Category | Reflection

Building compassionate communities

03 December 2012 By Hwa Yung | TinyURL TM

Christians & Nation-Building

If the Christ has instructed us ‘to love one another, as I have loved you’, then the first place in which this must be demonstrated is in our local churches.

One of my favourite mission stories is about Ida Scudder, the granddaughter of the first medical missionary sent by the American church. John Scudder, her grandfather, went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1819, and later to India, as a missionary doctor. Ida was born in 1870 and, after finishing school in the United States, returned to India to be with her sick mother. But Ida’s mind was made up: She would never be a missionary. She planned to go to Wellesley College, one of America’s leading women’s universities, and marry a rich man instead!

One night, three men in succession knocked on the door of her parents’ home in South India. Each came with the same request: ‘My young wife is dying in child-birth. Can you please come and save her?’

To each, Ida gave the same reply: ‘I know nothing about doctoring. My father is the doctor. I’ll be glad to go with him to see your wife.’

All three men—a Brahmin, another high-caste Hindu, and a Muslim—gave the same reply: ‘In my religion, no man outside the family is allowed into the women’s quarters.’

Ida couldn’t sleep that night. Morning brought news that all three women had died in the night. Ida was never the same again. She graduated from Cornell Medical School in the first class open to women. Returning to India, she started a clinic for women, then a nursing school, then, finally, a medical school. Today Christian Medical College in Vellore remains one of the finest medical schools in India, having produced thousands of nurses and doctors to minister to millions in South Asia.

Most of us are familiar with our Lord Jesus’ teaching about the Great Commandment: ‘"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets"’ (Mat 22: 37-40; ESV). This has always been the key driving forces behind Christian social concern and responses in our broken world.

All around us are men and women in suffering and need. I am not speaking here about tsunamis, earthquakes, wars and millions dying of hunger, all of which sometimes seem so far away. I refer to human needs before our very eyes. The media regularly report of neglected parents, homeless old folks, children battered or even chained like dogs by thoughtless parents or relatives, deserted single mothers and children, and the like. These are rarely the product of criminal activity. Rather they are generally the result of people who just don’t care, even when the suffering are their own children, spouses or parents!

Then there are human needs caused by drug or alcohol addictions, human trafficking and the sex trade, exploitation of the weak, the poor and foreign migrant workers. There are also those suffering from illnesses and diseases, various kinds of physical and mental disabilities, and the like.

Over and above all these, many of us are probably not aware of the fact that there are still many living today in extreme poverty. The latest figures available shows that, as of 2007, 3.6% of the nation’s popu-lation are classified as ‘poor’; and of these, 0.7% are classified as ‘hardcore poor.’ (Malaysia: Measuring and Monitoring Poverty and Inequality [Kuala Lumpur, UNDP, 2007].) With a population of 28 million, this means that fully one million still live in poverty in our country today!

In our present national context, the danger to think that nation-building is always about politics. We forget that nation-building involves, among other things, the building of compassionate communities as well! And no compassionate communities can be built unless there is a genuine concern for our neighbour’s welfare, and real efforts are made to be a neighbour to the ‘other,’ irrespective of race, class or relig-ion! 

Jesus’ emphasis on the Great Commandment merely sums up what the Bible teaches as a whole. Elsewhere, he reminds us that the Love Commandment applies even to those who mistreat and oppress us. ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven’ (Mat 5:44f; ESV). Similarly, the writer of Hebrews urges his readers to ‘keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering’ (13: 1-3; NIV).

The Early Church took the Bible’s teachings seriously. For example, Adolf Harnack in his book, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, (Harper, 1962, pp. 147-198) lists ten ways in which the Early Church demonstrated her concern for needy people. These included giving alms to the poor, support widows and orphans (the 3rd century church in Rome alone supported 1500 widows and needy persons regularly), care of the infirm, poor, disabled, prisoners and slaves, and nursing the weak and sick in times of famines and epidemics, even at risk to one’s own life. Many of these were included in the list of duties of the deacons in the Early Church. (I think we should put this into our church Discipline as well, under the duties of LCEC members!) 

The attitude of the Early Church is well summarised by two quotes. In defending Christianity against attacks from pagan philosophers, Tertullian, the 3rd century theologian, famously said: ‘It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many our opponents. "Only look," they say, "look how they love one another"’ (Apology 39)! And the 4th century pagan Roman em-peror, Julian the Apostate, attacked Christians as follows: ‘The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us’ (quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 1997, p. 84). Even the non-Christians could see the difference!

