Pilgrims in the Port

The Identity of Migrant Christian Communities in Rotterdam

by Robert Calvert (Author)
©2020 Thesis 328 Pages


This publication investigates new ways of understanding international churches. Based upon recent fieldwork, six migrant Christian communities in Rotterdam were analysed using congregational study methods on how they construct identity. Through the frames of ‘koinonia’, ‘diakonia’ and ‘kerygma’, this research reflects on their composition, characteristics, leadership style, language and social capital. Language is found to be an important shaper or ‘carrier’ of identity and acts both as badge and bridge of identity. In building identity, MCCs do not behave in ways expected or consistent with the process of integration.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Foreword and Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Background to the Research
  • 1.2 The Research Question
  • 1.3 Methods
  • 1.3.1 Qualitative Research
  • 1.3.2 Case-Study Approach
  • 1.3.3 Frames of Analysis
  • 1.3.4 Literature Study
  • 1.3.5 Interviews
  • 1.3.6 Locus of the Researcher
  • 1.3.7 Locus of the Research
  • 1.4 Sources
  • 1.4.1 Primary Sources by MCCs in Rotterdam
  • 1.4.2 Secondary Sources on MCCs in Rotterdam
  • 1.4.3 Secondary Sources on MCCs in General
  • 1.4.4 Other Material
  • 1.5 The Research Problem in Wider Academic Discussion
  • 1.5.1 Sociological Studies
  • 1.5.2 Migration and Religious Studies
  • 1.5.3 Congregational Studies
  • 1.6 Structure
  • 2 Rotterdam
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Economic Aspects of Rotterdam
  • 2.3 Political Aspects of Rotterdam
  • 2.4 Historical and Religious Aspects of Rotterdam
  • 2.4.1 A Religious History of the City
  • 2.4.2 A History of Migrant Christianity in the City
  • 2.4.3 A History of Migrants of Other Religions in Rotterdam
  • 2.5 Rotterdam as a City of Worship
  • 2.6 Conclusion
  • 3 Classification
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Terminology for the Task of Classification
  • 3.2.1 Terminology in Recent Studies of MCCs
  • 3.2.2 Historical and Renewalist MCCs
  • 3.3 Ecclesial Identities
  • 3.3.1 Historical Churches
  • The Orthodox Tradition
  • Orthodox MCCs in Rotterdam
  • The Roman Catholic Tradition
  • Roman Catholic MCCs in Rotterdam
  • The Protestant Tradition
  • Protestant MCCs in Rotterdam
  • 3.3.2 Renewalist Churches
  • The Renewalist Tradition
  • Renewalist MCCs in Rotterdam
  • 3.4 Case Studies
  • 3.4.1 Introduction to Case Studies
  • Cape Verdean Portuguese-Speaking Roman Catholic Church448
  • Moravian Evangelical Brethren (Evangelische Broedergemeente)449
  • Congregation of Urdu Protestant Church Rotterdam450
  • Victory Outreach Rotterdam451
  • Glorious Chapel International (GCI)452
  • Alliance Messianique pour l’Evangelisation des Nations453
  • 3.4.2 Overview of Case Studies
  • 3.5 Conclusion
  • 4 Theoretical Aspects of Identity
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 Perspectives on Religious Identity
  • 4.2.1 Ethnicity
  • 4.2.2 Language
  • 4.2.3 Generation
  • 4.2.4 The Construction of Group Identity
  • 4.2.5 The Analytical Approach and Lenses
  • 4.3 Theoretical Aspects behind the Five Lenses
  • 4.3.1 Identity in Context
