‘Whenever you go to church, you feel like this is home, and you feel that, yes, you’re embraced and you are welcomed by people who are in the parishes,’ said Deacon George Piech Meat, a prominent leader in Melbourne’s South Sudanese Catholic community, speaking recently to ABC Radio’s Religion and Ethics Report.
The program, which explored the central role of the churches in the lives of African migrant communities, also featured an interview with Western Sydney University’s Dr Kathleen Openshaw, co-author of a new report on the African Christian community in Australia.
Almost half a million Australians are from African backgrounds, and for many of them, religion plays a central role in their lives, Dr Openshaw explained. As well as being places of worship, churches ‘provide key spiritual, social and material hubs’ for African migrant communities, she said.
‘When people move, they pack their bags and they bring their religion as well. It’s the same thing with African Christians. For African migrants, their Christianity is entangled with their Africanness … For a lot of them, a lot of how they understand their migration to Australia is really through the lens of their religiosity.’
Some churches will sponsor refugees for resettlement, and when they arrive, church ministries supplement and complement many of the social supports that new African migrants receive from the government.
‘Because they’re seeing their congregants far more often sometimes than social services here, they’re also far more responsive to the everyday needs of their congregants,’ Dr Openshaw explained.
For African migrants, their Christianity is entangled with their Africanness … For a lot of them, a lot of how they understand their migration to Australia is really through the lens of their religiosity.’
Often this support has a strong emphasis on education, she said, with churches providing English language classes and teaching people other practical skills to help them navigate their new lives in Australia, such as how to do their taxes or how to access social services. The churches are also well placed, she said, to ‘facilitate community education sessions around public health campaigns, intimate partner violence and the like’.
And since parents are often unable to help their children with their studies because they are still learning English themselves or because they have to be at work, many churches also offer homework clubs for school students. Churches play an important role in encouraging young people to stay in school, Dr Openshaw said, ‘really emphasising the importance of education but then also offering those practical supports like homework club’.
When Africans arrive in Australia, often they will seek out and stay in the Christian traditions they are familiar with from their homelands. ‘Those might be mainstream denominations—so Catholicism, Anglicanism—or it could be their African-initiated churches,’ Dr Openshaw said. Other newly arrived African migrants might begin their own churches in Australia, and others will be drawn to large Pentecostal churches, such as Hillsong, which have a global profile and so will already be on the radar of many newly arrived immigrants.
Concerned about keeping their children closely connected to their Christian faith and heritage in the context of a more secular culture, many African migrant families will gravitate to large, ‘vibrant’ churches that they feel will appeal more to their children, said Dr Openshaw.
‘Second-generation migrants, or at least migrants that were very young when they came to their new home, are trying to navigate that weird space where you’re between two cultures’ she observed. ‘Certainly in Australia, that plays out sometimes in very difficult ways.’
While African-Australian families tend to be ‘very serious about their religion’, she says, the younger generation are also being brought into conflict with ‘much more secular, permissive attitudes in their peer group. And, of course, that is something that churches—particularly African-initiated and majority churches—are trying to navigate, as well as parents.’
There can sometimes be real tension, Dr Openshaw said, between parents and their children, who might resist the commitment of time sometimes expected in African families when it comes to church involvement and attendance.
‘It’s a full family event, and it’s multiple times a week. You have children, parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles going to church. You’re really embedded in that space multiple times … not just on a Sunday. There’s church events and prayer groups and that kind of thing.’
Nevertheless, she says, ‘churches play an important role because they provide a lot of support for the youth. They give them opportunities to build their confidence. They offer good role modelling.’
Rev George Piech Meat, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, can personally attest to the important role that church communities play in welcoming African migrants and helping them to settle and thrive in their new home. Originally from South Sudan, he fled persecution during the civil war in his homeland and eventually migrated with his wife and three children, via to Egypt, to Melbourne, arriving here in 2004.
Churches play an important role because they provide a lot of support for the youth. They give them opportunities to build their confidence. They offer good role modelling.
Now a father of six children and a grandfather to three, Deacon George was one of the first married deacons to be ordained in Melbourne and now ministers to several thousand South Sudanese, many of them with stories similar to his own. ‘And some of them even tougher than my story,’ he said, ‘especially those who went through the refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Middle East and countries like Lebanon, and … Syria. It’s a very, very, very tough journey, a journey of struggle and a journey of sacrifices. But we thank God [for] those who made it here.’
Echoing Dr Openshaw’s comments on the central place of Christian faith and church life in African migrant communities, he observed that ‘whatever place we go to, we find that the first things that we associate with is always the Church. And this is what our people did when the first people came here: they associated themselves with the Church. And in early 2003, 2004, we had a lot of people that came. Most of them were Catholic, and we established ourselves in the parishes where we were welcome … We don’t have a permanent centre or a permanent parish, but we’re working within our local parishes.’
Deacon George was in no doubt that the support provided by churches to African migrants has made all the difference for many families, who can arrive feeling quite lost and wondering if they are welcome.
‘I think … what keeps us together and what keeps our faith still alive is the way we were welcomed by all these parishes, where they help us in [the] resettlement process,’ Deacon George said. ‘Like myself, I came here without proper English. So I was embraced in the parish. I was welcomed, and then I was guided. I was encouraged to go to school. You know, I had to do my English.’
What keeps us together and what keeps our faith still alive is the way we were welcomed by all these parishes.
Supporting the education and wellbeing of young African-Australians has been a big part of this, he said. ‘If you want to achieve something in life, you have to study.’
Pointing to the success of young African Australians in all sorts of fields, from government and the law to business and sport, he said, ‘This is because of the way we were encouraged to study and also to see that, yes, the future is ahead of you. You have to establish yourself. One day, the benefit will be not only [for] you, but also for your next generation.
‘People who are now the greatest people in our communities, they are the people who were welcomed by the churches. Not only Catholic churches … there are many other churches that opened their doors to us,’ he said.
‘The way that Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” … this is exactly what all these churches did to all the African communities in … our Australian cities.’
Banner photo: Migrant and Refugee Sunday at St Patrick’s Cathedral, 24 September 2023.
Christian Bergmann20 September 2023
Melbourne Catholic22 September 2023