What 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.
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.