Lower the drawbridge: bring social justice home
The Rev Dr Charles Ringma taught at the Asian Theological Seminary in Manila and Regent College in Vancouver and was the founding Director of Teen Challenge in Australia. He reflects on Christian community in our homes.
while we seek to practice social justice
to bring about a more just society,
we can also lower the drawbridge and
bring this ministry into our own homes
If you had seen her in a crowd you would have been none the wiser. She probably would not have arrested your attention although she was attractive. Deena was a prostitute supporting a drug habit. Her small inner-city flat was her place of work.
Deena’s life was spinning out of control with a failed marriage, a small child in tow, poor health, hassles with the police, an expensive drug habit to maintain, and an increasing sense of loneliness and despair. At this point our paths crossed through my involvement in regular street work.
After several conversations it became obvious that Deena did not need a hospital or a psychiatrist. She did not need a treatment centre or a drug rehabilitation program. Rather, she needed a place of safety in which she could start again and rebuild her life. So Deena eventually came to live in our home.
In this we were not alone. One way in which charismatics and pentecostals, particularly during the 1970s, sought to demonstrate their concern for others was by taking them into their communities and homes. This was one way to help broken and wounded people who were not only on the fringes of the church but also on the fringes of society.
There were many reasons for this development.
1. Charismatic renewal was not yet heavily institutionalised. The focus was on people more than programs. Ministry took priority over buildings and projects.
2. The empowerment of the Spirit was celebrated as equipment for service, not as an enhancement for personal wellbeing and selfdevelopment.
3. The new discoveries of renewal brought the church into closer contact with the wider
community. This happened through the use of theatres, general community buildings, and the creation of dropin centres and coffee shops as ways of reaching out to nonchurch people, especially youth.
4. Renewal had not only brought new life to church members but had also brought new people into the church.
5. Inspired by such books as David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, Christians
touched by renewal believed that something could be done through the power of the Holy Spirit for people with lifecontrolling problems.
For these and other reasons the church seemed to be closer to the person in the street.
There are several reasons why ‘caring charismatics’ became involved in these types of initiatives.
1. One factor was that, unlike the traditional churches, charismatics were not overwhelmed with seeking to maintain massive institutional structures. They were therefore free to explore other ways of expressing their social concern.
2. Another factor was the rediscovery of small groups in homes where people could share their lives, pray for one another, discover and use spiritual gifts, and involve friends in informal activities.
3. A similar factor which helped to direct the particular expressions of their concern was the renewal’s rediscovery of community. Christians in the 1970s believed that being church had something to do with being together and sharing life. As a consequence both institutional and informal Christian communities were established as well as house churches.
What characterised this impulse towards Christian community? It was not introversion and
escapism. The purpose of sharing life together was not simply to celebrate God’s gift of new life in Christ. Nor was it simply to care for one another. Instead, this life together, consisting not only of spiritual fellowship but also of sharing resources, sought to provide a context into which we could bring those needing help and encouragement.
Furthermore Christian community was seen as providing a way to make the good news in Christ more visible. This does not mean that the life of the community takes priority over the Word of God. It simply means that Christians sharing life together could demonstrate something of what it meant to be part of the body of Christ.
An underlying idea was that if others could see Christians sharing life together in common
worship and service then they would gain some idea of what the Christian life was all about.
Some might see this as a high risk strategy. They may believe that it is better for ‘seekers’ to be exposed to the purity of the preached word. However, those practising a community approach of life together believed that ‘seekers’ should see something of the warts and all life style of Christians.
The intake process
So Deena came to live in our home. She was not the first and certainly not the last. Nor was she the most difficult. During a period of fifteen years, my wife Rita and I have invited a range of young people into our home.
The most difficult were not drug addicts or prostitutes but those with major psychiatric
disturbances. But for them all, the invitation to live in our home was not a haphazard process. Early in the piece we had learned some valuable lessons from young people who needed help but in fact took advantage of our generosity.
This caused us to develop a simple but multipronged intake strategy.
First of all, Rita, Jenny (a wonderful Christian fellow traveller who shared our home), the children when they were older, and I would discuss and pray about taking in a certain person.
This person was then invited to share some meals with us over a period of several weeks and was then invited to stay for a weekend. The purpose was to build some relationship. Our concern was to determine whether our situation best served this person’s needs or whether he or she required a more structured environment such as a rehabilitation centre.
Certain guiding principles emerged.
