Charlie Burrows, Irish Priest in Indonesia: Building a Church without Walls?

imageWhat would a church without walls look like? Given the tagline of this blog, you might think that this is something that I have some definite ideas about.

I usually find it difficult to articulate what a church without walls might look like, beyond following Jesus’ example by maintaining a healthy scepticism about religious institutions, living simply, and making sure that everyone, especially the poor, have enough.

(I’m not saying a ‘church without walls’ is limited to those three features. They are just a start …)

But once in a while I see a concrete example of what a church without walls looks like, here and now in the real world.

That latest example comes from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation on earth (96% Muslim). There, a feisty Irish priest called Fr Charlie Burrows is living out that type of church.

Fr Burrows was featured on RTE’s Would You Believe programme on 15 May 2011. You can still watch the entire programme here, up until 5 June 2011.

Burrows is a priest with Oblate Mission Development, an office of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He has served in Chilachap on Java’s southern coast for the past 40 years, spearheading a sustainable development programme in the region which has included building roads, dykes, schools, a maritime academy, and establishing banks.

The introduction to the RTE programme describes him as a 68-year-old Irish priest who is ‘working miracles’ and a ‘maverick who uses the power of money for the common good.’ It notes that the empire Fr Burrows has built is worth millions, but he does not profit from it.

Fr Burrows says that he prefers robbing the rich to pay the poor, and thinks that ‘the fellow up above would agree with me.’ He adds that ‘I think the man above thinks I’m a bit of a crook,’ but says he sees it as his duty to respond to the immediate, pressing needs that he sees all around him:

‘If someone has no bloody house they need a house, they don’t need a meeting about it.’

Illustrating a healthy scepticism towards religious institutions and their institutional goals, the programme also reveals that Fr Burrows has been criticized by some fellow Catholics for not being religious enough. In one story shared on the programme, a superior asks Fr Burrows when he is going to start ‘teaching religion.’

Fr Burrows says that he replied: ‘I’m not,’ and goes on to explain that:

‘A missionary is witnessing. If I have an agenda, I want these people to become Catholics, that’s not the loving Jesus wants. It has to be unconditional.’

As explored in the YouTube clip from the programme below, even this softly-softly ‘Witness’ rather than ‘Mission’ approach has at times made Fr Burrows a target of fundamentalist Islam. It also highlights how those who oppose him feel threatened when they see Christians doing good, because it upsets their comfortable caricature of Christianity as a ‘bad’ religion.

Fr Burrows’ emphasis on Christianity in deed rather than Christianity in word reminds me of Peter Rollins’ recent blog post (‘I believe in child labour, sweat shops and torture) on how your actions, rather than what you say you believe, demonstrate what your true beliefs really are.

And Fr Burrows, for his part, understands why the activities of missionaries might be met with hostility:

‘If I was in Islam and went into Ireland and started building schools and clinics and roads, they’d tell me to f***-off.’

But the programme indicates that Fr Burrows is largely respected by the Indonesians he lives among, including most Muslim leaders. His respect has been won over many years of consistent witness in loving the community through his deeds – putting others’ needs first.

For me, Fr Burrows embodies a material expression of Christianity, a Christianity that sees Christ’s mission of love as bound up with all the pain and messiness of this world. It’s Fr Burrows’ willingness to get his hands dirty working alongside the poor, rather than amassing material goods and honours for ‘Christ’s sake’ that looks to me like a church without walls.

Burrows explains it this way:

Religion is the problem. Religion has been responsible for an awful lot of evil in the world … and an awful lot of good, yeah … The crusades – Jesus said he definitely didn’t want a material kingdom, yeah? And then they go and start killing people in order to get back the Holy Land. And there was a Pope behind it. That’s stupid, yeah. And totally against what Jesus wants. He doesn’t want a physical kingdom, it’s a spiritual kingdom, yeah.

13 Responses to Charlie Burrows, Irish Priest in Indonesia: Building a Church without Walls?

  1. Eric Conway May 31, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    What a pity. Its a bit like the eulogies for Garret Fitzgerald. Most of them were an excuse to attack the Catholic Church. I know many religious ( the Mercy Sisters in Zambia, for example ), loyal to the Church, yet doing equally as good work as Fr. Burrows. Yet they don’t bad mouth others. His work is exemplary but he should’nt be so judgemental about those who take a different approach & who are loyal to the Church. His comments on religion & the crusades are ill-informed & highly offensive. He might read – ” God’s Batallions : The Case For The Crusades “, by Prof. Rodney Stark.

  2. Martin May 31, 2011 at 11:25 pm #

    Agreed Eric.

    A priest’s main role is to show his people their sins, lead them into sorrow and repentance for those sins, and offer them the only healing available for their broken lives: the Eucharist.

