TL;DR: How can I practice acceptance and friendship with people who live on the margins of society, and is it possible for me to go on mission trips to other countries given that I am a stunningly oblivious and unsociable sloth?
I first heard about mission trips when I joined the DG (discipleship group) in February and they were in the preparation stage to go to Davao, Phillipines. A lot of the work seemed to revolve around games and lessons to connect to the youth, and sharing of the gospel. I thought it was a hi-bye thing to people who are receptive to the Bible, and it was only until church camp (last week) that I realised how much effort was needed just to stay on in a primarily Muslim community for 7 years. The place that the missionaries are based in is a tightly-knit, strongly Muslim community. The youths who come to the camps/retreat face the difficulty of living with their family, and secretly believing in Christianity (forbidding the worship of other Gods etc) or professing their belief in Christ and then face expulsion or at least, being ostracized by their friends and family. Their parents will also be ostracized because the community will begrudge their parents for not bringing up children according to the Islamic faith.
When the short-term missionaries i.e. my DG friends were sharing about their journey, I honestly was a bit taken aback because I didn’t know that so much energy and effort were poured into an undertaking that on the surface, bears no fruit. And there is the whole issue of ‘how far will we go to convert people of other faiths’, and ‘how far will we go to get secular, non-believers to join the church’. We could stay inward-looking and only cater to those who are already within the church community, or we could go out and spend years befriending those who have not felt the hand of God in any way in their lives.
There was a sharing on the missionary experience to Taiwan too. The missionary, let’s call her S, gave up her prestigious career path as a scholar to pursue her work in Taiwan. Friends spoke about how missionaries can feel like aliens in their homeland (Singapore) after spending so long overseas, because by the time they come back, to be reintegrated into Singapore, friends and family members have moved on without them. Lives have changed, families have been built, and their missions work overseas might not have been fruitful.
The group of people that S administers to are called ‘tea shop ladies’, or prostitutes. She shared in sermon and also during church camp about how hard it was to befriend these people, because they were wary of evangelists who only wanted to preach the gospel. The mixing of social work and also gospel work took up a lot of her time- when you are a missionary, you not only preach the gospel, you do things like bring people to hospitals (because the lady was illiterate) and fill out social visas and do lots of paperwork. It was also difficult to see the ups and down of progress. The ladies had practical concerns such as how to get the next meal, or how to support themselves without prostitution. So there would be a baptism one week and the hope for a better future, trusting in God, and two weeks later they might return to working the streets because it is necessary to support a life, and also because it is habitual.
- Literacy gap – Most working class people are not highly literate because they do not continue to read books after finishing their middle or high school education. Because reading Chinese requires you to know the individual characters that represent each word, one quickly loses the ability to recognize the characters once out of practice. Churches in Taiwan are book-heavy. When you walk in, you typically receive a bible, hymn book and the church bulletin… and spend the morning fumbling through a confusing combination of the three books.
S mentioned that as a missionary you have to go to a completely foreign place and start from the bottom, integrating yourself into local life, removing all feelings of you being a superior being. A lot of people in this world are in misery because of circumstances or self-imposed expectations of the self (I fall firmly into the latter category), and we are hurt. We want to find meaning. But such meaning cannot be found by just reading a pamphlet distributed on the streets, by however well-meaning Christians. Meaning and love has to come from an experiential level. Only when one experiences the grace of god or the warmth of the church then does one accept that Christianity has any value. This is where it becomes difficult, because friendship and acceptance cannot be forced on either party. It has to come from the heart, over a long time. And even then, the fruits of friendship might turn sour due to unexpected events.
I admit that most of the time in church, it is difficult to experience grace from other people. Singaporeans and humans in general can be nit-picky, choosy, cold, selfish, and I myself also fall into those categories. I call myself a learning Christian, because while I enjoy learning, sometimes I do not enjoy being in church. There are a lot of rules to follow and it is not like Buddhism where they teach you to observe yourself first. In Christianity you look towards God, you have to learn the basic teachings of why Christ died for us and why the biggest sin you can commit is to live without a God in your life. Even accepting that as my biggest sin took me a few months. It was when I read about grace and parables of how forgiveness is because of who God is, and not who we are, did I finally accept that while my life might not be enough for a perfect God, it is possible that he still loves me.
Going to my current church is difficult, I sometimes feel like there is a huge (cold and windy and dark and treacherous) gulf between me and my current DG mates, because of our different socio-economic backgrounds. I fall firmly into the ‘margin’ category, because I might work for the next 60 years of my life and still be unable to afford even one of the landed properties that my friends own. They are also not the friendliest of people because they have been together for a long time, but thankfully I have heard many people say that while they can be cold, it is a form of tough love, and as long as you stay on, people will grow on you and you will grow on others like a tough barnacle. But I still get anxious and a bit unhappy whenever I have to turn up for DG. Because while I am accepted by God, I am not sure if I am accepted by men.