1. Our home was not a crisis centre nor a youth refuge. It was an extended family practising hospitality to people who were invited to stay with us for a period of time.
2. The invitation to join us did not depend on the person being a Christian. In fact, the opposite was the case. Nearly all those who shared our home were not Christians when they joined us. Nor were they made to understand that they had to become Christians during their stay. What was made clear, however, was that we were Christians, that we sought to honour Christ in our life style, and that we practised certain disciplines which included devotional times.
3. We attempted to make it clear that the person was not a client, a patient, nor a family member, but a guest of the family. The focus, therefore, was not rehabilitation nor psychiatric counselling. We offered a safe place in which the person could reevaluate his or her life and begin to rebuild it.
Within this context, counselling was informal. The key strategy was to encourage the person to begin to live a life of responsibility and integrity.
A theology of hospitality
A set of theological ideas undergirded our practice of hospitality to Deena and other troubled young people who came to share our home.
It should be noted, however, that the ministry of hospitality was not a formal ministry for us. It was simply a part of living life. We were all involved in other areas of ministry.
1. One of the broader concepts that guided our action was that God calls his people to
demonstrate to others the quality of love that God has shown to them. Put differently, God wants us to reflect to others something of the kindness and goodness he has shown to us.
While there is an emphasis in Scripture that this care for others should be demonstrated within the community of faith (see Deuteronomy 15:1215; Galatians 6:10), there is a corresponding emphasis that this requires a wider application.
In the Old Testament both those within the community and those who were strangers and aliens were to be treated with similar fairness and justice (Deuteronomy 24:1718). The reason for responding in this way was because God is his great goodness had liberated his people from slavery. They were commanded to treat aliens with similar generosity and goodness.
The New Testament also requires this. Not only is there a persistent emphasis on caring for brothers and sisters in the faith (Romans 12:13; Galatians 6:2), but acts of service must also be extended to those who were outside the Christian community (Luke 6:3435; Galatians 6:10).
2. A supporting theme is the emphasis in Scripture on the ministry of hospitality (Genesis 18:15; 19:12; Judges 19:1520; Job 31:32; Matthew 25:3446; Acts 9:43; 16;15; 1 Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 13:2).
A key inspiration for this type of ministry is a concept central to the work of Mother Teresa in India. It is that when we minister to the poor and needy we are somehow ministering to Christ himself. This idea comes from Matthew 25:3446. It is also supported by other passages of Scripture. The statement that ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Matthew 18:5) conveys a similar idea.
We can also put this a little differently. By inviting a needy person into our lives we are involved in a process of seeing that person grow into wholeness. Where that leads to a Christian commitment we are seeing that person’s awakening to the Christ who was already there calling him or her to the fullness of life he has for them.
In this sense a guest, no matter now broken that person may be, is a very special person. While the temptation is to become fixated on this person’s needs and problems, the challenge of Matthew 18:5 (welcoming Christ) is to focus on what is yet to come into being and to emerge in that person.
So the practice of hospitality for people with lifecontrolling problems involves receiving them in hope and to trust for the emergence of Christ’s life within them. This can be an exciting adventure.
3. A third ideological foundation for this kind of ministry is Isaiah 58:612. Some themes in this significant passage should be noted. The most basic is that God desires us to convert our spiritual disciplines into strategies of social concern. Fasting can be expressed in seeking to set oppressed people free and to practically care for their needs.
A related theme is that genuine ministry is a twoway process. Working with wounded people makes us all the more aware of our own needs and imperfections. We too need further healing. As we serve others God promises that our own ‘healing shall spring up quickly’ (58:8).
Finally, working restoratively with individuals means that not only will their individual lives be renewed but that potentially families and communities will also be transformed (58:12). A healed person can also mean a healed marriage, family, or wider set of social relationships.
A rhythm of restoration
Our ministry of hospitality was supported by these theological ideas. They also helped to guide our practical application in living together.
1. A basic issue in our praxis was that the normal rhythm of our life as an extended family could act as a way to orient our guest towards more normal behaviours and attitudes. Most drug addicts, prostitutes, or people with lifecontrolling problems live highly irregular lives with little routine or structure. We found the experience of a more disciplined life style helped to orient them towards a more realistic approach to life.
2. A related idea is that life involves responsibility. Deena was not with us for a holiday. She was a guest of the family with corresponding benefits and responsibilities. Along with all the others she had her part to play in the functioning of the household. For all of us this meant cleaning, food preparation, shopping, cooking, and gardening.
