The Kenyans in the Bible study group are good people.” He even started embracing them. He recently told us that he and J pray now by name for their Kenyan brothers and sisters.
Wayne, what do you think Serah and CMS-Africa can contribute?
Wayne: CMS-Africa can be a great mobiliser and they have a wide network so they can help bring awareness. Together, with their experience we can explore new models. CMS-Africa’s commitment to “business as mission” is particularly relevant to this context. For example, we have talked about an idea of a recruitment service that will place faithful Kenyan Christians in Chinese companies so they can be a witness.
Serah: Chinese people are so involved in the marketplace, that if Kenyan Christian business people could be discipled to see and use this opportunity to demonstrate their faith to Chinese people – listening and responding to their struggles, demonstrating a lack of corruption – this could be a powerful entry point for the gospel. My nephew is a Christian working for a Chinese company and he is so appreciated because he lives and works like a Christian; he is faithful and reliable. It’s a wonderful witness.
Wayne, can you describe the religious views of Chinese people in Africa? Are any other faith groups actively trying to reach them?
Wayne: Most of the Chinese people I have encountered are atheist. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been doing outreach in Kenya for the last 10 years. For this, they have trained Kenyans to speak Mandarin. This is just beginning for us. It might be a good idea to look out for African Christians returning from spending time in China, as they would be good at building bridges after their cross-cultural exposure.
Do you think there is something inherent in Chinese and African cultures whereby Africans might be more suited to mission among Chinese people than westerners?
Wayne: Well for example Kenyans are very hospitable and welcoming. Most Chinese people here are in the position of being strangers. If African churches can actively express their cultural value of hospitality and welcome the stranger, they can provide a sense of community in a different land. This is a key strength. Many Chinese people have gone south of the Sahara in Africa and south of the Sahara more than half the population is Christian. We believe that God will not bypass African channels to share the gospel with Chinese people. God has sent Chinese people here so Africans can reach them.
Serah, as you talk to African Christians about growing this area of mission, do you encounter any resistance?
Serah: There isn’t resistance; in fact the opposite. They are eager, but many don’t know where to begin. Churches need to be mobilised. It is now a question of following up. We need to bring churches together to understand the Chinese story in Africa. We must mobilise the churches through giving them information. We need to do surveys and research. We must overcome barriers of language and culture, which from experience, I can tell you is not easy, particularly the language. We need to work with statistics and mapping. I believe the church in Africa is ready for this challenge. To do this and to do it well. These are our brothers and sisters that God has brought to our doorstep. I travel a lot with and I have seen Chinese people in Ethiopia, Rwanda, everywhere. God must be speaking to us as Africans. This is a miracle.
Do you both sense God’s timing in this, in that if this movement of people had happened, say, 50 years ago, do you think the African church would have been ready?
Serah: God’s timing is best. The continent has grown economically and the church has grown and matured in seeing its place in God’s mission. If this had happened at another point in history, some Africans might have been asking Chinese people for money, become dependent. The continent is now full of business people and many are members of our churches. Chinese and African people are interacting through the platform of business. So it’s good timing economically and spiritually. This can be a revolution. My hope is that the global church prays for Chinese people in Africa. The numbers are growing by the day. And many seem like they are coming to stay. The opportunity is so great. It is growing. It is real. God is in control. We need to position ourselves to be empowered by him for mission. Pray that the church will be awakened to this new movement of God.
Wayne: This is a special season. The African missionary movement is growing and cross-cultural mission is on their doorstep. We want to see African and Chinese Christians working hard to reach Chinese people together. And some day reaching beyond to other cultures. Together.
The Call in Action: PRAY
- Pray for Serah and Wayne as they continue to work together in cross-cultural mission.
- Pray for CMS-Africa in their role in this emerging mission context: cms-africa.org
- Pray for Christians in Africa to be mobilised to share the gospel with Chinese people.
Editor’s note: AsiaCMS is grateful to Church Mission Society (UK) for granting permission to republish their article originally posted on 2 December 2016 at http://www.churchmissionsociety.org/our-stories/when-cultures-converge