by Owen Salter
Michael Duncan spoke with Owen Salter about the vision, principles, and costs of a Western Christian serving God among the poorest of the poor.— The editors.
In 1985, New Zealander Michael Duncan went with his family to the Philippines. Today the Duncans live in a three-room plywood house in the slum of Damayan Lagi, and Michael, 34, serves as leader of the Manila work of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor.
Servants had its genesis in the work of another New Zealander, Viv Grigg. In his book Companion to the Poor (Albatross, 1985), Grigg tells the story of the birth of a new mission strategy from within the renewal movement in New Zealand.
Western Christians are often accused of holding a privatized faith preoccupied with personal well-being and divorced from both the harsh realities of life and from God’s compassionate concern for the poor.
But with the cities of Asia, Africa, and Latin America growing at a rate that will see urban slum dwellers making up one-third of the world’s population by the turn of the century, God appears to be spontaneously generating a heart-felt yearning to preach the gospel to the urban poor.
Today, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor is no longer organizationally connected with Grigg’s Servants Among the Poor, which is now based in the U.S. and Brazilâ€”has workers in Manila and Bangkok, and is looking at other Asian cities, including Karachi, Dacca and Jakarta.
It describes itself as "a network of devotional communities whose members live among the poor, boldly preaching the gospel, doing justice, and establishing fellowships of disciples."
Michael Duncan spoke with Owen Salter about the vision, principles, and costs of a Western Christian serving God among the poorest of the poor.— The editors.
Michael, how do you begin to speak the gospel to a slum full of desperate, suffering people?
By doing what Jesus did in the incarnation. We relocate and live among them.
How is that a beginning?
It means they can watch us. They see we aren’t creating little Americas in our homes, that we’re living a lifestyle similar to theirs, facing the same problems yet finding a degree of fulfillment they don’t have.
After awhile they’ll ask, "Everything we’re striving for you’ve left behind—why?" Then some will begin to say, "For you to come down here, you must really love us." That opens marvellous opportunities to share the gospel.
To what extent do you share their lifestyle of virtual destitution?
In each slum there are three tiers: the wealthy (in slum terms) the middle, and the poorest of the poor. We would go for the middle tier.
In our family there’s myself, Robin my wife, and our three children, Emily (5), Thomas (3), and Joanna (6 months). Our house has two rooms. The walls are plywood, and right outside are hundreds of people. It’s rat-infested, though we try to control it. There’s constant noise.
In terms of appliances we have a fridge, two gas rings, and one radio. Clothing is similar to the people around us (Filipinos would rather spend money on clothing than food).
Our main meals would be like: some fish, rice, vegies. But because its no use being sick all the time, we compromise our ideals a little and make sure our children get milk, cheese, eggs, and sometimes red meat.
How is your life organized?
Servants’ workers are organized into ministry teams. In our slum of Damayan Lagi, for example, there is our family, and there are two single women living together about half a mile away.
We stay in the slum for a two-or three-week period. After that we come out for a few days to be restored and refreshed.
We operate a Retreat Center for that purpose. That’s another small compromise of our ideals, but without it most of us wouldn’t survive.
Our workers come in like the walking wounded. You see so much misery and death; you’re a failure 50 percent of the time. The Retreat Center is our life source.
Michael, how do you understand ministry to the poor?
I spoke with a man in Australia recently who said he believes he’s got a call to the rich. And that can be valid.
Yet nowhere in the Scripture are we asked to excuse ourselves from any obligation to the poor, even if we have a call to another group.
But when you talk about ministry to the poor in the West, people have a crisis of confidence. I have a crisis of confidence! In Damayan Lagi, I walk out my door and am surrounded by 20,000 poor people. Where do I begin?
You have to break the task down into manageable units. So I work in the context of neighborhoods, street corners, houses, families, individuals I’m getting to know.
Practically, ministry to the poor has to be one-on-one ministry to a poor person. If you can deal with one person, say, the elderly woman with high rent and therefore not enough money to buy sufficient food, you gain confidence to start to go to the many.