The idea behind the involvement of all of us was that no one was more important than someone else and all had responsibility. Coupled with the joy of working alongside of each other, this had the effect of reinforcing the idea that we have to act responsibly in life. Life is not merely a number of arbitrary forces. I am not simply the victim of my circumstances. Life is also what I make of it and how I choose to live.
3. A further idea is that hospitality involves creating free space for the guest. Simply put, we are not there to entertain and look after Deena twentyfour hours a day. The home is neither a prison nor a fun parlour. This means that Deena has the responsibility to manage some of her own time. It also means that she has time for reflection and solitude.
Personal space for reflection is particularly critical. Many people with lifecontrolling problems are people who are in flight. They find it difficult to face their pain and disappointments. Yet, however slowly this may occur, these do need to be faced so that like a boil they can be lanced.
The framework then for the rhythm of restoration was realism, responsibility and the creation of a free space.
Journey to wholeness
The outworking of restoration varied according to each person. No one makes the same journey on the way to wholeness. But there are some common factors.
The first issue that usually occurs early in a person’s stay is the temptation to return to the old and the familiar. Because the shape of the new is not yet clear there is a pressure to revert to old habits. This occurs even when a person was thoroughly sick of their previous life style and desperately wanted to change.
Clearly, when this pressure takes place the person must take more time in order to begin the rebuilding process. This critical transition phase requires that the other household members provide much encouragement and quiet intercessory prayer for the person.
A second feature is that the guest begins to question whether the new is really possible. This is the crisis of hope. Questions emerge. Can I really make something better of my life? How can I overcome my past problems? What will my new life look like?
In this phase the guest usually begins to probe the spirituality of members of the household to see if that may possibly provide the bridge to the new life. Questions are asked. What does prayer mean to you? What does it mean to have faith? What is Jesus supposed to do for you?
At this point it is important that time is given for these questions to be explored properly. A guest should not be pressed into an easy decision for Christ. In our experience, people took many months to settle these issues.
Once a person came to faith in Christ and began to grow in his or her discipleship, issues of restitution and reconciliation with others began to emerge. This was usually followed by
questions of future life direction.
Somewhere within the space of the year that a person on average stayed with us there would come various crises of faith. These crises usually led to the realisation that further inner healing and renewal were required.
Facing the world
Our home was not the end of the road. It was the beginning of a further journey for people. This journey would also take them beyond our situation. Our place was only a temporary stopping place. It attempted to provide a place of safety and normality in which people like Deena could begin to rebuild their life.
It made no attempt to provide anything magical. Nor were easy solutions offered. The invitation, instead, was to face life realistically and responsibly. Living with Christians gave these people a close look at what the Christian life was all about for us. It allowed them to observe and to ask questions. It furthermore allowed them to explore what Christian spirituality might mean for them and what answers the Christian faith held for their lives.
We made no attempt to live a special life in front of these people. We were ourselves. We also made time for our own special family needs and for the other priorities in our lives. We made no attempt to make our home a little haven for people. They, like us, had to come to terms with the real world. So as time went on the issues of employment, where to live, vocation, calling and further life direction became issues of discussion, reflection and prayer.
Just as the intake was a careful process, so leaving us was a series of moves that gave Deena increasing responsibility. Beginning moves for her to create a life of her own included more free time, weekends away with family and friends, and eventually employment with the additional choices a steady income provided.
A final reflection
God calls the Christian community to be salt and light in a dark world. The church is to be God’s instrument of transformation. That transformation, however, must be conceived holistically and it must take place at various levels.
While on Sunday the church is the gathered community, during the rest of the week it is the scattered church. As such, Christians find themselves in families, neighbourhoods, and in a great variety of work situations where they are to be God’s instruments for good, reconciliation and reconstruction.
This means that Christians are involved in all of life. They work with the poor and in areas of policy and economics and get their hands dirty in areas of microreform.
What we must keep in focus is that we lack credibility when we pontificate on the big issues but never become practically involved with individuals and their needs. Here the example of Jesus is practical and to the point. His was the task to usher in the kingdom of God and to build the new community of faith. But Jesus also made time to heal and care for those who came to seek him out. Thus, while we seek to practice social justice to bring about a more just society, we can also lower the drawbridge and bring this ministry into our own homes.
© Renewal Journal 3: Community (1994, 2011), pages 7-16
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