by Christopher L. Heuertz
One of the places where I often feel closest to God is in the children’s section of a graveyard in South India. We have buried ten of our friends there, all but one of them little girls, and each of them dear members of our family. They were victims of hunger, AIDS, female infanticide, or rejected because of their gender. They are central figures, martyrs in a sense, to the community in which I serve, Word Made Flesh (WMF).
Our community lives among the dying. Though we are young people, it routinely seems we go to more funerals than weddings, visit more gravesites than delivery rooms. It is not uncommon for our friends to fall because of AIDS, police violence, street fights or domestic abuse. We live in a world that cries out for justice—a world that needs God’s Kingdom to come.
The brokenness of the world has been an invitation not only to face, but to tend the wounds in God’s heart. In the face of injustice, oppression and human suffering, we have found a fight to break up—the fight to discredit the integrity of God’s character. This commitment to embody the goodness of God’s nature has been an invitation into community—a community of broken people called and committed to a discovery of Christ among the poor.
Stumbling Forward in Brokenness
We are a sort of peculiarity among missional communities. As a community, we have given ourselves to serving Jesus among the poorest of the poor. We have sought to fuse ministry and spirituality in such a way that our commitment to justice is an extension of our relationship with Christ. With communities in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, India (Chennai), India (Kolkata), Moldova, Nepal, Peru, Romania, Sierra Leone, and Thailand we marvel at the movement God has allowed this to become.
Our community was established in the fall of 1991 and formed early by a few young idealists studying at Asbury College. Mentored by Dr. Samuel Kamaleson (former Vice-President At-Large for World Vision International) and blessed with access and availability to Mother Teresa, we sought to hold the holistic World Vision model in tension with the spirituality and devotion of the Missionaries of Charity. These models, an organization and an order, were gifts to our fresh thoughts on old problems.
For the first five years, Shane Clark (our founding director), Matt Anderson, Kyle Schroeder, and I tried to find our way into service among the poor through the formation of WMF. Shane (our “voice”) traveled extensively, speaking on behalf of our friends. Matt and Kyle (our “cartilage”) each helped build infrastructure and organizational capacity. I (our “hands and feet”) moved to India where we opened, as far as we know, the first pediatric AIDS care home in South Asia. Friends like Deanna Earhart-Inclan, Faye Haines and Bob Mabrey also joined in the early days of the movement and helped shape its young and emerging image through their accompaniment and sacrifice.
In 1996, I was married to Phileena. Almost immediately after our wedding, we found ourselves on a plane back to India. In the process of looking for apartments, we got a fax (yes, it was the glory days of communication) from Shane indicating that he wanted to go on for further studies. Devastated and confused, Phileena and I reluctantly returned to the US where I was appointed the new director of WMF.
The fall of 1996 was a hard time for us. The mission literally had no money; in fact, we were running negative balances in many of our ministry accounts. Phileena and I prayed about what to do. Should we try to keep the young, fledging organization alive? Would it be better to have our friends in World Vision or Compassion International assume the care of the children we had committed to care for in our children’s homes in India? As Phileena and I waited on God, we felt a strong sense that God wanted to replicate in the hearts of other young people what had happened in our own hearts.
So we called together friends. Sitting in old, banged-up folding chairs arranged in a circle, we sought to re-establish a missional movement. Those who gathered with us would become the apostolic core companions of our community. Phileena and I hosted these conversations with some of the old school WMF partners such as Seth Allgire, Brent Anderson, Jared Landreth, Brian and Rachel Langley, and Silas West.
In a circle in our little 350 square-foot international office (actually just a room), we opened up the Scriptures and prayed into them. We took the early drafts of the WMF Philosophy of Ministry, Vision Statement, Preamble and Lifestyle Celebrations documents and started re-reading and re-imaging them. Our hopes were to scratch out anything that seemed to have a strategic starting point and replace it with theological starting points. We wanted to form an intentional spirituality that would hold us together allowing us to authentically serve Christ among the poorest of the poor.
Guided by an early praxis of reflection that is still central to our community, we started reading many, many books by theologians and practitioners like Miroslav Volf, Jurgen Moltmann, Jon Sobrino, Lesslie Newbigin, Paulo Freire, Walter Brueggemann, Jean Vanier, Henri J. M. Nouwen, Ron Sider, Francis of Assisi, Jonathan Bonk, Viv Grigg, John Perkins, Jackie Pullinger, Mother Teresa, Jayakumar Christian, Phyllis Kilbourn, David Korten and others.
We would imagine book discussions with the authors present, each critiquing one another’s works. We tried to find the redemptive intersections among the authors of what we were reading and seemingly competing influences such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X or between Gandhi and Che Guevara.
