Subversive Suburbanite

Subversive compassion


Another New Wine summer conference has delivered the goods. This year I went to the meetings in the same ‘urban impact’ venue that captivated me last year – and once again got my heart ripped out, pummelled about and put back in a different way up.

The main speaker was Ash Barker, who moved with his wife from a comfortable suburb of Melbourne to a slum in Bangkok where they lived and raised their family for twelve years. He endeared himself to me early on in the week by telling us that Thai people can’t easily say ‘sh’ or ‘k’, so when he said his name was ‘Ashley Barker’ it tended to be repeated back to him as ‘Arsely Bugger’. He quickly decided to call himself Lee. (Such is my maturity that I found this funny all week. I think I will add it to my repertoire of things to call Mr Suburbanite when I’m cross with him.)

One reason Ash and his wife Angie empathised so much with the urban poor was that they’d adopted a ten-year-old boy from the Cook Islands while living in Melbourne. They did their best to parent him but ended up watching helplessly as he spiralled downwards into mental illness and substance abuse and finally lost his life at the age of 14. Ash talked about the two types of miracles he’s seen in serving the urban poor: ‘Miracle A’ is when you pray for someone and they encounter Jesus, possibly get physically healed, put their faith in him and see their life turn around. Then there’s ‘Miracle B’, like their adopted son: when no matter how much you love and pray and serve, the person gets worse and turns away from God or dies; the miracle part is that you are left with a heart changed forever by God’s compassion.

He went on to preach on the story of the ‘compassionate Samaritan’ and it was heart wrenching. I should probably read his book (Risky Compassion).

I didn’t leave with a brand new calling to move to a slum in Bangkok, or even to an estate in Burmingham, though I have renewed respect for those that do move intentionally to those places. (I talked to friends who moved to an estate not far from us, and they have had a hard year involving a suicide and seeing a former addict succumb again to his addiction.) If anything I feel more committed to our own little suburban corner of London. I took from the week a determination to be a neighbour to the ‘poor’ (in all the dimensions of that word) in my neck of the woods, for the long haul, and a renewed excitement that church can and should be what makes the difference in any community.

In the meantime the kids were having their usual freedom from adult interference that’s one of New Wine’s wonderful (possibly unintended) side effects. Now that the Cutester is eight this is even more the case – she didn’t have to be collected from her cowshed (all the kids’ groups are in cowsheds) but made her own way to and from sessions. I brought bikes this year so the girls could finally join the other groups of feral children in zipping round the place on two wheels. And so I could ride to my own meetings, with a travel mug full of Lady Grey in one hand.