In our own Methodist tradition, John Wesley included the same emphasis as part and parcel of ‘The General Rules of the Methodist Church’ (The Discipline, 2008, p. 27f). All Methodist are expected ‘to evidence of their desire of salvation …. By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.’

The Malaysian church has done much over the past century in meeting human needs. Our most prominent contribution has been the 451 mission schools (present figure, not counting some that have been closed) that various churches started in our country at a time when there were few schools. There are also numerous old folks’ homes, orphanages, clinics and hospitals, street people centres, and homes for the physically and mentally handicapped. Umbrella agencies like the various Catholic Offices of Human Development and Malaysian Care give lots of professional and training support to churches and NGOs doing human relief work. The various Montfort training centres are wonderful examples of providing youths from disadvantaged backgrounds with employable skills and a future. The 40 plus drug rehabilitation centres run largely by Pentecostal and charismatic churches have a success rate far in excess of anything else in the country. And in a number of significant cases, such as the work of Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita with women and migrant workers, they have attracted international attention and support.

The Methodist Church has also been involved considerably in various ministries throughout the country. There are our 75 mission schools to begin with (not including the private ones). In an earlier period, there was much medical and agricultural work done among the Ibans. Similarly, today we are still doing much educational and agricultural work with the Orang Asli in West Malaysia, Penans in Sarawak, and the Orang Ulu in the Sabah interior. There are centres for the physically disabled like the various Beautiful Gate homes in W Malaysia, outreaches to street people in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, kidney dialysis centres in various parts of country, youth ministries in all our churches, and so forth. But much more can and needs to be done! What is the way forward?

The first thing is relatively straightforward, but will require a complete mind-set change among church leaders and pastors. If the Christ has instructed us ‘to love one another, as I have loved you’ (John 13:34), then the first place in which this must be demonstrated is in our local churches. Are our churches compassionate communities in which the lonely, the weak, the outcast, the poor and nobodies of this world find acceptance and welcome? One of the saddest comments I heard from the leader of a local church is when he told the members, ‘This church is not a hospital!’ Behind this comment lies the idea that the church has to grow into a megachurch and for that to happen, everyone must pull their weight. So the goal was numerical growth and not community building. But a church which is not a ‘hospital’ for the spiritually weak, emotionally wounded and socially dislocated simply cannot be a compassionate community. Why would people want to stay when there is no acceptance and sense of belonging? And if the church itself is not a compassionate community, how can we possibly build community in the wider world?

The second thing to remember is that most of those who read this article come from middle-class churches, with little experience of poverty. As already noted, there are at least a million people living below the poverty line in our country, mostly rural folk. This is especially the case with the Orang Asli and certain bumiputra communities in E Malaysia. But even amongst urbanites there are also tre-mendous socioeconomic needs within the lower income groups. What is your church doing to minister to such peoples? Space does not allow me to start suggesting what can be done. But let me share the example of what one group of Christians, spearheaded by some Methodists, is doing in Kuching.

Breakthrough was set up in July 2008 with a vision for Christians around Kuching in business and professions to help the weak and poor make breakthroughs in their work and lives. Their ministry in-cludes helping the poor build or renovate houses, providing families with limited resources with food and daily necessities, and connecting them with the Welfare Department for government aid. They have also started education projects to help pre-school and primary school children, run by caring teachers, in an effort break the cycle of poverty. A youth centre has also been set up in a new township to provide teen-agers with a healthy place to hang out, make friends and have fun. They are also working with farmers to develop natural organic farming which is modern, cost-effective and nature-healing. (For details, see: http://www.breakthrough.org.my.) Clearly Breakthrough is touching and changing lives. As you and your church prayerfully wait upon God, I have no doubt He can do something similar through you!

Finally, I suggest that Malaysian churches should be challenged to expand our social outreach ministries within every needy group in our country. The needs are ever present and with an ever increasing population, government efforts will never be sufficient. We have already noted many socioeconomic needs around us. And Christ’s command to love our neighbour as ourselves has never changed, and will remain imperative for us until His Return. As Paul reminds us: ‘Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith’ (Gal 6:9f; ESV).

Nation-building has many facets. None of us can do everything. But building compassionate communities both within the church and in the wider world is something that all of us can contribute towards. It may not seem very significant to those who are always going after headlines, but it will make a real difference.

The whole series

Introduction: A call to Christians to think hard
Responsible citizenship in a democracy
The challenge of corruption and moral reformation
Building compassionate communities
Understanding the Christian roots of modern democracy
Reconciliation
Prayer and revival

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