After centuries of Western missionaries preaching Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America, "reverse missionaries" from the Third World are now quietly moving into America and across the globe in a religious about-face that turns the historical stereotype on its head.
Now, with churches booming in many Third World nations, tens of thousands of their fired-up Protestant and Pentecostal preachers have gone into the mission field, where they are now close to outnumbering their Western brethren, according to projections made at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
"Sometime in 1999, certainly by the year 2000, it would appear that the Third World will send out more missionaries than North America and Europe do," said Larry Keyes, president of a training agency in Colorado that works with Fuller in analyzing evangelical missions.
Protestant churches are not the only ones experiencing a flow of religious workers from Africa and Asia into the United States. The Catholic Church's long-standing tradition of deploying clergy and nuns wherever needed worldwide, even across national borders, is alleviating a chronic U.S. shortage of clergy with foreign-born priests and nuns.
"Almost every U.S. diocese has received missionaries, and we are very fortunate to have that kind of interplay of culture," said sociologist Bryan Froehle, executive director of a Catholic research center at Georgetown University in Washington.
To commentators and clerics who bemoan what they call U.S. moral decay, the influx is sadly ironic. "We have become the kind of place civilized societies of the 19th century sent missionaries to," former Secretary of Education William Bennett said last year as the ex-drug czar was promoting his third book on virtue.
Indeed, some Christians coming from the Third World "look at the West as a place of spiritual need--with a strong sense that this culture has gone off the rails," said Wilbert Shenk of Fuller Seminary.
Some of that rhetoric is a bit overdone. Western churches have hardly yielded the mission field to their onetime proteges.
Indeed, "the U.S.A. certainly sends out many more missionaries than it receives," said Justin Long of Richmond, Va., associate editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, the premier sourcebook on Christian populations and missions.
Nonetheless, the reverse missionaries play an increasingly important role, particularly--although not exclusively--in ministering to immigrant communities.
"People are hungry for God--salvation, healing and deliverance," said the Rev. Stephen Gyermeh, a native of Ghana who in 15 years has built a $1.6-million home for his Church of the Living God in Hyattsville, Md., and started six affiliated churches from the Bronx, N.Y., to Pasadena.
Other "reverse missionaries" say they are thankful for their faith--even if it was first brought to their homelands by missionaries under the umbrella of colonial intruders--and feel it's time they return the religious favor.
"A debt of gratitude is motivating many, many of these folks, including myself," said Ed Silvoso of San Jose, one of several Argentine evangelists and pastors being embraced by U.S. evangelical leaders for mission leadership in this country and worldwide.
Special U.S. immigration laws passed this decade have permitted up to 5,000 clergy and 5,000 lay religious workers each year to apply for permanent residency. Last fall, Congress extended the laws to 2000, responding to pleas that religious workers--Christian and Jewish--provide needed help in soup kitchens and clinics and special services for immigrants.
Meanwhile, non-immigrant visas issued by the U.S. State Department for "temporary religious workers," either clergy or lay workers, have risen each year, from 1,834 in 1991 to 5,082 in 1996, the last total available. There is no ceiling on how many can be admitted, but the maximum U.S. stay with such papers is five years, said Maria Rudinsky, a State Department spokeswoman.
Indeed, the flow is substantial enough to generate a problem with foreigners claiming bogus religious affiliations--Catholic and Mormon are favorite false claims--Rudinsky said. As a result, "we question them very closely on knowledge of their denomination," she said.
Fearful of fraud, "consular and immigration officers are denying a considerable amount of applications, including some legitimate ones," said former immigration officer Lloyd Sutherland, whose Washington firm, International Benefits Inc., aids religious groups with immigration red tape.
The precise number of reverse missionaries is difficult to determine, whether analysts are tracking Third World missionaries entering this country or estimating the numbers of those fanning out across the globe.
A study of non-Catholic missionaries published in 1989 at Fuller Seminary concluded that about 36,000 Third World Christians were taking the faith to other cultures, compared with about 40,000 U.S. missionaries operating in other countries.