Does the existing Filipino church have a concern for the poor?
Just across the road from Damayan Lagi there are mansions behind 12-foot walls topped by broken glass. Out of some of them come flashy cars taking people to big, rich evangelical fellowships. They go right past the poor.
I grapple with that. I’ve come to the conclusion that the middle class, in the Philippines or here, has a one-sided understanding of Christ.
We’ve emphasized the cosmic Jesus in the heavenlies, the one who has arrived, the Ruler, the King, because these qualities appeal to the middle class. But we’ve forgotten the Jesus of Nazareth.
What’s the social condition of the people you’re living and working among?
Somehow we’ve ended up working with the poorest of the poor— ”those without jobs, those who live in flimsy shacks, men with drinking problems, women whose children are starving.
Can you describe the basic contours of your approach?
We’ve been there now about five years. We have a team of around 18 people, including three families with seven children between them and five single people.
Our approach has, first, a church-planting emphasis. We believe God wants renewed people. So far we’ve planted four fellowships, mostly of new converts.
Do they become Christians easily?
The Philippines is a very religious country, but basically their Jesus is either a baby Jesus or a dead Jesus. They have no concept of the living Jesus. And they do have a problem with the question of pain and suffering. They won’t admit it readily, but they tend to blame God.
When they do become Christians, what difference does it make?
It makes a difference— very slowly— ”in that there is a new level of eagerness, of excitement. The look of hopelessness begins to fade. That translates into many areas.
There is very little of what mission theorists call "redemption and lift"— ”the idea that when a person is redeemed they stop spending their money on vices and are able to improve their lifestyle. The poorest of the poor earn very little in the first place.
But we’ve seen believers involved in one of our job creation schemes go out and buy a clock, or a chair. It’s kind of a status symbol.
Do you see people being reconciled as a sign of God’s action?
In the slums, people are very fragile and fearful of one another. They have no concept of forgiveness. If you make a mistake, you’re their enemy. There are a lot of knife fights and killings.
We find that one neighborhood hates another. So our approach is to try to plant a Bible study in each neighborhood, wait until they are strong and secure, and then reconcile and unite the two groups. But its a long process.
What shape do the churches you plant take?
We don’t have a Servant’s Church, but we do believe there are certain principles normative for all churches, such as the need for leadership and for the gifts of the Spirit to flow. Structurally, we’re flexible. One church differs from another.
How do you relate to Filipinos in church planting?
We strongly believe that the color of one’s skin should not determine policy. We’re not seeking to plant a Western church, but neither are we seeking to plant a nationalistic church. Rather, we seek to relate genuinely with our Filipino brothers and sisters, and out of those relationships we hope together to hear the mind of the Lord.
What else do you do beside planting churches?
We’re also involved in mercy giving—distributing medicines, food, clothing, loans. You can’t relocate into a slum and ignore people’s immediate needs.
But we’re not Santa Claus. We want slum people to assume responsibility for meeting their own needs.
So we’re setting up structures to-help them do that. For example, we’ve helped set up Projects Development Committees so people can make their own decisions about developing the slum.
At this point, financing is still primarily from the West. I have no problem with that. I don’t see it as foreign money but as Kingdom money.
The good thing is that the new churches are starting to channel some of their money into development, though a good offering is only perhaps $5.
What about issues of justice?
We are concerned to go beyond mercy giving to social action that attacks the root cause of poverty.
Here in the West social action sounds quite high-falutin’. But when you’re actually involved with the poor, there’s not much romanticism about it.
For example, six to eight feet of water comes sweeping through Damayan Lagi every rainy season. The waters bring filth and disease, children drown, the few goods people have are lost. So we’re doing a simple thing: we’re putting houses up on stilts.
Or take the matter of loans. In Damayan Lagi, the money lenders operate a policy called Five-Six. A person borrows, say, $100, but if he can’t repay it on time, the money lender divides that $100 unit by five and adds one unit on to what must be repaid. The poor person is constantly drained of all finances. So we’re making loans without interest. We’re starting to take business away from the money lenders.
