Chaos and Grace in the Slums of the Earth
For the first time in history, one of every two people lives in a city. Some 860 million of these city-dwellers reside in slums—uncertain, cramped, and frequently cruel. Most are there by necessity.
A small number of Christian missionaries live in slums too. They are there by choice.
About 100 of them, mostly from the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, met near Bangkok this past April. They gathered under the banner of "New Friars."
The New Friars don't seem to merit high-profile attention. Their efforts to alleviate poverty are small next to the work of many missionary and nonprofit groups and the problems they address.
Yet we do well to listen to the New Friars, because of the way they themselves are listening to God and neighbor, to suffering and hope on the crowded margins of society. They address vital questions about missions today, and about how all Christians might practice our vocations with sacrifice, devotion, and hope.
I knew some of these missionaries. I had read books by others. I had experimented with similar ideals in my own life. So I was eager to see their ideas in action. What better time to do so than over the weekend marking the culmination of Jesus' life?
On Vocation—and When Jesus Knelt on the Floor to Wash Feet
Standing in line in Bangkok's gleaming airport, I pass a smarmy man in his 60s who looks like a star in a sex tourism documentary. He's not the only one. Bangkok rings luridly in the American imagination. I pray to God that some Thai woman won't have to open herself to him.
A most unwelcome thought about vulnerability.
Vulnerability of a different sort is on my mind. Most of the missionaries I'm visiting live in the urban slums where they work, because they believe their work requires them to be vulnerable. Scott Bessenecker, associate director of missions at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, had noticed five organizations that practiced such "incarnational ministry" in slums. In 2006, he wrote a book about the organizations titled The New Friars, comparing them with mendicant orders of centuries past and to the U.S. urban communities known as "the new monastics."
Maundy Thursday is a fitting day to visit the New Friars as the network gathers for the first time. (Disclosure: I'm on a foundation board that helped fund this gathering and my trip.) Their ministry helps keep our imaginations alive to Jesus' words—"You also should do as I have done"—on that Thursday as he knelt to wash his friends' feet, upending ideas of service and power. Their approach resonates with me: I lived under a tin roof without running water or electricity when I started working in Haiti ten years ago.
My taxi from the airport drops me off on a street marked 146, as I had requested. But it's the wrong place. A few Thai women call me over to see my directions. "Lad Prao? No, no, no. Need taxi!" one of them says.
Leaving your neighborhood—physically, theologically, culturally—can get you lost. But it can also lead to discovery.
The next taxi delivers me to Michelle Kao at the Thai Peace Center, on the correct 146 street. Kao, 31, was premed at Johns Hopkins when she visited Bangkok as part of InterVarsity's Urban Trek missions program. Instead of going on to med school, she joined Servant Partners, a group featured in Bessenecker's book. She moved to Bangkok six years ago.