The psalmist asks, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). It’s a beautiful question springing from the heart of a poet struggling creatively to live out in a strange land (Babylon) what he knows to be true in another. more familiar context (Jerusalem). English poet e. e. cummings once wrote that the beautiful answer is always preceded by the more beautiful question, and in this psalm we discover a beautiful question. It has given theological roots to missional communities of grassroots leaders in six countries throughout Latin America (as well as in urban centers in the Caribbean, Kenya. and North America) under the banner of the Center for Transforming Mission (CTM).
We are learning how to read till’ Bible not to or even for those we serve, but with those we serve- those who have been wrongly been labeled as the least, last, and lost. Sustaining this approach is the approach is the belief that grace is like water: it flows downhill and pools up in the lowest places. We are learning to see God’s grace pooling up in places of extreme poverty and violence.
The core theological values of CTM are formed by the incarnational mission of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ incarnation–and here we mean all that Jesus did and said, including his death and resurrection to save us from our sins–the intimacy of human and divine is fully realized. Said plainly, the Incarnation
unites what the world divides-always, and in all ways. It says that matter, not just spirit, matters. Ministry that spiritualizes away the problems we face in the world of matter is simply not true to the biblical picture portrayed in the Creation and the Incarnation. Biblical, incarnational ministry is radically holistic. It touches the body and the soul. It calls forth personal transformation and systemic change. It invites righteousness and justice. It connects God and humanity, heaven and earth, and, perhaps hardest of all, “us” and “them.”
Our concern to incarnate Jesus among the least, last, and lost has introduced us to some amazing grassroots leaders who are singing God’s song in some very strange lands, such as among populations of street youth, families in extreme poverty, prostitutes, women in the throes of domestic abuse, and incarcerated gang members in the prisons of Central America. We have learned that “misfits” are critical to the mission of the church. Let me (Joel) try to illustrate.
There is a men’s prison in Central America with a surprising group of residents. A ragtag clan of girlfriends, wives, sisters, and mothers connected to one of Central America’s major gangs sleep under and on top of the cement tables in what used to be the dining hall. During a recent visit, the prison “chaplain” (an ex-gang member) and I led a conversation centered on the person of Hagar in Genesis 16. The women quickly applied the story personally. They heard the angel of the Lord pay honor and respect to Hagar by becoming the only character in the narrative to address her by name. The angel then asks her a beautiful question-”Where have you come from, and where are you going?” (v. 8)-empowering her to tell her own story.
The women in the prison could relate to being unnamed and used as property by people in positions of authority and power who never bothered to ask about their stories. They knew what it felt like to live in deserts of loneliness caused by rejection and marginalization. In Hagar’s story, the women found their story.
Reading the Bible with those we serve means we learn to take the stained glass off the text of Scripture part of what those gang members gave me: and begin reading from the perspective of those who have been crushed by life. It’s an adventure in mining good news out of the holes of Scripture that the church typically refuses to climb down into. Hagar’s story is one of those stories, and it is no small matter that she is the first person in Scripture who has the privilege of giving a name to God. She marvels, “Could it be that I have seen the backside of the one who sees everything and am still alive?” She gives to God the name El Roi, “the God who sees me.” This element of the story seized the attention of these present-day Hagars in a vise of surprise and wonder.
A few weeks after the study, the prison chaplain was able to complete phase one of a prison rehabilitation project, building a cement wall physically separating the women from the men. The idea emerged to paint a mural on the wall, and a discussion ensued about what the women wanted to paint. They came to a unanimous decision to paint the story of Hagar, with the words El Dias Que Me Ve (“the God Who Sees Me”) as the focal point of the piece.
The larger missional implication is that Hagar grasps something about God that Abraham is not able to confess until six chapters later. In Genesis 22:14, Abraham names Mount Moriah Jehovah Jireh (“the God who provides”), using the verb ra’ah, the same one that Hagar used in naming God. This leads us to marvel that perhaps the Hagars of the world are able to recognize the gospel long before the Abrahams do.
THREE GATES OF CHANGE
We see three gateways to transformation: prayer, praise, and pain. The widest of all is pain. Ironically, pain is the most guarded gateway among those in power, and it is the most accessible gateway for the people we serve. Old Testament scholar Kathleen O’Connor says, “The first condition of healing is to give voice to pain.”
Perhaps this is why reality and authenticity are the currency of those at the margins. If it is going to work, it has to be real. Perhaps that is why the gospel begins with seeing things as they are, not as they should be. It is a hard lesson, but we are learning that the primary task of the church is to see God at work in the world and to celebrate what we see God doing. It is not to build, grow, or extend the kingdom of God-that is God’s work. Our job is to see what is, to name it, and to recognize God at work in it.
We are coming to see how the institutional church in Latin America often separates herself from the very people and places that could bring about the kind of vision she so desperately needs. This was reinforced for me (Joel) last year, when I was asked to lead a consultation on gang outreach in the capital of a Central American country. I asked incarcerated gang members from a neighboring country to share some thoughts that I could carry to the leaders who would be attending the event. Here is a small part of what those gang members gave me:
Frequently we have seen growth in the physical structure of many churches, leaders with a competitive attitude choosing, it seems, to compete with other churches while abandoning the needs that exist in prisons, neighborhoods, slums, and rehabilitation centers. The priority of these churches always seems to be focused on the comfort of their respective members so they can feel like VIPS; thus, they have lost, or perhaps just forgotten, the vision of Jesus Christ, who said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations ….” We don’t want to criticize just for the sake of being critical, but [we do want] to stand for the truth that while churches are constructing huge sanctuaries, there are children dying of hunger, gang members killing one another, and prisoners suffering greatly–while Christians comfort themselves in their big churches.
In a sermon focused on Luke 23, Tim Keller notes the “outsiders” gathered around the cross. There is Simon of Cyrene, a cultural outsider. A convicted criminal is a moral outsider. There are also a centurion, a racial outsider, and the women witnesses, social outsiders. Luke locates only one religious insider at the cross who seems to be able to grasp the full significance of Jesus’ death: Joseph of Arimathea. “Due to the way salvation is accomplished,” Keller says, “those on the outside tend to understand and see things before those on the inside, but all are welcome.” Further insight comes from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who quotes Walter Brueggemann as saying that the prophet’s job is to free people from their numbness. That, reflects Rohr, is also the task of the church. The church exists to wake people up, to bring them to consciousness, not just to comfort them in their unaware state. Rohr’s fear is that soft piety and too-quick religious comfort do precisely that. “The giveaway,” writes Rohr, “is when one finds no attitude of service, volunteerism, or compassion for the outsider emerging from one’s attendance at church services.”
PRAYING WITH PROSTITUTES
At CTM we have discovered that a large part of our “prophetic charism” for the church in Latin America can be summed up in the task of freeing the church from numbness. It is often a lonely task. It puts us in some hard places as we interact with outsiders who often become scandalous and surprising sources of numbness-breaking hope. Let me (Joel) try once again to illustrate.
Pastor Francis Montas and his wife, Loly, pastor a church of young people-Casa Joven-that meets on Saturday nights in a converted Santo Domingo nightclub. Their work with street kids, incarcerated juvenile delinquents, and las chicas de Sarasota (prostitutes) serves as a prophetic wake-up call to many others in the Dominican church.
About two months ago, Francis and Loly called a special Thursday night prayer service because so many young people were having serious problems. They met near one of Santo Domingo’s most infamous streets for prostitution-La Avenida Sarasota. Their prayers for one another led them to pray for the girls on the street outside, and they left the building as if a tractor beam were pulling them toward the girls. The night! went out with them was their seventh consecutive night on the streets.
What we experienced over the next three hours was a numbness-shattering picture of God’s scandalous grace. Each girl we stopped to talk to lit up as the young women from the church called out to them by name and embraced them with bear hugs. The women on the street responded to a host of beautiful questions, updating us on their week, sharing stories about their children, and receiving prayer with eager anticipation, all the while completely ignoring potential clients who passed by.
We had just finished sharing and praying with a group of three prostitutes when one of them, whom I will call Gloria, asked if she could pray for us. I held hands in a circle with my Dominican friends on a sidewalk on A venida Sarasota at 2:30 A.M. and heard one of the most beautiful prayers of my life. When Gloria uttered her “amen,” a smile exploded onto her face. She sheepishly confessed that it was the first time she had ever prayed out loud. I pretended to cough while trying to wipe away tears. Gloria received more bear hugs from the ladies and an awkward handshake from me. She said that she planned to come to church that Saturday night, when I was scheduled to preach.
Gloria indeed came that night. When the service concluded, she received hug after hug from the young worshipers, including the guest preacher, whose awkward and numb handshake on the street a few nights earlier turned into a hug of scandalous grace.
It would be impossible to detail here how blessed this church has been and how their vision and mission for their city has been recalibrated through their interaction with the prostitutes. There are churches in Latin America like Casa Joven that are engaging the Hagars of their cities, and by doing so are teaching the rest of us how to sing God’s song in some very strange lands.