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"Theologian of the Year Award" and Its Early Impact on Migrant Christians in the Netherlan

(Nederlandse versie van dit artikel verschijnt binnenkort)

On the 16th of November, I was appointed the “Theoloog des Vaderlands” in the Netherlands – Theologian of the Netherlands, or Theologian of the Year! The Theologian of the Netherlands is expected to be an ambassador of theology by making it more visible, accessible and discussable in the society by participating in theological, societal, and cultural debates in the Netherlands. Initially, it was quite surprising to me that I was chosen for this title and to conduct the duties attached to it. In the past couple of days, I have received so many emails and letters with ideas and requests. So I’ve chosen to share some of my reflections here about my appointment as Theologian of the Netherlands.

For those living abroad, it is essential to mention that I am the very first theologian with a migration background! Until now, those who were appointed or awarded this title were Western Dutch theologians. What also makes it unique is that I am the first theologian and member of the clergy with a Pentecostal background. Many people were surprised in a positive way by my appointment. About a million migrant Christians are living in the Netherlands, and they are beacons of hope for Christendom, which is rapidly declining in this country. I will write more about this in my next post. Migrant pastors I know and work with are often not paid; they have secular jobs, often low-paid work, and yet they serve their communities. They are available 24/7 to serve and help their people – migrants who are struggling to live in a foreign land.

The Impact on Migrants Christians

My receiving this award as a migrant theologian brought hope and encouragement to many of us. Even in the church I have served for 25 years, with my migrant family members, it came as a big surprise. When I brought the award to our Sunday service to show it to my church family, they were overjoyed. They took the prize from my hands and danced with it with joy, taking selfies with it and photos of it. The award was not mine; it was theirs!

A week later, a brother from Nigeria made an appointment to see me. I thought he was in need of help or counseling concerning his situation in the Netherlands, but he just wanted to let me know how much this award has impacted his life. It was as if the award was meant for him. He told me that it gave him hope and inspiration – to such an extent that he has applied to study at the Vrije Universiteit (the university founded by Abraham Kuyper). From all over the Netherlands, migrants Christians and pastors are telling me that this award has tremendously encouraged them.

On the other hand, this appointment is unique in the sense that a Pentecostal has received the award. Unfortunately, Pentecostals are misunderstood by being associated with prosperous gospel preachers who are less sensitive to social justice, ecumenism or interfaith dialogue. I hope that, through my appointment as Theologian of the Year, I can demonstrate a more balanced view of what Pentecostalism is about and how it stands with the poor and those who are suffering and for social and cultural justice.

I am not a Theologian of the Twitterland!

On my inauguration day, I spoke explicitly about my mission to be a bridge-builder, and I chose the word “dialogue” instead of “debate.” In the Western world, influenced by Greek worldviews, people like debates. Dictionaries define the word as a “formal discussion on a particular matter in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward and which usually ends with a vote.” In the West, the tradition of the debate can be traced to ancient Greece, and during the Age of Enlightenment, debating in the public domain became more popular in Western countries. I am convinced that these debates contributed to the formation of Western societies, cultures, and politics.

With the rise of the Internet and, in particular, the emergence of social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the public debate suddenly became a digital debate! According to Professors Sounman Hong at Yonsei University and Sun Hyoung Kim, social media may contribute to online extremism, and Twitter especially has contributed to political polarization (1). Seemingly overnight, billions of people have become debaters, all sharing their opinions, in a limited number of words and posts on their “walls.” Others react; some agree, some don't. A discussion starts; it becomes personal; words are exchanged. At the same time, if we don’t like it, we can block people and profiles. But is that, then, really a debate?

Many people, especially my Dutch friends, are demanding that I take to Twitter to share my ideas and opinions. Here are several reasons why I decline to engage with Twitter as a medium for public debate. First, I have not been awarded recognition as “Theologian of Twitterland.” The Netherlands existed long before Twitterland! My award is not for the things I am going to do but for the things I have already done. As a migrant clergyman, educator, and theologian, these include serving the community of migrants, building bridges between the Dutch and migrant churches, standing against racism in any form, and working for gender rights. Yes, I do have a Facebook account where I share some of my work in public – but not in the form of a debate. Nor do I choose to use the word debate in a polarized, cheapened, and “junkfoodian” style of debating. I opt for dialogue, even when a debate is demanded. In a debate, there are winners and losers, pros and cons. But real life is not that simplistic and cartoonish. Life is not black and white – it is far more complicated than that. I choose dialogue because, in a dialogue or conversation, no one needs to win or lose. We can speak about sensitive things, express our hurts and pains, or share our joy.

Another reason I don’t “tweet” is that, as a migrant pastor, I do not have much time or energy to spare. As I mentioned, migrant clergies are very busy serving their communities and helping their church members. In my case, I am pastoring an African-Asian Church whose members demand a lot of attention. I serve people who are struggling to live their lives here. At the same time, I am president of the Foundation Academy of Amsterdam, where education is offered to the fragile in society who cannot access traditional colleges or universities. During the daytime, I am a lecturer and director of the Center for the Theology of Migration, an educational program of Together Church in the Netherlands at Vrije Universiteit that trains migrant pastors and church leaders. In short I am often outside, in the field! Now, as the Theologian of the Year, I hope to bring theology from the bookshelves to the streets and to translate systematic theology into theology of the heart, with my hands and feet in the field.

Finally, I choose not to be more visible by taking to Twitter just to protect my heart! I know from the experiences of others that Twitter can generate hateful comments that, in the end, can cause them to become depressed and less functional. I have much work to do as the Theologian of the Year, and I will gladly share my work through my blogs and sometimes on Facebook. Feel free to share them – tweet them if you like. Who knows? I might someday consider Twitter, but only as a medium for information about what I’m doing or plan to do. Just don’t but expect me to debate!

Samuel Lee

1 ( may-contribute-online-extremism).

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