Crossing the Line - part 27
As the weeks and months at Tai Tam went by, I began to grow into the pattern of life there.
I developed my own kind of harmony with the routine of day to day life. I discovered my niche in our ever changing community of brothers and helpers. I discovered the things I liked to do on my day off each week and the things I didn’t.
My fellow western helpers were a wonderfully mixed bunch of people, drawn mostly from the UK, USA, & New Zealand. I got used to being called ‘Beenie’ by my Kiwi colleagues and ‘Ah Bey-neigh’ by the Chinese brothers. We were also blessed with 2 or 3 Chinese helpers at any one time, themselves ex-addicts who had stayed within the ministry to help others. They understood 10 times more than us westerners of what was being said around us and had the wisdom to share with us the things we needed to know, without telling us too much. Sometimes, in difficult moments, it was better not to understand what was being said to you in Cantonese, making it easier to remain calm & collected! One of them also acted as translator for us in meetings and in 1-1 chats with individual brothers – a role which was very demanding.
Living in a Cantonese speaking world with 20 teachers, (all the brothers at Tai Tam) the basic Cantonese which my vicar back in London had taught me came into its own. What had felt unnatural and incomprehensible in London, now felt very natural and I started to learn quickly without making too many mistakes. In a tonal language it is easy to get things wrong without realising. In an airport for example, the same words with different tonal inflections means ‘to catch a plane’ or ‘hit the waiter’. One of our helpers got confused between the words for sorry (Dur’me ju) and praise the Lord (Jan’me Ju) and wondered why people looked at her strangely when she bumped into them on the busy Hong Kong streets and immediately exclaimed “Praise the Lord!”
The Cantonese I learned was rather peculiar though. Within a few months I could talk about drugs, being filled with the Holy Spirit and receiving the gifts of the Spirit but couldn’t order a meal in a Cantonese restaurant. I also learned when to speak Cantonese and when to speak English. Given that most of my teachers were ex-triads, the Cantonese that they taught me was more like learning English from a mobster in New York. Occasionally I was invited out to lunch or afternoon tea with some of the more respectable members of the Church congregation. I soon learned not to try out my Cantonese there as I could see their eyebrows rise or their jaws drop at the street Cantonese which came out of my mouth – English was always the better option there!
On my days off I enjoyed doing 2 things – breakfast and walking. The best place for breakfast was the YWCA in Wanchai. Back in 1988 it was right on the harbour front and its restaurant had the most beautiful panoramic view of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the harbour in between. Their international buffet breakfast was served from 7:30am – 11am and you could eat all you wanted for $20HK (less than £2). I would go there to eat, drink coffee and write letters most mornings on my days off and then decide which district of Hong Kong I was going to walk around for the rest of the day.
I also found that my guitar was in demand after all. I played for the evening worship time at Tai Tam most evenings, and learned to sing in Cantonese. Most of the brothers wanted to learn to play guitar too, so I would try to teach them as best as I could. Soon I learned the fluid, effortless way of leading worship in English and Cantonese which fitted the sung worship at St Stephens Society. When the time came for our worship leader at the weekly helper’s meeting to return to the UK, I was asked to take his place. This was an immense and unexpected honour.
The weekly western helper’s meeting was the only time all of the westerners came together from the different parts of the ministry. There were between 30-40 of us and Jackie Pullinger would be there to lead the meeting as a whole. It was a cross between prayer, praise and therapy as we could all let our hair down for a couple of hours, share the things which had been happening (good and bad) and support one another with a hug of empathy, a smile of encouragement or prayer ministry for strength or healing. Sung worship would normally fill about half of the two hours we spent together so being asked to lead this was huge. Soon afterwards I was also asked to join the Sunday worship group for church on the Sundays I was there.
For all Jackie’s fame as a Charismatic icon, she was very down to earth, and hated seeing people manipulated by overly emotional songs or over-spiritualising everything. I remember Jackie being prayed with at one meeting because she was feeling particularly low and tired at the time. Someone shared a picture of a wide river which she was trying to cross, where the current was so strong that it almost swept her away. Then a word of prophecy was shared which said, “Don’t worry Jackie – God is with you and you will reach the other side safely.” After everyone had finished praying with her, she leaned over to me and whispered, “I can cross the rivers – it’s coming back to get everyone else that gets me down!”
Most of all though, I learned a different way of Christian life and ministry, one which would change my whole outlook and sense of calling for life.
Jackie Pullinger’s approach to ministry was simple. Start with the poor. Jesus always started with the poor, and if you minister to the poor, the rich will sit up and take notice. So if you want to reach the world with the Good News of the Gospel, start with the poor. This might not sound that radical, but it was completely different to my experience in the Church of England where anyone looking in on our congregations would assume that Jesus came for the educated middle class and little else!
Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth sets the scene. He read from the prophet Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because the Lord has anointed me,
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
To proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
As he passed the scroll back to the synagogue official he said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4)
Today this passage is often referred to as the Nazareth manifesto. Jesus setting out his stall at the outset of his public ministry, and of all the thousands of verses in the Old Testament, he chose these as the heart of what he was about – good news to the poor - and here in Hong Kong, for the first time, that is what I was witnessing. The poor were being put first. The broken hearted, prisoners and captives being set free and healed, not as an afterthought, but at the very core of God’s plan. I knew there were those in the UK who advocated this. David Shepherd’s book “Bias to the Poor” made similar arguments in the early 80’s, but the Church of England is a slow and ponderous institution and there was also a backlash to the suggestion that God might have favourites (especially if you were not one of them!)
