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A Future With Hope; General Conference 2008 - Fort Worth Texas

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Ministry to the Least of These

by Kathleen LaCamera

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In a world of need and pain, how do we decide who to help? As a church, we face these uncomfortable, almost impossible, decisions all the time, deciding how to allocate inevitably finite resources to mission projects affecting lives around the globe. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus is clear that if we neglect the most marginalized-the hungry, the sick, the prisoner, the outcast, and the despised-we neglect Jesus himself. Methodism's founder, John Wesley, told his followers to "go not only to those who want you, but those who want you most.1 ("Want" more accurately means "need" in Wesley's eighteenth-century context.) But who are those who need us most?

British theologian Rev. Prof. Frances Young says we must begin this process of discernment by looking at Jesus and his ministry.

There is complete identification of Jesus with those who are marginalized and excluded. The most extreme situation is Jesus on the cross. He is crucified with convicted criminals, outside the city gate. But even before that, Jesus reached out to lepers, he identified with Samaritans and women. By dealing with them he has broken all the taboos.2

Those who live next to the smouldering garbage dump known as Smokey Mountain, on the outskirts of Manila, know all too well what it means to bear the distinctive mark of a social outcast. Wherever they go, they are recognized by the smell of burning garbage they carry with them.3 The dump was officially closed in 1995, but fires continue to smoulder here more than a decade later. Another dump site was opened nearby and it now receives the refuse generated by Manila's nearly eleven million people. The whole area continues to be known as Smokey Mountain.4

Smokey Mountain is home to the poor, displaced, and unskilled; people who literally have no other place to go. They wait here day and night for an everflowing stream of garbage trucks to dump their rotting loads of urban waste. Then they pick their way through the garbage, hoping to find scraps of plastic, metal, glass, and other materials they can recycle for money. Asthma and other respiratory diseases are common here and so are tuberculosis and hepatitis. Those deemed "lucky" may earn the equivalent of two dollars for a brutal day's work of "ripping through bags of stinking trash.5

For more than two decades, The United Methodist Church has funded mission work in this toxic and desperate place. The Smokey Mountain United Methodist Church sponsors a kindergarten and nursery program for young children, and literacy and skills training for their parents. The General Board of Global Ministries, through the Advance for Christ and His Church, funds more than thirty scholarships for the children of Smokey Mountain families. The church's pastor, Noel Masinba, says that parents living on Smokey Mountain want their children to get an education, but have to spend all their time earning money for the fish and rice needed to survive. Scholarships have helped families buy the supplies and uniforms their children need to attend high school, which is tuition free. Some of the young people go on to college and professional training schools with the help of these scholarships.6

Roman Catholic priest Father Benigno Beltran has made Smokey Mountain his home for the past twenty-seven years. Beltran feels it's all too easy here to see only what people need, rather than what they already have. He believes his "scavenger congregation" at the Parish of the Risen Christ is a community with incredible energy, motivation, and social connections.7

Trading on Smokey Mountain's wealth of social capital, Beltran has brokered deals with corporations and foreign governments that have not only provided computer equipment, but also helped locals win overseas information technology contracts. He has encouraged local women to begin manufacturing organic soap and helped start up a new recycling and composting business. Beltran believes the church should be preparing poor and marginalized people for the cybernetic age and is promoting high-tech solutions to their poverty. For him, mission means making globalization work for, not against, the Smokey Mountain community.8

In another part of the world, the British Methodist Relief and Development Fund is reaching out to people whose needs are not as obvious as those in Smokey Mountain. MRDF is working in partnership with the International Society Surkhet in Nepal to help women suffering from a condition they are too ashamed to talk about. Poverty means many women miss out on education and start a life of marriage and childbearing in their early teens. Heavy physical labor, domestic violence, and multiple childbirths at a young age, combine to cause uterine prolapse (a weakening of muscles which causes the uterus to slip down into the vaginal canal) in a large number of women. The lack of health facilities and a culture of shame make it almost impossible for rural women to get advice and help for this painful and debilitating condition. Like the woman who approached Jesus for healing from twelve years of hemorrhaging (Mark 5:25-34), these Nepalese women (and others like them around the world) can suffer for years. A simple operation that costs less than eighty dollars can correct the condition. MRDF is also working with other local Nepalese partners to address related issues of education, health, and human rights with women, girls, and boys.9

The Church of Pakistan, a mission partner of Global Ministries, is also involved in mission with marginalized women who are often reluctant to get the help they need. Through its Raiwind Diocese women's program, the church is supporting outreach to sex workers, offering them both friendship and education on safe sex and HIV/AIDS. Many of these women have been abandoned and have no other way to provide for their families. They don't easily talk about what they do or its risks. Often their families have rejected them and they end up banished to the outer edges of society where they are vulnerable to further exploitation and abuse. The Raiwind program, which receives funding from the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, hopes to expand its ministry with a clinic and vocational training center.10

These impressive efforts in Nepal and Pakistan, like those in Smokey Mountain, represent mission that reaches out to many who are despised or rejected by their own communities. But what about mission to those we despise? Should it ever be a priority?

