Shortly after my arrival at Ghardaïa in Algeria, and given my background of working in both Anglophone and Francophone West Africa, I soon found my niche in pastoral work among the migrants in the area. In the beginning, I was in contact with Liberians, Nigerians, and Cameroonians. They came looking for help to pay medical prescriptions and blankets for winter (it is cold in the Sahara!). My experiences in Burkina Faso and Niger, where I had never given out charity for fear of undermining the spirit of generosity of the emerging Christian communities, pushed me to put an end to this sort of payment after being in Ghardaïa for about six months. That changed my relationships with the small communities of Liberians, Nigerians and Cameroonians: instead of waiting for their begging visits, I went and visited them in their homes with a full heart and sometimes an empty tummy and accepted spontaneously any invitation to eat with them. By visiting the homes of African migrants, my face soon became familiar with other groups of migrants from Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Soon I was celebrating the funeral rites for the Christians who had died in the region and, little by little, I discovered small Christian groups from Mali and Burkina Faso. My thanks go also to the White Sisters and the Diocesan Treasurer, an old hand from Guinea, for their support. Needless to say, I also felt the need to reciprocate and to welcome migrants, Christian and non-Christian when I was free on Fridays.
During my holidays in 2014 and 2016, I was able to visit some families of migrants in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. All these experiences have led me to envisage a pastoral plan for migrants that I would like to submit to the judgement of the Church at local diocesan level and at the level of the Province of the Missionaries of Africa in North Africa. Pastoral work in Algeria is very special because of national security issues and the fact that most of the missionaries are foreigners. Another peculiarity is that the public presence of Churches is governed by conventions on places of worship that are approved, protected and monitored. Prudence is paramount. However, it would be wrong for the Church to confine itself to the sacristy. My experiences over the last four years of visiting the homes of African migrants have taught me that it is possible to make these visits “acceptable” to the authorities by making them in the context of celebrating funeral rites for foreigners and for which the presence of a “Father” is considered normal. A visit to the morgue or to a migrant’s home to prepare a funeral does not cause any unease among the security services. In any case, discussions about the supremacy of Dutch football nearly always help ease tensions. In this way, my face has become a familiar one in the countryside. Jesus said, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” These visits to African migrants, Christian and non-Christian have become exercises in naivety and shrewdness. If the renewal of my Residence Permit goes without a hitch this coming winter, I will know that my naivety and know-how will have paid off with the security services and the administration.
What I am now proposing to the Diocesan Church of Southern Algeria and the Province of North Africa of the Missionaries of Africa, is to give me permission to elaborate a pastoral plan for migrants coming from West Africa in the Diocese of Laghouat-Ghardaïa based on my experiences since 2012.
- Let some selected missionaries have the experience of visiting migrants wherever they are, at home, in prison or at funerals (however with prudence and following good advice). Recognize that any investigation in the field of migration within a parish or elsewhere in a diocese should be part of an overall apostolic project.
- Recognise that Christian migrants and groups of Christian migrants from the same language or culture groups are the front line primary missionaries and that we missionaries are at their service for training and equipping them for mission.
- Take advantage of the free day in the week (in Algeria, this is Friday) to invite migrants into the compound of the M.Afr community or the parish grounds in order to spend part of the day with them. It would be an opportunity to have a Christian Assembly with the faithful among them, to raise awareness (in the context of Justice and Peace), to provide training and information. It would also be a good occasion to make contact with the families and Churches of the country both Christian and non-Christian alike. In this way, missionary pastoral work among the embryonic communities, the dialogue between Christians and non-Christians and promoting ‘Justice and Peace’ (raising awareness) would all all go together. A simple meal together with the migrants will cost no more than 0.80 euro per person!
- Establish social and telephone communication links with the families of origin of migrants. Similarly establish contacts with the Christian communities in the most remote areas. Pay particular attention to contacts with lay leaders, catechists and parish clergy. Make one or two targeted visits a year to the dioceses of origin of the migrants but always with the consent of the pastors. In the meantime, I have already spent three quarters of my biennial holidays to make these kinds of visits. I invite myself! (Duc in altum)
- In the long run, the churches of origin of the Christian migrants will discover their missionary vocation in the accompaniment of the migrants coming from their dioceses. The Missionaries of Africa, especially those of the PAO, may also discover their missionary vocation in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso by encouraging initiatives for migrants, both Christian and non-Christian, at grass-roots level.
P. Johan Miltenburg, M.Afr.