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The Lives of Migrant Women: A Vantage Point for Contemporary Issues in Urban Missiology

Author: Grace Dyrness
Published: August 2012

MD 3.2

Article Type: Text Article

Migration to urban centers marks the contemporary global landscape. Examining the lives of migrant persons offers a unique vantage point for missiological reflection. This study considers the lives of migrant women in particular, in order to glean insight regarding the nature of the city and implications for missional engagement in a changing urban world.

For my master’s thesis in the Philippines, I studied how women in the vast slums and squatter settlements in Manila coped with a life that to me seemed unbearable. I dedicated months of living with these women in order to learn from them and thereby shape my own life. It was a life-transforming experience. And in my subsequent research in Kenya, Tanzania, Oakland, and Los Angeles, I have found common threads among these courageous women who, as the ancient Chinese adage says, “hold up half the sky.” This paper intends to help the reader not to focus solely on the mega-picture, on the problems and challenges of globalization, but to feel the humanity, the beauty, and the resourcefulness of people (specifically women) who live in this very urbanized and globalized world. We need that mega-picture, the mega-story, to shape our understanding of the world we live in, and to be able to be bridges to the gospel of Christ as we live alongside our fellow global citizen. Yet we must not forget the lives that give meaning to that mega-story, and that we must be the bridges between these two stories.

Poverty is an underlying theme in most cities of the world, particularly the developing world. As the Chronic Poverty Research Centre reminds us, millions around the globe are chronically poor, living on less than $1 a day.2 Clearly, poverty complicates the urban landscape enormously and one might say a great deal about its causes, both global and local, and its impact. I will not attempt to do that here but rather zero in on a few issues that I see as vitally important for mission in the next decade. My focus in this paper, therefore, is on the following issues, with a specific emphasis on women: (1) the challenge of immigration, (2) the faith factor or religion in cities, and finally (3) the impact of climate change. How do these come together in a way that can shape our living out the gospel and address the urban context? These issues are interwoven and vast, so this paper will not run in a linear fashion and will address each in a very limited and incomplete way.


Drawn by dreams of economic opportunity, political freedom, social equality, and a brighter future for themselves and their families, immigrants flock in great numbers to Los Angeles as well as to other cities around the world. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2008 there were 214 million migrants in the world and approximately 49% of them were women.3 While these migrant women leave their homes with their dreams and high expectations, too often they arrive at their destination unprepared for the realities that they soon face in their new land. Discrimination, prejudice, exploitation, fear of the unknown, isolation, and loneliness are but some of the challenges immigrant women (and men) must deal with on a daily basis. Nevertheless, thousands continue to migrate to cities, so clearly there is another side to the coin.

Cities as Spaces for New Opportunities

The city provides a space for new opportunities and new challenges, however difficult it might be to make a way within it. While on the one hand immigrant women often make up an invisible and disempowered class of workers, on the other hand they find new freedom and a voice within their own families. Whereas in their own country they may not have the opportunity to earn an income outside the home, in their new city they often find themselves as the main breadwinner for either the family with them or the one they left behind. Women in large urban centers find that they have more occupational flexibility and are often able to weave income opportunities into the home sphere. Thus, they strengthen their economic position in the family, and they begin to have more of a say in family affairs. It is important not to overlook this side of the coin when critiquing the unacceptable living conditions of the poor in cities around the world. I have found that no matter how hard the conditions, this stronger earning position encourages women to stay in the city and not migrate back home to the village or to their own home countries. Here a woman can forge a life that permits her to dream of a future for her children. No matter that her house is just a shack, as long as she can work and provide for her children. In the city women have access to better schools and better health care. They have opportunity. And from the mother’s perspective they face a better future than ever before. This hope is strong and overcomes the difficult living conditions.

