Missions at the Margins
by Bob Ekblad
Dr Bob Ekblad wrote as director of Tierra Nueva and The People’s Seminary in Burlington, Washington. A minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he holds a ThD in Old Testament and is known internationally for his courses and workshops on reading the Bible. Website: bobekblad.com.
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Missions at the Margin, by Bob Eklad:
This article is abbreviated from Chapter 12, “Holistic Transformational Missions at the Margins” by Bob Eklad, in the book Supernatural Missions, by Randy Clark (Global Awakening, 2012 (globalawakening.com)
Mission activity has sometimes swung between the two extremes of purely social work and solely evangelistic preaching. God created us as whole persons, however, and wants spirits, souls, and bodies to be brought into wholeness. Practical projects addressing physical needs are not incompatible with supernatural ministry; rather, they are an outlet for God’s love and power to bring transformation to people’s hearts and lives.”
Many people on the margins of society have images of God that are mostly negative in ways that hold them back from any positive benefit or any spiritual attraction whatsoever. For many “god” has already been defined by core experiences of human father or authority figures who abandoned or rejected them, punished or abused them, was impossible to please and controlling or permissive and negligent. Negative images of God also come through people’s assumptions that calamities, injustice, sickness and other forms of oppression are willed by God or sent as punishments.
When my Honduran peasant colleague Fernando and I first began asking impoverished peasants why their corn and bean harvest were so dismal, I was startled by their near unanimous responses: “It’s God’s will.” We launched our ministry Tierra Nueva by starting a demonstration farm– cultivating steep, eroded mountainsides using contoured terraces, rock or pasture grass barriers to prevent further erosion and soil building strategies like compost and cover crops. We planted corn, beans, vegetables and fruit trees to the curve of the land. We experimented with fish ponds, fuel efficient mud stoves and other appropriate technologies.
Our first year’s harvest was ten times better than people were accustomed to seeing, drawing the attention of peasants from the surrounding area. We helped those interested in attempting our approach establish an experimental plot on their own land, discipling them in these organic-intensive farming methods. When they saw for themselves that protecting and rebuilding soil led to dramatically improved harvests, God was “off the hook,” and no longer to blame— and a space was opened for them to hear about a good God who does not will crop failures and poverty.
My wife Gracie and our Guatemalan colleague Catalina taught vegetable gardening, nutritious recipes, hygiene and other preventative health measures and the people found their health improving. As people learned that amoebas and bacteria could be eradicated through boiling their water, once again God was no longer to blame for the premature death of their children through malnutrition and dysentery. Health education brought a needed corrective to traditional explanations that attributed most common health problems to witchcraft or curses from enemy neighbors. While deliverance continued to be important in combating other kinds of oppression, subsistence farming and health education are also critical for community wellbeing—easing tensions due to false accusations and taking away power from local curanderos (witch doctors). …
Often my colleagues and I find ourselves sharing spontaneous impressions that people recognize as bringing to light details that only God could know. Recently while praying for a Mexican farm worker in his late thirties a faint picture flashed across my mind of an adult throwing rocks at a young boy who was shepherded animals. I asked him if his father ever lost his temper and threw rocks at him when he was a boy, causing him to run away terrified. He began to cry and grabbed his leg where he had been hit. That day he forgave his father for this offense, which was one of many others that contributed to this man’s fear of displeasing employers and others in authority.
The Apostle Paul writes that the one who prophesies “speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort” (1 Cor 14:3 NIV) and makes God real to a person who do not yet believe when “the secrets of his heart are disclosed” (1 Cor 14:25 ESV).
A close look at Jesus’ prophetic ministry as depicted in the Gospels overturns alienating traditional images of God. Jesus’ revelation to the astounded Samaritan woman that she had had five husbands as he offered her living water in John 4 is one of many examples that subverts contemporary readers assumptions. Jesus’ witness regularly challenges common beliefs that God favors the righteous over sinners, law-abiding people over criminals, the rich over the poor, the beautiful over the ugly, the intelligent over the ignorant, offering flashes of a very different sort of God.
People assume that God is like a rigorous admissions officer at an exclusive University or a demanding, scrupulous employer examining resumes— choosing only the most deserving into his ranks. Especially if they are to be ministry workers or any kind of leader. Yet right from the beginning of the Bible, we see that God pursues the most unlikely candidates. …
In our weekly jail Bible studies, visits to migrant camps and rural villages in Central America and everywhere we regularly lead Bible studies, we pray for suffering people and witness God’s power to heal. Healing often happens before people come to faith. This undermines the dominant image of God that sees sickness and a sanction for bad behavior and healing or any sort of benefit as a reward for good behaviour.