I see that as a practical way of fighting poverty. It’s not confrontational: rather it’s doing justice through deeds of love.
That’s what Jesus did on the Sabbath question, which in his day was the cornerstone of the oppressive religious system. He did harangue the Pharisees on the issue; but he also did a lot of healings on the Sabbath—confronting injustice with deeds of love.
One of the things that impresses me about Servants is your balance. You seem to take evangelism, mercy ministry, and social justice all equally seriously, and in addition you realize these things must all be done in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s incredibly important. I like to go to Luke 10. Early in that chapter, Jesus tells his disciples to heal the sick. Pentecostals jump up and down about that. Then he says to proclaim the Word. Evangelicals love that.
Then comes the parable of the Good Samaritan, which people into social action rave about. And then Martha and Mary, with Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus— a wonderful story for people into "Jesus and me" retreatism.
Historically, the church has broken into denominations around these themes. But it’s quite clear the gospel is the four-in-one.
In Manila we’ve discovered we have to be "all things to all people." We don’t have teams where one person specializes in church planting, another in community development, another in the gifts of the Spirit, and so on.
Rather, each worker must be "all things to all people," because poor people don’t relate to me on the basis of my expertise. They come to me with their problems because of our relationship.
If I say, "Hold on, you need the evangelist, I’ll get him," all they hear is I don’t love them.
This means at one time I’m being an evangelist, at another I’m helping build a house, at another I’m laying hands on a baby believing God will heal it, at another I’m creating structures for a new church.
That makes it very hard! To cope we must be Spirit-filled people flowing in all the gifts.
Each person using all the spiritual gifts?
There’s a common teaching that one person has this gift, another has that, someone else has another.
I believe that creates a climate of disobedience. All the gifts can flow through one person. It has to be that way in the slums; there are so many needs.
In Manila we believe the Spirit is saying to us: "Don’t limit yourselves to who you think you are. Have the courage to become people you’ve never been before."
I don’t know how you lived in New Zealand, but I guarantee it wasn’t in two plywood rooms. What did it mean, making the transition?
I wouldn’t go through the first eight months again. They were hell. Every time I saw an airplane, I wished I was on it.
I had no space, no quietness, no privacy. I was stuck with my family, day in and day out, in a very small space surrounded by thousands of people.
So I tried to find an inward silence. I withdrew from my family. When Robin and I needed each other most, we were in opposite corners. Our marriage was severely tested.
Basically, I had to think through what my rights were. Have I really a right to privacy? To personal peace? As I sought renewal of my mind in these areas, the Spirit showed me what I could give up for the sake of the gospel.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Sacrifice goes against the grain. But that’s the cross.
How do you hold personal growth and renewal together being so embedded in such a draining ministry?
When the mission seems overwhelming, we have a choice. We can either blame the circumstances, or we can use the circumstances to highlight where we ourselves need to change.
Here in the West, people run from conflict. But we need to learn to use it. It’s in those knife-edge situations where personal renewal actually takes place.
That may mean retreating from the mission context for awhile. But in Manila we only come together in retreat in order to scatter again in mission.
The one needs the other: mission highlights who we are, so we grow as people; and because we grow, we can go out again stronger.
Might it be that the current emphasis on personal renewal, inner healing, and so forth, is a Western preoccupation? Do the poor have the luxury of thinking about inner renewal?
We do have a preoccupation with self in the West. Someone said the fastest growing cult is not outside, but inside the churchâ€”the cult of self-worship.
Where the self has to be fed at all costs— ”self-actualization, self-fulfillment, self-love— it’s easy to be preoccupied with self. Ironically, even Christians who seek to "die to self" can become preoccupied with self.
In our first year in Manila, we lost a baby. It still grieves and hurts us. But because we’re in a place of so much death, one comes to terms with it.
We seemed to quickly slip into God’s view of the situation, and therefore were able to receive his grace to cope.