Yet, the jobs they find are most often at the margins, precarious, underpaid, with no safety net. By tapping into a growing new labor supply—women and immigrants—global cities have seen an explosion of wealth and power supported by a host of workers “holding up half the sky.” At the same time, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out, these cities “have seen a gathering trend towards informalization of an expanding range of activities, as low-profit employers attempt to escape the costs and constraints of the formal economy’s regulatory apparatus.”4 While it is difficult to measure the extent of the informal economy in most cities, anecdotally it is estimated that in Nairobi about 68% of the population is engaged in the informal economy and in Accra 90% (an estimate provided by an officer of the United Nations Development Program). I recently heard from a fellow academic that it is 95% in Mumbai. The engagement in the informal economy without the possibility or opportunity of moving out of it is part of what makes poverty an overwhelming urban characteristic in most countries of the developing world. US cities are not avoiding growth in poverty. In Los Angeles, demographer Dowell Myers and his team projected a poverty growth of 59% in 2011.5 The informal economy of Los Angeles is approximately 25%. Many of these poor are immigrants. Yet in spite of their poverty, these people manage to send huge amounts of money home in the form of remittances. In 2010, over $400 billion is estimated to have been sent in remittances alone to home countries.6 These billions become a large percentage of the economy of the receiving countries, often being the only source for village and town infrastructure, from building schools to fixing the roof of the church, building bridges, clinics, and so forth, not to mention sometimes being the sole income for the families that depend on them. These remittances bring me to reflect on another aspect of migration that is deeply embedded in the contemporary urban context.

Cities as Centers for Transmigration

Sending remittances and supplies home are ways in which immigrants transcend the distance and stay connected with their families and communities there. Yet, remittances alone are not the only enduring bond that characterizes many urban migrants. “Their ties to one another are so strong,” concludes one study, “and the movement of people so great, that in many ways people belong to a single community that exists in different locations, on both sides of the border.”7 Living in the globalized world, the migrant uses technology to stay connected: phoning and emailing friends and family back home, sending packages, getting the news online or through local migrant papers, sometimes voting in absentia (such as happened with Salvadorans in the US when Mauricio Funes was elected), watching movies, eating traditional foods, and playing music to keep connected and to fill the empty spaces inside that long for home. Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton explain, “Immigrants are understood to be transmigrants when they develop and maintain multiple relations—familial, economic, social, organizational, religious, and political—that span borders.”8 Transmigration is a reality that significantly shapes the lives of urban migrants.

Cities as Spaces for Forging New Social Networks: Ties That Bind

Women form strong social networks that support them in their daily lives and help them while negotiating the complex issues of language, culture, survival, and caring for their children. Andrea Dyrness relates how a group of Latina women in Oakland gathered weekly in the kitchen of one of the mothers to strategize for reform in the schools their children were attending.9 For the mothers that came together for change in the small-school system in Oakland, the home became a site of healing and resistance and a base for community change.

Using the home as a center for community transformation and solidarity is a key coping strategy for many of the women with whom I have worked. For the Southeast Asian refugee women that I worked with in Oakland, the home became the center for forging ties with majority white women. By coming together in their homes, these women built solidarity groups of trust, learning from one another’s culture, and opening the door for the refugee women to finally be able to tell their story of traumatic war and dislocation and have these stories validated by their new friends. It was amazing to watch physical ailments disappear as these friendships grew, always within the hospitable confines of some home.

While these networks are most often forged for economic and moral support, they can also become the base for community organizing. Thus, women use their role as mothers and providers to join together for the good of the community. In Los Angeles, for example, women hotel workers (among others) have successfully organized to protest against their employers for better working conditions and health benefits.10 Indeed,community organizing provides a voice for people at the margins, empowering them to get engaged in working for change, in making a difference in their communities. It is particularly important for women.

As part of a research project at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, my colleagues and I interviewed a young Latina woman who was involved in the Active Citizenship Campaign of the Industrial Areas Foundation. She said that the community organizing process and the support from her congregation provided her with the space to develop her own potential. Suddenly, she realized she had a voice as an advocate for her people.11 Judy Reyes, a leader in another faith-based organizing group, explained how the experience in community organizing had affected her life:

That’s what we do; we get people engaged in things they never used to think made a difference. Before, I never did and I had no sense of power, of being able to affect anything in the political realm. . . . It’s really hard, especially for women. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to be leaders in society. Just to call myself a leader is a huge thing. I take a great deal of pride in it, because I’ve always had these abilities and I’ve tried to use them. But before I’d never found the place where they were valued. I was always shut out or shut down. . . . Here the more I put into this the more I got. I saw results.12

