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Integral Mission: Attending to the Unseen

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15 January 2013

by Dr Melba Maggay, President Micah Network

Many organizations now fly the flag of ‘integral mission.’ But very few really know what this means on the ground.

Often, ‘wholistic transformation’ is treated programmatically, entrusted to a handful of personnel who are responsible for ‘spiritual’ activities such as evangelism, prayer and worship. The rest of the organization then conducts its microfinance, health, education or income-generating projects in much the same way secular organizations would do so. The two are dichotomized and run on parallel lines that do not quite meet.

This is quite unlike the way Jesus operated. To him, all the circumstances of life were occasions for enlarging the frame in which people moved and viewed their lives. Parties became settings for teaching humility instead of pride of place, sharpening understanding of who eventually gets to eat at the Great Banquet. [i] The journey to Jerusalem ignited ambition and expectations of glory among the disciples, which Jesus then turned into a teaching moment on leadership as servanthood. [ii]

Such landmark teachings on the nature of the kingdom happened in the course of everyday life. Except perhaps for the Sermon on the Mount and the cluster of teachings on signs of the end towards the close of his life, Jesus taught contingently. He seized events and incidents as opportunities for creating awareness of the new world that he was inaugurating in their midst.      

Similarly, we need to help people to know God and become aware of his presence, not only through evangelistic programs, but through the daily struggle of discerning his hand and honoring him through the quality of our work. Our organizations should be such that all who come near are also drawn to Jesus. Unfortunately, an Indian friend once told me that in his context, Hindus who work in faith-based organizations rarely get impressed enough to want to become Christians.

Ultimately, our impact as organizations depends  on the ability of our people on the ground to live as signs of the new narrative that God is weaving in the community. “Holism is in the person, not in the program,” Jayakumar Christian insightfully reminds us. Our staff need to be trained to be sensitive to those moments when the new world that has come is birthing itself within the rhythms and routines of people’s lives.

This truth struck me afresh in a project that our Institute was doing in Batasan, the third largest urban poor community in the country. The project manager called my attention to her fear that the field organizer was spending too much time doing Bible studies with a street gang, which was not part of the project design. The closing activities lined up in the logframe were quite behind schedule.

The Bible study was at the invitation of a woman who was feared in the neighborhood and mysteriously had resources to feed at night about 45 street kids who belonged to one of the toughest and fiercest gangs in the community. Within a two-kilometer radius were about 50 street gangs who sowed terror and erupted periodically into gang wars. I sensed that it was extraordinary that this gang, who named themselves Halik ni Hudas, [ Kiss of Judas ] would even sit for a five-minute Bible study, which was all the attention span they could manage, given that most were either drunk or half-drugged from sniffing rugby.

So even if it was not in the project design, I encouraged the project leader not to worry and simply follow where the Spirit was heading, as it seemed She had her hand on it. I said I would answer to the donor organization and explain why the project had stalled and had moved into an unexpected direction.

Three years later, we saw these street kids transformed. Most had gone back and reconciled with their dysfunctional families, for we found that 70% of those kids were out in the streets, not just because of poverty, but because they come from broken homes and have been abused sexually or physically or given away to relatives who maltreat them. Once semi-literate and out of school, they have now streamed themselves into jobs, literacy classes and vocational schooling.

They formed an association, Kabataang Malaya [ Youth Liberated ] that reaches out to other gangs. They had turned the community’s only clear space, which was used as a battlefield for gang wars, into a basketball court where they now hold annual basketball games. The gang wars ceased, the crime rate dropped dramatically, and the people now walk about at night and no longer shut their small sari-sari stores at dusk. A grateful community now helps a small church of young people that has grown out of this work even without our meaning to do church-planting.

We could have missed the work that the Spirit wanted to do if we stuck to our logframe and exited from the community as soon as the funds ran out.  Fairly sophisticated, we had to learn anew that transformation only really happens when our people are sensitive  to the spiritual realm, to that margin of mystery where all our calculations collapse and we become aware of an unseen power that orders our life and work.

To be truly wholistic means to be aware that there is not a moment when we are not bearing witness. We are either authenticating the presence of a new world, or negating its presence by our inability to discern those subtle and hidden movements of the Spirit and organize everything round the reality of Jesus and his kingdom.

[i]Luke 14:7-24

[ii]Mark 10: 32-45