JAC Online

What Makes Me Missionally Hopeful?
by Captain Genevieve Peterson


I’d love to say that the inspiration for this article came from some deeply personal revelation during a meaningful prayer time but really, it came from binge watching ‘Call the Midwife’.


Call the Midwife is a period drama series about a group of midwives working in the east end of London in the late 1950s.  The plot follows the work of midwives and the nuns of Nonnatus House, a nursing convent, coping with the medical problems in the deprived Poplar. The midwives bring safe childbirth to women in the area and help look after their newborns.


The love shown and purpose lived by the characters in this show was so contagious it made me google ‘how to become a midwife’! The description of the subject matter  was enough to close the book on a change in profession but it did make me yearn for a life where my sole purpose was to love God, and live within a community whose need is great.


As an officer appointed to a highly disadvantaged community, I quickly saw the stupidity in this yearning!


But it does cause me to pause and consider the challenge of our time, that is, the chasm between what we have and what we want that exists purely in the space between our ears. Too often we strive for a future that could be a reality if we could just stop working so hard to make it happen! So much effort is placed into planning how we will do something, so much thinking goes into why we should do something and so much praying goes into the success of future endeavours. But how much time goes into responding to the urgent call of those in pain, desperate to birth new life, and yet carrying on alone and unassisted.


So what was it about the community of Poplar that was so attractive?


Poplar was an impoverished community which brings all the things you would expect. Family violence, child neglect, unemployment, depression and addiction. But there is also a depth and a wisdom to poor communities that you don’t find in wealthy ones. There is a sense of togetherness. Of communal understanding of suffering and hardship. The cherishing of minor victories and the understanding of shared responsibility for ones neighbour.


People like to romanticise poor communities. They are usually people who have never lived in one. There is very little romance in the darkness of a poor community. But they are interesting, and while rarely progressing, there is always movement.


But it’s the sadness and depth of hopelessness that often gets you in the end. In my first community there was a single dad whose life had been one of betrayal and hardship. He was so devoted to his children. We used to refer to him as ‘the one good dad’. Fathers were usually absent or abusive so the one good dad was such a source of hope. He was always there, waiting in the car park at the end of programs (for those not familiar with ministry in difficult areas, this is very rare!). He would turn up to concerts and send back permission slips (also rare!) and he would make sure we were OK; that we felt safe in our little community centre in the tough part of town.


The one good dad was diagnosed with cancer while his kids were in their early teens. He died three months later. After that, his kids had no one. Or at least, no one as stable as the one good dad, and things just fell apart from there for the older child. It was the end of hope that got her and she spiralled out of control into abuse, drugs, mental illness and regular stints of incarceration.


Impoverished communities need people who can hold onto hope in the midst of darkness, and who can grab hold of those who are about to lose their own grip on hope. People of faith should be the best candidates but my experience has been that many move away when they don’t get the fairy tale ending. It’s that disparity between what they imagined in their mind and the gruelling reality that causes them to lose faith and return to a simpler form of ministry. If I’m honest, that’s what causes me to lose hope. A people committed to Jesus who sleep through the crucifixion and wake up for the resurrection. I’m probably being too harsh, but my loyalty to God is anchored to the poor, and not to Christians.  The poor disappoint less often.


Moving on from suffering - (please!) - the next element of ministry so inspiring in Call the Midwife was the visitation. It’s just part and parcel of district nursing but it reminded me of how many times I had been invited to sit around the kitchen table with a family, or invited to play in the backyard with the kids, or asked to sit on the bedside of a sick or sad mum. It’s such a privilege to be invited into someone’s home. It’s such an honour to be included in a family celebration. But in poor communities it comes only after a relationship of deep trust and respect has been formed. That relationship can (in my opinion) never be formed in programs,  or performing welfare from the safety of your corps building, and it usually doesn’t happen between the hours of 9 and 5. Often it’s when we take the time to drive parents to appointments, or arrive early to help mum get the kids to school, or picking up school supplies from two suburbs over, or taking kids to visit their dads in lockup.  It’s responding to the middle of the night call when all hell has broken loose at home. It’s being available for anything, anywhere and at any time. You can’t program it. You can’t control it. You can’t always be prepared for it. And you are definitely going to break the Army’s safety policy when you do it!  But it’s the only way of moving from being a professional, to a friend. 


