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Learning about faith from those on the margins

By Jem Hovil

Being locked down and facing a raft of restrictions is ultimately an experience of powerlessness. Powerlessness in the face of forces that shrink lives and livelihoods, hinder education, and limit opportunities.

A prolonged experience of powerlessness is new for most of us. Most, not all. Some are already familiar with inability through being housebound or homeless, or through being helpless in other ways. One outcome of this terrible pandemic must surely be a far greater awareness of those around us for whom this is the norm?

But while most of us live sheltered lives, powerlessness is the everyday reality for individuals and communities across the globe. For them the current crisis is not a crisis at all: it is simply a deepening of an ongoing situation of uncertainty and constraint. What we are experiencing as a once in a lifetime set of restrictions is a window into many people’s everyday life.

My work with church leaders in East and Central Africa puts me in regular contact with those who face such challenges. For instance, I regularly talk with a group of South Sudanese refugees who live in a protracted situation of exile in the settlements of northern Uganda, along with over a million others. Many have suffered decades of restrictions of movement; they have watched as their lives and livelihoods have shrunk, and as vocational and educational opportunities have become ever more restricted. Above all, they have lived with a dehumanising inability to bring about change.

Yet to regard them simply as victims would be a mistake. Through their sufferings many of them not only retain their dignity but grow in their faith in God. Their vibrant faith not only gives them resilience but continues to grow in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

We now have a tiny taste of what it must be like for parents who cannot send their children to school, sometimes for years, or who are not able to leave a refugee camp to look for work. While none of us would or should have wished our current situation on anyone we have much to learn from God’s suffering people.

The Bible describes their experience this way: “These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour...” (1 Peter 1:7-8).

Amazingly, the image that gets to the heart of their situation of faith in the midst of suffering is that of a man impaled to a Roman cross, someone facing the ultimate restriction of movement, and yet all the while trusting that God will release his power to transform the world, even in and through his apparent powerlessness.

Believers whose faith is being refined through suffering are simply following in Jesus’ footsteps. They have discovered that ultimately there is no-one left to trust but God himself, and they know the liberty of throwing themselves into his hands, just like Jesus who “entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1:23).

Now is our moment to learn about faith from those on the margins, until we too have a similar trust in the God who lies behind every saving grace, until we have a real and resilient faith, a faith that will equip us for the future, whatever it might hold.

For further reading, this blog is based, with permission, on one published here last week:

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