Church of the poor: countercultural and prophetic

gj-mrgyuInspired by Pope Francis’ vision of “a poor church, for the poor”, Church Action on Poverty is exploring how churches can do more to stand in solidarity with people in poverty. We’ve invited many prominent Christians to share their thoughts on this. Their reflections will appear here, and in a new publication to be released soon. Today: John Cooper, Regional Coordinator (West Midlands) and Local Advocacy Development Officer for Christian Aid.

I’m sat in the corner of a tin tabernacle in the capital city of one of the poorest nations of the world. The church roof may be incomplete but that hasn’t stopped people crowding in for their weekly act of worship.

As the interpreter whispered into my ears a translation of the testimony being shared, I realised I was getting a glimpse of the church at its most transformational.

The testimony wasn’t comfortable to hear. It was the story of a pastor who contracted HIV. Pastor Tharseiss had lost his wife and a child, and was worried that his own church would push him out. Instead they rallied round and supported him, and now he travels round Burundi as part of BUNERELLA +, an ecumenical project supported by Christian Aid, speaking from pulpits to demonstrate that the body of Christ has AIDS and the people of Christ are called to love. His testimony was powerful and there was a sense of movement in the church as the congregation took to its heart the challenging words. People spoke with him afterwards and perspectives were changed.

The Apostle Paul’s magnificent vision of ‘The Body of Christ’ is one that often emerges in writings about how we can create a world free from poverty.

The interconnectedness of all elements of our body, and the many hidden links within us that keep us living, remind us that our journey of faith is far more intertwined with communities around the globe then we dare imagine.

By engaging in what John Stott defines as “double listening”, listening to both God’s Word and God’s World, we can begin to understand the world and how we are called to respond. I am heartened by continual glimpses I see of the global church being countercultural and prophetic. I believe that God is at the heart of all movements for justice and equality, even if they are seen as ‘outside’ what’s socially accepted. Whether in great movements through history, or in the church today. A well known example is Wilberforce first speaking out against the evils of slavery, doing so not as the leader of a wildly popular movement but as a rank outsider. Lesser known ones include when my local church established a food bank. People suggested our postcode wouldn’t need one, but once our doors were opened we encountered many of the ‘hidden’ poor who were just a meal away from absolute poverty.

And that is where movements for justice begin: people inspired to step aside from accepted practice in order to highlight a new truth.

For many years Christian Aid has been trying to raise the voice of the poorest That’s why hundreds of churches across the UK have recognised their buildings are an act of witness and joined together in the Big Church Switch, moving their energy supplies from climate change causing fossil fuels to renewable power. They act in hope of a fairer, safer future. They dare to dream that God’s world includes development of clean energy so all may access electricity. Rather than waiting for this change to come from elsewhere, they are taking it upon themselves to be the instigators of change.

A church of and for the poor recognises and celebrates the presence of the Kingdom of God among us here and now. It risks its ‘safe’ established place by speaking out for the poorest, the marginalised, the dispossessed; and it seeks to build them up so everyone can find their place as loved and cherished members of God’s world. The Kingdom of God can and will exist on God’s good earth, and it’s the church’s place to roll up its sleeves and act as midwife to a beautiful process of renewal and new beginning.

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