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.
Kao welcomes me wearing jeans, a blouse, and fuzzy red slippers. She eagerly introduces me to Dachanee Ariso, a Thai colleague. Ariso tells me, with Kao translating, that she is working with Thai church leaders to help people who had been evicted to find land and build new homes. According to the UN, being subject to forced evictions is a defining aspect of slum life.
Kao and I then visit Samaki Pattana, her neighborhood of 3,000 people. As we walk the narrow lanes, Kao stops to talk with neighbors about the weather, jobs, and the student center. We don't go down the lane where drug deals are common and violence occasionally flares. I ask about people we meet along the way. Kao knows each person's story—a sick relative, a community education project.
The New Friars believe living with the people they serve helps them better understand their needs. But they also are pursuing obedience: to follow Jesus' willingness to live with us, not as a celestial commuter, but as a peasant carpenter, in the flesh.
I called Lee Kou, Michelle's mom, in New Jersey before flying to Bangkok. Mothers tend to be realists about such ministry.
"I'm a Christian, but I'm also a mom," says Kou. "I like what she's doing, but I want her to be safe. I've visited her there. She's had dengue fever. She's been attacked by wild dogs."
I appreciate how up front Michelle's mom is about the formula we middle-class American Christians have to calculate, consciously or not:
Our personal concerns ÷
Our interpretation of Jesus' life and words about the poor
Our decisions about risks, comforts, and ambitions
You want to hear about the wild dogs? I did, too.
One morning several months after moving here, Kao was walking near a small pond on the edge of the community. She had been warned about dogs that belonged to a rich family nearby, but had been able to scare other strays by "looking big." Three dogs appeared. They didn't care how big she looked. They clamped down on her legs. Kao screamed. She walked back to her house bleeding, more embarrassed than afraid.
That's the whole story. It's not Chicken Soup for the Missionary Soul. It's sharing risks and discomfort with neighbors. Today Kao laughs it off.
Francis of Assisi was born in the 12th century to a wealthy family and destined for a life of privilege. Then he heard Jesus' call and walked away from it all. He launched a corrective movement that continues today as the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church.
There are many stories about Francis, including one in which he preaches to a flock of birds. That story may be true, but it's been reduced to sentimentalism. I hereby propose that—because the dogs didn't placidly sit to hear an impromptu sermon, and because it represents the transition from rural to urban mission—we replace "Francis Preaching to the Birds" with "Michelle Bitten by the Dogs." The bucolic birds can go to the birds. Missionaries today must figure out how to serve in the mosquito buzz of concrete and corrugated tin.
Later Kao and I walk to a nearby restaurant. Over sticky rice and shredded catfish deep-fried into a crispy tangle, Kao says, "I love what I do. But a while ago, I was questioning my calling. I had this idea that once you discovered your calling, you'd feel fulfilled, like you had made it. There were parts that still felt difficult and unclear, and even now I have questions about whether what I do makes a difference.
"So I called some friends in the States. I was wondering if they had figured everything out. To my surprise, every one of them felt like I did. It was good to be reminded that only God can ultimately fulfill. I feel like I've found a home in this community."
Her programs are small. She provides 17 scholarships for high schoolers, trains community leaders, leads a tiny house church, and cares for a couple dozen children after school. Might she have had greater impact as a doctor? Yet watching Kao work with such joy and fluency, seeming so clearly in the right place, brings to mind a question about our own vocations:How are my talents and efforts responding to the world's deep needs?
On this washing-feet day, Jesus looms with crazy encouragement about how to answer. It's uncomfortable to serve people you don't have to, but it is the way of Life.
As Maundy Thursday closes, I stay nearby in a small, sweaty room with one of Kao's talented young Thai colleagues. He was nicknamed Sprite by his grandmother, who hoped his skin would get lighter, like the soft drink.
On Sacrifice—and When Jesus Was Sent On the Way of the Cross
Jesus died for our sins. And, judging from the first steps into the market, so does every creature of land and sea for someone's daily diet. Snakehead fish and eels wriggle depravedly, frogs thump like gray-green hearts, piles of ants and grubs writhe in slow motion.
Sayiuud Diwong is leading us through the market. Wearing a polo shirt, jean shorts, and neon-laced Adidas, she then takes us to her kitchen in the Klong Toey slum of 100,000 people. Her nickname is Poo, shortened from the Thai word for a kind of apple. Her cookbook and class are called Cooking with Poo. A sense of humor helps in a place like this.
Australian missionary couple Anji and Ash Barker met Poo 11 years ago, after moving into a tiny house in Klong Toey, where they've raised their three children. Diwong had the best nearby food stand. They bought meals from her often. They also saw that hustling to sell 100 plates a day wasn't supporting her family.
They listened to suffering in Klong Toey—to the cries of a child being abused at night, to the screams of a child being raped by her father, to the aching silence after another child died. They also listened to strengths and dreams and, through friendship and work, found the resources to help those strengths flourish.
"Anji showed me that five hot peppers okay for Thai to eat, but for Americans, only one hot pepper," jokes Diwong. She is one of the New Friars' success stories. She pairs well with Kao and the savage dogs.
Ash and Anji have ministered like this for the past 20 years, first in Melbourne, now in Bangkok, through Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH). Ash has written a number of books along the way, including Making Poverty Personal. Anji has helped start many small businesses, her irreverent humor leavening the disappointments.
Cooking with Poo has sold more than 11,000 copies. Diwong's daily cooking class for eight people is often booked weeks in advance. Businesses that UNOH has helped start now employ more than 100 Thais.
Maundy Thursday meets Good Friday. Diwong's business rose from the Barkers' foot-washing posture in a place where people daily undergo crucifixion-like sufferings. Exaggeration? What else, O Lord, are the screams of that innocent child?
As Diwong teaches us to cook Tom Yum Gai, a soup aromatic with lemongrass and lime, I look up at the wall. On the right is a golden shelf with a pink plastic Buddha; on the left, Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. Between them is a cross. On this Golgotha day, different companions have replaced the thieves.
The New Friars network is diverse, though not to the extent of Diwong's wall hangings. While most are living in situations somewhat like Ash and Anji's, not all are as focused on finding as many Diwongs as possible. Working among the poor takes place on a continuum between "being with" and "doing for." The New Friars tend toward the "being with" end. The Barkers see themselves being with so they can create opportunities for.
Cooking with Poo is hard to replicate and won't solve world poverty. But it raises a question on this Good Friday that many Western churches could ask more:What cost are we willing to pay to listen to our urban neighbors, so we can provide opportunities for them to flourish using their strengths?
Books like Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger asked evangelicals a version of this question decades ago, as books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity do today. With their lives, the New Friars pose questions about mission and the sacrifice of true listening by being with others in body. Some answers can be heard only alongside people who, though of course their lives bear laughter and meaning, too often walk what looks like the way of the cross.
On Devotion—and When Everything Went on Hold As Jesus Descended to the Dead
Holy Saturday marks the pause between death and resurrection, when Jesus descended to the dead. Descending to the dead came to mind often last night as I dodged cars, bicycling behind Tim Hupe along Sathon Tai Road through downtown Bangkok.
Tim and his wife, Amy, lead the Bangkok team for Word Made Flesh, another New Friars organization. They have lived here for five years and have two girls, ages 4 and 6. They are gathering missionaries and local Thai and Cambodian leaders to serve Cambodians living in Thailand. This includes teenagers who sell flowers in the red-light district (and are pressured to sell much more).
Like much in the New Friars' approach to mission, Tim's biking is prompted by a mix of idealism (bicycling is simple, frugal, environmentally friendly), practicality (traffic is bad), and simple preference. It is also unnecessary; safer transport is available. Yet the slow, deliberate way of the bike sometimes takes Tim through gridlock faster than the yellow Lamborghini we glide past.
The New Friars recognize that their work requires the slow, deliberate pause of Holy Saturday, for two reasons.
First, they need spiritual nourishment amid trying circumstances.
"It's said that pregnant women crave what their bodies need, like a certain food to meet a vitamin deficiency," says Bessenecker. "I think this is true for these missionaries. They crave a spirituality that can nourish their faith in the demanding locations where they are working."
The New Friars often live in cramped homes in 100-degree heat. They are neighbors to people who are vulnerable to more disease—and with less medical care available. They struggle spiritually and physically. They have found they need traditional practices of prayer that allow them to listen to Scripture and to God. These include the prayer of examen, lectio divina, and silent retreats. As cross-cultural missionaries working in places of suffering, they are uprooted. So they desire spirituality with roots. At their conference, along with missionaries from groups like InnerCHANGE and Servants to Asia's Urban Poor, they will spend a lot of time praying through the hours, singing worship choruses and Taizé melodies. The Bangkok Word Made Flesh prayer room features eight crosses. Six of them are crucifixes.
Second, they recognize that, as author Leanne Payne said, "We either contemplate or we exploit." This applies especially when crossing borders into complex dynamics of culture and power.
As a group, the New Friars strive to navigate these dynamics well. As a missionary, it's important to both appreciate and be leery of the legacy in which one walks (or bikes). For example, while many missionaries spoke out against colonialism among native and aboriginal peoples, too many participated in its abuses. The list of atrocities and absurdities perpetrated in the name of Jesus is a call to Holy Saturday pauses. They ward off efforts that try to do for without the compassion that comes from being with.
