Kenyan Pentecostals in London: Reflections on religion and migration

Leslie Fesenmyer

praying hands on bibleKenyan Pentecostals in London typically attend two to three hour church services on Sundays. Many also participate in weekly fellowships (e.g., devoted to youth, women, or men) and prayer groups and engage in regular bible study. Their lives reflect a rich religiosity. Interestingly, many of them converted to Pentecostalism or re-dedicated themselves to God after migrating to the UK in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Many social theorists have postulated that, as societies undergo processes of modernization and rationalization, the religiosity of people declines, as does the centrality of religion as a source of authority. In light of the presumed secular nature of Britain, how might we understand migrant Kenyans’ (re)new(ed) religiosity? What is the relationship between their experiences as migrants and their religious identification and affiliation?

Religiosity prior to migration

Inevitably, migrant Kenyans express varying degrees of identification and engagement with their respective faiths prior to migrating. My interlocutors were largely raised in the mainline denominations of their parents, such as Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Catholicism, which established themselves in Kenya through missionary efforts as early as the mid-1800s. While still living in Kenya, some became born again, but I know only a few who converted to Pentecostalism before migrating.

Living in London

Many Kenyan migrants moved to London while in their late teens to mid-20s. Most migrated as single people on the cusp of social adulthood, seeking opportunities that would allow them to marry and start families. Their migration marked the entanglement of social and material aspirations, irreducible to solely economic motivations. However, fulfilling their ambitions while also meeting the expectations of kin who remain in Kenya has proved challenging, especially for those who toil in low-wage jobs.

Though their imaginings of the UK spurred their migration, migrant Kenyans often found themselves the objects of other people’s imaginations. In London they experienced being a racial minority for the first time.  Being African marks them as ‘other’ in ways that has a long and complex history. And, being a migrant only grows more contentious as calls for limiting immigration increase in the UK.

Social scientific explanations of the relationship between religion and migration
Two explanations of how religion and migration articulate together prevail; one highlights the salience of the local context and the other the transnational context. Religion often plays a supportive role in migration. It can facilitate integration and offer a means of securing recognition (Foner and Alba 2008). Religion is also understood as providing a way to stay connected with those who remain in migrants’ place of origin, important both for identity construction and meaning-making (Levitt 2003).

The case of Kenyan Pentecostals challenges these theories. According to Bruce and Glendinning, less than 11% of adults in England engage in any religious activity, and less than 7% attend church on Sundays (2013: 4). One might then expect migrant Kenyans to abandon religious life as a means of integrating into British society, or at least to stay within a mainline denomination. Instead, they have not only converted to Pentecostalism, but, as I argued elsewhere (Fesenmyer 2014), they have founded numerous Pentecostal churches in London. If being religious is a strategy of immigrant incorporation, then it does not follow an assimilationist model.

At the same time, in converting to Pentecostalism, migrant Kenyans have chosen a religion different from that of their parents, most of whom remain members of mainline denominations. Thus, their religiosity cannot readily be understood as a means of staying connected to their place of origin and those who remain there.

Being Pentecostal: Incorporation through distinction

Kenyan Pentecostals assert a distinct identity and way of being in the world. While my understanding of why many converted or re-dedicated themselves continues to evolve, what has emerged thus far is the importance of being Pentecostal for navigating and engaging in both local and transnational contexts simultaneously.

Identifying as Christians first and foremost affords migrant Kenyans a social identification that is culturally intelligible in their daily lives in London and in their relations with those in Kenya. At the same time, it allows them to distinguish themselves from those in both localities. Migrants’ conversion to Pentecostalism can be understood as an expression of choice and assertion of autonomy vis-à-vis their parents. Many have young families, and Pentecostal ideals help them manage transnational familial expectations of (financial) support. More specifically, Pentecostalism emphasizes the prioritization of the Christian nuclear family over the extended, multi-generational family (Fesenmyer, forthcoming).

street-sign-church-pub2By proclaiming themselves to be Christians in a largely secular country like the UK, they assert an alternative identity with a strong moral orientation, even a sense of moral superiority. For example, Kenyan Pentecostals decry what they see as the excessive drinking of British pub culture, along with the sexual promiscuity and infidelity to which it is thought to lead. In doing so, they champion their own commitment to and valuing of family, fidelity, and God.

To be Christian is to be modern

In contrast to the view that religion and modernity are antithetical to one another, Kenyan Pentecostals believe that to be Christian is to be modern. If migrant incorporation entails ongoing, dynamic, and power-laden social processes, then migrants’ presence and participation inevitably contribute to changing the society of which they are a part. What kind of community are Kenyan Pentecostals creating in London? If they are modern, who is not modern in their view (cf. Knibbe 2011)?  What vision(s) do they hold for the wider society in which they are living, working, and raising their families?  These are some of the questions I am considering as part of a larger project, Kenyan Pentecostals between home, London, and the Kingdom of God.

Bibliography

  • Bruce, Steve and Tony Glendinning (2013) ‘The extent of religious activity in England’, Future First 29: 1,4.
  • Fesenmyer, Leslie (forthcoming) ‘”Assistance but not support”: Pentecostalism and the reconfiguring of the moral economies of relatednesss between Kenya and the United Kingdom’, in Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes-Green (eds.) African Journeys: Vernacular Meanings of Migration to Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Fesenmyer, Leslie. (2014) ‘Reverse missionizing: Migration, Christianity, and civic engagement in London’, COMPAS blog, 17 June.
  • Foner, Nancy and Richard Alba (2008) ‘Immigrant religion in the US and Western Europe: Bridge or barrier to inclusion?’, International Migration Review 42 (2): 360-392.
  • Knibbe, Kim (2011) ‘Nigerian Missionaries in Europe: History repeating itself or a meeting of modernities?’, Journal of Religion in Europe 4(3): 471-487.
  • Levitt, Peggy (2003) ‘”You know, Abraham was really the first immigrant”: Religion and transnational migration’, International Migration Review 37 (3): 847-873.