In the movie The Last Emperor, the young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command. “What happens when you do wrong?” his brother asks. “When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy emperor replies. To demonstrate, he breaks a jar, and one of the servants is beaten.
In Christian theology, Jesus reversed that ancient pattern: when the servants erred, the King was punished. Grace is free only because the giver himself has borne the cost.
-Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
Returning to the point of mission trips. The role of a missionary is immensely difficult, and if we cannot accept the marginalized amongst us now- BASK (Brothers’ And Sisters’ Keepers) and the Indonesian maids etc- it is difficult to take the leap towards joining mission trips overseas. BASK is part of the mercy ministries, where they administer to ‘the sick, the dying, and the dead’. The team goes on prison visits every week and the hardest thing for ex-convicts is not just to find a job. A job is concrete, many of the business people in church can find jobs for newcomers. Acceptance, love, and kindness is not concrete, it is harder to cultivate.
Pastor J was sharing that he went on a night cycle with someone who just came out of prison, and after the ride, he thought that he had missed the chance to share the gospel because the friend was really fit and cycled so far ahead of him. But when the ride ended, the friend said that that was truly one of the best times of his life. Pastor J was able to touch a person’s heart by just being present. By just being with a person without an ulterior motive or second thoughts about how he can be somewhere else, doing other more productive things. The question remains- how can we, wholeheartedly, lay down our differences and practice being friends with people who live on them margins?
My friendship with him has strongly challenged my notion of how grace should affect my attitude toward ‘different’ people, even when those differences are serious and perhaps unresolvable.
-Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
As for the maids in the community- a lady in the room mentioned that she once brought her Indonesian maid to the same service as her. The helper usually goes for Rhoda fellowship, and she told her employer “I shouldn’t be in the same service as you, you are my mam.” The lady shared that there should be no difference between the Indonesian colleagues she works with on a daily basis, and her Indonesian helper. And yet there is this divide between human beings because of the job they do, so much that it becomes subconscious and everyone just subsumes themselves into little pigeon-holed categories. Categories are useful because they contains stereotypes that helps us to minister to other people. Such as ‘business managers in China are very focused on relationships’, ‘the Japanese are not brutally straightforward’ etc. But categories should not be used to demean other people.
The last sharing during the workshop on the marginalized people around us. It is a story of the ups and downs of conversion to Christianity, and how sometimes, being a Christian can seem like an additional burden, on top of all the financial and physical burdens that a person already has. There was a lady, named Y, who shared about how she got to know a toilet cleaner in her office. In Singapore the line between graduates and support staff seems more clear, I remember back in my temporary job with the bank, the two teams ate separately, even though they worked side by side. Y said that she did worry about how her boss and colleagues would perceive her, “hanging around talking to a toilet cleaner”. The cleaner in question, named T, worked on the weekends as a prostitute to pay for the medical bills of her son back in China. The son had developmental issues, the husband was separated from T, and all her family members and friends were no longer willing to lend her money.
Y and a bunch of Christians from her office got together and pooled their resources (including a spare HDB flat) to help that family. Progress was good for three months, with the son making progress and the husband being willing to reconcile with T, until the family had to return to China. With the source of support starting to dwindle as it got difficult to help T remotely, things changed and at the end of a year, the husband obtained a divorce, stopped being a Christian, and the sister-in-law of T has been trying to turf her and her mother out of the house. Funds also dwindled because the salary of T decreased when she went back to China with her family. Y said that it was a time when they wondered, “why have our prayers grown cold?” What happened to the initial spurt of belief and progress?
Faith is not a straight path. It really is a mountain range. The climb upwards is long and tiring, and the dips downwards bring you closer and closer to the final destination, but you might never see the peaks if you lose faith in the middle. It is difficult to climb the mountain range on your own if you have no support, especially with an ailing son and marital problems and a lack of financial stability. Even Sunday school teachers (the mother of my camp group mate) can turn away from church completely, and renounce God. Whatever happened to their faith? Is it the gulf between reality and expectations? If we are unable to maintain our faith in comfortable surroundings, how do we find it in us to love those who are vulnerable and much worse off than us? Love is action-oriented, it is not just words. How can one sustain love over a long period of time? These are some of the many questions I hope to find the answers to when I am older.
Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
I really like listening to testimonies of faith and grace, because sometimes, preaching the absolute truth does nothing for me. It is like a chemistry equation for Prozac, so what if the equation is true and might one day save my life? I am used to feeling as I do and doing as I do. Why should I acknowledge your truth, something which gets most religious people riled up, if it doesn’t affect my current life?
But testimonies are different- it goes directly to the heart of a person. What are our struggles, and how can our struggles inform the way we live and work as Christians. Pain makes us more relatable as human beings, and testimonies are often about loss and emotional struggles. Why does he live as he does, how can we befriend him and shape his life.
To end off with a quote by S. ‘You might not have a family, but you will always have a church community’. It takes time to build up that church community, with generous portions of faith, hope and love. Above all, love. 😊
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
-1 Corinthians 13:13