In Haiti, with complexities stretching back 500 years, I've spoken with Americans who think they know how to "turn this thing around" 72 hours into their first visit. If such thinking isn't slowed, what follows will end poorly for everyone involved.
This morning I walk from Word Made Flesh to Holy Redeemer Church nearby. The beautiful Buddhist-Thai inspired architecture had caught my eye. It was founded by Redemptorists, a Catholic society founded in 1732, dedicated to preaching and serving the poor.
Frescos that stretch 40 feet long and 10 feet high line the church walls. I spend 30 minutes with artist Virgilio Manipol's stunning portrayal of the Incarnation. The 14 Stations of the Cross merge into a kind of incarnation wrestling match: life unto crucifixion unto life. The dozens of bodies comforting Christ, mocking him, carrying the cross for him are pushing to the limit. Every face is strained.
The New Friars are trying to work out, in their lives and communities, how to at once contemplate God and serve the world. Good Friday is struggle. Holy Saturday is pause. During that pause, their lives ask us: How can our devotional lives help us listen for God as a necessary part of pursuing God's justice?
Faith is hoping that the struggle depicted on these frescos makes a difference now and forever. Holy Saturday reminds us not to rush toward hope that won't last.
On Hope—and When Jesus Is Alive and Giving Life
Michelle Kao's church meets at the Servant Partners office on 146 street. Three churches connected to Servant Partners are gathering this morning to celebrate Easter. The congregation consists of 23 Thais and 4 Servant Partners staff, including Kao.
The preacher, Sanyasin Charoensuksap, was once a Buddhist monk. For seven years, he came to Servant Partners' English classes. That built trust and enabled him to see something in Jesus that led him to convert. Now he's preaching a resurrection sermon peppered with references to Isaiah, Romans, Ephesians, and 1 Corinthians 15.
This worship service is on a very different scale than where Kao and I first met. The triennial Urbana Student Missions Conference, held this past December in St. Louis, drew more than 15,000 students. There I had watched Kao tie a red string around a student's wrist while praying for her in a huge exhibit hall. The string is a Thai Buddhist blessing that some missionaries and Thai Christians have adapted.
So what is the distinctive blessing that comes from the news that "Christ is risen"?
In recent decades, more American evangelicals have embraced a holistic understanding of the blessing they are to share. Distributing tracts was a major strategy in the days when mission distinguished sharply between the physical and spiritual. In this model, mission is simply figuring out how to tell others the Good News. Today, many more see mission as sharing life with patient integrity as the faithful way of witnessing to God's love in Jesus. The blessing is now seen as applying to life—undivided life. Jesus came to bring abundant life that doesn't end with death, but also doesn't start there.
The gospel is physical: a baby and placenta, dirty feet and healings, mud and food, a torn curtain and a cross. And it is spiritual: forgiveness, invitation to salvation, new life. The New Friars mix the two, emphasizing church planting and community development in distinct ways, depending on the organization.
I asked the Barkers about the Buddha, Ganesh, and the cross on the wall in Diwong's kitchen. Diwong had told me she is Buddhist but likes going to church every week.
"We're trying to go slowly," says Anji, "and trust that God is as powerful as we believe. We need to see: What does it mean to be Thai and Christian? Not, What does it mean to be a Western version of Thai?"
Meanwhile, they partner with Diwong on joint business development projects. The Barkers' approach clashes both with missionary efforts that see conversion as the raison d'être and with development programs that see faith as irrelevant.
"I think there will be a day when there will be only [a cross on the wall]," says Ash. "That's my hope."
After Easter service and lunch at Kao's church, I cross the city to the historic district. I take a taxi to the Wat Pho temple, restored to its current appearance in 1788. Its claim to fame is the Reclining Buddha in the main building. He fills the entire temple, lying with his head propped up. He's 50 by 150 feet of shining gold. He's hugely serene.
As I take in the Buddha, I remember the frescos from yesterday, with their scenes of life, the Cross, and the Resurrection. Both images speak meaningfully to their followers. But the image of Jesus powerfully communicates being with in the midst of suffering and struggle.
The Easter story offers specific hope that suffering and struggle will ultimately be redeemed. Jesus walked in the garden and asked Mary Magdalene, "Why are you weeping?" The Resurrection isn't just the physical pressed into service to demonstrate a theological idea. It is embodied. Jesus roasted fish to share with his friends at the lakeside.
For those of us in middle-class America, the New Friars remind us that the gospel does not just rescue from spiritual struggle. It also invites us into struggle alongside others:How do our lives embody resurrection hope—especially alongside those who need hope the most?