  • 4.3.2 Identity in Development
  • 4.3.3 Identity in Leadership
  • 4.3.4 Identity in Public Statements
  • 4.3.5 Identity in Public Service
  • 4.4 Conclusion
  • 5 Koinonia
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 Six Case Studies
  • 5.2.1 Portuguese-Speaking Cape Verdean Roman Catholic Church (PCVRC)
  • Their Context and Character
  • Their Story of Development
  • 5.2.2 Moravian Evangelical Brethren (MEB)
  • Their Context and Character
  • Their Story of Development
  • 5.2.3 Urdu Congregation of Protestant Churches Rotterdam (UCPR)
  • Their Context and Character
  • Their Story of Development
  • 5.2.4 Victory Outreach Rotterdam (VOR)
  • Their Context and Character
  • Their Story of Development
  • 5.2.5 Glorious Chapel International (GCI)
  • Their Context and Character
  • Their Story of Development
  • 5.2.6 Alliance Messianique pour l’Evangelisation des Nations (AMEN)
  • Their Context and Character
  • Their Story of Development
  • 5.3 Reflections on Case Studies
  • 5.3.1 Their Composition
  • 5.3.2 Their Tactics
  • 5.3.3 Their Languages and Generations
  • 5.3.4 Their Search for Space
  • 5.4 Conclusion
  • 6 Kerygma
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Six Case Studies
  • 6.2.1 Portuguese-Speaking Cape Verdean Roman Catholic Church (PCVRC)
  • Leadership
  • Nomenclature
  • 6.2.2 Moravian Evangelical Brethren (MEB)
  • Leadership
  • Nomenclature
  • 6.2.3 Urdu Congregation of the Protestant Church Rotterdam (UCPR)
  • Leadership
  • Nomenclature
  • 6.2.4 Victory Outreach Rotterdam (VOR)
  • Leadership
  • Nomenclature
  • 6.2.5 Glorious Chapel International (GCI)
  • Leadership
  • Nomenclature
  • 6.2.6 Alliance Messianique pour l’Evangelisation des Nations (AMEN)
  • Leadership
  • Nomenclature
  • 6.3 Reflections on Case Studies
  • 6.3.1 Leadership
  • 6.3.2 Nomenclature
  • 6.4 Conclusion
  • 7 Diakonia
  • 7.1 Introduction
  • 7.2 Six Case Studies
  • 7.2.1 Portuguese Cape Verdean Roman Catholic Church (PCVRC)
  • 7.2.2 Moravian Evangelische Broedegemeente (MEB)
  • 7.2.3 Urdu Congregation of the Protestant Church Rotterdam (UCPR)
  • 7.2.4 Victory Outreach Rotterdam (VOR)
  • 7.2.5 Glorious Chapel International (GCI)
  • 7.2.6 Alliance Messianique pour l’Evangelisation des Nations (AMEN)
  • 7.3 Reflections on Case Studies
  • 7.3.1 Social Capital
  • 7.3.2 Transnational Activities
  • 7.4 Conclusion
  • 8 Conclusion
  • 8.1 The Problem
  • 8.2 Identity Construction in MCCs
  • 8.2.1 Identity in Koinonia
  • 8.2.2 Identity in Kerygma
  • 8.2.3 Identity in Diakonia
  • 8.2.4 Final Considerations
  • Appendix I Letter to Melake Selam Abba Tesfa Mariam Lake in Abudabi from Abba Paulos, the Patriarch of Ethiopia, on 14 January 2005 (given to the author by secretary of the Eritrean Coptic Orthodox Church with permission to use).
  • Appendix II ‘Wheel’ of voluntary groups and activities that make up PCVRC (given to the author by Peter Stevens, priest of PCVRC with permission to use).
  • Appendix III Diaconal service: relationship to those in need against direction of help
  • Appendix IV Examples of diakonia in the field of MCCs in Rotterdam
  • (1) Service as diakonia
  • (2) Advocacy as diakonia
  • (3) Development as diakonia
  • (4) Organizing as diakonia
  • Bibliography
  • Index

