A young family with two children. A man, also with two young children but which are not his own, and yet cares for them with great love and commitment since their mother struggles with addiction. A single mother who is rebuilding her life after addiction. A young couple. A widow who works at a primary school. A couple with a history of addiction, crime and what she calls “black witchcraft”, with one of their children living with them and another with a host family, and who expect to be declared debt free this month.
These are just a few of the people who are part of our community here in Groningen. In one of the neighbourhoods of our city, one with a reputation for problematic behaviour, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, this community is growing and becoming known as a safe place, a home where the love of God is central. Benno and I have the privilege to be part of a team of 10 people, committed to this community.
Every Sunday we get together for lunch and celebration. At the beginning we light a Christ candle, reminding ourselves of the presence of Christ within our midst. We then eat together – a simple lunch of soup and sandwiches – and end with the celebration, listening to God’s word, sometimes a short talk or an activity, a conversation, a video clip, music or a game, and always with prayer. We also always have time to listen to each other’s stories, sharing the joys and worries of our lives. It seems that almost always someone has a job that cannot be fixed alone, and we discuss how we can help, who will do it and when.
Once a month, a group of women get together and we cook a meal. Some of the women also come to the Sunday lunch and celebration while others don’t. At the beginning, this was organised by members of the team but now it is fully organised by other members of the community and we just join in. The same is true with a group that goes for a regular walk. More and more people who are linked to the community are creating moments and new ways to spend time together, to be active together and, where needed, to support each other.
When this community was started three years ago, the team was asked to write a vision statement, about their dream for what the community could look like in five years’ time. One of the things written was this: “In five years’ time, a single mother is able to ask about the possibility of baptism for her child”. Now, after only three years, we are in conversation with a single mother who would like to baptise her two daughters, and a couple who want to baptise their two children. The mother of the two girls is also reflecting whether she wants to be baptised as well!
We regularly pray for God to work in this community, for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives, and at the moment we have the feeling that he is working in truly unexpected ways, and that the community is developing much faster than we could ever imagine.
One woman, with a very painful past and a terrible history with people from a particular church, said to us: “This is church for me, a place where I am welcome, and where I am never forced to do or be anything”. It’s a safe place, offering a home and a friendly welcome through the love of Christ, and it’s a place that this woman comes back to again and again. I remember the first time she came, how she was sneering and saying angry things, and how she had a protective wall of anger built up around her. But now she tells me that she is happy to see me again and it has brought tears to my eyes!
I hope you can imagine how we feel, that being part of this community is a real privilege. To see God at work in the lives of people, to experience love and care in the midst of a broken world, is a gift. From the outside it may seem that we are very different from some of the people in this community, working at the university, travelling the world, living in a house that we were able to buy, etc. We are members of the team that leads this community. And yet we are welcomed by this community; we belong. What counts is our joint humanity, the ability to share our lives, sometimes joyfully but sometimes in pain and brokenness. They care about us, we care about them. This is a community where the gospel is encountered and lived, where we are fed as we enter a new week and re-enter a world of success and competition.
Benno and I always say that mission, both local and global, is our passion. Sometimes that is hard work and demanding. And yet being part of this community makes us realise that participating in this mission is not just a job or a task, it is what sustains us. Being part of this community builds our faith, our love for God and our hope in life. Being part of this community is a gift, through which Jesus comes alive in us.
Until the end of April, I am working on my research and am grateful for this time of analysis and writing. From May until August we will be in Malaysia. Benno will be working with Dr Kang San Tan at Asia CMS. They are writing a book together on engaging people of other faiths. I will be teaching a course on Christian education at Malaysia Bible College. This will be the first time I have taught such a course within an Asian context. It will therefore be even more important to have an interactive approach, where we will be learning from each other. During the month of June I will be at Asia Gateway, an intensive programme that lays down a firm foundation in intercultural learning for mission for local leaders throughout Asia, combining practical experience with theological reflection. I will be teaching a module on gospel and culture and integral mission, but I will also be present during the whole month, coordinating the course, supporting the students, working with them on their personal development plan, supporting the other teachers, etc.
And since I will be in the area (well, sort of!), I will also use the opportunity to travel to Australia, to visit people working in mission education there. As the facilitator for the Mission Education Forum of the CMS Mission Network, it is important to discover how people engage in mission education, and what the opportunities might be for sharing this wider and how we can learn from each other.