The mission organization Word Made Flesh is unusual in several respects. Founded 15 years ago, it is a young movement, with nearly all its 200 staff and volunteers well under 35 years old. Focused on serving Christ among the poorest of the poor, its staff are notable for the degree to which they move into the urban slums, red-light districts, and refugee camps where they are called to serve. They also work together in small intentional communities, a model that looks back to monasticism and forward to the quest for richer expressions of Christian community. Here, Word Made Flesh's international executive director, Chris Heuertz, responds to our big question about global mission for 2007: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?
Several years ago, I made my first trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone, just as that country's civil war was winding down. One of my first stops was a camp for the war wounded.
During the war, nearly 250,000 people had their arms or legs amputated by rebels, militia groups, or government soldiers. The mutilations killed the great majority of victims. But a few survived: Those who had the presence of mind to run to safety with their bleeding stumps lifted above their heads to avoid fatal blood loss.
Late in the day, I found myself on the front step of a young woman's slum-like camp home. She looked able-bodied and healthy. Yet her story was as terrible as each of the others'her village had been attacked, her home burned to the ground, and her husband killed before her eyes. Finally, she had been brutally raped.
As she was speaking, I looked over my shoulder to see her 3-year-old daughter, Grace, picking up a handful of peanuts with one hand. As a 2-month-old baby, Grace had lost her left arm just above the elbow to the same men who had already taken everything from her young mother.
Grace was biting on the shell of a peanut, pressing it against what was left of her arm, to no avail. As a full-grown man with all my limbs, I still have trouble opening a peanut. Grace was trying to do the same without an arm.
Though my travels have taken me to many unforgettable places, that moment with Grace and her mother is seared into my memorynot just for what it taught me about human suffering and perseverance, but also for what it taught me about the plight of the church.
Our Broken Body
An essential Christian conviction is that the church is the community that anticipates and seeks to express the kingdom of God. To explain the healthy functioning of the church, the apostle Paul twice turned to the metaphor of a human body, equipped with many different parts, that working together could live out the life of its risen Lord, the head of the body, in a broken world.
But the body of Christ, far from being a healthy, functioning body with the capacity to respond to the needs of the world, is more like a child who is missing a limb. We are fragmented, divided, and ineffective at even simple tasks. Yet, like Grace, some of us are young, foolish, or brave enough to try to overcome these limitations.
That has been the goal of Word Made Flesh (WMF). Our community can be found in the sewers of Eastern Europe meeting with children living on the streets, with former child soldiers in the refugee camps of West Africa, among victims of sex trafficking and children with aids throughout Asia, and in the shanty-towns and favelas of South America.
It's often observed that there is among my generation a crisis in the theology and practice of mission. For many Christians today, mission can seem to be little more than sanctified tourism. Raised as opportunistic individuals, we bounce from one short-term experience to the next. We keep our options open and avoid committing to any one organization or set of relationshipsso much so that many of us would rather work 20 hours a week pouring coffee than give our lives to helping secure safe drinking water for others.
The challenge for WMF is working with those who are intelligent yet doctrinally confused, lonely yet community-resistant, cause-driven yet commitment-averse, idealistic yet cynical, magnanimous yet suspicious, and, not least, over-educated yet deep in debtand challenging them to establish community with and among the oppressed of the world.
The Voices of Friends
Western Christians are often isolated from people who are poor. This is all the more troubling given the centrality of the poor in the Bible. God seeks provision for the poor (Lev. 23:22; Deut. 15:4, 7-11; Ps. 41:1; Prov. 28:27), identifies with the poor (Ps. 68:5-6; Prov. 14:31; 17:5; 19:17; Isa. 3:14-15; 1 Cor. 1:27-29; 2 Cor. 8:9; James 2:5), validates the authenticity of our Christian life through our relationships with the poor (Prov. 21:13; 22:9; 28:5; 29:7; Isa. 58:6-11; 1 John 3:16-18), and uses the poor as the standard for judgment of individuals and nations (Ps. 109:6-16; 140:12; Jer. 22:16; Amos 5:11-12; Matt. 25:31-46).
As our Africa-Europe regional coordinator David Chronic wrote several years ago, "The poor do not need to be integrated into our community. God is calling us, rather, to identify with theirs." At WMF, ministry is not so much to "the poor" as "with friends." It is a simple verbal change that attempts to honor and humanize those we minister to.
In the same way, in the ministry's quarterly journal, The Cry, you are likely to find a story by a child who works as a prostitute next to an article by a prominent theologian; a prophetic piece submitted by a child who grew up on the streets in Lima next to a reflection from one of our full-time staff.
Many in WMF have found that giving up the freedom that comes with the developed world in order to offer the freedom that comes with knowing Christ is hardly a sacrifice.
Many say that the embrace of a child who has grown up on the streets frees their hearts from a bondage they didn't know they had. They see those who prostitute themselves discovering in the pages of Scripture surprising restoration. They see former child soldiers teaching and embodying forgiveness, a sign that the kingdom has come in a small way.
WMF has highly educated and well-qualified women and men on its boards of directors and leading its communities around the worldstill, one of its international boards is chaired by a refugee with a fourth-grade education.
A Global Mosaic
Much of my early exposure to mission came in compounds spread across Asia and Africa. These missional communities lived together, often in a walled campus, creating a transplanted microcosm of their culture and society. Rarely in these communal compounds would I see an African or Asian coworker who wasn't a gardener or a cook. Although these communities were full of dedicated men and women, I began to fear that this model of mission was a kind of apartheid that hindered the message of the church and undermined genuine community.
This is especially a challenge for a ministry like WMF that draws its members largely from college and university campuses. As Michael Emerson and Christian Smith observe in Divided by Faith, the highly educated are less likely to express overt racism or prejudiceyet in North America, it is the university educated who live in the most segregated neighborhoods and whose churches seem least likely to have culturally diverse memberships.
Word Made Flesh strives to cultivate a mosaic of diverse Christian community. The staff at its Omaha office includes middle-class alumni of Christian colleges but also immigrants from Mexico and Vietnam. Nearly all staffers raise "missionary support," but some multinational and multicultural staff come from communities that offer support of other kinds rather than finances. Finding a way to sustain a truly multiethnic U.S. office is an ongoing challenge.
Internationally, WMF tries to foster multiethnic partnerships. The Bolivian staff serving in India and the Romanian staff serving in Peru have made some of the deepest connections among the poor. To be sure, a church like Nepal's has its own urgent needs that can make it hard for a Nepali to serve in a place like Brazil, but the more such exchanges happen, the more we believe we anticipate the time when the Lamb will be praised by people of "every nation, tribe, people, and language."
Women and Men as Partners
Not long ago, I was at a large gathering of young evangelical leaders. The conference boasted delegates from more than 100 nations in an effort to represent the global body of Christ. Just under a quarter of the participants were women.
In one sense, this represented great progressat similar gatherings 30 years ago, women would have been far less well represented. Yet in another sense, the gathering was far from an accurate picture of who is providing leadership to the global church.
As Philip Jenkins points out, today's "typical" Christian is much more likely to be a young Nigerian or Brazilian woman than a Western white male. Women are the numerical majority of Christians around the world. And it is only when women and men work together that we demonstrate the wholeness of Christ's body, where "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).
Mother Teresa, perhaps the most influential woman of the 20th century, ignited the imagination of the world and encouraged the church to see Christ even in his most "distressing disguise." Along with lesser-known WMF saints such as Jyothi Bhattarai, Daphne Eck, Phileena Heuertz, and Elizabeth de Sirpa, she was raised up by God as a leader for both men and women to follow into service of Christ among the poor. Needless to say, this is an important value at WMF.
Missing our Brothers and Sisters
For many North American evangelicals, ecumenism has come to imply compromise. But in Word Made Flesh, ecumenical partnership is seen not as moving away from truth for the sake of unity, but as moving toward the center: Christ himself. When Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians come together in the name of Jesus, the body of Christ regains some of its fullness and integrity.
The Orthodox women and men in the community have brought tremendous gifts in the arts, teaching us how to create authentic and tangible expressions of love for God. Catholic community members have an instinct for communal identity that deepens collective accountability. And the Protestants are naturally able to find simple, culturally accessible forms of song and prayer. WMF has found that each of these three great traditions brings a crucial and gracious correction to the limitations of the others.
But when we come together for the meal that is at the center of the church's life, we encounter the persistent brokenness of Christ's body. Two Catholic priests serve on the U.S. board and have made crucial contributions to our predominantly Protestant organization. But at the Communion table, they are unable to serve the elements or partake of them.
Those experiences compel us to pray for the restoration of the unity of the church, and to love and serve one another until that restoration takes place.
At times like these, I feel especially like Grace, intensely aware of the brokenness of our body and the ways we are handicapped in our witness in the world. Calling the poor our friends, making partners of those from very different cultural backgrounds, advancing the calling of women as well as menall of these are demanding and humbling commitments that more often reveal our disabilities than our abilities.
So Grace has become, for me, a symbol of hope. After all, she and her mother survived. Paradoxically yet wonderfully, even with their broken hearts and a missing limb, they had something to offer me.
Community with those like Grace is a community of the broken and incompletebut I believe it is also the beginning of the kingdom arriving in all its wholeness, for Grace and for us.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christopher Heuertz has also written 'Subverting Evangelicalism' for The Other Journal.
'An Upside-Down World' was the January 2007 Christian Vision Project article
More CVP articles from Christianity Today and our sister publications are available on ChristianVisionProject.com.
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