The Gospel and Beyond Me
Updated: May 2, 2019
Part 2 of the excerpt from Whole and Reconciled
After that gospel encounter profoundly changed the course of my personal life, a second encounter caused me to go beyond the personal: I caught what I believed (and believe) was a glimpse of the way God sees the world. This second encounter terrified me to my core as the suffering of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized broke my heart. It opened my eyes and broadened my mind to the social, cosmic dimension of God’s mission, and it began to give shape to my sense of vocational call.
Early in my faith journey I intuitively understood that the good news did not apply just to me; it applied to everyone and everything. I knew that the gospel somehow pointed to the answer of all of life’s problems—personal, social, and political. The strong desire to share this good news with others resided within me before I ever heard the word “evangelism.” I did finally learn of it, but unfortunately from those espousing a fundamentalist theology who believed the world to be irredeemable, meaning that from this perspective social justice efforts ultimately held little value. Based on evangelist D.L. Moody’s famous metaphor of the sinking ship called planet Earth and the lifeboat of Christ in which the church had to rescue as many of the drowning as possible, I set out to “save souls” passionately and aggressively as part of the evangelism-only missionary movement.
But when I encountered the compassion and justice of the gospel, when I discovered that God cares not only for our souls but also for our bodies and our social situation, when I came to the truth that God cares, yes, for all, but especially for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, then I realized that my earlier notions of justice were not off after all. I realized that the good news meant much more than my own personal transformation (as profound as that was). I realized that my personal conversion was but a part of a larger, broader, and greater project, as I encountered the gospel of the now-and-not-yet kingdom of God. Discovering that the gospel did not just point to a future hope for saved individuals but also to God’s liberating, healing presence in the here and now for all, especially the downtrodden, changed everything. This awakening of God’s radically present love for the world registered such an impact on my life that I often refer to it today as my born-again again experience.
It occurred in part as a result of a multipunch combination of books that included George Eldon Ladd’s The Presence of the Future, Ronald J Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, John’s Perkins’s Let Justice Roll Down, and Tom Sine’s The Mustard Seed Conspiracy. It was, however, a graduate travel course called Contemporary Issues in Missiology: Latin American Practicum that forever opened my eyes for mission and wrecked any possibility of leading a safe and normal life, at least the one defined by the American dream. Each morning began in the classroom, but after lunch, the class resumed via observation and/or engagement in hands-on ministry with, for, and among the poor. This daily schedule over a period of three weeks in the countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica exposed me to the blessings of the intercultural experience, the unromantic reality of poverty, and the joy of service—in short, whole mission—on both the theoretical and practical levels.
During those three weeks the impact of the gospel on my life cannot be overstated. It eventually led me back to my homeland of the Philippines as a missionary to engage in community-transforming and pastoral ministries among the poor for almost a decade. But beyond simply defining those ten years, that class catalyzed in me a lifelong commitment to holistic ministry—that is, to a practical theology of mission that will forever include both evangelism and social justice. And finally, it defined my future pedagogy: as a teacher-practitioner of church and mission, I have committed always to engage the heads, hearts, and hands of my students in the classroom.
A gradual progression of my “worldly reawakening” has led to a growing sensitivity to the unevenness of power and privilege (read: injustice) based on gender, race, and ethnicity. I was born in the Philippines, and when I was two years old, my family moved to the US. In immigrant language, I would be counted among the “1.5 generation.” As a 1.5er, I have had my fair share of being on the short end of racism, from being labeled and teased (named affectionately as “the Chink,” for example, in my elementary school in the Bronx) to being passed over for a job because my ethnicity was deemed not conducive for fundraising.
My keenness to racial injustice began to focus, however, ironically enough, while I served as a missionary in my homeland of the Philippines in the 1990s. I began to discover all too personally that, as a colonized people, first by Spain, then by the United States, and then briefly (but brutally) by Japan, Filipinos pervasively view foreigners, especially Americans, as higher than themselves (which is not uncommon, of course, among formerly colonized peoples around the world).
My eyes began to open to this reality when I was with white fellow missionaries who were given seats of honor while I was passed over (not that I wanted to be seated there, but why the, and not me?); or when my white wife would walk right past a security guard at the entrance of a bank or a mall while I would be stopped and searched without fail; or when I would take out white visitors to dinner and the waiter would hand the dinner check afterward to one of them (most of the time, I would welcome that!). Such minor incidents of “brown-on-brown racism,” which I experienced repeatedly in the Philippines, marked the beginning of justice consciousness and the redefining of the whole gospel to include advocacy: speaking out against unjust social structures and fighting for equality in solidarity with the oppressed. In time, my sense of justice expanded to include the need to challenge sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of injustice as part of living out the ministry of reconciliation.