Julie* came into my office accompanied by a prison guard. She had been sentenced to jail for stabbing her partner and a 13-year-old girl. Coming home from doing errands, Julie had caught them taking a shower together. Her jail term had almost ended and the authorities wanted her to acquire some social skills before releasing her into the community.
After what seemed a very long time, Julie began to open up and tell her story. She was the child of white and Aboriginal parents, she told me. When she was eight, her mother put her on the street as a child prostitute to earn money for her drug addiction. At 13, Julie ran away from home and settled in with the man she eventually stabbed. As most street kids do, Julie got involved in drugs, alcohol and petty crimes. She was a very troubled young woman with no sense of personal worth or values.
Arms folded tightly, she glared at me and asked: “What can you possibly do for me?”
That was seven years ago. After almost a year of counselling, Julie began to feel more positive about herself. She was released from detention and found a job on a farm. I lost contact with her but often wondered how she was going.
Three years ago, out of the blue, she showed up at my office accompanied by a well-groomed man. It was obvious that they were partners. In fact, she had come to introduce me to her husband Mick, who came from a Middle Eastern background. He owned a small construction business and was doing quite well. He also took in Julie’s two younger children. It was obvious that they were very happy, enthusiastically sharing about their life together and their future plans. They came in again on a few occasions, the last time to show me their chubby nine-month-old baby boy Josh.
At this point I wish I could write that things are just getting better and better for this couple. They aren’t. Some of Julie’s relatives never accepted her marrying outside of her culture. Things have become very messy, with family members accusing Mick of engaging in very disturbing criminal behaviour. Are the accusations true? The courts will have to decide.
While waiting for the judge’s decision, Julie is shattered because she is torn between the man she loves and her love and responsibility to her family. At times the pressure is too great to bear and Julie is tempted to go back to her drug use days. She may have succumbed for all I know.
I heard from her a few days ago. “Can Mick and I come and see you for counselling when this thing is over?” “Of course you can,” I replied. Whether Mick is convicted or not, whether Julie is back on drugs or not, the ADRA Community Centre at Blacktown (NSW) will always be there for them and for hundreds of people like them.
One time I was talking to Julie about church and she observed rather cynically that church people have no time for individuals of her kind. I reminded her that ADRA was a church organisation. Her quick reply, which I must admit warmed my heart, was, “but you are different. You have never looked down on me and more importantly I’ve never felt like dirt when I am in your office.”
I have often wondered why the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised felt comfortable to be with Jesus and yet felt shunned by the religious establishment. Would I be far from the truth if I said that the church today does not fare any better than back then? Marginalised people still do not feel welcomed in most middle-class Christian congregations. Believers do collect food and clothes for the needy but what the needy really need most are friends; Christian friends who will not be turned off by the vocabulary, the stench of unwashed bodies, disorganised lives, poor skills and, in some cases, the dirty clothes and smell of beer.
Working for the ADRA Community Centre has given me a deep insight into what Jesus had to accept when He came down from celestial purity to this filthy world. It has given me a greater awareness of Christ’s love for people, a disturbing awareness of my own initial reluctance and more importantly an awareness of the work that God has accomplished in my heart so that I can truly say that today I see people through the eyes of Jesus. Because people matter to God, they matter to me too.
I served as a minister for many years before coming to ADRA Blacktown. Those were good years. And my ministry was, by and large, rewarding. But now when I look back I think of those years as a prelude to my real ministry. The church pastor spends an inordinate amount of time sorting through petty personality conflicts and tangential doctrinal debates. All the while, the most desperate needs in society are not being met. Today, my ministry feels alive and strong–connected to real people with serious needs; people who aren’t preoccupied with the state of the bitumen in the carpark, fighting over drums in musical backing tracks and other such trivialities. I feel like my ministry today is following in the footsteps of Jesus who reached out to prostitutes and thieves, publicans and sinners.
I wish every Seventh-day Adventist pastor got to concentrate his or her time and effort serving the most marginalised, the most hurt, those in the most need. What a refreshing use of our manpower! And rather than doing large public events, wouldn’t it be remarkable if we spent our evangelism funding on actually helping people like Julie and, through the actions of love, introduce her to our God of love?
Julie believes I have helped her. And maybe, by God's grace, I have. But in truth it's through helping Julie and men and women like her that I’ve re-found my calling as a minister in its deepest and most profound sense. My regret is that I came to this practical ministry late in my career. My hope is that I’ll be able to continue to minister to the marginalised for many years to come. Because it is through them that I have come closest to Christ.