Here I saw the poor being put first and valued as I had never seen before. I saw love transforming lives and began to read the Gospels afresh. I saw that almost invariably the first people Jesus went to were the sinners, outcasts and sick; those on the margins of society; those who were looked down on by the religious and political classes. Why should the church of today be doing things any differently? Perhaps because we have become the religious and political class of our day?
I also realised that it was the difference he made to people’s lives which resulted in them putting their faith in him. He didn’t bombard them with clever arguments and then ask them to decide. He simply poured out the Father’s love upon them and left the response to them. In the ‘enlightened’ west, we focus on intellectual argument. The church tries to convince people of the case for Christianity, of the historical evidence, of the philosophical integrity of the Gospel. That is what most evangelistic sermons are about; putting together a case for the Christian faith, and hoping it will persuade people to sign up. But the poor are not interested in intellectual arguments. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, the intellectual integrity of a belief system is not your top priority – what you want to know is ‘Does it work?’!
I referred in Walled City to faith in a god called Jesus who helps heroin addicts. When addicts came to our meetings in Walled City, they knew nothing about Jesus except this and just as we read in the New Testament, God poured out his love upon them. They met with God within a few minutes of walking inside the door as they were filled with the Holy Spirit and chose to put their trust in him. They were still heroin addicts but God poured out is Spirit on them. They were still triad members, but God poured out his Spirit on them. They would be going home from the meeting into their often horrendous way of life, but God poured out his Spirit on them.
This in turn challenged my unspoken understanding of how God works. All through my Christian life, I had mistakenly thought that you could only experience more of God if you understood more about him and changed your life to be more like him. Yet at Walled City and Tai Tam, I saw God pouring out his Spirit on people who knew nothing and had not yet changed! On people who were drug dealers, pimps, enforcers, and thugs. Why? Because they knew their need of him. They didn’t have to believe the right things before God would work in their lives. They simply needed to open their hearts to him.
I saw this in many different ways. There was one brother at Tai Tam who was always difficult and eventually he ran away. As often happened when brothers ran away, he came to the next Walled City meeting regretting his decision to leave. He was visibly high on heroin and he looked a mess. We prayed with him, more out of duty than conviction. Yet when it came to our time of worship, God used him to bring a message to the whole meeting. It was one of the most beautiful words of prophecy I have ever heard, and as a result, half a dozen hardened men broke down in tears and asked for prayer to live a new life. He was used by God more powerfully than anything I did that night.
In the Gospels I began to realise that Jesus poured out healing and love on people unconditionally. Whether they chose to follow him or shout “Crucify”, he healed, blessed, forgave and set people free.
I saw that when he called the disciples, he didn’t give them a lecture and a theology test before asking them to be his disciples. He simply said follow me. It was as they spent time with him, that they slowly (often very slowly) began to understand who he was and what he had come to do. Now I was beginning to understand in a new way too.
I mentioned last week in Tai Tam to our evening worship time, when songs of praise were sung with heart and soul, but that didn’t always make me smile. During a particularly difficult time with some brothers, I remember looking at their angelic faces during one of these times of worship and thinking, “You hypocrites! An hour ago you were being manipulative, selfish and putting us through hell! Don’t think you can simply put on your worship face and pretend it never happened!” In the quietness a few minutes later however, God was gracious enough to speak to me and said, “When you see them praise me, you are looking at who they really are. That is the real person I created. And now I have given them new life and that is what you see in worship. The person you see when they make life difficult – that is not them anymore. That is their old life which is passing away.” It was me that had jumped to the wrong conclusions, and it was my way of thinking which needed to be turned on its head!
When Jackie was asked about the success rate at St Stephens Society, she always said it was 100%. This often puzzled the journalist or visitor who was asking because they knew not everyone stuck with the programme. For Jackie however, success was not defined by the outcome in their addiction, because even if they dropped out, they went away with Jesus in their hearts and whenever they came back, she welcomed them as brothers in Christ, ready for the next step of their walk with him.
In Hong Kong I discovered a new God. A God who is generous beyond our wildest dreams. A God who loves the poor, the broken-hearted and the captive, and puts them first. A God who uses the most unlikely people to bless others. A God who doesn’t let go. A God who pours out his Spirit on people according to their need, rather than as a reward. A God who, having given everything on the cross, still gives more.
This God is called Jesus. I knew him before, but much more dimly. I thought I knew him well, but I
discovered that my understanding of him had such a long way to go.
After a few months, I finally got my hair cut; not because I was pressured or bullied into it; not because I was threatened with having my pony tail it cut off as I slept (although I was!) It was because I came to realise that my long hair was a barrier between me and some of the brothers who found it hard to accept. We made the event into a celebration at Tai Tam with everyone gathered around as the scissors did their work and a huge cheer went up as I was handed the hair, held together by a hairband. We ate celebration cake together.
I did it because I saw that it stood in the way of our relationship as brothers in Christ. We are all equal before God and all pilgrims on the road.
Sometimes less is more.