The Rev. Gary Mason and his team at the Methodist East Belfast Mission are involved in ministry to those who have perpetrated terrorist atrocities during Northern Ireland's long years of sectarian violence. The mission is located in one of the poorest, most deprived, urban areas in Europe and is reaching out to Loyalist paramilitary members whom many believe are unworthy of help and beyond redemption. The mission's work involves everything from counseling, to job training, to a hugely ambitious urban regeneration effort called the Skainos Project (Advance Project #14698T). Staff have even taken paramilitary members to Germany to look at the legacy of sectarian intercommunity violence and racism of Nazi Germany against the Jews. Mason reports that it took very little time for those present to make links back home to their own destructive sectarian conflict. Mason says, ultimately, these men and their families will find it hard to break free from their own legacy of violence and division unless they find their way back from the margins into meaningful lives in the mainstream of society.11

Anne Robertson in her book Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box writes "there are some folks we hope God isn't ever going to forgive, no matter how sorry they might have become." She then adds that such an attitude, understandable as it is, "limits God's freedom to forgive," and leaves us, rather than God, deciding "who should receive mercyand who should receive justice.12

Over the years Mason has faced criticism, even from his own congregation, for working with those labelled "unforgivable." He continues to reach out to them because he and his mission team believe peace depends on it and the gospel requires it.

Rev. Paul Jeffrey, a Global Ministries missionary photojournalist, has traveled the world reporting and serving in places of great need and conflict. In a speech to a gathering of mission officials and personnel in Chicago during the summer of 2007, Jeffrey echoed the sentiments of theologian Frances Young when he challenged the group to consider if what they do truly "reflects the values of Jesus.13

Jeffrey says that if mission outreach is to reflect the values of Jesus "we must overcome our fear, take off the armor, tear down the walls we build around us" and "stand in real witness to the God of life amid the very real forces of death.14

In Manila, Nepal, Pakistan, and Northern Ireland, and countless other places around the world, the church is making difficult decisions to be in this kind of mission to those who need us most. Let us pray for them, learn from them in both their successes and failures, and then, with the courage of our gospel convictions, go and do likewise.

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  1. John Wesley, "Twelve Rules for the Helpers," reproduced in the first edition of the “Large Minutes,” 1753, and quoted in “The Great Methodist Project," by Kathleen LaCamera, Response, September 2006, 24.

  2. Frances Young, Interview by author, 4 October 2007, Manchester, England, by telephone.

  3. Paul Jeffrey, "Philippine priest turns poor parishioners into tech-savvy e-traders," Catholic News Service, 4 January 2006. http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0600048.htm, (accessed December 31, 2007).

  4. Ibid.

  5. Kathy L. Gilbert, "Church offers hope to Filipinos living amid garbage," United Methodist News Service, 17 October 2007. http://www.umc/org/site/C.lwL4KnN1LtH/
    b.3509823/apps/nl/content3.asp?content_id={ECC780C3-08D4-4AD9-BCFB-F19794450072}¬oc=1 (accessed December 31, 2007).

  6. Paul Jeffrey, "The Gospel on Smokey Mountain: A United Methodist Congregation in Ministry," New World Outlook, Sept/Oct 2005.
    http://gbgm-umc.org/global_news/full_article.cfm?articleid=3470, (accessed December 31, 2007).

  7. Paul Jeffrey, Catholic News Service, 4 January 2006.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Kirsty Smith, "No Longer Hopeless?" Project report for the Methodist Relief and Development Fund, February 2007.

  10. Paul Jeffrey, "Ministry with Sex Workers," Response, May 2006, 18–19.

  11. Kathleen LaCamera, "In the Absence of War: Giving Peace a Chance in Northern Ireland," Response, July/August 2005, 30.

  12. Anne Robertson, Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box, (Morehouse Publishing, 2005), 41.

  13. Paul Jeffrey, "Mission Service in Contexts of Conflict," address to Mission Gathering and Forum, sponsored by the United Methodist Missionary Association, Chicago, Illinois;7 August 2007.

  14. Ibid.