Once I offered to pray for a man suffering from shoulder and lower back pain after the police had violently pulled his arms behind his back nearly dislocating his shoulders to handcuff him. They had thrown him in the back of the police car and the handcuffs had dug into his back. Before praying for him I asked if he felt he needed to forgive the police for their excessive use of force. “No,” he said. “I was drunk and resisting arrest. I’m a big dude and was pretty out of control. They were just doing their job.”
I prayed that Jesus would undo the damage done by the police and show the man how much He loved him regardless of his violence. I stepped away and asked him if he felt any improvement. He said he felt the pain leave his lower back but said he was sure that if he drew his arms back behind his back the pain would be intolerable. He began to gingerly move his arms behind his back and amazement came over his face. “I’ll grant it to you. I’ll grant it to you. The pain is completely gone,” he said, dropping to his chair and crying with his head in his hands. Like in the Gospel accounts we regularly see God’s healing presence overturn people’s negative expectations as the one full of grace and truth makes himself known concretely.
Healing is one important dimension of an important Greek verb sotzo, which literally means “to save,” but is often used in the Gospels as a synonym for “to heal.” There are two other Greek verbs used in miracles of healing, therapueo ”to cure” and iaomai “to heal,” so Gospel writers seem to be making a special point in using the highly theological sotzo, which is used in Paul’s writings to refer almost exclusively to Jesus’ saving work on the cross for eternal life (see Rom 5:9-10; 8:24; 9:22; 10:9-10,13; 11:14, 26; 1 Cor 1:18, 21; 1 Cor 3:15; 5:5; 7:16; 9:22; 10:33; 15:2; Eph 2:5, 8; 1 Tim 1:15). This meaning of salvation for eternal life is also present in the Gospels (Mat 10:22; 16:25; 24:12-13; 19:16, 25; John 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 12:47). However there are many occurrences of sotzo that are rendered in English translations as “heal” in miracle stories where people experience physical healing (Matt 9:21, 22; Mk 3:4; 5:23, 28, 34; 6:56; 10:52; Luke 6:9; 8:48, 50; 17:19; 18:42; Acts 4:9; 14:9). In addition, we see many other occurrences of sotzo in the Gospels and Acts that refer to being saved or rescued from danger in the lifetime of the beneficiary (Matt 8:25; 14:30; 27:40, 42; 27:49; Mk 8:35, 35; Lk 9:55-56; 23:35, 37, 39; Acts 27:20, 31). This rich verb and the related noun soteria “salvation” present a holistic notion of saving/salvation that includes salvation for eternal life, supernatural healing and deliverance, but also physical acts of helping, rescuing and liberation. Mission must take into account this rich diversity of actions that communicate God’s love to our hurting world.
Gangs in prison
I travelled to Guatemala in September 2008, to train pastors working with gang members. We visited one of Central America’s most infamous prisons to visit the gang member inmates of perhaps the most notorious street gang in the Western Hemisphere. A week before leaving for Guatemala City I dreamed of a heavily-tattooed man with a hole in his right side. I met this man in the second prison– a big intimidating guy with tattoos and a myriad of scars from stab wounds and bullets all over his body—including a big indentation on his right side from a near-death shootout with the police.
This man, a gang leader serving a 135-year sentence, ended up taking me back into the heart of the prison to find a bathroom, and then inviting me into his cell. I shared with him my dream and he was visibly moved, welcoming my offer to pray for him. He told me about his worries about his son and shared his longing for God’s peace and love in his heart. I prayed for him and anointed him with oil.
He led me back into the yard where we succeeded in gathering many inmates for a Bible study on Jesus’ call of Matthew the tax collector. I described how Matthew was a tax-collector—a member of a notorious class of people that nearly everyone hated.
“Who might fit the description of tax-collectors today?” I asked.
Gangs in Guatemala force businesses in their territories to pay “protection taxes” [from themselves] and taxi drivers to pay “circulation taxes”- and the men smiled and looked at each other, acknowledging that they fit the description.
“So what was Matthew doing when Jesus called him?” I ask.
