What are global church partnerships for? What are they based on?
There are historical reasons of course, i.e. ties to churches and institutions started by missionaries of a previous generation. Up until recently churches in America and Europe supported them financially. Nowadays this is hardly needed or possible. As the church grows in the global South most of our partners hardly need financial assistance. And with diminishing church involvement in Europe and America we can hardly afford it. So historical partnerships are’t the center of why we should be in partnership in the 21st century.
In early April we took a trip to Kupang Indonesia, which is on the opposite end of the island of Timor. The occasion was a conference called “Partnership for God’s Justice.” The specific topic was how, through grassroots partnerships, churches can work together and with other organizations to confront human trafficking and modern slavery. The meeting was convened by Global Ministries and hosted by GMIT, the largest Protestant denomination in West Timor.
The basic premise is that church partnerships nowadays should be issue-based. Actually, the title suggests an even more fundamental premise: that God is the primal agent of partnership. God is the one who calls humanity to partner with God for the work of justice. What we do in partnership together is a response to God’s call, God’s historic acts of liberation and God’s ongoing work to set people free. The church should be the first to understand and embody this. Yet, I feel like often times the church is on the sidelines while God is working in and through any and all means to bend the world a little more toward the image of the New Jerusalem we find at the end of the Bible. So that’s one thing: churches have to partner with secular and multi-religious groups to confront issues of injustice.
We started out the conference with some reflections on the nature of God’s justice as opposed to generic or philosophical notions of justice. Remembering the biblical story, it’s easy to see that God’s justice is a biased justice. It’s a justice in favor of the slaves in Egypt. It’s a justice in favor of the poor, the oppressed and the outcast.
We should not simply view such people as objects for our help though. They are not to be seen as candidates for our charity as we seek to assuage our guilt for being privileged. Rather, what we need to see is that they are people who are sinned against by a world driven by greed, power and wealth. Wrenching poverty is most often the root cause of human trafficking and poverty of this kind the result of sinful structures, institutions and ideologies. When people don’t have hope for a future in their own place, or when crisis strikes, they become vulnerable to traffickers or dubious migrant work. Often they agree to leave to go to a new place and once they get there they find that the good deal they heard about is actually non-existent. What they end up with is on a spectrum from a raw deal with low pay and long hours to forced prostitution or outright slavery. And none of it is easy to get out of.
So we learned that our response to human trafficking has to be holistic. Rural pastors in West Timor are focusing on developing agricultural projects so that young people don’t feel the need to move abroad to look for work. And part of that is restoring the dignity to rural life and farming. Indonesian activists we met with told tales of legislative work and street outreach connecting girls forced into prostitution with human rights advocates. And while we were in Kupang, the corpse of an Indonesian migrant worker came in on a flight from Malaysia. Most of our delegation went to the airport to receive the corpse and console the family, all the while demanding that the Indonesian government act to protect migrant workers and prosecute traffickers.
It all sounds quite heavy and actually, it was. I often tell Hannah a quote I read somewhere: “The truth will set you free…but first it makes you miserable.” It was that kind of a week. We had been aware of human trafficking but not engaged in confronting it through our partnership with the Protestant Church in Timor Leste. Now we are. And so it was also a week of inspiration and learning as we connected with people from 11 different countries who find hope in the struggle for justice on this issue.