Moving to a slum, taking on discomfort and risk, living with rats (the one I saw in the Hupes' former home would have sent any sensible cat fleeing)—this is one way to live hope in Christ's resurrection.
On Foot-Washing, Crucifixion, Waiting, and Resurrection All Over Again
Riding down the brownish water of the Saen Saep canal on a riverboat, we pass several glittering temples. But I am more entranced by the boat itself, with its make-do tarps, pulleys, and wires. Two attendants tightrope along the boat's edge, jumping off every five minutes at a dock, where they flip a rope around a piling to anchor the boat as people get off and on, then flip the rope back off before gliding back on as the boat pulls away. The captain and two attendants rarely speak, in sync with each other's rhythms. They occasionally misfire but then adjust. There is beauty in the way the three of them move us along.
What is the place of the New Friars in the grand scheme of missions? It is easy to either over- or understate the answer.
The risk of overstating is due to the fact that this network consists of only about 200 missionaries, most of them young and white. Generally, their access to financial support allows them to serve in a way that is affordable only to the relatively rich. (They know and wrestle with this.) The truly sizable "movements" in the global church consist of African and Latin American pastors leading millions of people in revival and growth. And they are often caring for the vulnerable in their own communities. Holding up the New Friars too highly risks heroism of the "White Man's Burden" variety.
But there is also the risk of understating their importance. If the church is called to do missions, then the New Friars have a place.
On this Monday after Easter, I visit Father Joe, who has lived for 40 years in the same slum as Poo and the Barkers. He's a Redemptorist priest, which I guess makes him an "old friar." He's built a significant institute here, focused on education.
"I started off [living in the slum]," he says. "I couldn't live uptown and come down and—" he puts his hands out and wiggles his fingers daintily, as though such a dabbling approach could have meaningful effect. "You've got to be with the people."
When "justice" is trendy and when "liking" something on Facebook counts as engagement, we need fellow Christians who aren't dabblers. We need voices from groups like these friars (new and old) to speak alongside social media, short-term mission teams, denominational agencies, and international nonprofits. The friars take respecting and listening as seriously as we all should. My own New Friar–style years in Haiti, and the relationships formed along the way, have been invaluable to my work and a grace in my life.
The missionary life requires resurrection listening. It requires listening to how God's hope is already present—missionaries don't "take God" anywhere. It requires working for the common good while seeking ways to share the specific hope of Christ. The New Friars are listening for God in conditions where God's concern for humanity can seem absent. They're listening to people who are often ignored. And in a way, they are out there listening for us—for the Western church especially. Their lives make intensely personal the four questions I asked above.
In this, they join with the desert mothers and fathers, the original friars, the martyrs, the artists, the poets—people pushing out to the edge. They join with those who live faithfully alongside young people under gunfire in American cities. They join with the academics and the church ladies, the businesspeople and the monastics, the best practices and the grassroots insights, the mystics and the metrics. Together, we can move across the dirty canal water in beautiful ways.
Late Monday night, I walk with Amy, Tim, and their Thai colleague Naamfon to a nearby red-light district. Tim sits with three teenagers doing homework on a sidewalk under the glow of a 7-Eleven. He tracks their weekly progress in a binder. Amy says she's heard that about 6,000 people work as prostitutes within these few blocks. She sits on a curb with a woman they have befriended and helped over the years. She is back on drugs and in prostitution.
Nearing midnight, after a couple hours, we start walking back past the music, the bars, the lights, the men who exploit too many girls and women in too many places, the women in hip-high skirts. I'm next to Amy, but she stops to talk with a teenager who is considered a katoey prostitute (also known as "a lady-boy").
I step up off the street onto the sidewalk to wait. Then I feel a gentle hand move onto my chest. I turn. A young, long-legged Thai woman says, "Hiiiiieee. How yooouuuu?"
The social expectations around here are as plain as the neon is bright. She was kindly doing what was appropriate. Wanting to be clear but not rude, I say, "Oh, um, sorry, uh . . ."
Amy sees me and, smiling, says to her in Thai, "Oh, hi. No, he doesn't want." On Amy's right forearm is her tattoo of Revelation 22:2 in both Khmer and Thai script:
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
The woman takes her hand off my chest with playful embarrassment. To Amy, she does the Thai bow of greeting and respect, bending forward with hands pressed together. Since Tim is farther back, she thinks Amy and I are a couple.
The young woman turns to me. We look at each other. Smiling, she bows to me, and I bow back. Then we both start laughing.
Kent Annan is codirector of Haiti Partners, a nonprofit focused on education in Haiti, and author of After Shock and Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle (InterVarsity Press). He is on the board of directors of Equitas Group, a philanthropic foundation focused on ending child exploitation in Haiti and Southeast Asia.