Religion in the City: A Space for the Immigrant Community

As they travel across the globe, immigrants often carry their religion with them. Sometimes the religion stays exactly the same. Witness the Cambodian women in Long Beach who want their temple to look and act exactly like the one they left behind in Cambodia; or the Pentecostal churches in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Brazil carried throughout the world by migrants who even preach the same sermon on Sundays as their congregations of origin. Not only do cities provide a variety of opportunities for employment, entertainment, living styles, culinary diversity, and so forth, but they also provide many options for religious engagement, a diversity of paths to spiritual and mystical presence. There is considerable freedom of choice in most cities and for migrants the cultural restraints on making choices are rarely as limiting as they are in their village or their home country. Although immigrants in Los Angeles expressed concern over the dangers of such pluralism, they also relished the freedom they experienced. In the city they can practice their religion in public ways that were proscribed in the homeland, where they had to confine their worship to the home.13

Religion addresses the problem of loneliness by providing entry to a familiar community with familiar beliefs and practices that give structure and meaning to life—indeed, worship and ritual have the potential to bind people together in ways that other institutions are not equipped to do.14

The religious institution is a place where one can speak one’s native tongue, eat native food, and, not insignificantly, find a husband (or wife) who shares the same cultural background. A group of Hindu women said that they didn’t mind doing the cooking for the temple’s activities on the weekends because it provided a welcome time for them to see their friends and talk in Gujarati, catch up on news from India, and explore the latest Indian fashions.15 Cambodian women send their young sons to the Khemara Budhikarm in Long Beach to be mentored by the priests in hopes that they will get engaged in Cambodian culture and resist joining the gangs in Los Angeles. Religion, therefore, welcomes the stranger, provides a community that helps replace the one left behind, and enables new generations to connect with their heritage.

Faith and the Transnational Parent

At a familial or individual level, the transmigrant relies on religion to provide a balm on the deep wounds of separation from family, but especially so when the parent has had to leave children behind, often in the care of the grandparents. Prayer not only helps parents cope with their daily challenges as urban migrants but prayers to God also help collapse the physical distance between them and their families back home. In sum, prayer is one way transnational mothers (and fathers) transcend distance from their families and cope with the separation.16

The Impact of Global Climate Change

People in cities are impacted severely by changes in climate patterns. This is not to exclude the impact on the rural sector; however, urban and rural environments are symbiotically interrelated. The rural sector is the agricultural center for providing food for the urban sector and thus what affects agriculture has a deep impact on life in the city. As the global climate changes, both sectors are impacted. If the world warms just 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, and some experts believe it already has, we are facing disaster in our world. A report issued in 2010 by The World Bank Group lists six areas that are most vulnerable to a rise of 2℃ in the earth’s temperature.17 There is not time in this paper to develop each of them, but in summary they are infrastructure, water supply, agriculture, human health, coastal zones, and extreme weather events. The best available information indicates that more than 170,000 people have been killed by floods since 1960, 2.4 million have been killed by droughts, and billions have been seriously affected by extreme weather events. It is widely agreed that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events.

The analysis in this report from the World Bank builds on empirical work and case studies that have documented the role of socioeconomic development in reducing vulnerability to climate shocks. Several studies have focused on the effect of rising income per capita: “as communities get richer, they have greater willingness and ability to pay for preventive measures.”18 Indeed, for the World Bank’s report several country case studies were conducted and preliminary analysis from those cases suggests that “social safety nets and other social protection approaches are widely assigned high priority by governments among measures to support pro-poor adaptation to climate change.”19 In Bangladesh, for example, participants in workshops named extension of citizenship rights to urban slum dwellers (as well as improved coverage of basic services) as key elements for their future. Safety net programs, when designed to address climate hazards, should include investments in risk preparedness and response systems, with attention to gender issues in disaster mitigation. When millions of people are living in the informal settlements within cities with poor quality housing (often just shacks put together with scraps of wood and zinc roofing) and lack of sanitation and water, they are most vulnerable to high intensity winds and floods resulting from stronger and more frequent hurricanes and typhoons. Settlements that exist along the ocean shores or riverbanks are especially vulnerable to higher tides due to rise in sea level.

