The doorway to the kingdom of God has the form of a child: case study | Stuart Christine [ANVIL vol 35 issue 1]

Portrait photo of Stuart Christine
Dr Stuart Christine is a missional leader and researcher focusing on deprived urban communities internationally. Together with his wife, Georgie, he has served 30 years with BMS World Mission in Brazil and has recently completed a PhD at the University of Manchester entitled “Receiving the Child” in the Favelas of São Paulo and the Gospel of Luke: A Missiological Dialogue. Having previously taught New Testament and Missions at Spurgeon’s College, London, he is currently an associate at the Northern Baptist College and serves on the board of the UK-based Child Theology Movement.

The Valley of Virtues: The favela had inherited a name that parodied its present reality. [1] In a matter of months, the once fresh green landscape bordering the meandering stream had spawned a rash of ill-constructed, insanitary lean-tos that had choked the life from the running water and daily threatened to do the same to its people.

Two older ladies, members of the small Baptist church at the head of the gully, were rapping on a section of wooden advertising hoarding that hung across the only opening to the otherwise barrier-like façade. Sounds of a TV reality show, an unseen dog barking, a distant argument, but no response from within the shack. No one to ask if there might be preschool-aged children inside who might enjoy the PEPE preschool that the church was going to open. [2] Looking at one another, they touched the the flaking paint with their knuckles in a last attempt. A narrow gap appeared, less than half a face in shadow, and words that barely made it beyond the penumbra: “… What do you want?”

Attempting to breathe life into the moment… “We’re from the church… you know, the one at the head of the gully.” The half-face looked as if she didn’t know. “We wondered if you had any little ones who might enjoy coming along to the pre-school… it’s free and they’ll love it!”

A pause, the gap widened, the shadow retreated, and an explanation emerged. “I didn’t come to the door because when you knocked, I was kneeling on the floor with my two children, with our heads in the gas oven. I was just going to turn on the gas… My husband left me six months ago, there is no food in the house and as far as I know, there is no one who cares if we live or die”. And then three words: “God sent you.”

In chapter seven of his Gospel, Luke narrates that Jesus had impossibly reached out across the frontiers of marginality, expressed by the coffin of a boy already in the grip of death and by a destitute widow’s tears of desolation, and in response, the cry had gone up, “God has come to help his people” (7:16). In that darkest moment of suffering, threatened by the death of an only son, the community perceived God’s intervention – they are not abandoned; God has not given up on them: he has sent them a saviour. [3]

Had those contemporary disciples of Jesus witnessed anything less dramatic that morning in that Brazilian “valley of the shadow of death”, the Valley of Virtues? They had emulated Jesus’ enactment of the missionary purposes of the one who sent him when they went down into the Valley of Virtues to receive children “in his name”. “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Luke 9:48). Was not that young mother’s recognition that those two local disciples had been sent by God an authentic re-echoing of the faith perception of the community of Nain? Was it not a prophetic reaffirmation that the God who sent Jesus continues to intervene, making himself present to be experienced and recognised in those who act to receive “this child” in Jesus’ name?

Teresinha loved going to PEPE. In her words, it was “all I ever dreamed of!” One day when talking to her teacher, Jane, Teresinha mentioned an older sister. “Which school does she go to?” Jane asked. An embarrassed silence followed. “Oh, Anna doesn’t go to school…” Jane went to visit. Mum was evasive… “Anna? … Yes… School? … No, she’s not really able to go and the school doesn’t want her…” “Can I say hello?” Anna was curled up on a pallet bed in a corner of the tiny dark room. It took some persuading; Mum was ashamed of the way her daughter could hardly talk and walked all hunched over… Some said it was a curse, a spirit – and perhaps she believed it.

“Let her come along with Teresinha.” Jane encouraged and cajoled and finally Mum nodded her OK. It was slow, but like the opening of a flower bud, it was amazing. The staring and muttering of neighbours gradually gave way to little hand waves and smiles as Anna began to blossom, responding to the acceptance and encouragement of the PEPE. Enjoying the simple activities, her hands and shoulders began to uncurve, and small words forced their way out like longshuttered windows letting light into a dark prison world. Anna was reborn as a loved daughter and accepted member of the community, and everyone witnessed the transformation “in the name of Jesus”.