The men look surprised when they note that he wasn’t following any rules, seeking God or doing anything religious. But he was practicing his despised trade when Jesus showed up on the street and chose him.
“So let’s see if Jesus made Matthew leave his gang to be a Christian,” I suggest, and people look closely at the next verse.
There Jesus is eating at Matthew’s house with other tax-collectors and sinners and the disciples.
“So who followed whom?” I ask, excited to see people’s reaction.
The men could see the Jesus had apparently followed gangster Matthew into his barrio and joined his homies for a meal.
“So what do you think, would you let Jesus join your gang?” I ask, looking directly to the man I’d just prayed for in his cell and the other gang chief.
They were caught off guard by such a question—but there we all were, deep in their turf being welcomed, Bibles, guitar and all– and nobody was resisting. Big smiles lit up both their faces as we looked at Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees’ distain. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
I ask them if they are at all offended to think of themselves as sick—and they don’t seem to be at all. I’ve got their attention. Jesus’ final word to the religious insiders hit these guys like a spray of spiritual bullets from a drive by:
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Jesus’ firm dismissal of the accusing Pharisees “go and learn” and clear preference for sinners as the “called” drew the circle of gang members irresistibly into Jesus’ company.
I was delighted that the men agreed to let us lay hands on every one of their bare, heavily-tatted backs as my colleague sang worship songs over them, including: “Jesus, friend of sinners, we love you.” I heard from a pastor that the gang leader I had prayed with was amazed at how his “homies” (fellow gang members) were letting us pray for him and whispered: “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the Presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and seen the homies at peace. I feel really good.”
Two months later on November 22nd, I spent a day in a bleak French prison in Lyon where suicide was rampant. I was there training French prison chaplains and ministering to inmates. That night I took a train back to Paris to learn the horrific news that the Guatemalan gang leader I’d prayed with who had the hole in his side and three others had been taken in the middle of the night by the police and placed into a prison of 900 inmates that were all violently anti-gang. On the morning of November 22, 2008 rioting inmates killed, decapitated and mutilated the bodies of these four men who we’d laid hands on to bless.
While carrying off these men authorities also burned all the 150+ inmates possessions, sheets and makeshift shacks they’d built for conjugal visits in a big bonfire—leaving them beaten up, naked and traumatized. Local gang pastors boldly accompanied the shattered families and inmates in the aftermath of this event. They brought over 25 huge bags of clothes collected from churches, deeply touching the gang inmates who are used to being despised and excluded.
Yet anti-gang sentiment is rising in the country and scapegoating continues in full swing. Recently, authorities invaded the prison again and apprehended the other leader and two others, transporting to another prison. A plot was exposed showing their killings were being arranged for the anniversary of last year’s killing of four. This time high-level advocacy on their behalf before government officials in the USA and Guatemala exposed the plot and led to greater security and visits for these inmates. The gang members inside and outside the prison and their families have been deeply moved by Christian solidarity.
Micro-enterprise and Mission
Gang members, drug-dealers and ex-offenders need opportunities to develop other stills so they can step away from lives of crime and become legally-functioning members of society. Tierra Nueva is working to establish micro-businesses both in Honduras and in the USA to provide skills training, jobs and income to sustain our ministries. We continue to work to help famers improve production and storage of basic grains, bring water to marginal neighborhoods for basic needs and vegetable gardens, increase the quality of coffee and distribution of specialty coffee and establishing a water-purification plant to sell bottled water. We import Honduran coffee to the United States, where we have train and employ gang members and ex-offenders to roast and market specialty coffee through Underground Coffee Project. Tierra Nueva runs an organic farm called Jubilee Farm, producing and selling vegetables and flowers as a site for discipleship and training for farm workers and others on the margins. Micro-businesses are increasingly important to provide alternatives for felons, sites for ministry and income for ministries.
Direct confrontation of false images of God through proclamation and holistic responses to people’s felt needs, fresh readings of Biblical texts, pastoral accompaniment, advocacy, prophetic ministry and healing prayer are some of the ways that prepare people to meet Jesus as the one who saves them from their sins and transforms their lives. The kindness of God leads to repentance—understood as a change of heart (Rom 2:4). So we do everything we can to effectively pluck up, break down, destroy and overthrow the false while also facilitating, ushering in and preparing the way for the revelation of the kind God who has the power to save.
© Supernatural Missions, by Randy Clark (Global Awakening, 2012), excerpted from pages 265-281, used with permission.
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