Some Considerations about our Actions

Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”- Ezekiel 37: 4-6

Every night, at about seven o’clock, a church group serves hot soup to the homeless in the downtown area. About two hours later, a group of spiritualists bring sandwiches and juice for the same people. Almost immediately after, a Pentecostal Church gathers all the homeless adults and children and they sing a short hymn followed by a longish sermon before serving some rice and beans with a piece of meat. There may be five different groups serving food to the same group of homeless people every evening. Unfortunately, many times the food goes to waste. A homeless person told us that they feel obligated to accept the food even when they are not hungry because they don’t want to offend the good people who serve them. It sounds like the homeless are doing the people who think that they are serving them a service. Something is definitely not quite right about this situation.

Everyone wants to do something to help the homeless. Usually serving food is the first thing that pops into everyone’s mind. It is a good way to get everyone involved and we feel like we are doing something concrete. The result is also almost immediate and the commitment has a beginning and an end. We hand the food to the homeless and they are fed. We go home happy and the homeless are no longer starving. I am not saying that serving food is a bad idea. It is not a bad thing but it should not end just there. We have something important to offer to the world as a church. Our vocation is to preach the gospel. Actions can give us the feeling that we have done our part for the gospel but in reality the message of the gospel is a message of Truth. Feeding the poor is never a substitute for the Truth. For that matter, no action can be a substitute for the Truth. Our actions are good and valid when they open the door for us to share the Truth.

Last week, we had interesting experience. While we were in the streets, a young man in his thirties came up and started talking to me as if we have known each other for ages. I just stood there smiling politely and wondering who this man was. I was a little taken aback when he asked about Mary by name. He even knew the number of years that we have been married. He eventually figured out that I did not recognize him and he told me that his name was William and he lived in the streets when he was a teenager twenty years ago. His words almost miraculously triggered my memory and he began to look familiar. Even then, I could hardly remember any specific detail about him. However, he was able to remember vividly our time in the streets with him. To make the situation even more bizarre, as we were talking, a young woman, Marcia, happened to walk by with her children. She used to live in the streets when she was teenager during the same period as William. This encounter was just a coincidence. William and Marcia started reminiscing about their time in the streets. They talked about the dangers and difficulties they experienced together in the streets. They said that throughout this time, they never forgot the times we spent with them.

Twenty years ago, our work was much simpler and we were much poorer. We did not bring games to the streets. We had limited resources. We went to the streets with a First Aid kit kept in a small tupperware. Sometimes we would bring some paper to draw with crayons. Most of the time, we just sat where the children and teens were and waited for them to come up to us and talk. Many times we felt like we were doing absolutely nothing. Occasionally the children would ask us to pray for them. Other times, they would just sit close to us and whenever they felt like it, they would talk to us. They knew that we were there when they needed us. There were occasions that we were able to say something profound to them but this opportunity only came after a long period of listening and waiting. I don’t remember saying anything significant to William and Marcia. However, they remembered spending time with us. They remembered talking with us. They remembered our presence with them. This was the most important thing for them. Life is a constant struggle for Marcia and William but they know how to survive. They don’t need our help to survive. They are fighters. However, in their daily struggle, it is hard for them to see God’s presence in their lives. It is easy for them to think that they are alone in this world and that no one cares. They desire to see that God is with them and they will never forget anyone who helps them see God’s presence in their lives.

We live in a world that values actions. I have repeated the cliché, “action speaks louder than words”, many times without understanding its implications. Action is power. It is a means of imposing our influence on others. It gives us a feeling that we are in control. Before we do any outreach activity, it is important for us to realize that the gospel is not about asserting our power and influence in the world. The essence of the gospel message is summed in one word, “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us” . The beginning of the gospel of John states that the Word became Flesh to dwell among us. The Word is the Truth and this Truth is manifested in the person of Jesus. However, we tend to overlook the fact that Jesus waited thirty years before He begin His ministry. The gospel of Luke tells us that He was aware of His vocation since his youth and yet, He waited for thirty years. Jesus waited for the right moment to speak the Truth. It is His waiting that gave Him the authority when He spoke.

Waiting is not doing nothing: waiting is learning and perceiving how God works in our midst. This cannot be done if we do not learn to listen to the Holy Spirt moving in our daily lives. The first few verses of Genesis tell us that first the Spirit of God moved and then the Father spoke. There was a period of waiting for the right moment even in creation. First we have to see and understand what the Spirit is doing before we can speak the Truth.

We cannot separate listening from waiting but they are not the same thing. Waiting is required even when we don’t hear anything. In our ministry, I have mistaken the silence of the God has a license to do things as I see fit. In the process, I desensitized my spirit from discerning God’s voice. Our words can only be powerful when we learn how to listen and speak from what we hear from God. Jesus waited because He knew that the Father was active in this world. Even Jesus needed time to understand how God works in this world and He acted in partnership with the Father. The Truth of Emmanuel means that we work in partnership with God to testify His loving presence in this world. The gospel is not about ending world hunger or solving the problem of poverty. These situations will always be our reality. Jesus Himself was born poor and died unjustly in a brutal and violent manner. When He resurrected from the dead, He did not give us a mandate to end all these injustices in this world. This is something that goes beyond our vocation. This does not mean that we turn a blind eye towards injustices. However, we should not forget that we have a higher calling. He gave us the commandment to preach the Truth that God is with us. He is with the sheep that wanders off into the loneliness of the wilderness. He is a God who suffers with those who suffer and mourns with those who mourn. He is the God who is able to touch the lepers of our society and heal them of their isolation and abandonment. This Truth when spoken at the right moment cuts into the deepest being of the human soul. It has the power to lift these people up and give them the voice and strength to stand against the injustices of this world. No political ideology or social program can do this. They can only perhaps identify the problem. The solution is found in the good news. God has given those who serve Him the privilege of sharing the good news. However, it is not an action. The Word of Truth needs to be spoken into the souls of the people. It is not the preaching of empty doctrines. It is the sharing of Truth that can be spoken with authority if we are willing to wait and listen to Holy Spirit.