The World Bank suggests that empowering women, as centers of the home, through improved education is critical for reducing household vulnerability to weather-related disasters. Thus, to neutralize the impact of extreme weather events requires educating an additional 18 million to 23 million young women at a cost of $12 billion to $15 billion a year.20

Implications for Mission

So what does all of this mean for missions in a globalized urban environment?

    1. Our missiology needs to embrace women as key instruments for God’s care for the city. For decades now we have been talking about gender issues, feminist theology, and women and development; but we still have a long way to go. Women need to be encouraged to become the bearers of good news, to study, to think through theological implications of our day. We therefore need to provide opportunities, scholarships, and support for family in order to allow this to happen. Women must be actively engaged in developing strategies for our missional work of transformation in the city. Our churches (local and global) need to provide space and resources to help women engage effectively in community transformation. As Christians we also need to be advocating for basic labor and other human rights for women. We can be determined to capitalize on things women do naturally and easily, such as forging social ties, serving their communities in a compassionate way, and advocating for justice for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. Their activism provides us a space for coming alongside them as we live out our mission within the city.
    1. Our missiology needs to embrace immigration and transmigration as opportunities for the gospel to move across boundaries and shape our urban environment while at the same time being aware that migration is also being used for evil, such as human trafficking. Fortunately, in this area at least, we are making some headway. But there is still a strong current of animosity in most countries against immigrants. We have a responsibility to gain from the best research,21 provide opportunities and space for partnerships that empower immigrants, and begin to look at ways that the church can continue being a center for welcoming the stranger. Unfortunately, this is often still a struggle for many of the established churches. It is vital that churches share resources, space, and power, and in this way model the biblical imperative that the poor shall be lifted up. This is central to the gospel teaching as we ourselves follow a Christ who humbled himself and became a servant to others. Just a few months ago I attended a summit on immigration at a high profile, primarily Anglo established Protestant church. I was excited, only to discover that the Anglos there were providing an introduction on immigration to a bunch of leaders in the immigrant community! Something is wrong with this picture. The teaching should have been the other way around! Unless our cities respectfully embrace immigrants, the future and hope of the city, its shalom, is denied.
  1. As Christians we are sometimes slow to embrace creation care as an essential part of the gospel. Yet our understanding of the impact of global climate change in the cities in which we live and serve needs to be rooted in a theological understanding of care for the earth. If we are not prepared to do this, we may indeed be accomplices to further deterioration of our cities. And this has to be based on solid research to help us understand how our cites are being impacted by environmental change and degradation and then strategize on how to mitigate this. Our strategies for taking a wholistic gospel to the urban centers depends on this research. I believe it is not enough to be concerned with people’s souls when they cannot feed their children or their houses are consistently being flooded or, worse, destroyed by winds and storms. The good thing is that there is solid work that has been done and continues to be done on environmental impacts, even from a Christian perspective, but too often we are not prepared to follow through with the implications of this research. I was talking with a few people who are currently engaged in mission, and I brought this up. Their response was surprising to me: they felt that this is something that for people in the West is an issue, but out on the field they do not find this to be as important an issue. This, unfortunately, is a common response, but it is a response that is truly disturbing! All around them are signs of the impact of global climate change: thousands of climate refugees in Nairobi who have been displaced by drought, thousands upon thousands of people in Bangladesh and Pakistan impacted by floods because crops can no longer grow in flooded plains, and the melting of glaciers in Bolivia threaten people’s water supply. Caring for the environment is not just a Western issue but must become a concern for all of us engaged in mission globally.

I believe that the urban centers of economic and political influence are places where we can carry out mission in a holistic, comprehensive, compassionate way. However, we cannot do it alone. We need each other. We need people who can bring the essential, diverse, and necessary gifts to the table in a coalitional, collaborative way. We have come a long way in understanding and engaging in urban mission, but we have a long way to go.

