In January 1998 I spent a week in Manila, The Philippines. This was in the midst of the time that Kathy and I were living in South Africa planting a church and developing community-based missional responses. For us that included developing an affordable housing company (managing 50 units) and an emergency shelter for domestic violence victims. The visit to Manila was to participate in a round table learning encounter with other urban ministry practitioners from around the world (Africa, Asia, Caribbean, England, USA) sponsored by Food for the Hungry, World Vision and the Fieldstead Institute. One of the products of that work was a book published by MARC, entitled Serving with the Urban Poor, edited by Ted Yamamori, Bryant Myers and Ken Luscombe. Kathy and I contributed a chapter on the work we were connected with in South Africa.
Among the many other learnings from that rich time was the opportunity to learn from Fr Ben Beltran, a Divine Word missionary working at Smokey Mountain, at the time the largest garbage dump in The Philippines. In the sessions, Father Ben shared his own experience of living and ministering on/in Smokey Mountain as an incarnational activity. He described the life of the church community (in a building built from scavenged garbage) as grace-radiating substance. That is, a faith community celebrating the Eucharist and reading & applying Scripture, in that setting, was both a physical and spiritual manifestation of the presence of God. That was a new thought for me at the time. That just to live, minister and "be" the presence of Christ in that space was witness. That God would give the resources to live that kind of life was, in fact, "good news." Interestingly, Ben also helped us reflect on a theology of holistic ministry by employing a motif from Philipino worldview -- the notion of human being as defined by relationship to others; "to be" is "to be in relation." Rejecting a dualistic western understanding of sacred and profane. Relationship with God, with others and the created earth is, "of a kind," not separate things.
[recent writings on the idea of "place" in Christian ministry: Where Mortals Dwell, No Home Like Place, The Space Between, The New Parish. Good thoughts here from the late Richard Twiss, on an indigenous theology of place.]
As I returned to our ministry in South Africa, this led me to work toward deepening our practice regarding our location as a city centre, multicultural faith community that was expressing itself in the provision of affordable safe housing and care for those impacted by domestic oppression and violence. Those were issues "of" our place. This amplified insights from my study with Alan Roxburgh a few years earlier, who asked us, "what are the themes that emerge from your social context? what does the gospel/good news look like in relation to those themes?"
In the midst of our affordable housing development we received a major grant from the South African government's Dept of Housing. We decided to have a "thanksgiving service" (a very African thing to do) right on the building site, on a major traffic route through the city. So amidst the building rubble of demolished older buildings with new sections going up, we had an open-air worship service with full band and sound system, we had some traditional dancing and choirs, obligatory speeches and we celebrated the Lord's Supper as servers tried not to stumble over bricks and puddles of water. Grace seemed very tangible that day.
Today, in Canada, I am convinced more than ever that issues of place and context need to impact our practice and our communication. The incarnation of Jesus (local communities of the Body of Christ) in place and time must reflect good news to those who see and hear us.