The beginning chapters of the Book of Acts are fascinating. The birth of the church in first century Palestine with all the intrigue of mass conversions, bold preaching, the power of the Holy Spirit combined with arrests, threats, persecutions and stoning gives us a stunning picture of what it must have been like. But an incident early in Acts had the possibility of splintering the fledgling community if it wasn’t handled well.
The birth of the church in hospitality-laden Palestine led the new converts to look after the needs of one another. Acts 2 says that the new believers would sell their possessions and give the proceeds to “all, as any had need” (v. 45). This same wording is used again in chapter 4:35. However, two chapters later the crisis occurs.
Food is being distributed to those in the community who are in need. This is happening on a daily basis, but for some reason the Hellenist widows are being overlooked. Is this an oversight? A case of racism? Classism? Do they live in an area that is hard to get to? Luke doesn’t offer an explanation for the neglect, but simply states that the complaint comes up to the apostles. Now the Hellenist Jews were a tad above the Samaritans in the minds of the Jews, which of course meant that they were “below” themselves. Had racism crept in to sabotage the church? Were they neglected on purpose? We don’t know; the text is silent.
However, we do know that the apostles listened. They didn’t try to defend themselves, didn’t try to deflect the complaint, they didn’t even jump in to the rescue. In fact, what they chose to do empowered the minority group and created a second tier of leadership in the community. The deep listening to their need, not only brought healing and restoration of trust, but averted an implosion of the infant church.
When we listen to felt needs we learn what others truly need, not what we think they need. Unfortunately, sometimes missionaries and agencies hoping to do good have not done an adequate enough job of listening.
Paul Theroux writes in Dark Star Safari ( Penguin Books, 2002) of a German aid agency who built low-income houses for a leper village in Ethiopia. Those who drew up the plans for building apparently made little or no attempt to consult with those who would be occupying the homes. The duplexes that were built were too tall, had balconies and stairs that no other dwellings had and had no space to keep donkeys and goats inside, safe from hyenas. As a result, the people hated the houses. Theroux concluded, “The German buildings were the only real slum in Harar.”
Obviously, the Germans had not spent much time in the community or they would have known a more appropriate architectural design. Immersing ourselves into a community unlike our own is one of the best ways to listen.
For four years I immersed myself in the life of Second Baptist Church. There were so few whites in the 2,000 member black church that everyone knew when I missed a Sunday! The front wall of the sanctuary (the building was a renovated movie theatre) facing the congregation was covered with an enormous contemporary stained glass portrait of Jesus. He was quite different than any depiction of Jesus I’d ever seen. He had dark skin and thick, wavy dark hair. This portrait of Jesus was certainly not conceived by someone of European descent.
But it wasn’t just the image of Jesus that was new to me it was what we talked about in church. At Second Baptist we had job training workshops, seminars about drug addiction, dealing with debt; frequently politicians would visit, and we’d talk about meeting the needs of the poor and factors that contributed to poverty. I never heard these things talked about in predominantly white suburban churches. I learned about the importance of Black owned businesses, and the effects of the meager length of time a dollar stays in the Black community. I learned why this was Second Baptist, though it was the largest Baptist church in town. I was often uncomfortable being one of two whites in the congregation, but being there allowed me to listen to my neighbors.
While I was living in South Africa two events occurred that re-colored the way I viewed the world: the invasion of Iraq and the Episcopal church’s installation of the gay bishop Gene Robinson. I did not have access to CNN or Fox News. The newspapers I read were South African and their take on the US assault was quite different (I’d assume) than my friends and family back home were hearing. The Anglican Church in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world responded with frustration and disgust at the preponderance of and domination by North American and European issues at council meetings. Simply put: the issues of the Northern Hemisphere are not the issues of the Southern. And just like at Second Baptist, I was privileged to hear a voice that many of my American friends never get to hear.
There are other ways of listening to neighbors:
• Read newspapers or get internet news from non-US sources.
• Read books by people not from your cultural or national heritage
• Be a minority in a new setting
• Get to know an international student, learn about their country’s history and culture.
• Watch foreign films that have a historical/geopolitical or social context. Some suggestions: Hotel Rwanda, Whale Rider, City of God
• Participate in a Global Urban Trek or other Global Project
• Attend a church of a different ethnicity than your own.
Arundhati Roy is a writer and activist who lives in India but who has grabbed considerable attention around the world with her writings and outspokenness about injustice. In an acceptance speech for a peace prize awarded her in Australia, Roy said “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
Let us have ears to hear.
Fortunately, someone heard the Hellenist widows; they weren’t silenced. Do we not have some responsibility as Christ’s ambassadors in this world to at least listen to those who have been silenced and those who speak things that are hard to hear? In so doing, are we not showing the love of Jesus to our neighbor?