Sunday, June 13, 2004

'Yes, but how do you minister?'

It can be both a blessing and a curse working in a secular NGO with a religious name. My Hindu colleague complains that the name of our organisation makes it difficult to attract ethnic minority residents to our centre. Time and time again I hear her on the telephone explaining that our centre is not affiliated to any church and our classes and workshops have no Christian content. I've heard the spiel so many times that I know it off by heart in Nepali.

One other side effect of the name of our organisation is that we get all kinds of people turning up because they assume that our entire staff are gung-ho missionaries. On occcasions this is a good thing. An old lady from PNG dropped in a few months ago on a break from her work as a teacher in China. I helped her to find a cheap place to stay in Chungking and she spent a bit of time hanging out in our centre. Her big hair and big attitude made her kind of reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg (with a few teeth missing). Every sentence was finished with a 'praise the lord'.

At other times the effects aren't so great. Chungking Mansions must have the highest concentration of 'Pastors' of any building in Hong Kong. It certainly has the highest concentration of pastors from Ghana. We get a steady trickle of pastors from Ghana (and other assorted countries) coming to our centre in the hope that we will be able to sponsor them to stay in Hong Kong and work in our organisation. They may or may not have overstayed their visa at this point. It takes them a while to figure out that this won't happen and move on to their next target.

This week something downright annoying happened. We were visited by an American family returning via Hong Kong from a mission trip in India. They walked through our door with a few PTL's, bringing back fond memories of my friend from PNG. I then heard 'Praise the Lord, tracts in so many languages!'. The exclamation tapered off towards the end as the dad realised that the 'tracts' were actually brochures on HIV awareness, left over from a health workshop. As I heard the change in tone I bit my lip in anxiety. I then gave up the anxiety but continued to bite my lip, suppressing a laugh. It reminded me of our boss' reaction when he demanded to know why bananas were listed as as 'program expense for health workshop' and not 'food for breakfast'.

I invited the family of four to sit down and have some tea and coffee. They told me they were in Hong Kong for two days and wanting to visit some mission organisations. They had seen our sign downstairs and were keen to know what we did in our centre. I began to explain our food program, language classes, computer classes, art classes, health workshops and medical centre. As I rattled off our impressive list of services they looked at me with a frustrated blankness. Finally the father asked, 'Yes, but how do you minister?'.

I explained to them that, despite our organisation's name, both my colleagues are Hindu so we're not exactly a mission organisation. I told them that, at the same time, I consider everything I do there to be part of my own personal ministry. I didn't feel in the mood to mention that we hold a bible study group on Saturday afternoons. Nor did I say that the asylum seekers often ask me to pray with them.

It was at this point that the father decided that our organisation was decidedly unchristian and he shifted focus to try and make a ruling on my own personal faith...
- So what is your church background?
- Well I grew up in an Anglican church (ok, I was exaggerating to deliberately annoy him) but my family and I (baiting again - do I have my own personal faith?) have gone to a Baptist church for the last few years.
- Oh! The Anglican church is pretty spiritually dead.
- Well I don't know if you can say that. Maybe it's better for you to judge each individual church. Or judge person by person (glaring).
- Yes, you are right. But you do have your own personal experience of salvation, don't you?
- Yes.
- When was that?
- When I was fourteen (okok... I know when to give up)
- Oh good (still sceptical). Because you need more than just a sprinkling to get to heaven.

Out of complete despair for the spiritual environment of our workplace, he then asked me if his son could play a song using one of our guitars. After five minutes of purification from the Wannabe Contemporary Christian Music Superstar, dad asked if they could pray before leaving. Excited at the prospect of the latter, I agreed but didn't concentrate on his words because the doorbell went three times before he had finished.

As they left I thought of how many times I have encountered this attitude since starting in my job. It's okay for a Christian to work in any kind of secular company but when they work in a secular charity they are considered to have sold out.

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