This might not be the most dramatic of my blog posts, but I believe it tells the most significant of all the lessons I’ve learned in 40 years travelling to the hardest places in our world.
It might surprise you to know that the very best Fish and Chips I have ever eaten is not in a fancy restaurant in UK, but in Gaba, a small village on the shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda. I first experienced this delight in 1993 while filming the story of Jackie, a little girl in the Compassion child sponsorship programme in Gaba Community church. The pastor, Peter Kasirivu, a remarkable man of God, insisted we took some rest and refreshment in the heat of the middle of the day and so we ended up at the ambitiously named KK Beach Resort restaurant.
A first-time visitor might be tempted to complain about the service, which seems to take forever. I remember that first visit, wondering if they’d actually gone to catch the fish! I was almost right – they do indeed go out to buy the fish from the boats moored nearby the restaurant, so it’s as fresh as it can be and believe me the whole tilapia and chips is well worth the wait.
In the long wait for the fish and chips to appear, Peter told me how he had set up the church just three years previously in a small tent. Gaba was a very poor community and a dangerous place to live. HIV/AIDS spread quickly, and violence, alcohol and drug abuse were widespread. The handful of worshippers faced considerably opposition. Stirred up by witch doctors, the local people would often harass and even beat up these faithful Christians.
Concerned by the appalling poverty in Gaba, this small church family began a programme to help the most vulnerable in the community – the children from the poorest families, especially those orphaned through HIV/AIDS. Parents and family members, including some of the ringleaders in the persecution began to come into the church compound to see the activities and find out what motivated them to help their children. Peter told me how opposition to the church and indifference to the gospel gradually began to disappear as local people saw that the Christians were concerned about their physical health as well as as their spiritual life.
Over the years I spent visiting Peter in Gaba, I saw the church grow from a handful meeting in a small tent, to over 1,000 meeting in a multi-purpose building, housing a church, school, vocational centre and much more (take a look at www.gabachurch.org and see what this amazing church family is doing now).
Though the transformation at Gaba Community Church is pretty dramatic, it’s by no means unique, I’ve seen this story repeated many times all over the world. In situations of extreme poverty and injustice there always seems to be a vibrant and growing church at the centre of the action with Christians at the forefront, sharing and showing compassionate acts of mercy, often at great personal cost.
I’d often ask the pastors of these churches to tell me their secret to achieving such spectacular growth. They’d always give similar answers, ‘no secret. It was when we started taking practical action to care for the most vulnerable in the community, that more people started coming to church.
While it was exciting to see vibrant and growing churches in some of the hardest places, I became,and remain, increasingly concerned about the apathy and diminishing influence of the church in the West. Tragically, the indifference and inward looking attitude that is still prevalent in so many churches today has contributed to the rapidly declining numbers we have seen in recent decades. Of course, there are wonderful examples of churches that are quite the opposite of this, but you can be sure that ministry to the poor and oppressed is central to the life and teaching in these growing churches.
A few years ago, stranded in Uganda for four days after my flight had been cancelled, I decided to spend the time pondering a big question that had been brewing in my mind.
I found a quiet cafe in Kampala where I sat each day on the terrace overlooking a lush, peaceful garden. The sense of tranquility in the heart of this vibrant and chaotic city made it hard to imagine the depth of the pain and suffering of ordinary people under the wicked regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. But this contrast somehow made it the ideal place to ponder my big question.
I was seeking to know the most effective way to help the church worldwide to understand that ministry to people’s physical as well as spiritual needs is utterly central to the biblical narrative. Indeed, Jesus tells us it is THE identifying mark of his true followers. I thought how significant it was that times of great revival and church growth in the UK, Europe and USA were also times of radical social change led by Christian reformers like Shaftesbury, Wilberforce, Wesley and others who tackled slavery, forced child labour, prison reform, and improved working conditions in factories and a host of other social ills.
As I sat overlooking the bougainvilleas, I reflected on the brokenness of society in the West: war, violence, pornography, drug and alcohol addiction, greed, exploitation of the weak, the list goes on…and on. One thing is abundantly clear,
God’s heart beats for the poor and oppressed and he expects his true followers to share his passion for justice and mercy.
It’s interesting to note that there’s only one verse in the bible that says all scripture is inspired by God, a couple say that Jesus is the only way to God. But there are around 2,000 verses in the Bible that focus on God’s love and compassion for the poor, and his clear instructions for us to do the same.
As I sat sipping my strong Ugandan coffee, I kept returning to Isaiah 58 – one of my favourite chapters in the Bible where God speaks powerfully to his people. When they ask him why he doesn’t hear their prayers, or take notice of their fasting, he tells them the kind of fast he wants is to care for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable – those who are too weak to look after themselves.
He goes on to tell them and us that such obedience will be richly rewarded, with a special and intimate relationship with him, which in turn leads to a release of his power within us.
The message of Isaiah 58, (and indeed the whole bible) for us today is clear: If the church worldwide was to take God’s Word seriously with regard to the vulnerable, and live it out in practical actions of compassion, he would use us to repair what is broken in society and the church would become vibrant, attractive, influential and relevant again; I believe scripture and history shows that we would be blessed with revival on a scale beyond our wildest imagination.
Tragically, in most churches in the West, it is something of a rarity to hear sermons on the theme of God’s love for the poor; in many cases it only happen once a year on a special mission Sunday.
Sitting in that cafe in Kampala I dreamt of taking the message of Isaiah 58 to as many churches around the world as possible, encouraging them to make God’s call to show love and compassion to the most vulnerable, central to the life of their churches.
Several years later, with the support of Compassion International, we began by producing a major feature film and church curriculum on the theme of Isaiah 58, with stories filmed in eight countries. To date, it has been translated into French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Korean and Swahili and there have been some amazing results. Many churches reported how they became excited by the message of the film and the dramatic impact this fresh awakening has had on their church.
Live58 is under dynamic leadership of Pastor Ken Burkey – former Senior Pastor at Green Valley Community Church in Placerville, California and author of The Power Of The Orange Chair – a book I highly recommend.
Ken has a big vision and it’s very exciting to see God’s hand as his team starts to build the foundations for a worldwide Live58 movement. The timing couldn’t be more critical. With the world is in such a perilous state we need to hear God’s timeless word speaking directly into each and every situation; it is the most relevant piece of literature for our troubled world today.
We are currently in the planning process for an exciting new film and study guide, and a series of symposiums for church leaders starting in the USA, focusing on helping churches begin effective ministries to the vulnerable in their own communities and wider afield. You can find out more and see the movie 58:, at https://live58.org And this is just the start; we are also in discussion with interested parties who wish to launch Live58 in continental Europe and the UK.
Our vision for the Live58 movement is BIG, put simply it is.to play a part in helping God’s people to feel the heartbeat of God for the poor and oppressed and for their hearts to beat to the same rhythm.
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called repairer of broken walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. ~ Isaiah 58: 11,12