Once you are a friend, you have influence, but more than that, you have insight. You start to see how impossible their life really is. You stop thinking up easy solutions and you know that a $40 food voucher is not the answer!  On your worst days you even wonder how God could be the answer.  But on your good days you remember the incarnate Jesus, and you try to reflect Him.  You remember that your job is not to fix or gentrify the family, but to never leave or forsake them. To be with them in their darkest moments, and to point them to a strength and comfort that can never be found within humans. Mostly, you understand the limitations of your role and you stop celebrating how awesome you are for ‘sacrificing’ so much to work amongst the poor. And you just get on and help. You are not the star of their show, and doing menial tasks like cleaning houses and combing out lice is not ground work that leads to some bigger purpose. It is ​held within the purpose!


Being with people is 100% the beginning and end of the work.  Because this work somehow demonstrates the deep love and consistency of who God is.  And suddenly the Gospel makes sense, both to those you work with, and to you.  And God’s love is embraced, and God’s plan is understood, and through all the pain and endurance and suffering, new birth arrives.  And it is miraculous.  And we celebrate with the angels in heaven because the child who was lost is now found.


You see the thing about the parable of the prodigal is that the son never does have some great revelation of moral impurity that causes him to repent and return to the father.  The only revelation was one of deep literal hunger and loneliness.  And his literal need, and his spiritual needs are met once he returns to the place of love, and acceptance and grace.  What repentance or rather what changes he made there were subsequent to the great salvation party.  They may never have occurred!  But the embrace is what we offer, and nothing more than their openness to be embraces is required.  But a genuine embrace from God is usually all that’s needed to set the changes in motion.  


Many of the people I have worked with have a deep knowledge and understanding of God’s love for them.  And they have never stepped foot in a church.  Many of them have gone on to live radically changed lives.  Some of them went on to love and care so contagiously that their entire families were changed, and parts of the community completely renewed.  Not made rich, but made full of hope. 


Recently I reconnected with a young person who found herself in great need.  She had done so well in spite of a difficult childhood, but now needed a house and a job for her partner, all before the arrival of her first child.  So we called on a young guy who we had worked with pretty intensely 10 years earlier.  And he had a full time job for her partner that started two days later.  And then I contacted another friend I had worked with, and he helped find a house.  And then a wonderful young Christian who had intentionally lived in the community years before followed up all the material things needed to set up the house. 


Two months on, she held her beautiful baby boy, in her new home (the first home that had ever been hers), while her partner went off to work (the first permanent full time job he had ever held).  Their note to me; ‘thank you, this gift is truly from God.  How else could all this be possible?’  How else indeed.


The take away from this very long article?   Stop thinking and start doing. Stop waiting on answers to prayer and realise that God is actively working in communities trying to bring about hope, purpose and new life.  Stop thinking that salvation work is complicated and realise that while it might be messy and tiring, it is not complicated.  It is simply this; visit the poor and bring them a cake! Take the sick to a doctor and help them get their medicine.  Educate the children so that they can get a job and experience freedom from the cycle of deprivation.  Comb out their lice so they attend school.  Advocate for them so they can return to school when they get suspended.  Sit with them when the department comes to do inspections.  Read their Centrelink letters so their pensions don’t get cut off.  Visit foster children when they get moved around from place to place and have nowhere to call home.  Share the love of God with them, and show them the source of love and hope in your life. But most importantly, turn up and don’t give up on them! 


What makes me missionally hopeful?  The Salvation Army was born for this work.  All we have to do now is remember how to leave the corps building and start having some fun with some of the most amazing, resilient, hilarious characters you will ever meet.  I promise, it will be the least boring mission you will ever do!











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