Sri Lankan migrant workers play missionary roles in Italy

By Michel Chambon, 20 January 2023
Sri Lankan Catholic clergy and laity during a church service in Italy. Image: Chaplain for Sri Lankans in Italy/Facebook/UCA News


Interview with Dr. Bernardo Brown

Bernardo Brown teaches Anthropology at the International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan and his research revolves around migration and religious practices among Sri Lankan Catholics.

In 2018, he co-edited with Brenda Yeoh a book, “Asian Migrants and Religious Experience: From Missionary Journeys to Labor Mobility.” One part of the book is about Catholic migrants. For instance, Ester Gallo, a sociology professor at Trento University in Italy, who discusses the role of Catholic Indians and Filipino men in building religious enclaves in Italy and in promoting evangelical activities. It also speaks about how Filipino migrants relied on religion to interpret their migratory journey to South Korea. Bernardo Brown writes about the pastoral care of Sri Lankans in Italy.

Other articles in the book also speak about Baptist missionaries from India’s Nagaland region going to China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, explaining the intersection of migration and religious identity. One article also speaks about the evangelical nature and movement named Free Burma Rangers in the Thai-Burmese region. Another one discusses the Hindu-Tamil presence in North Sumatra.


What brought you to study Sri Lankan Catholics?

As a graduate student, I had no connection with Asia. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to New York City for my master’s studies. There I became interested in migration and was working mostly with undocumented migrants from Latin America, who were living and working in the US.

I moved to Cornell University to do my PhD in anthropology, where I was supposed to continue this work on migration. As an overseas student, I was expected to study about my home country or at least a country neighboring my home country. But at Cornell, there was a special focus on Southeast Asia and its South Asian Programs were particularly popular.

I was also exploring ways to do research on migration elsewhere than regions known to me. I was looking at countries where I was still interested in migration, countries with large numbers of migrant workers. First, I thought of the Philippines. But later for several reasons, Sri Lanka became my choice.

Even though migration is very important in Latin America, the numbers were small compared to Sri Lanka. Some 3 million of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people — that’s some 15 percent of the population — were living and working as migrants. These migrant workers — most temporary workers in the Middle East and many of them women — are the number one source of the country’s foreign exchange income.

There were several researchers already working on domestic workers in the Middle East and some of the problems they face. I was looking for something new, and all of a sudden I found something that I kind of got connected to. It was the Catholic community of Sri Lanka, of which I was mostly unaware.

But it’s a large community of some 1.5 million Christians, some seven percent of the population. They are highly concentrated in what is called the Catholic belt of Sri Lanka to the north of Colombo for approximately 200 kilometers. You have an area of Catholic villages there, one next to the other, where the population is 90 percent Catholic in any of these villages.

A lot of these people have been traveling to Italy for work. So, this is kind of an unusual case of transnational migration in Sri Lanka.


What brought 12 authors to collaborate on this specific topic and produce this book?

Basically, when people study migration and religion, or the connection between migration and religion, they consider religion as something playing two main roles. In one of its roles, it connects them to their homeland and their community. In the other role, religion provides a network of connections for people in the diaspora.

When people relocate to a different part of the world, they sometimes struggle to find a way to communicate their values to their children and educate them. There is a moral concern, particularly when it comes to their children. Religion becomes the main way to connect to the country of origin, to their community, culture and their values.

It also provides a very good network in the diaspora. For example, in the case of Sri Lankans going to Italy, they people go to church in search of employment, in search of housing, in search of tips on where to find food or something that they miss from their home country.

These are the two main ways in which religion has been studied in migration.

With Brenda Yeoh, we were trying to think of what else could be there in this relationship between diasporic people and their religion. We found out that these two things are probably the most important, and they are very relevant to how people imagine their participation in religion.

But we also found a lot of other unusual dynamics and we wanted to focus on some of them. One of those dynamics is a kind of newfound freedom that people have when they migrate. They enjoy this freedom when they’re in the diaspora — away from their home, from the obligations of the family, and the moral guidelines or censorship they could face in their home country.

They also find new ways to experiment with new forms of religiosity. In the traditional or mainstream perspective, religion is seen as a link with the hometown. But for many people in diaspora religion is a way to break from their hometown, experiment with new things, and explore new forms of spirituality and religious practice, away from the surveillance or the moral guidelines of your home community. This is what we were trying to examine in this book.


The book is not specifically about Catholics. Could you introduce us to your contribution to Sri Lankan Catholics in Italy?

As I said before, my research was primarily about migration and then I discovered this Catholic community. I became interested in it because I could relate to my own background, origins, and things I was familiar with. For example, I was surprised to see the architecture of these schools and the uniforms of the children in school, which was similar to what you would find in some small provincial towns in Argentina.

Some of the same religious Congregations in my homeland were managing these schools. I wasn’t expecting this connection. Then again, most of the migrants were Catholics and the only way to reach them was through the parish priest. Basically, I ended up visiting the parish priests in all these small towns and telling them about my research. And, they generously connected me to migrants or migrant families. They also shared their opinions.

Once I was talking to one of these priests and started to realize how a lot of these priests had spent time in Europe, mostly in Italy. It is so partly because they had gone for their own studies but partly because they had also stayed there to work.

The Sri Lankan Catholic church has a chaplaincy in Italy and some 20 to 30 Sri Lankan priests are permanently affiliated with it. There are also other Sri Lankan priests, who are not affiliated to the chaplaincy but live in Italy for their studies or for different appointments. Their religious congregations are also working for the community. I would say, at any given time least 50 Sri Lankan Catholic priests are in Italy.

The Catholic directory of Sri Lanka lists 12 dioceses and a Chaplaincy in Italy, with a whole section giving details of the chaplaincy. Many of these priests were going to Italy just to work for the Sri Lankan community. However, part of their work was also to help local parish priests, who are mostly aged over 60.

So, we have these 35-year-old or so, young, energetic Sri Lankan priests, giving a hand in these parishes. These young priests are trained for work in lively parishes and busy parish life. They are used to working with the laity. But when they come to Italy, they sometimes found themselves having lots of free time.

The local Italians were generally fond of these very energetic priests doing parish work. The parishioners would often complain that European priests were more engaged with organizing trade unions, environmental activism, or scholarly work, and not so much dedicated to being parish priests.

The Sri Lankan priests were trained specifically to do parish work. That was one of the most interesting things that I found.


The book studies Asian Catholic migrants as part of a comparative study involving migrants from other religious traditions. What does this collective approach tell us about Asian Catholic migrants?

One of the things about the book is that with these selections of chapters and works of different authors, we were trying to communicate the role of religion in migration. But we realized that some of the traditional migrant categories such as missionaries or refugees were not very useful when it comes to studying religion and migration today.

The case of the Catholic migrants was similar here. In a way, the boundaries of these very strict categories are a bit blurred now. For example, if you take up the old missionary models, let’s say 100 years ago, you had Catholic or Protestant parishes in Europe or in the United States collecting money to send to families as missionaries and developing missionary projects in different parts of the world.

The people were just going as missionaries and working exclusively as missionaries. That model does not apply very well now.

One of the examples in the book is Arkotong Longkumer, who works with Nagaland Baptist missionaries whose aim is to go to China. But these are very poor missionaries, who do not have the infrastructure or support of the Dutch Calvinists or the Catholic Church. And, they cannot get visas to China as missionaries. The way they’re traveling is as migrant workers, a little bit as entrepreneurs. There is a very creative mixture of different things that people do overseas to fulfill their missionary intentions.

Then the second thing that I think was important in this kind of blurring of the boundaries between missionaries and migrants was that a lot of migrants also found a new meaning in migration through religion. Ester Gallo deals with the problem of masculinity and how a lot of men were interested in participating in Catholic religious groups. South Asians and Filipinos mostly do domestic work in Europe and felt that their masculine roles were not being fulfilled.

Church groups helped these migrant workers reinvent their masculine roles. Participating in church activities gave them a sense of leadership and involvement in organizing events and being in control of things. In a way, it allowed them to reinvent their missionary journey on their migratory journey because of the new religious work they were doing. This is another reason why it was useful to break down the boundaries of conventional terminology and think of these concepts in new ways.

Michel Chambon is a French theologian and cultural anthropologist who studies Christianity in the Chinese world. At the National University of Singapore, he coordinates ISAC, the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics

With thanks to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News and Michel Chambon, where this article originally appeared.


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