A Ministry of Presence
The power of putting ourselves at the mercy of others
by John Musselman
"Jesus lived closer to these people than I do." That was my thought as I watched three chawkidars quietly file down the street across from my hotel balcony in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. A chawkidar is a combination gatekeeper, guard, and domestic servant common at well-to-do houses in Pakistan. It's an honorable profession, with real responsibility, albeit with low wages and long days and nights. These particular doormen had their brown wool chuddars, or blankets, wrapped tightly around their shoulders to keep out the early morning chill.
They had probably started the day at sunrise with a small wood fire outside their gate. Although electricity networks are reasonably intact in Pakistan's northern cities, virtually none of the small huts and outposts manned by chawkidars are equipped with power. The same paucity extends across the slums scattered throughout each city, and millions rely on wood fires for heat and cooking, often in dangerously crowded conditions. So the first step off the plane brings with it a harsh breath of smoke-tinged air, a reminder that life in northern Pakistan, even in the cities, is not far removed from the village atmosphere.
The gap between urban and rural life in Pakistan mirrors the larger asymmetry between the developed and the developing world, what one author has called the "clash of modernizations." And for a Western Christian situated in the convenient life, this gulf can appear impassable. Religion per se is almost never an obstacle to engagement in the Muslim world—just the opposite. Instead, the greatest challenge is understanding and appreciating a pre-modern rhythm and flow of life. The question racing through my head as we bounced through dirty alleys teeming with people flowing in and out of tiny shop-stalls impossibly loaded with fruit, spices, clothes, and the ubiquitous cheap plastic goods was, "How on earth can I relate to these people?" How do I meaningfully engage these people and this culture over the long term, and not just the elites?
The answer: just by being there. In a place so vastly different from my own, where I can't speak the language(s) and literally cannot comprehend how society functions, where I am "a stranger in a far-off land," my engagement begins with presence. This is incarnational evangelism, what former Ambassador for Religious Freedom Robert Seiple has termed "a ministry of presence." In the language of the Gospels, it is simply that "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
In my view, incarnational evangelism has another essential facet—it makes us objects of kindness. By being present in a society where we are literally almost helpless to navigate on our own, we create opportunities for God to bless those who help us. Jesus said, "If anyone brings even a cup of cold water to these my little ones, he will surely not miss his reward." What are we but the little children of Jesus Christ? And what are the cups of cold water but the many little helps and kindnesses shown to us by members of our host society?
Hospitality is serious business in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where I had come as part of a delegation from the Institute for Global Engagement. Our host in Peshawar was Akram Khan Durrani, leader of the provincial parliamentary opposition, and head of the "party of mullahs." The day before our arrival at his compound, Durrani's party had sponsored a resolution in the provincial senate condemning new US Homeland Security guidelines that required extra screening of Pakistani passengers, a condition which had stirred up strong sentiments throughout the country. Yet when our delegation pulled up in his driveway—in his own bulletproof vehicle driven and guarded by two of his trusted servants—his entire retinue warmly greeted us, showing us extra respect by using both their hands to clasp ours. Throughout our stay, punctuated by several bomb blasts in not-too-distant neighborhoods, we were treated as guests of honor, and there was no doubt in my mind that our escorts would have died defending us at any moment.
Incarnational evangelism makes us objects of kindness. By being present in a society where we are literally almost helpless to navigate on our own, we create opportunities for God to bless those who help us.
The most touching gesture—and the most humorous—took place on the long drive from Durrani's residence in Peshawar to the far eastern corner of the NWFP. Again bundled into the armor-plated SUV, along with our faithful guard with requisite Kalashnikov on his lap, we bumped along through innumerable dusty villages. Halfway to our destination, in the middle of a larger village, the driver pulled over without warning and jumped out. Our queries to the guard netted only the mysterious English word "barger." It all made sense when the driver returned and cheerfully proffered us vaguely familiar-looking sandwiches. To his credit, but our dismay, he had ordered up five "bargers," a kind of omelet thrown together with onions and (I think) ketchup on crummy American hot dog bread. With every sort of delicious Pakistani food only a step away, our driver purposefully sought out something he thought to be more palatable for his guests. It was without a doubt the worst thing I had eaten in the past year—but I couldn't help marveling at the consideration behind it all.
And maybe, by emulating that reverence for guests, that kindness for strangers, we in the West will take one step back towards the culture of our Lord Jesus. The term engagement is too often understood as a one-way process, whereby an enlightened West gently filters its concepts and ideologies into the mainstream of the "other." But those of us in the West who engage the Muslim world must be prepared to honestly receive correction and criticism, even as we receive kindness. Just hold the bargers.
When he wrote this in 2010, John Musselman was a graduate fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement, a US-based think tank that builds religious freedom worldwide through local partnerships, one relationship at a time. He was part of IGE's Muslim-Majority World Engagement Program. He holds an MA in Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations from Georgetown University.