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18 November 2011

Islands of humanity

Islands of humanity

Twenty years ago today, Terry Waite was released after nearly five years of being held hostage by Islamic extremists in Lebanon. His time in captivity has enabled him to focus more clearly, forging his tenacious advocacy for the vulnerable in society - the elderly, the sick, children, and those who are casualties of society such as the homeless. Waite is using the anniversary of his historic happy day to remind us of our collective responsibility for those who find themselves in profoundly unhappy days.

His account of meeting his former sergeant major in an Emmaus community shows the unexpected twists and turns life can bring, even to the 'well established': "He came out of the army. He lost his job, he lost his family and he was on the street." It is an account that is repeated many times over by my friends who work with the homeless.

The first Emmaus community was started in France in the 1940s, founded by a Catholic priest, MP and hero of the Resistance, known as Abbé Pierre. Appalled by the poverty and homelessness around him, he opened his own home to 18 homeless men who supported themselves by refurbishing scrap furniture. It was the beginning of the Emmaus movement.

We delve into a rich history of God's people responding compassionately to the huge human costs attached to the economic twist and turns in their times. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Pentecostal movement rapidly spread among the impoverished in the US as the Church responded to the practical, spiritual and psychological needs in an era of widespread dislocation and economic deprivation. The theologian Hollenweger reflects how these church communities provided 'islands of humanity', in which care was given and the power of expression restored to people without identity and powers of speech.

It is an example that social movements flourish when times are out of joint. Waite's challenge for our actions in the marketplace to match the message in the pulpit is as clear as the biblical mandate. In our time of sea change, we need islands of humanity.

Following his superb Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' first encounter 'down the mountain' is with an outcast of society. Matthew writes his gospel in such a way to show that Jesus' teaching is continued in the healing narratives. Jesus' dialogue with the leper and the healing is part of his mission that extends both into the social realm - the restoration to the human community - and into a commitment to the ways of God (Matthew 8:1-4). The full implication of these narratives stretches beyond the physical to the social, moral, religious and political impact of Jesus' miracles.

Matthew is keen to reflect Jesus as the teacher who instructs about the Kingdom of Heaven, bringing out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matthew 13:52). These treasures shape our work in this specific context, time and place. As a community we are continuingly being transformed to reflect the image of Christ. These 'islands of humanity' express God's heart to save and restore - spaces for the new humanity.

Marijke Hoek, coordinator Forum for Change