One of my biggest complaints against a lot of deeply committed evangelical Christians I know, and know about, is that they don’t live and act like Christians. They go to battle for issues not even addressed in their own Scriptures as if they were the most important things in the mind of God, and they completely ignore the moral imperatives Jesus himself did promote: active concern and love for those who are in need, whether they are of our own ethnic background, gender, country, socio-economic class, creed, or … anything else. House the homeless, feed the hungry, help the outcast, work for the oppressed.
But every now and then I am surprised by some Christians whose faith drives them to fulfill the commands of their own gospel in a humble and helpful way Many of these people do not toot their own horn; they go about silently doing amazing things for those in need.
I was 17 when I met Robin Jones. We were first year students at Moody Bible Institute. She was sparky, outspoken, and opinionated: not your typical pious Moody student. She became a very good friend and has been ever since. We don’t talk much these days, but do on occasion — she’s the only one from that part of my past I’m still in contact with. The most recent face-to-face was particularly memorable. Quite remarkable for me.
I’ve asked Robin to discuss it on the blog. I’d like to do this because it involves a side of evangelical Christianity that I and most non-evangelicals never see, and I think it is very good indeed to know that liberal atheists (well, like me) and committed Bible-believing evangelicals (like Robin) can make common cause on issues of real importance to both of us.
So here is her first post. Robin has kindly agreed to respond to questions. Please, as always, be polite and respectful in your comments; anyone who is not will be cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Right outside the Old City of Jerusalem we met for dinner. Two Moody Bible Institute alumni from the class of 1976. After decades and very different paths, we were connecting because of a short text I had sent saying, “Happy Birthday Bart Ehrman from Petra, Jordan!”
Bart responded, “Thanks Robin from Kfar Giladi Kibbutz in Israel.” At first, I thought he was mocking my Jordan reference, but quickly realized he indeed was in Israel. Three days later we met. Divine Coincidence?
Traveling on a Christian mission trip and knowing Bart’s general thoughts on Christianity, God, and suffering, I planned to steer clear of any discussion about my trip which was focused on serving people with disabilities and therefore the suffering.
As it happened, Bart was just too interested in that very topic and my Christian mission trip became the main discussion of the evening.
At one point, he said, “If I knew more Christians like you, I might look at Christianity differently.” Noting that there are millions of Christians compelled by their faith and love for people who are involved in large and small acts of compassion throughout the world, I assured him I was not an anomaly. (Yes, there is much more to Christians than politics, abortion, homosexuality, and placards.) “Well,” Bart interjected, “maybe so, but I never hear about it.”
That was 2018. Fast forward to earlier this summer when I received an intriguing email from Bart saying he thought his blog community might be interested to read of the “good things” Christians are doing and asked if I would be willing to write some of their stories. Well, yes, I would!
To do that I have to begin in 1967 when 17-year-old Joni Eareckson Tada had an ill-fated dive into the Chesapeake Bay and became a quadriplegic. In spite of her disability, Joni has lived out her Christian faith becoming an author, advocate for the disabled and eventual founder of Joni and Friends International (JAF). Today, at 70, Joni is one of the longest surviving quadriplegics and remains intensely focused on her love for God and His love for people. In tandem with local churches worldwide, Joni has leveraged her talents and influence to share the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ and give practical help to the most under-served peoples in the world – the disabled.
In our culture I am not sure we fully appreciate how far we have come since the 1990 Americans with Disability Act (ADA) which Congress established into law based on the work of the National Council on Disability on which Joni served. While we may have a way to go, the United States has significantly embraced the issues of disability. In much of the world however, this is not the case and the disabled are still relegated to the very lowest tier of humanity. They are often ignored by society and for those without committed families there is virtually no support system.
Which is where JAF and one of its cornerstone ministries – Wheels for the World (W4W) comes in. W4W has a simple strategy – communities in the United States collect used wheelchairs and ship them to select federal prisons where inmates are given the opportunity to feel like contributing members of society by restoring the wheelchairs to “like new” condition.
The chairs are then sent to 21 nations where they are met by a team of mechanics and occupational and physical therapists who, motivated by their love of God and their compassion to serve others, give of their own time and finances to personally fit each chair to its new owner.
On this particular trip we would be distributing 400 refurbished wheelchairs to local Jordanians and Syrian refugees. Throughout our stay we met hundreds of people and heard hundreds of stories, some had a chapter on faith, many did not. But all of them had chapters about suffering, pain, social ostracization, and financial challenges. Our goal was simply to be a conduit for God to touch these people in a tangible way… through a wheelchair.
Among the most memorable moments of my trip was hearing the heartbreaking words spoken by a father who said, “Outside of our family, I believe my son has only been treated like a human being twice in his 24 years.” Joseph’s father said that to us more than once during the afternoon his son was being fitted for his new wheelchair.
Joseph’s physical deformities were obvious and extreme. He was curled in a fetal position, his head seemed rather large, his face was not proportional, his ears were mismatched and he had no control of the spastic actions of his withered arms and legs.
As his father told us Joseph’s story, we learned that his physical challenges began at birth. At one time, through a unique opportunity from the King of Jordan, Joseph had graciously received some specialized medical attention. According to his father, this visit with us was only the second time since that day that he had been treated as a human being.
Then there was Ataf, a 30-year-old woman who came in with her mom and sister. She had been educated in Information Management and had been the sole provider for her family, but because of a disability, and without personal mobility, she was unable to get a job. She left us that day with transportation… and hope.
Our distribution sites varied but my favorite ones were at the local churches. In the heart of a city not too far from the Syrian border was one of the most externally focused churches I have encountered. Like thousands throughout the world this church has a heart for the displaced and an intentionality about meeting the needs in their community. One picture I still have is that of Omar, a 14-year-old boy who was born blind and unable to walk and had been carried around his entire life. He left the church that day with his first wheelchair… and the gift of freedom for both him and his family.
These stories and many more represent lifetimes of suffering and alienation for these precious people, but each was infused with a sense of hope because of their encounter with Wheels for the World.
During my evening with Bart overlooking the Old City he stopped me at one point and asked, “What makes this a “Christian” mission trip?”
Outside the Old City of Jerusalem, in the same neighborhood that the historical Jesus walked, I did my best to connect the “works” of our mission trip with the core of the Christian gospel. There are certainly a lot of issues that are of deep concern to Christians, but none is more closely connected to the heart of God than suffering people. And so, every local church, every volunteer, everyone who works on a wheelchair, everyone who prays for our efforts is expressing the love and mission of Jesus. For indeed he told us in the Gospels that when we give a cup of cold water to the downtrodden, the forgotten and the unlovely in his name we are displaying the great love of God. And interestingly… sometimes a cup of cold water looks exactly like a wheelchair.