Note: a version of this article first appeared in Merri Creek Anglican’s online magazine Headlight.
For several years now, I have been practicing as a social worker. Sometimes, I find myself reflecting upon the things that ultimately led me down this path. At least one experience stands out. It proved to be especially formative, challenging me to move beyond the narrow confines of my own comfort zone, towards a person whose life to that point had been marked by suffering and loss. If one were using scriptural language, he might be labelled a stranger or a sojourner. Contemporary sociologists would likely offer him up as an example of the “Other” – someone who, for whatever reason, languishes on the edges of established society, inhabiting a realm marked by alienation and estrangement. At any rate, it was through such experiences that I came to learn what it means to live in imitation of Jesus.
Elijah had arrived in Australia as a refugee from Nigeria, via a few years spent in Brunei. He’d been targeted because of his faith, and had embarked on an arduous journey in an effort to find sanctuary. I remember Elijah well, particularly his voice. He spoke in a quiet, sometimes mournful, way, which seemed to carry with it the hardships he had endured. His voice was deep and sonorous, as if welling up from the bowels of some abyss. If you were to meet Elijah for the first time, you might wonder what his intentions were, so taut – so tightly-wound – did he appear. But then he’d flash those two rows of impossibly white teeth, extend his sinewy right arm, and you’d know all was well.
For long stretches of time, Elijah had lived precariously on the margins of society. It was, for him, a life of frequent insecurity. Feelings of confusion often prevailed in Elijah’s thinking, as he struggled, not only to eke out a place for himself at the edges, but to make sense of his life. When I think about him now, the word liminality often comes to mind. It refers to a process of transition, or a position between worlds. For someone occupying liminal space, the experience is often accompanied by a constant sense of unsettledness or ambiguity. Elijah’s life, so stark in its transience, was a lot like that: sitting between the world that he had known; and the present one, of which he was trying bravely to be a part. It was, sociologically speaking, a shadowy existence.
At the time I met Elijah, I was attending a church in Melbourne’s East. He himself was searching for a number of things: spiritual nourishment, friendship, and practical aid as he sought to substantiate his claim to refugee status and put down roots in the community. Before Elijah came along, I hadn’t really encountered anyone claiming refuge or asylum here. My only acquaintance, as far as I can remember, was of tales of unspeakable horror reported in the news. Refugees were pitiable figures in my mind, though hardly more than that. I myself was fairly content with an easy, comfortable existence, and had given very little thought to the hardships experienced by others in my midst. Mine was a life that made just enough room for faith – but not so much that it would start to lead to the uncomfortable process of re-arrangement!
Elijah was different in so many ways. A young African man from a palpably foreign culture, his grasp of English was often a little loose. His faith was something that had cost him dearly, for it was far more than a just a garment of tradition. Moreover, Elijah’s experience of persecution and tribal chaos – not to mention the daily fight against both boredom and restlessness – meant that for all his outward strength (and my goodness, he was strong!), Elijah bore within him wounds that no mere salve could heal. I had endured none of this, having been largely shielded by the gentle boundaries of my own context. What with my stable family life, not to mention the good fortune to have been born in a prosperous country, I was well-placed to lead a comfortable, costless existence.
Elijah’s presence compelled me to confront the unreflective sense of contentment and self-satisfaction that had lain within me – silent, yet immensely powerful. In responding to his requests for aid (often made with a bracing dose of sincerity and directness), I was forced to recognize the uncomfortable truth that whatever I thought of my life, it had not been sufficiently shaped in a way that reflected the radical, sometimes costly, grace of Christ. Up until that point, I had not been schooled in the way of true discipleship, or the kind of expansive neighbour-love that Jesus extolled (e.g., Luke 10:25-37). The kind of faith I had been pursuing might have possessed the form of Christ-centred religion, but certainly not its substance. Meeting Elijah, however, irrevocably changed my definition of authentic devotion to Jesus.
Whether I drove Elijah to visit the local MP so that he could plead his case, or gathered letters of support from members of the congregation, or simply visited him on those meandering days when he had little to occupy him, I was learning – ever so fitfully – to offer the hand of grace to another. Certainly, my understanding of what I should do and why remained largely undefined. And yet, I was animated by the seed of an idea; an emerging conviction, however inchoate, that a person claiming to follow Jesus should follow his example by reaching out, across the gulf, into a world of suffering and lament.
As I sought to do what I could to alleviate Elijah’s travails, I found myself accepting the call to cross all manner of boundaries, whether they pertained to ethnicity, language or social position. In this, I knew that I was doing so as a Christian. It was not enough for me to smugly revel in my relationship with Jesus. I realized (slowly, to be sure) that such a relationship was the foundation for a work of transformation “out there” – beyond the bounds of the familiar and the comfortable – extending God’s rest and peace to the very edges of our world so that people like Elijah might enjoy it. I was, in other words, one of the so-called “sent ones”: having experienced the radical love of God in the form of his sent Son, Jesus, I was now being called to do likewise (John 20:21). He had reached out to the strangers. He had identified with the marginal. Indeed, he had torn down cultural barriers – as impregnable as any physical wall – with something as simple as a request for water (John 4:7ff). If I were truly to live as Christ did, then I could not do otherwise.
It’s difficult to imagine how I might have become a social worker without having met Elijah, given the seminal effect of that experience on me. Equally, it’s hard to see how this vocational shift could have occurred apart from the power of the Gospel – and with it, the radical, lavish, boundary-bursting example of Jesus. My time with Elijah challenged me to look at Jesus afresh, that’s for sure. Simultaneously, however, the loving justice that Christ embodied helped me to grasp – and indeed, be grasped by – the meaning and implications of that experience (and others) in ways I had not envisioned. Together, they formed a mutually reinforcing foundation, leading me towards a fully-orbed faith that continues to indelibly shape every arena of life.