Location, Location, Location
We arrived home from the market one evening to find our neighbours clustered around our little slum house, quietly sobbing or whispering to each other. Our house had been robbed. Thieves had broken through the flimsy walls and removed anything portable and saleable - cameras, electronic gear, clothes, money. "You have come here to help us," they lamented. "How could any of our people have done this terrible thing to you, bringing such shame on us?"
The thieves had left our little home looking like a demolition site. We tidied up as best we could, invited our friends inside, found some biscuits and coke and had a prayer meeting. It was a strange experience - we found ourselves comforting those who had come to comfort us.
One of those who huddled into our house that night was Abner. Abner was a strange one. He spoke adequate English, was well educated for a slum dweller, but seemed to avoid us and resent our presence in the community - probably out of shame. He and his 'wife' Cherie had run away to live in 'our' slum when she had become pregnant even though they were supposed to be living in separate Catholic communities committed to celibacy and obedience.
The next day the usually aloof Abner sought me out. "Thank you for coming to live here," he said. "Now you are really one of us. Now you know what it is to suffer with the poor." A new relationship was born. Abner became my friend and we could talk together about our pain and whether God was in the midst of it.
That was five years ago in Manila. A few months ago we were robbed again, this time in a multi-cultural, poorer housing area in New Zealand.
But the response of our neighbours was the same. Several came to sympathise, one came to pray. We even saw the human face of our harassed police force and could share with them our enthusiasm for our much maligned community, in spite of its problems.
I have no doubt that suffering and adversity opens doors of communication with non-Christian people which we often fail to see or choose to ignore. Suffering is the common element that unites us all as humans, yet as Christians we seem more committed to a lifestyle of avoidance or disengagement than to suffering with others for Christ's sake. Some of us have even devised theologies to convince ourselves that the greatest boon God can give is escape from suffering.
C.S. Lewis once said "God whispers in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain". How is it, then, we have failed to grasp that one of God's most profound communication tools is for us to be with people in those times of his shouting?
In one of our conversations a few weeks after we were robbed Abner shocked me by saying, "I suppose you will be leaving us now?" His experience of aid workers and do-gooders in the past was that when the going gets tough, the so-called tough get out!
Unfortunately Abner was right. Before the robbery occurred our mission had decided we should return home to fulfil an urgent need in New Zealand. So with considerable sadness we left that poor community at a time when we may well have been coming into our greatest effectiveness.
Fellow missionaries tell of the great opportunities that open up when they suffer hardship alongside the people they are seeking to reach. One of our missionary families in Manila stayed put when metres of water swept through their slum house and the church gained new credibility and growth as a result. In the recent coup in Phnom Penh many expatriate Christian workers refused places on the evacuating aircraft and gained great acceptance and ministry opportunities with the suffering Cambodian people.
Our commitment to a people means we are committed to live where they live through flood, fire or famine; or in our New Zealand context - through bad schools, poor hospitals, amongst minority ethnic communities and in areas of heavy crime.
Bob Lupton is one of my favourite authors. He asserts that in Christian work location is everything. He proposes "A Theology of Occupation"1 or "re-neighbouring". Bob works in the poorer housing ghettos of Atlanta Georgia, USA.2 He speaks of changing ghettos from the inside out - by living there.
Christians committed to each other and to the locality buy up decaying multi-unit complexes, renovate them and live in them. They participate fully in the life of the community, they send their kids to the local schools and attend local churches. Some choose to live near gang houses, drug dealers and brothels. They occupy the land - and it works!
Former ghettos are being changed into communities of care, responsibility and well-being. Lupton believes that in these days of unprecedented global urbanisation, when our cities are in deep trouble, where Christians live has enormous consequences. From Lupton's perspective, choosing where we live solely on the basis of the greatest resale value, the most beautiful views or the best schools is a Christian cop-out.
God is with us even when - or should I say especially when - we live in poorer communities. Slums are places of great superstition, oppression and evil. Filipinos believe in a spirit creature that often manifests itself in various forms before evil events. Our family gives guarded credence to such manifestations, but both my son and I later recalled hearing what sounded like dogs scratching on the roof of our house in the nights preceding our robbery.
It seemed best to be on the safe side, so we readily agreed to missionary friends praying through our house after the robbery. The peace returned with a security more profound than could be given by burglar alarms or guard dogs.
I do not understand it with my mind, but I know several Christian workers who would swear they have 'seen' Jesus amongst the poor or sensed him walking with them in their poor communities. Once God 'came' to me and my friend Alex in the slum as he broke down and wept, totally overcome by his poverty and inability to provide for his wife and family.
Our suffering God calls all of us to reach out to people in their adversity, he calls many of us to live with them in their communities of pain, and he promises to be with us always.
All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times from following the Messiah, but no more so than the good times of healing comfort - we get a full measure of that, too.3
2. The easiest way to access Bob Lupton's material is to write for his free monthly bulletin Urban Perspectives, FCS Ministries, PO Box 17628, Atlanta, Georgia 30316, USA. Also see Internet http://www.telchar.com/telchar/blupton.htm
Ross and Marcelle Pilkinton have been living in Porirua East and for the last 7 1/2 years have worked with Servants to Asia's Urban Poor in Manila and New Zealand. Early this year they moved to Pokhara, Nepal, where Marcelle will manage the International Nepal Fellowship missionary guesthouse and Ross will help care for INF workers and Nepali pastors.