During my 18-year tenure as professor of theology and missions at Logsdon Seminary, I have taught my students Jesus had a special concern for people whose lives at the edges of political, economic, social and religious structures kept them powerless, yet hopeful. Liberation theology, or the “theology from below,” has shaped my classes and challenged my personal life. I’ve discovered that, as a privileged person, I can learn important truths when I am attentive to people at the margins.
Fifty years ago this coming summer, I was introduced to my first lesson from the underside while in the Philippines as a summer missionary.
I sat in a missionary’s car that day, staring in disbelief at Smokey Mountain, the garbage heap of Manila, upon which hundreds of the desperately poor eked out an existence digging through the throwaway items from 6 million metropolitan homes. Perched precariously all over the gigantic mounds of trash were tiny shacks that appeared to be put together from jagged pieces of old billboards, warped plywood, corrugated tin, plastic string and whatever else of value had been discovered and salvaged. The July breeze carried the rancid smell of decay from the mountain of smoldering, rotting refuse that spread out before me as far as I could see.
“From the time they can crawl,” my host explained, “those children play in the garbage, search through it for treasures, even eat discarded food uncovered in it. Have you ever seen anything like this in your life?”
The moment was surreal and so far removed from the Manila Intercontinental Hotel, where we had stopped that very noon for an American meal at the poolside patio restaurant. The contrast pressed on my chest like a barbell, and I gulped for breath, but it wasn’t the stale air in Quezon City that made my eyes water. It was an undeniable tug of compassion, a gnawing sense of inequity and the dawning awareness there can be no authentic witness to salvation if necessities like food, shelter, clothing and health care aren’t available for everyone.
Smokey Mountain was where I experienced the thunderbolt epiphany that Good News isn’t so much about the sweet by and by as it is the stark here and now!
During these intervening years, in many parts of the world, I’ve been confronted with the need to rethink “the way things are.” Some of these life lessons have been addressed, as well, to my students when we’ve been together in study-abroad classes. Other insights pointedly have come to me when I’ve been traveling, studying or ministering in almost 40 countries of the globe. Although I’ve not always consistently put into practice what I’ve been taught, my perspective has been wonderfully enriched by what I’ve learned on the periphery.
Here are just a few of those life lessons from the underside:
Nairobi, Kenya—a lesson about love
At Nyumbani (“Home”) Orphanage for AIDS-positive Kenyan children, we were moved deeply by the experience of holding and comforting those at different stages of dying from a frightful virus. The social room where we gathered to sing and laugh with 24 eager youngsters gave a view through its windows of a small, unadorned cemetery where most of them were destined to go.
A sobering thought occurred to me as we played with those children: Expressing love to the “least of these” may keep us from mingling with the “greatest of these.”
While we were at Nyumbani, the newly crowned Miss Universe arrived with an entourage of photographers and handlers. Great excitement preceded her visit; the orphanage staff stood around in small groups chatting about the coming visit of so famous and beautiful a guest. While we knew she was visiting, our students never saw her. Not one of us was drawn away from that modest space hoping to fraternize with celebrity.
Compassion locked our arms in tight embrace around those frail, ill children who had settled peacefully in our laps and claimed a firm spot in our hearts.
During those minutes we spent in the presence of the dying, we were learning love is always the better choice.
Ilha de Itamaraca, Brazil—a lesson about freedom
We sat in a small chapel in Penitenciária Professor Barreto Campelo with a large gathering of male prisoners. Our purpose was to lead worship for the inmates, with songs and testimonies interpreted into Portuguese by our missionary hosts, who also served the penitentiary as part-time chaplains.
I could sense our collective anxiety. But as the service progressed, both the prisoners’ eager search in their Bibles for Scripture passages and their rapt attention to whatever was shared from the simple pulpit helped to put us at ease. These men were the most involved, however, when loudly and joyously they sang the gospel songs that extolled freedom in Christ.
When the worship time concluded and we received many broken-English farewells, the prisoners were taken back to their lock-up, and we were escorted beyond the two-story outer walls to our van.
Traveling back into Recife, as we talked about the warmth and friendliness of these Christian convicts, we learned they all were murderers, rapists or other violent offenders. Paying their debt to society, these incarcerated men—some facing a lifetime in prison or even execution—were no different, really, from “captives” all over the world who long for liberation.
The human soul yearns for freedom, a gift that never should be taken for granted. This was a lesson our privileged and sheltered seminarians were lucky to have learned.
Oświęcim, Poland—a lesson about hope
Visiting Auschwitz was profound but certainly not pleasant. Even the sky was gray with the promise of a storm. One might suspect the only lesson at that evil Nazi concentration camp would be how inhumane and cruel some can be toward those who are different.
Yet as we toured the bunkhouses where thousands had been crowded together—exhausted and terrorized—on wooden racks and filthy straw, we began to sense the character of those whose faces stared hauntingly from the picture IDs on the museum walls. Standing behind floor-to-ceiling plate glass, we gazed into rooms filled with eyeglasses, teddy bears, shaving kits, framed photographs, kitchen utensils, shoes, toys, empty wallets and battered suitcases.