After several months of praying, reading, discussing and re-imagining WMF, we sort of hit the “hard-reset” button, and at the beginning of 1997 launched “Word Made Flesh 2.0” (but we actually don’t call it that). Shortly thereafter, David Chronic, Daphne Eck, Walter and Adriana Forcatto and Kimberly Garrison-West joined us by embodying the vision and spirituality in the world and among the poor.
People left our little office in Wilmore, Kentucky, and moved into very poor neighborhoods in Lima, Peru; Kathmandu, Nepal; Calcutta, India; and Galati, Romania. We started sending them interns that eventually became staff. We were young, idealistic, hard-core, and a good bit crazy.
Broken to Serve
Our Vision Statement reads,
“Word Made Flesh is called and committed to serving Jesus among the poorest of the poor. This calling is realized as a prophetic ministry for, and a holistic, incarnational ministry among, the world’s poor. We are called by Jesus Christ to birth communities which practice the presence and proclamation of the Kingdom of God among the poorest of the poor. We exist that Jesus, the Living Word, be made flesh among the poor.”
We have been called to give ourselves in selfless service among the poor. We have fallen so deeply in love with Jesus that our love compels us to love Him in the world.
We locate ourselves in favelas, around slum communities, near red-light districts and refugee camps, and on the streets where our friends live, work, and, at times, prostitute.
To find us, you might need to search the trash heaps behind local businesses in Galaţi, Romania, where our staff go to find the children who have been pushed back to hidden places. To find us, you might need to stumble down the narrow streets of some of Asia’s most notorious red-light districts where our community goes to visit women and children enslaved in the commercial sex industry. To find us, you might need to brave the darkest corners of some of South America’s worst neighborhoods, the places where homeless youth smoke their paint or glue bags to forget their hunger and fear.
Throughout the various WMF communities, we have opened a number of children’s homes, drop-in centers, community centers and advocacy programs with and for our friends.
We re-imagine missions as submissive activism by forming community as an incubator to cultivate our intentional spirituality.
We redefine activism as playing with kids on the side of the road with a handful of jacks and a rubber bouncy ball, or soccer balls in public parks. We redine activism as rest by sharing the space where our friends lay down at night, often sleeping on floors, park benches, and dirty streets. We redefine activism as reflection and discussion with a hot drink in hand on a hotter day with neighbors at the local tea stall.
We try to set aside our pre-conceived agendas, committing to solidarity with the oppressed, patient presence among the poor, and an exploration of our desperate need to discover the contemplative basis that guides and sustains us.
We do not promote university degrees; rather, we honor faithfulness, we challenge the myth of our usefulness by waiting on God, listening to our friends, and following them to God’s heart. Sitting in circles, we pray, discuss what we’re reading, and imagine a future where all our friends are free—free to make the choices they want and need to make. We affirm human dignity as a gift and grace.
We challenge donor-receptor roles in missions through community and authentic relationships with our friends who are poor, yet offer us so much—much more, in fact, than we offer them.
We make commitments to identifying with our friends, the poor, as a tangible sign and symbol of the presence of Christ among us, rather than integrating them into our communities.
We make lots and lots of introductions—friends to friends—by building bridges, giving voice, not to the so-called “voiceless,” but to those who have a voice and still go unheard.
We validate the miracle and gift of childhood, celebrating it as a symbol of hope, and reclaiming it with those who have had it stolen from them. Bearing witness to hope is central to all we do.
With a commitment to biblical integrity, we fuse the historical and necessary connection of justice and righteousness, and seek to embody what we fundamentally believe true of God’s character. Taking the assaults on God’s character personally, we seek to reclaim the truth that God is good and affirm the goodness of God through our love and relationships.
Loving Christ where His heart hurts the most in today’s world, we are converted to one another, then together, to God. Our prayer is that we would continue to stumble forward in the journey to God’s heart.
The Grace of Brokenness in God’s Embrace
When WMF began its registration process twenty years ago, the majority of those of us who are on staff now were just children. We were kids with dreams of becoming teachers, marine biologists, professional surfers, baseball players, doctors, fashion designers, astronauts, firefighters, rock stars and successful businesspeople. Very few of us ever thought we would be doing what we do now.
Over the past sixteen years, we have grown up and become adults. We have grown up by giving ourselves to children who have been robbed of their childhood. We have become adults by learning from little ones who were forced to grow up too quickly. We have become adults by learning to help heal wounds that have been caused by adults who act recklessly in their disregard for justice.
We are still on this journey of discovery. It is an exploration of grace in a violent and troubled world. Our friends can’t wait another day. We continue to grieve and mourn the loss of innocent and vulnerable life. As we anticipate a new year and all that is in store for the future, we remember our fallen friends, such as Saanu, Sonia, Eda, Kailane, and Covita. We pray their deaths won’t be in vain, but will stand as an indictment to our distance from the wounds in God’s heart. May these friends invite us to tend the open wounds in the body of Christ today.
Chris Heuertz in the International Executive Director of Word Made Flesh. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska