International Ministries

From Problems to People

August 21, 2011 Journal
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Several weeks ago I went out as the driver with a group of American women who had come to do a women’s seminar for our African churches.  The mission team wanted to invite to the seminar African women who were working the street in Padua and Vicenza.  Debbie gave us a list of places where we likely would find women, and off we went.  The mission team gave each woman we met an invitation, a bag of plantain chips (like potato chips but made of bananas), some scripture cards, and a small cross.  They talked with 31 women that night.

As I listened to the voices of the women we met, I was struck by their youthfulness.  The harshness and brutality of their lives could not fully mask the bubbly enthusiasm characteristic of young women just beyond adolescence.  I felt like as I was back in campus ministry.  Most of them were delighted that someone was interested in talking with them and even had a gift for them.

I have made a journey over my 20 years of ministry.  My first church sat in northwest Philadelphia, and there were women working the streets not far from the church.  I didn’t feel strongly one way or the other about the women themselves.  Their presence was simply a nuisance.  They made life less pleasant and safe in the neighborhood.  I saw them as a public safety problem and a threat to housing values.  I viewed them as a problem to be resolved by the police, the courts, and the neighborhood watch group.  They were like a dangerous intersection; I felt someone needed to do something.

My next church sat on the main thoroughfare of a smaller city in Ohio.  Again, within blocks of the church, there were women working the street.  Again, I saw them as a problem to be addressed, like a neighbor who plays his music too loudly.  I felt that the city needed to find a solution to clean this up.

I have now arrived at a different place.  I no longer see women working the street as a problem to be resolved, cleaned up, moved on to somewhere else.  I see these women as human beings with all the attendant complexities that being human brings.  They have parents and childhood memories.  Perhaps their parents were abusive and their childhoods painful and prematurely shortened.  But most of them love their parents and had moments of joy when young.  They carry within themselves hopes and dreams, disappointments and losses.  They are pleased by compliments, and criticism wounds them.  Maybe they have children that they love dearly.  Perhaps they carry concerns about sick parents.  Maybe they worry about how the lives of their brothers and sisters will turn out.  They probably have a favorite flavor of ice cream and have a vegetable that they never eat.  They like the way the sun feels on their face on a cold day.  My point is this:  they are in so many ways like you and me.  Their lives have dumped them in a very difficult place, a place that most of us cannot imagine.  But they are in so many ways like us.  They want the same things for their lives that we want for our lives:  to be loved and to love; to feel safe and secure; to see purpose in their lives; to laugh; and to sleep well at night.  They are more like us than different from us.

This is the journey that I have made.  I no longer see these women as a problem to be resolved but as people worthy of love and respect and compassion.  They are worth going after in the hope of helping them find a life more befitting their deep and vibrant humanity.  They are made in the image God; and, in the words of Genesis, very good.

I wonder how many other problems I see around me that are, when you peel back the surface, really people in need of mercy and compassion?  Twenty years of ministry and God is still changing me, opening my eyes, softening my heart.

Thank you for your partnership in this ministry.