I wondered about the hope that must have gripped the hearts of many Jewish parents who with their families were rounded up and transported on cattle cars to the rail landing inside the gates of Auschwitz. Clutching the personal “treasures” of their lives in tied-up boxes and cloth duffels, these men, women and children climbed down from train cars naively clinging to the hope that something good—at least bearable—might yet happen. Perhaps many of them, almost immediately separated from their youngest, eldest or sickest relatives, must still have believed in the virtues of their fellow human beings, maybe counting on their captors to surprise them with mercy. That’s why so many went quietly, or numbly, to the showers.
Hope when everything seems hopeless and trust when everyone might prove untrustworthy—a lesson from the ovens I will never forget.
Davao Oriental, Philippines—a lesson about courage
We were on the southern island of Mindanao, riding in a missionary’s vehicle. Our journey through the mountains would take us to the seacoast town of Mati, where a small Baptist hospital was our intended destination.
“Don’t worry about the communist guerillas who operate between here and Mati,” our missionary driver advised. He cheerfully continued, “They usually only attack buses, almost always late in the afternoon or at night. That’s why we’re making the trip this morning!”
We found little comfort in the rebels’ routine. We scoured the thick jungle undergrowth on either side of the road as each of us became lost in thought. I confess I imagined the dangerous road that winds its way from Jerusalem to Jericho. If we were attacked and left in a ditch, I wondered, would we even be alive for some Good Samaritan to help after the insurgents finished with us?
It didn’t calm our nerves to be told that Mati, the name of the village where we were going, means “death” in the local dialect. We also learned so many revolutionary fighters, government soldiers and innocent civilians were brought to the hospital, the Filipino doctor and the solitary American nurse often were overwhelmed. Threats against the clinic were common, but the medical team remained because of the dire need.
Then our guide gave us a great irony to contemplate. The surgeon’s name was Dr. Resurrection! How hilariously odd: In a place of such danger, with its long-fought battles taking place only a few kilometers away—to which victims and perpetrators alike were transported barely alive— the possibility of resurrection had staked a claim in the untamed territory of death because of the courage of two dedicated healers.
London, England—a lesson about inclusion
Our group visited the heart of the city, close enough to the Islamic Cultural Center and the London Central Mosque to walk there along the shopping streets and beside Regent’s Park.
On the way, there was a lot of typical college student commentary as well as a noticeable mixture of excitement and anxiety. They wondered, nervously, how they might be treated by the Muslims we would encounter. One of the female class members didn’t understand why she needed to wear a head covering, and only complied when we insisted she do it to honor our hosts.
When the imposing bronze dome and white-marble minaret came into view above the tree line, there was an audible “hmmm” that escaped a dozen pairs of lips. But their anxiety was unnecessary. The only appropriate emotion to describe our visit with our Muslim brothers and sisters was joy.
We were welcomed graciously into the imam’s office for conversation, snacks and gifts of books and pamphlets. Sitting quietly on the vast expanse of blue carpet in the prayer hall, we observed many of the faithful who had come that afternoon for individual salat (“prayer”). Every courtesy was extended to us, so that on the walk back to our small hotel near the British Museum, the tone was remarkably positive and much different than before.
It is a reminder how being accepted can help a stranger relax and rejoice. I confess I wondered that day just how welcoming of visiting Muslim professors and students the typical Christian congregation or its leaders might be.
Jakarta, Indonesia—a lesson about witnessing
On an especially hot and muggy day in Jakarta, we loaded soccer balls, water bottles, Bible story pictures and ourselves into two vans and made an hour-long trek through traffic and smog to Bintaro, an unbelievably deprived kampung (“city neighborhood”) of garbage collectors and families in what seemed like it could be one of the levels of Dante’s Inferno.
Parking beside piles of trash brought home by optimistic husbands—so wives and children could divide the reusable from the truly worthless—we were greeted by enthusiastic and friendly children, teenagers and adults who emerged from the narrow dirt aisles between clapboard shanties and jumbles of random litter.
While my wife, Janie, and the female students gathered the youngest toddlers and children for games and Bible stories, our male students joined our missionary host, who invited the teenagers and young men to the adjacent field for soccer. Before the game could begin, however, we circled around this young evangelist who produced a multi-colored “evange-ball,” one of those soccer balls with black, red, yellow, green and white sections to facilitate telling a gospel message of sin, the cross, divine light, growth and sanctification.
But the boys of Bintaro were not very engaged in the sermonette, eager as they were to start the competition. Once the game finally commenced, there were lots of shouts, laughter, bursts of speed, and good-hearted and spirited play—as much, that is, as a pock-marked and trash-strewn field would allow. Suddenly, a teenager began to limp toward the sidelines, his bare foot bleeding from something sharp in the dirt.
That’s when one of my students came to his aid. Taking a first aid kit from his backpack, he cleansed the wound with water from his drinking bottle, holding the boy’s foot in his lap. Then he applied an antiseptic salve and bandage from his kit. Long before he finished gently wrapping this youngster’s foot, the game had paused. Crowded around my student and his young patient stood every male teen and adult from Bintaro, their eyes glued on the act of compassion being enacted before them.
Without having to discuss the theology of meaningful witness with my seminarians, they had observed firsthand compassionate acts of kindness have the capacity to touch people’s hearts, while a spoken witness, no matter how creative, often is not as powerful.
Lessons from the underside. My students will never forget them, and neither will I!
Robert P. Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary.