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Swinging fieldwork in the migrant churches of The Hague

18 September 2018
Brenda Bartelink

If you look carefully, you'll notice hundreds of migrant churches dotted around the Netherlands, particularly in the larger cities. Worlds within worlds in anthropological terms. How do these churches approach matters such as health, sexuality and safety? You hear the strangest stories. This is always a tricky terrain for urban healthcare organizations. How can we close the unwelcome chasm between the support services and migrants? Brenda Bartelink, religious scientist in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, was curious to find out and went to visit these churches to join in and see for herself what is really going on.

Text: Fenneke Colstee / Photo: Elmer Spaargaren

Every other Sunday for eighteen months, the Groningen scholar Bartelink went to a migrant church in The Hague. On her first visit to each church, she explained that she was a researcher and wanted to know what went on in the church and how they dealt with the health and welfare. She was nearly always welcome. ‘Most of the churches have a lot of respect for science.’ Once inside, she enjoyed taking part in the church services: ‘I like singing and dancing, and some of the services were swinging affairs to say the least.’ Regular attendance meant that she soon struck up conversations with people and groups. Drinking coffee or chatting with church leaders, she gradually gleaned the information she needed. Thanks to her participation and observation, by the end of her research period she’d witnessed all the ins and outs of five of the 100 migrant churches in The Hague. This was anthropological fieldwork at its best.

Healing sessions

Bartelink noted that all kinds of mutual misunderstandings and preconceptions have formed a chasm between healthcare organizations and Christian migrants, many of whom originate from Africa or the Caribbean. In addition, there are huge differences between individual churches in terms of open-mindedness and conservatism. Although this may seem fairly predictable, the research conducted by Bartelink and her colleagues can be used to provide more clarity and address the lack of knowledge and understanding between the parties.

For example, she was able to put the media hype about healing sessions supposedly being held in migrant churches to ‘cure’ people of AIDS and homosexuality into a more realistic perspective: Yes, it is true that services are held to pray for people who are sick or have problems. But Bartelink found no evidence whatsoever that these people did not believe in doctors. On the contrary, church leaders usually had nothing but respect and appreciation for medical science. There doesn't seem to be any reason for the healthcare sector to be concerned about this. Moreover, the churches reject traditional, spiritual healing that invokes the powers of spirits and gods, considering it unchristian.


Alongside singing, Bible studies and prayer, the churches also focus on issues such as sexuality and relationships. Bartelink sometimes found herself talking to people who spoke quite candidly about enjoying sex. The matter of talking to young people in church about sexuality was slightly more controversial. And many church leaders are irritated by the repeated questions about their views on homosexuality, says Bartelink. One of the main concerns for leaders in all churches is ensuring a stable family life for their congregation. In this respect, they do not shy away from discussions about problems such as teenage pregnancy and domestic violence.


Back to the initial question: Why do healthcare and youth organizations feel unable to engage with Christian migrants? Bartelink thinks that part of the answer lies in the mistrust that many church-goers feel towards the support services after bad experiences: ‘Sex education in schools is bad for our children.’ ‘Youth care services are tougher on us.’ ‘The AMC uses patients for its own research’ etc. Bartelink wonders whether the support services are aware of this and if they are sufficiently sensitive to cultural differences. After all, GPs with patients from different cultures manage to build up a rapport with their patients.

One thing is patently clear: there's no such thing as the migrant church. The most high-profile are the major international churches such as the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Nigerian church community that has spread across the world and tries to attract followers by basing itself in housing estates and shopping streets. But there are countless other smaller and larger church communities. Bartelink is convinced that more dialogue between support services and migrant churches about health and welfare will help to bridge the gap between Christian migrants and the care sector.

Last modified:12 March 2020 9.23 p.m.
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