Grace Roberts Dyrness is a part-time professor in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California from where she also received her doctorate in planning and development studies in 2001. She is the founder and senior researcher at the Institute for Transnational Research and Development, in Pasadena, CA. Raised in Costa Rica by missionary parents, she has lived and worked in many countries, including the Philippines where she was a missionary for 8 years with her husband and received her MA in Urban Anthropology. Her areas of interest include social context of planning, participatory research and planning, sustainability, cities of the developing world, and urban ministry with a focus on women and children at risk. She has conducted extensive research in Philippines, Kenya, Tanzania, Oakland, and Los Angeles and currently resides in Altadena, CA. Grace can be contacted at


Avila, Ernestine M. “Transitional Motherhood and Fatherhood: Genered Challenges and Coping.” PhD diss., University of Southern California, 2008.

Bacon, David. “Communities Without Borders.” The Nation, October 2005,

Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. “Our Victories.”

Chronic Poverty Research Centre. The Chronic Poverty Report 2008-09: Escaping Poverty Traps. Manchester, UK: Chronic Poverty Research Centre, 2008.

Dyrness, Andrea. Mothers United: An Immigrant Struggle for Socially Just Education. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Hanciles, Jehu J. Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008.

Margulis, Sergio, et al. The Costs to Developing Countries of Adapting to Climate Change: New Methods and Estimates. The Global Report of the Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change Study. Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2010.

Myers, Dowell, et al. “Immigrants and the New Maturity of Los Angeles.” In Los Angeles 2010: Annual State of the City Report, edited by Ali Modarres, 5-8. Los Angeles: Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs, 2010.

Miller, Donald E., Jon Miller, and Grace Dyrness. “Religious Dimensions of the Immigrant Experience in Southern California.” In Southern California and the World, edited by Eric J. Heikkila and Rafael Pizarro, 101-32. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Schiller, Nina Glick, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton. “Towards a Definition of ‘Transnationalism’: Introductory Remarks and Research Questions.” In Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration: Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Nationalism Reconsidered, edited by Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton, ix-xiv. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1992.

United Nations. Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2008 Revision. New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2009.

Wood, Richard L. Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in Amercia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

The World Bank. Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2011.

1 An earlier version of this paper was written as my response to the main presentation of a panel on Post American Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, April 2010.

2Chronic Poverty Research Centre, The Chronic Poverty Report 2008-09: Escaping Poverty Traps (Manchester, UK: Chronic Poverty Research Centre, 2008),

3 United Nations, Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2008 Revision (New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2009), 1,

4 Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008), 258.

5 Dowell Myers, et al., “Immigration and the New Maturity of Los Angeles,” in Los Angeles 2010: Annual State of the City: Annual State of the City Report, ed. Ali Modarres (Los Angeles: Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs, 2010), 5-8,

6 The World Bank, Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2011), 19,

7 David Bacon, “Communities Without Borders,” The Nation, October 2005,

8 Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton, “Towards a Definition of ‘Transnationalism’: Introductory Remarks and Research Questions,” in Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration: Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Nationalism Reconsidered, ed. Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1992), ix.

9 Andrea Dyrness, Mothers United: An Immigrant Struggle for Socially Just Education (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011),139-160.

10 Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, “Our Victories,”

11 Donald E. Miller, Jon Miller, and Grace Dyrness, “Religious Dimensions of the Immigrant Experience in Southern California,” in Southern California and the World, ed. Eric J. Heikkila and Rafael Pizarro (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 124.

12 Richard L. Wood, Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in Amercia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 279-80.

13 Miller, Miller, and Dyrness, 123-124.

14 Ibid., 120.

15 Ibid., 117.

16 Ernestine M. Avila, “Transitional Motherhood and Fatherhood: Genered Challenges and Coping” (PhD dissertation, University of Southern California, 2008), 171,

17 Sergio Margulis, et al., The Costs to Developing Countries of Adapting to Climate Change: New Methods and Estimates, The Global Report of the Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change Study (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2010), 11-14,

18 Ibid., 61.

19 Ibid., 62.

20 Ibid., 62-63.

21 See, e.g., Jehu J. Hanciles, Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008).

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