What was that view?
We saw very quickly that we’re just stewards, that God is the ultimate owner. He had given us this baby for two weeks, and we were thankful for that; but now he had taken the baby, and rightfully so.
I like the story where Jesus and the disciples were in a boat during a storm. Those disciples would have bet their last dollar that there would be no storm with Jesus there. But it happened.
We’ve come to see that the storms in life come with Jesus. We need a theology of storms.
How would you respond to someone who said, "I’m just an average sort of Christian. I could never be like that?"
I’d say that the values and principles on which we work are for all Christian life, not just for mission to the poor.
Even so, the picture you paint of mission among the poor is pretty tough.
Look, we’re not martyrs. We’re living in places where all people want to do is get out. I mean, it’s the pits. And after a while you imbibe that spirit. One day out of seven I get very depressed.
Yet in the last two years I believe I’ve begun to taste the good life for the first time. In the West we think the good life is materialism, consumerism. But that only leads to disappointment and emptiness. The good life is mission. Look at Jesus. If he wasn’t up in the mountains with his Father, he was down in the villages with the poor. And he was very fulfilled.
The good life as Jesus lived it was being with the Father and with the poor.
So yes, there have been hardships for us in Manila. We’ve had floods, we’ve seen killings, we’ve been sick, we’ve lost a child, we’ve seen converts fall away.
But these years have been the best of my life. We’ve been on the cutting edge, in a place of excitement and adventure.
My challenge to folks in the West is: "Go out on the stretch; you’ll see more of the Lord."
You have obviously experienced a degree of God’s direct miraculous intervention.
Yes. One of our friends, Willy, was just walking through the slums recently when he got an impression to enter a house. We’d never been there before. Inside he found a family of five, all in one bed, sick.
He asked God what to do and sensed he should pray for them. I don’t know what the sickness was, but the next day they were perfectly well.
It comes down to obedience to the Father. I’m faced with a situation and simply have to say, ‘Well, Father, what do I do?"
If I get a feeling, an impression (I’m not sure what to call these things) that it’s right to pray for that person, I’ll pray. Sometimes they’re healed. But we misread the signals many a time. We’re very much learners, but we’re open.
Doesn’t Servants also believe it’s important to pray against spiritual powers opposed to God?
Without wanting to see a devil behind every bush, it’s clear to us that the deeply embedded problems people face have more than one cause. It’s not just the human free will; the devil is also involved, taking advantage, sucking people in.
In Manila, for example, I would say there is a strong sensuous spirit. I’ve heard of strong missionaries in other organizations ending up in lesbian, homosexual, or adulterous relationships.
The guys in Servants are very open about this with one another. It gets the sting out of it. We realize it’s something we need to pray against.
I also think there’s an idolatrous spirit in Manila, partly related to animistic Catholicism. They do pray to their idols. There are demonic powers behind that.
What about fellowship in Manila? Is your primary community the other workers of Servants? Or the Filipino churches you’ve planted?
Our primary community is the missionaries. It’s through that community that we receive, unashamedly, the love and encouragement, the support and the jabs in the arm, that we need to continue on the front lines.
But it trickles down. Because we receive love and encouragement there, we have it to give. So we’re creating other communities in our slums.
It’s interesting watching new workers. They arrive with a great zeal: "My primary concern is for the poor, to plant churches, to promote community development."
Within six months they’re starting to see their fellow Servants as their primary concern.
Isn’t that the kind of introversion that’s fatal to missionary endeavor?
No. Our fellow Servants are our primary concern because the basis of our mission is community. It’s relationships.
Traditionally, missions have been involved in doing, and churches in congregations. But missions need fellowship and congregations need missions. If there’s no mission in fellowship, then fellowship will die because it becomes ingrown. But if there’s no fellowship in mission, the mission will die.
You see that in the traditional high missionary dropout rate. When the pastoral and fellowship dimensions to mission are lost, people simply don’t survive.
Copyright © 1989 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.