1 Introduction

1.1 Background to the Research

The port of Rotterdam is full of churches that represent the interests of people not born in the Netherlands. If you take a metro on a Sunday morning through the city, you are likely to come across people of different national backgrounds on their way to church services. When I was pastor of the Scots International Church, I found many churches in the city with people who understood the Dutch language and had settled here from other countries. However, I also knew of other immigrants who attended ‘migrant’ rather than traditional churches and did not speak Dutch confidently or use it as their first language.

Some of these so-called ‘migrant churches’ in Rotterdam came into the limelight in 2004 on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Netherlands Missionary Council (De Nederlandse Zendingsraad). Their jubilee was celebrated in the Scots International Church that is situated in the city-centre district of ‘Cool Zuid.’ During a series of workshops migrant leaders and members of their churches related how, within this small inner-city neighbourhood, migrants from Asia, Africa, Southern America as well as countries across Europe attended churches where the main languages were French, English, Russian, Mandarin and Portuguese. The six churches that presented themselves that day are located in an area of no more than a square kilometre. The conference became a window into the world church. The city’s alderman for integration summed up the wider situation in the port city.

There are about ninety immigrant churches in Rotterdam. Scotland, Norway, China, Russia – almost every country is represented by its own house of prayer in our city. For the 160 nationalities in the multicultural society of Rotterdam, they constitute an indispensable place for reflection, rest and meeting with others.1

Migrant Christian communities in Rotterdam were only recently ‘discovered’ as a new phenomenon. The jubilee book about the NZR on Rotterdam’s migrant Christian communities states that “thirty years ago few people were aware of any Christian presence in this area” but “today non-Western religious communities flourish here.”2 As the pastor of a church that caters for migrants, I noticed a ←15 | 16→wide variety of these churches whose styles of worship and music were as varied as their leadership and backgrounds. I began to realise that from the end of the twentieth century Rotterdam had become a prime location for new expressions of Christian community and identity. I was also aware of the insecurities of people in the inner-city area towards some immigrants. Tensions and fears associated with the urban process of gentrification were magnified on the arrival of new visitors. Jack Sier, the community pastor (wijkpastor), involved with the local residents’ association (Bewoners-organisatie) observed that, “with so many people coming from outside, the differences in standards and values have become so large that many people have lost hope that we can still live together.”3

As a migrant pastor from another country, it seemed also ironic that the same port city which had received Huguenots and Scots with respect in the seventeenth century could allow these new churches to go largely unappreciated at the beginning of the twenty-first. Migrant Christians, once in the mainstream of urban centres in Western Europe, now found themselves in the margins of the same cities.4 The Yale missiologist Lamin Sanneh said in a recent publication that in Europe “immigrant churches have been subject to cultural hostility as illegitimate cults.”5 Similarly Afe Adogame has noted that in Europe the prevailing attitude to African new religious movements has been that which “simply noted them in the passing, completely ignores them or consciously excludes them from the umbrella.”6

In the Netherlands, the picture was slightly more positive than depicted by Sanneh and Adogame. The Protestant churches had begun to recognise migrant ←16 | 17→Christians in the early 1990s with plans to relate positively to them. The Roman Catholic Church provided support for non-Western Christians to worship in their own language though it depended on a voluntary organization that lay outside the structure of the local dioceses. The history of the Roman Catholic ‘Care for Migrants’ (Cura Migratorum) has been recorded by Berry van Oers.7

Today there are churches in Rotterdam in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions which use different languages and worship in ways that cater for people who were not born in the Netherlands. Other people who not born in the Netherlands are attracted by Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Some of these are branches of churches elsewhere while others were initiated in the Netherlands. If migrants come from a country that is connected with the historic interests of the Netherland, they may speak Dutch and attend services led by a Dutch-speaking pastor. Many migrant persons, however, who do not understand or speak Dutch, find support in MCCs that started up in Rotterdam from the end of the twentieth century. This has led to a colourful diversity of churches that are frequented by migrant Christians which I shall group under the umbrella-term “migrant Christian communities.” The purpose of this research is to try to understand and describe the identity of these migrant Christian communities (henceforth: MCCs).

1.2 The Research Question

My research seeks to discern and develop appropriate analytical tools and categories to interpret the nature of what I describe as migrant Christian communities (MCCs). This research is based upon an examination of six case studies in Rotterdam that each have different backgrounds regarding their understanding of the Christian tradition, composition of membership, use of language and migration history. Various expressions of Christian community have developed in the city amid the ongoing process of global migration. I am interested to find out the basis for the observed differences between these MCCs and what categories that are helpful in understanding their identities. This research is necessary because current analytical categories have proven to be inadequate for understanding the dynamics of their identity.

MCCs have often been described in ‘ethnic’ terms where the leader’s race or ethnicity becomes the chief ‘identifier’. Ethnic group categories are thought to ←17 | 18→exist for or bind together people of one ethnicity. The perception that MCCs form as ethnic groups in reaction to the ‘other’ is challenged where they embrace people of different origins. As an identifier, ethnicity is problematic where leaders of MCCs seek to dissolve all notions of colour, ethnicity and race.8 They understand themselves as belonging to a global Christian community. Perceptions of simply being ethnic, foreign or ‘allochtone’ detract from what MCCs have in common with other Christians and citizens in the city. Similarly, as Dorottya Nagy has pointed out, national labels are also problematic and applied too easily, as the application of these identifiers ignores cultural or ethnic diversity within nation states or creates inequalities.9

Older denominational or ecclesial categories rooted in history can also be problematic. Traditional categories of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant do not represent the outlook of many MCCs formed in Rotterdam over recent decades. ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Pentecostal’ styles make up the majority of MCCs. From the outset, I assumed that there was a distinction between ‘historical’ and ‘renewalist’ churches, though while conducting the research I discovered that this distinction was not entirely helpful where ‘Evangelicals’ and ‘Pentecostals’ have developed from and come out of historical Protestant denominations. I have, nevertheless, continued to use the terms ‘historical’ and ‘renewalist’ but have redefined them (see chapter three). In this thesis, I suggest that the application of analytical categories drawn from nationality, ethnicity and ecclesiology need to be reviewed.

The oft-used container term ‘migrant churches’ has also increasingly become problematic. The term ‘migrant’ which was used in the Netherlands for the purpose of reflecting on multicultural society10, continues to be employed as an adjective by researchers and observers of migration studies. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century in the Netherlands, however, the term ‘migrant’ along with another term ‘allochtone’ (meaning ‘foreign, other, non-indigenous’) acquired a negative value. This is largely because of fears and anxieties of indigenous people in the Netherlands. The fear of migrant workers or refugees taking jobs and changing the economic, political and religious landscape has affected social attitudes. This anxiety has altered the context for MCCs in Rotterdam. ←18 | 19→With concerns about increasing immigration, ‘migrant’ categories have become pejorative in the Netherlands11 as well as more widely across Western Europe.12 The term is also problematic because there is no widely accepted definition and set of criteria to govern its use. ‘Migrant’ is predominantly a social science term that has been broken down into sub-categories by various users, whether governments, policy-makers or researchers, to serve their own interests.13 MCCs rarely use the term ‘migrant’ or describe themselves as a ‘migrant church’. The pastoral leader of the Holland Methodist Church in Rotterdam, for example, said “to speak of a migrant church is to engage in redundancy of language (because) the Church was never intended to be stagnant, but on the move, reaching new places and new heights of witness.”14 There is an increasing tendency among MCCs to describe themselves as ‘international’ churches in terms of the mixture of peoples they represent (as a description of ‘mixedness’), or where they desire to be (as a vision of ‘mixedness’) or the intercultural space they occupy (as a representative of other nations in the Netherlands). Since neither national, ethnic, traditional ecclesiological terms nor the concept ‘migrant’ churches do justice to MCCs, this research takes an emic rather than etic approach and attempts to listen to how these migrant leaders and groups express themselves.

The purpose of this research is to look at the variety of Christian communities that have developed for and by migrants in Rotterdam. This study recognizes that these MCCs often construct a positive identity for migrants that sustains them in a foreign land. While the research recognizes different migratory movements throughout history, the recent increase in the numbers of MCCs suggests that faith continues to play a key role in process of migration. It is a process, not a moment, that begins before they set out on their journey and continues long after ←19 | 20→they have begun to settle in Rotterdam. One aspect that many migrants have in common is their adherence to faith and religion.

For the purposes of this research, the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’ refer to people who moved across one national or cultural boundary to another. Based upon a United Nations definition, ‘migrant’ people are those who stay in the new country for at least one year.15 In 2017 the International Organization for Migration (IOM) defined a migrant as “any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a state away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of the person’s legal status; whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; what the causes for the movement are; or what the length of the stay is.”16

I prefer the term ‘migrant’ over ‘immigrant’ as the term ‘immigrant’ describes a unidirectional movement from one country to another whereas ‘migrant’ suggests a movement between countries without indicating how lasting it may be. While desiring to reject the epistemological approach that divides the world’s population into categories of migrant and non-migrant, I continue to use the terminology in order to draw insights from migration studies and sociology on the identity of MCCs. Transnational studies, for instance, indicate that contemporary migration is less about settling in one place and more about investment of lives in three or four places. There is a growing awareness that migrants maintain their identities in more than one city and nation.17

For this research, I prefer the use of ‘Christian community‘ over ‘church’ because it better expresses the solidarity to be found in MCCs while also avoiding some historic theological contentions over what constitutes a church. MCCs are intentional communities which were founded either by a church organization or movement from outside the Netherlands, by individuals migrating to the Netherlands or by local indigenous churches which have interest in catering for migrants. MCCs present a challenge for empirical researchers because ‘migrant’ is imprecise both as an adjective and a noun. Can ‘migrant’ still be used when members have naturalized in their new host country? I consider a MCC to be where there is a Christian community where there is majority of migrants18, ←20 | 21→where they employ a language other than Dutch or where the headquarters are located outside of the country.

Another key issue is about how MCCs should be defined. For the purpose of this research, a MCC is defined as a group with at least twelve persons who adhere to the Christian faith, a group with migrant Christian leadership or a community of at least 50 % Christian migrants19 and the group needs to meet on a regular basis. The principal reason for opting for this number is social and practical. More prosaically, twelve is more than an average size of family that would normally share a house in Rotterdam. The smallest MCCs recorded in Rotterdam20 have an average attendance of between ten and twenty persons.

From a sociological perspective, community as a concept refers to a set of social relationships based upon something that all members have in common.21 Community is a notoriously difficult concept to define and to identify empirically. The term has been used to describe types of human settlements, ideal ways of life and of social networks. Nagy has summarized the development of social concepts of community based upon those of Tonnies, Durkheim and Weber.22 From a religious studies perspective, a Christian community relates not only to a local congregation but also to a wider ecclesiological reality. MCCs are connected with the universal and catholic identity of the church in the world and with the missional challenge to translate into its different cultures and to adopt different cultural shapes. The MCCs that I have selected as case-studies are predominantly ←21 | 22→non-Western. They reflect the distinctive cultural backgrounds of Africa, Asia and Latin America and their expressions are representative of the majority of the field (for details see 3.4). The question for this research seeks to find categories to enable observers understand them better.

1.3 Methods

1.3.1 Qualitative Research

This research, which involved qualitative investigation of MCCs in the wider metropolitan area of Rotterdam, employs a historical, systematic, sociological and comparative approach. The methodology is systematic and comparative in its approach while also being historical and sociological in its interests. The information was first organised in a chronological manner according to the periods when MCCs became established in the city. Chapter three employs a chronological approach and ecclesial methodology in describing these MCCs. Initially I tried to study primary and secondary literature (elaborated on in 1.4) but, as much of this was hard to find, I chose to adopt an ethnographic approach where over a period of four years I visited a wide range of MCCs and interviewed their leaders. In this way, I was able to map the field through visitation of MCCs and through reading their literature and websites. With contact information on the MCCs and photographs together with a summary of their vision and activities, I published the information in a guide of one hundred and thirteen MCCs in Rotterdam. This mapping of the field of MCCs in Rotterdam was obtained from one hundred and thirteen MCCs in Rotterdam and from pastoral leaders of more than sixty MCCs who were interviewed in the period between the autumn of 2003 to the summer of 2007. Comparative observations suggested that the sample of pastoral leaders which represented 50 % of the field was typical of the wider field in the Rotterdam area (discussed in chapter three).23

Informants in MCCs were chosen because of their key role in leadership. The pastoral leaders were asked for open-structured or semi-structured interviews. The empirical method behind this study on identity relied upon both the interviews with pastoral leaders and upon participant observation when I visited the pastoral leader and the MCC for Sunday worship. For this comparative study I selected six contrasting models that would serve as case studies for further analysis and evaluation. The case studies (which will be introduced in 3.4) ←22 | 23→approximated to the size and denominational range that was encountered in the wider field.24

1.3.2 Case-Study Approach

This research opts for a case-study approach to understanding MCCs in Rotterdam. Leaders identify with their communities, and in keeping with the practice of congregational studies, they are “treated as an organism, a living entity given not to mechanical production but to sensitivity and maturation.”25 The case-study approach arose from a need to seek common patterns between a wide variety of MCCs that were of different backgrounds, sizes and style of ministries. The case-study enabled an in-depth analysis to be undertaken from a sample of those pastoral leaders (10 %) who had been interviewed.26

As the researcher, I identified a number of features that related to issues of identity. These included their age, location, principal language(s), ethnic groups and size, and their mission/vision and main activities.27 It was necessary for the sample to select MCCs that were both representative of the total field and demonstrated certain differences from one another. The selection of case-studies sought to represent the variety within the field of MCCs and the regions of the world from which they drew members. The selection process also sought to strike a balance between migration histories and ecclesiastical models. Other factors, such the location of their worship sites in the city, in the generational ages contained and in the principal languages spoken, were also taken into account. Further details on how the choice of case-studies was made are provided in chapter three.

Based upon congregational studies (see 1.5.3), six case studies were analysed and different aspects of their identity clarified. They were framed through traditional and long-accepted ways of theological understanding of the church, and within these frames, I viewed their life through sociological aspects of their identity (lenses).

1.3.3 Frames of Analysis

There are many ways to analyse MCCs but I chose to ‘frame’ three aspects of what it means to be ‘church’. Frames offer a way “of engaging with the other ←23 | 24→respectfully”28 and offer an angle or perspective on the object to be studied whereas the lenses allow us to look deeper into specific aspects. “From an interpretive perspective, we may think of frames as structures of language, cognition, and emotion that allow us to determine meaning and significance and how we accord recognition to others.”29 The action of framing permits engagement with the MCC whereas the lens exposes and opens them up. The construction of group identity and the analytical approach of employing frames and lenses are theorised in 4.2.4 and 4.2.5 respectively. The three frames for this research come from theological studies and tie in with key concepts from the New Testament (the Bible). They are koinonia (Greek for ‘fellowship’), kerygma (Greek for ‘proclamation’) and diakonia (Greek for ‘service’). The focus on koinonia is on mutual relations between members of MCCs whereas kerygma indicates how they proclaim and perceive their core message and diakonia focusses on how they deliver public service to people in need.30 While these frames may not be exhaustive for describing MCCs and other frames such as gender or civic participation might have been applied, I have opted for these three frames as a window into how MCCs understand themselves.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
international churches migrant Christian communities identity integration igrant churches
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 328 pp., 2 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Robert Calvert (Author)

Robert Alasdair Calvert pastored three city congregations in Glasgow, Rotterdam and Dundee as a Church of Scotland minister. His researches on migrant Christian communities and lectures on urban ministry.


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