Neglected voices in the church
Monday, 6 February 2017
| Siu Fung Wu
I grew up in a very crowded city in East Asia. Most of my childhood friends experienced more financial hardship than most Australians, although our situation has now improved significantly. I have lived in Australia for more than twenty-five years. For most of this time I have not been a member of a mono-cultural migrant church, but an active participant of Australian churches and Christian organisations.
When I migrated to Australia, my assumption was that, in the church, I would find refuge from any racial prejudice that I might experience elsewhere. I also had the assumption that the church would care for the poor and marginalised. To a large degree, I found these to be true. But there were several key moments when I noticed some subtle convictions and attitudes that concerned me.
The voice of a church member dismissed
A long time ago I was a pastor in a big church with more than 1,200 worshippers. The people I pastored were largely white Australians, but many of us came from overseas, and dozens of ethnicities were represented in the membership. One Sunday, one of the pastors made a reference to black people in his sermon. Some weeks later a church member, who originally came from Africa, raised his concern about the reference to me. The reference was not derogatory. Nor was it, in and of itself, necessarily theologically faulty. But it did cause hurt and distress to a member of the church, and one could question whether certain theological assumptions underpinning the reference were valid.
I raised the church member’s unease with the pastor concerned. To my surprise, he immediately dismissed the matter. There was no intention to have any further discussion. As he held a senior position in the church hierarchy, I felt powerless to pursue the matter further. But in my heart I began to ask why the voice of the African, a committed member of the church, was ignored so easily.
Western missionary VS diaspora East Asian
My other role as a pastor was to oversee a number of ethnic fellowships. At the time, the leaders of the Vietnamese fellowship were a young Australian couple. On the whole, I believed we had a good working relationship, and I really appreciated their dedication to the task. But I found that, when it came to matters concerning the fellowship, they preferred the advice of a well-known missionary to mine. The assumption seemed to be that the missionary’s proven experience on the mission field among Pacific Islanders was superior.
I wondered whether it was a valid assumption. As an East Asian in diaspora, my experience in Australia would have given me some insight into the issues faced by the Vietnamese Christians in the church. I do not think that my view would be superior to the missionary’s, but at least it deserved some serious consideration. I don’t hold any grudges against this couple. But I began to wonder whether there was an underlying mindset in the West, even among cross-cultural workers, that Western missionaries were superior.
The voice of the poor
Some years ago I was working in the aid and development sector. Several friends and I wanted to run a public forum about poverty and social injustice. As we planned the speakers, the names of a number of respected theologians and practitioners came up. But since the forum was about poverty, I suggested that we should invite a friend of mine to talk about her hands-on experience of poverty and social oppression. My friend was a refugee and had experienced a lot of persecution in her home country because of her race and religion. I proposed that my friend would prepare a speech beforehand, perhaps with the help of a fluent English speaker, and she could then read from her script at the forum. Unfortunately my proposal was rejected. If my understanding was correct, one key reason was the concern that her less-than-perfect English might put off the audience, which was likely to have consisted of educated middle-class Westerners.
I would have thought that this audience, given their privileged position by virtue of their education, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, should have actively sought to hear the voice of relatively uneducated non-Westerners who had experienced poverty and oppression first hand. But apparently not many people shared my conviction, even among those who wanted to serve the poor.
The voice of foreigners and the poor in the Gospel
As we turn to the Gospels, we find some surprising occasions in which the voice of the poor and foreigners is recorded. This would have been counter-intuitive in Jesus’ day, to say the least. Jesus spent most of his time in predominantly Jewish areas. At the time, many Jews thought that they were morally superior to the unclean idol-worshipping Gentiles. Also, the socioeconomically poor did not have a significant voice in the society. But obviously Jesus was a friend of the poor and the marginalised, not least the sinners, tax collectors, sex workers, lepers and the chronically sick. Furthermore, and importantly for us here, we hear their voice (directly and indirectly) in the Gospels, and their voice was taken seriously and positively. In other words, they had a say!
We hear the voice of the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21–28; Mark 7:24–30), the Roman centurion (via his servants: Matt 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10), the Samaritan leper (Luke 17:15–19), the Samaritan woman (John 4:9–42), the sinner in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9–14), the woman suffering from hemorrhages (Matt 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43; Luke 8:40–56) and more. The faith and actions of these people were examples for Jesus’ disciples. Their gratitude and positive responses to Jesus were praised and acknowledged publically. The voice of these people plays a vital role in the Gospels. In fact, their voice is heard more often than the majority of the twelve apostles.
I have not yet mentioned other foreigners and disadvantaged people who take a prominent place in the Gospels and Jesus’ teaching, such as the Good Samaritan, Ruth and Rahab in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew, the people of Nineveh who would stand up at the judgment against this generation (Luke 11:32) and the Sidonian widow and the leprous Syrian Naaman in Luke 4:24–27. Space does not allow me to discuss each of these Bible passages in context. But what is clear is that these people occupy important places in the narratives concerning the ministry and teaching of Jesus.
Let us hear their voice
Since the foreigners and the poor play such essential roles in the Gospels, it seems that we ignore their voice at our peril. According to the 2011 census, only 51 per cent of the population were born of Australian-born parents. Among those who identified themselves as Christian, 43.3 per cent were born overseas or to parents from overseas (see Philip Hughes, ‘The Impact of Recent Immigration on Religious Groups in Australia’, Pointers, 22.4, December 2012). About 13.3 per cent of the Australian population, and 17.4 per cent of all children, lived below the poverty line in 2014 (ACCOSS, Poverty in Australia Report 2016). Given the significant number of migrants and people living in poverty in our midst, I suggest that the church should intentionally seek to hear their voice.
In my view, the biblical vision is that the church will consist of Christ-followers from all walks of life - rich and poor, educated and unlearned, and people from many cultures and ethnic backgrounds. My observation is that the congregation, and indeed the leadership, of many local churches do not reflect this biblical vision, despite the diverse general population in Australia. No wonder the voice of a lot of people is neglected, ignored and, in some cases, silenced. It seems that there is a disproportional representation of voices.
We often (though not always) see this in the list of speakers in Christian and mission conferences, the board members of Christian organisations and even the faculty of theological colleges. In many instances, they are made up of primarily Westerners. In the cases where non-Western members are included, they are often in the minority, disproportionally representing the diverse population. Also, they are very likely to be middle-class and educated. Where is the voice of the poor and marginalised?
I am aware that, in practice, there are many hurdles to overcome. I also know that there is a place for mono-cultural churches, especially for first-generation migrants. In case I am misunderstood, I need to clarify that I am not saying that any one group of people should have a dominant voice, but that everyone should be allowed to contribute to the body of Christ in mutually beneficial ways. I also realise that many Christians are actively seeking to deal with the issues I have raised. And, regardless, I am grateful for the hospitality and grace that Australian Christians have given me over the years.
The purpose of this article is to raise awareness and call for intentional effort to hear from those whose voice is neglected, not to put the blame on anyone in particular. More importantly, I hope it serves to invite faithful readers of the Scripture to take heed of the pattern of Jesus’ teaching and ministry in the Gospels, even though it may seem counter-intuitive to us. Let us seek to include the voice of people from other cultural backgrounds and the voice of the poor in all that we do in our church communities.
Siu Fung Wu was a factory worker, IT professional, pastor and global education officer before he became a New Testament academic. He is the author of Suffering in Romans.