    The good works can then be done by those souls who have been converted to Jesus.

    I’d be interested in hearing this priest’s view on Church teaching, particularly those contentious moral issues. If a priest leads people in the wrong direction, all the house-building in the world won’t put him at rights with God nor undo the damage done to poor sinners.

    I’m not saying this priest has done or is doing this – I don’t know the man – but too often I’ve seen priests become social workers at the expense of their priestly vocation, to the spiritual detriment of poor souls entrusted to their care, as social projects take over.

  3. Eric Conway June 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    I think it’s obvious Martin that Fr. Burrows is a good guy – to use the Americanism. He’s just making the mistake of wanting to seem cool/right on to the secular/sceptical media. We all know the Church is full of sinners ( the perfect sinfree media never tire of reminding us ), that’s primarily whom Christ found it for. It’s based on reality, not some airy/fairy liberal/feminist idealized world, which never existed ( a world full of such pc bores would be unbearable anyway ) If he is quoted correctly he is attacking Christ’s Church. His comments on Islam are naive. Muslims are free to worship in Europe ; try buliding a Christian Church in Saudi & see the reaction !.

  4. Jackie June 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    I have been thinking about Charlie Burrows work and I belive its one of the most uplifting inspiring documentaries I ve seen. He is a man truly living his beliefs and very bravely too!

  5. Anthony Belz July 31, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    The man’s a hero, & the world would be a better place if we all followed in his footsteps. He seems to be fill-fulling his priestly duties to give sacraments to those who wish to receive them, but his charity & good will, supplied on the scale he has given, are selfless acts from a great soul.

  6. Marian July 31, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Please can someone give me father’s contact details, telephone and email or postal address.
    Thank you very much indeed.

  7. Malcolm August 6, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    I watched a documentary on Charlie last night and it has blessed me very much. The Lord has been taking me on a journey over the past years and I do not often come across examples of what He is teaching me. This is one of the strongest witnesses to what a christian is and should be that I have ever seen. The Lord tells me that He is tearing the walls down of the churches and disowning religion. He loves us all the same and unfortunately no world religion promotes this truth. They speak it but in practice it is something quite different. The word He gave me for understanding religion is that it is exclusionary and if you do not play the game, as man sees it, you are out on your ear. Yes, His love is unconditional and it is also eternal and from this understanding and the receiving of it comes eternal life. This is a great truth and Charlie’s story has given me another piece of the puzzle and I thank him and also you Gladys. Bless you all.

  8. Lance Keough October 1, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    Lance:1/10/2012.’In the armchair,’ elsewhere, gives a different view than the hotseat he is in.
    Why not trust him to be always listening to our Lord, whether supplying a cup of cold water, or a road?…

  9. Geoff March 14, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    I agree Lance. It’s easy to criticize from afar. Let those who have achieved more in their lives than Charlie Burrows criticize him. I have the feeling they wouldn’t.

  10. Louise October 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    I have had d very honorable privalidge of meetin Charlie he’s is a god on earth wat he is doin is unbelievable work can u name me 1 else off hand dat has gone out for 30yrs built schools hospitals places for people to work an even banks for dem to save in don’t talk to me bout d “catholic religion” who by d pope has covered up years upon years of misery of Irish children with a half arsed apology for ruining hundreds of lives Charlie teaches dat god loves al unconditionally no matter who r wat u are so al ur arm chair critics r still loved pure gent an humble man who has helped with nothing but love an pure devotion an is solely responsible for maki in a difference by his hard workin hands even now he does back breaking work for many many yrs an to many towns with nothin but his genius mind an blessed hands Charlie burrows is god on earth.

  11. Laurel March 4, 2014 at 11:56 pm #

    I am a non denominated Christian, because I believe God wants me to be a good person. I look at script and rules of religion as mans opinion or perception of what God wants. I think Charlie Burrows is close to another Gandhi as he truly puts others before himself. I live for the LOVE OF GOD, you can shove the fire and brimstone. We are all Gods children and he is a forgiving Father. If I was not introduced to God in my life time, would he turn me away. I think not. You have the right to criticizer but at the end of the day your opinion is just that. You should give the man a pat on the back, he is doing something good and we are all flapping our gums. : )

  12. Dolly May 25, 2015 at 12:36 am #

    Just watch “would you believe” about Fater Charlie. We in Ireland are very in need of a Church with walls and a few Christ inspired leaders before all our youth are lost in this material world.

  13. Liz Morrissey July 10, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

    I watched this documentary in awe of this wonderful human going!! He is definitely doing the work of the God I believe in!!! Give the man a break. Walk in his shoes for a week and then criticise him. I am not wealthy but if I were this man would get a large donation for the work he is doing. God bless you Father Charlie.

Leave a Reply