Opening Up the Church so Wide…

There are now nearly 70 million people living in our world who have been forced from their homes for a whole assortment of reasons.[1]

I have been thinking and writing about refugees quite a bit recently.   November 11, 2018 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I.  The end of that war brought peace to some, but the refugee crisis it spawned and the ensuing famine in Russia that affected millions made life a nightmare for years after the trench warfare ceased.  I wrote an article about this that comes out in the International Bulletin of Mission Research in a couple of months.  Specifically, I wrote about the European Student Relief – the first aid organization to be truly international and ecumenical. It was organized by Christian students around the world to come to the aid of refugee students.

Our refugee crisis today was again brought to my attention this past week at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies with a sermon given by Rev. Peter Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa.  I met him several days earlier when I spotted his name tag as I trickled into a lecture hall with 150 other attendees for the conference’s first plenary lecture.  I was surprised to see him.  He is not the young man that he was when he bravely fought against the apartheid regime for decades beginning in the 1960s.

As part of his resistance to that regime he would sometimes hold a sign that read,

All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six and other parts of the city, and who were forced by law to leave their homes because of the colour of their skins. Father forgive us.

This so-called “Plaque of Shame” was erected on the outside wall of the local Methodist church in District 6 as well.  I’m told it is still there.  In his sermon this past Sunday, Rev. Storey also described another time in the history of that church – long after he had departed as its pastor – when the building provided a place of refuge for people fleeing the ruthless regime of Robert Mugabe in the neighboring state of Zimbabwe.

A few days ago, on the last day of the Oxford Institute, Peter preached on the story of four friends who dug a hole in the roof of a home where Jesus was teaching and asked (demanded?) that Jesus heal their paralyzed friend.  The church, he said, has to be broken in order to actually be the church.  By serving refugees from Zimbabwe, the church he loved – including the building itself – was literally broken down from the stress of housing dozens of people who lived, cooked, and slept in the sanctuary.

I am reminded of how rarely I have seen this kind of ministry happen in the churches that I have attended and served in for the past several decades.  To be clear, I have been a part of churches – urban ones especially – that did prioritize ministry to their neighbors over keeping the church building in shape.  I am grateful for their witness, but I have not seen this enough.

When Rev. Storey finished preaching I felt compelled to thank him for his sermon. It had moved me to tears.  (Sermons don’t typically do that for me.)  But I knew that kind words and a handshake wouldn’t be enough.  I wanted to hug this man who understood that the Christian life is not primarily about finely nuanced talks or academic papers but about ministering to people where they are at in their fullness as people truly created in God’s image and who reflect that image even in the brokenness of their bodies.  “Too often,” he noted, “we are more concerned about being right than doing good!”

Rev. Storey paraphrased Mother Teresa in his closing words that Sunday morning in Oxford.  I can’t think of a better was to close this blog than to follow his example:

“May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”  Reflecting on this quotation with respect to the story of the paralytic and his four friends, Peter went on, “Only if the church gets broken open does the world get mended… Open up the Church so wide that the whole world falls in.”

[1] See the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/data.html. This number would be higher if an even broader definition of refugee and internally displaced person were utilized.

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About Ben Hartley

Associate Professor of Christian Mission College of Christian Studies George Fox University
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