This is a little longer post than usual. I don’t want to criticize actions without leaving an alternative. Actions are not bad. However, they should not be the first step if we want to serve those who are forgotten in our society. The first step is to go where they are and learn to discern to God’s presence in their midst. We should not talk first. We should wait and listen to the Holy Spirit who is already working there. We don’t bring God to the people. We are called to participate in His work. He is already there waiting for us.


Speaking from Her Experience

And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.-Mark 12:17

I have posted about Janaina several times in this blog. However, for the sake of those who are not acquainted with her yet, I will give a brief introduction. Janaina is 30 now and we have known her since she was about eleven years old. The girl we knew then was a tough teenager who had grown accustomed to the homeless lifestyle. Even at a young tender age, she had made up her mind that it was her destiny to be a homeless person. She would not entertain any conversation in regards to leaving the streets. At the same time, she was always open to us. She always talked with us and did not hesitate to show that she liked us. She was orphaned when she was about six or seven and had spent her early years in a state orphanage. State orphanages are known for being overcrowded and understaffed. Consequently, she and her brothers did not last long there and they eventually ran away and ended up in the streets. It didn’t take for the siblings to go their separate ways. Janaina once again ended up being alone and abandoned. Fortunately, the other homeless children welcomed her into their fold and over the years they became the closest thing to a family she ever had. Understandably, she did not want to leave behind this newfound family when we first met her. Now, Janaina is married and mother of a one year old baby, Mariana. She has been successfully off the streets for almost ten years. This wasn’t easy for her. She still keeps in touch with her street family who have all grown up as well. For Janaina, relationships are really important and they determine the kind of lifestyle she wants to lead. Her relationship with the missionaries helped her think about a better future. When she met her husband, she was able to make the bold step of leaving the life she had grown accustomed to all these years. Today, she makes decisions based what is best for her daughter. She wants to give her best in a newly discovered role as a mother.

Janaina found us first literally. We were working in the streets when we heard someone calling out our names. We turned around and saw her bright smiling face. It has been almost two years since this reunion. We are amazed how God brought this young woman back into our lives after all these years. She was once closed to our opinions and help and now she seeks them out on her own accord. It took us all these years to come to this stage in our relationship and it was worth it. We pray that there will be many more like her in the future. We are discovering that the key in any missionary work is patience. It is a virtue that requires us to trust and wait for God’s timing. It also reminds us that we are not in-charge and God does not need to work according to our timetable. As we get older, the thought of waiting for our children and teens to open up to us in ten or fifteen years does not sound too bad. Time flies by quickly when you are older.

Janaina and her husband attend a Pentecostal church that is adherent of the so-called prosperity gospel. This has been a struggle for them as the church equates spiritual blessing with material wealth. They wondered why they were struggling so much financially even though they have a strong and lively faith in God. Janaina does not necessarily want to be rich. However, these churches preach that poverty is a curse and she wanted to know if she was in some way hindering God’s blessing in her life. She told us that one day as she was thinking deeply about this matter, she read the part of the gospel where Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” At this moment her eyes opened to see a deeper meaning behind this verse. Before she shared what she understood from this experience, she made sure to let us know that she wasn’t using any drugs or hallucinogenic substances at this time. She wanted us to know that she had a clear mind when she heard a still voice speaking in her heart that the blessings of God are not to be accounted for according to Caesar’s standard. It was at this moment she realized that she had gathered much spiritual wealth over the years. For her, the most valuable things in her life are her relationships. Even from back then when she was in the streets, all her relationships had made her hard life joyful. There was never a moment she was away from God’s blessing. His grace was with her even when she did not acknowledge his presence. It was her epiphanic moment. For us, it was one of the most gratifying things we heard from someone who used to live in the streets.

Just as footnote, I am sure some people are wondering why don’t they find another church that is not steeped in prosperity gospel. The situation is quite complex. The members of these churches tend to be from the lower classes and these churches are usually in poorer neighborhoods. People go to these churches for the familiarity and geographic convenience. Besides this, it is the hope of the very poor to have a better financial circumstance and the doctrine of these churches perhaps gives hope for a better material life.

Janaina is presently unemployed. Her husband works as a contract painter. His job is unstable and the pay fluctuates drastically. We asked her what kind of work she would like do. The only response she could give us was that she wanted to be with people. She needs the human contact to be motivated. We told her about a hairdresser school that provides scholarships for low-income families. We visited the school once and the director of the program said that the bulk of training was based on building relationships with the clients and the care and maintenance of the hair is secondary focus of the school. This school is a project that helps underprivileged families. It has acquired such a fame since it started that people from all walks of life want to get trained there. Consequently, there is a long waiting list for students. Janaina’s face lit up when we mentioned this but nothing was said at that moment. A week later she called and asked about the school and we offered to go there with her. Janaina was excited about the possibility at the same time she was trying to figure how to pay for the school. When we got there, the receptionist recognized us from our previous visit and immediately asked if Janaina wanted to apply for the full scholarship. We were surprised that they made this offer to us. We accepted the offer and Janaina will begin her training in a week’s time.

We heard about this school through a friend who is a hairstylist in one of the top salons in the country. The director of this project is his friend and colleague. Janaina got into this school for free because of her friendship with us. We are just amazed how God uses relationships to provide the needs in our lives.