After the first eight years of seeing the missional impact of “receiving the child” through the PEPE programme in the favelas of São Paulo, I began to express this experience in the phrase: “In deprived communities, the doorway to the kingdom of God has the form of a child.” However, given the inherent dependency of children, there are “doorkeepers” in the lives of children with whom any church wanting to emulate the welcoming receiving love and acceptance of Jesus must engage. The weeping widow (Luke 7:13), Jairus (8:41) and the distraught father (9:38) positively accepted Jesus’ intervention, but wariness or suspicion, prejudice or occasionally outright antagonism can, not-infrequently, challenge the best-intentioned desire to help. In Philippi, Paul, together with Luke and the missionary group, encountered just such opposition from the owners of a demon-dominated slave-girl (Acts 16:16– 18). [4] As Luke recalls and records the incident and its outcomes (16:19–40), there are many relevant lessons for those who want to emulate the example of Jesus by “receiving” or “welcoming” the socially or spiritually deprived child.

I also find it significant that it is this child-focused incident that catalyses the missional events that follow – an incident in which the oppressive doorkeepers of the child’s spiritual and social condition are confronted in the name of Jesus, resulting in challenges and opportunities that set the tone and dynamic for the ongoing missional journey. 

In her excellent reflection upon many years of working with children in deprived settings, Pamela Couture argues for the efficacy of missional approaches focusing on children. [5] She encourages churches to recognise their potential to positively influence all levels of the social ecosystem of a child’s development: the micro (the child’s personal relationship contexts), the meso (the local community context), the exo (the wider legislative context) and the macro (the cultural/societal values context). [6]

In deprived communities, the doorway to the kingdom of God has the form of a child. The children whose names I never learnt in the Valley of Virtue, along with Teresinha and her sister Anna, suffered in the shadow of a world view and social dynamic deeply contrary to the messianic vision presented by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Following the example, and empowered by the promise, of Jesus who drew “the little child” to his side, a doorway to the kingdom was perceived in each small life. And as each was lovingly received, welcomed and affirmed in the name of Jesus, that doorway had opened.

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Notes

[1] This case study is based on research completed as part of Stuart B. Christine, “‘Receiving the Child’ in the Favelas of São Paulo and the Gospel of Luke: A Missiological Dialogue” (PhD diss., University of Manchester, 2018).
[2] PEPE: Programa de Educação Pré-Escolar is a missional pre-school educational programme run by local churches in deprived communities. It was founded by Georgie Christine in 1992, in a favela in São Paulo, Brazil. PEPE currently operates across Brazil, throughout Latin America and in many African countries. See www. pepe-network.org. For a review of the development of the missional and educational philosophy of the PEPE programme, see Douglas McConnell, Jennifer Orona and Paul Stockley, eds., Understanding God’s Heart for Children: Toward a Biblical Framework (Colorado Springs/London: Authentic Media, 2007), 36–42.
[3] Luke sets Jesus’ interventions on behalf of “only” children and their families (7:11–17; 8:40–56 and 9:37–45) at the heart of three cycles of teaching and activity that present his mission in Judea and exemplify his messianic “manifesto” commitment (4:18–19) to bring transformation to the poor, the lowly and the little ones.
[4] “Owners”: literally, “lords”. The girl suffers spiritual, physical, social and economic exploitation.
[5] Pamela Couture, Seeing Children, Seeing God: A Practical Theology of Children and Poverty (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 46ff.
[6] She suggests missional actions ranging from a valuing of direct child–family–school contact programmes such as “congregationally sponsored pre-schools, Sunday schools and youth programs [that] are part of the microsystem of young children”, which also strengthen the local mesosystem in which the congregation’s children live, through to advocacy on national issues that indirectly affect children’s wellbeing, such as those currently experienced by churches in the form of increasingly regulatory child safeguarding legislation. Importantly, she also recognises the role played by the church locally and nationally “in creating symbol and belief systems… that contribute to the theological and civil religious macrosystem that regards or disregards children”. Ibid., 46.

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