It happened again this week. While sitting in a Session meeting (our church board), one of the leaders started comparing our church with another larger congregation in the next town over. Why weren’t we doing the kinds of ministries they were involved with? Where was our public witness? Why weren’t we having the kind of impact they seem to be having?
Teddy Roosevelt is said to have said that, “comparison is the thief of joy”, and among churches and ministries and leaders, this is often the case. This is the danger in reading a book like Chasing the Dragon, a memoir by British missionary to Hong Kong, Jackie Pullinger. The subtitle of the book calls this “One Woman’s Struggle Against the Darkness of Hong Kong’s Drug Dens”, and the stories in the book are as dramatic as this would suggest.
It begins with Pullinger’s own sense of calling as a young girl in England, and how she went about responding to God’s pull on her life. Seeking to be a missionary overseas, she boards a ship from England for Hong Kong, without any financial backing, job prospects or a return ticket. From here, our hero seems to spring from one amazing, Holy Spirit led activity to another, as she goes about making a life as an overseas, cross-cultural missionary. In many ways, this book follows the classic “hero quest” archetype that has been chiseled into our minds about what a missionary ought to do and be.
She comes from humble origins, responds to the call to go and serve, overcomes all manner of danger and obstacle, including drug gangs, poverty, prostitution rings, and the ongoing threat of violence, all while learning cultural lessons and saving souls. In a sense, it is hard to read this amazing account and not ask self-critical questions like: “why am I not doing the kinds of ministries that Jackie Pullinger is involved with? Where is my public witness? Why am I not having the kind of impact that this woman seems to be having?”
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, she once said, “churches tend to look after the nice people. I do my work with the nasty ones, like addicts and prostitutes who feel despised and excluded… they won’t go near churches, so I make it my job to find them.”
One reviewer puts it this way, “a Christian catch phrase of fairly recent origin is ‘wild heart.’ It may be recent, but it describes Christians of all centuries. Chasing the Dragon… tells of a Christian who has followed in the ancient tracks of those wild-hearted Christians who plunged into what seemed insanity, thereby letting God make great advances.”
Jackie Pullinger has a larger than life story to tell. She is one of those “wild hearted Christians”, who has a calling that has shaped her life in incredible ways. Part of the story is simply Pullinger’s radical, long-term commitment to the underside of Hong Kong society. But the book reads as a catalogue of one amazing story after another.
In one way, this is a genre of Christian missionary writing. Our hero, Jackie Pullinger, has profound faith in the love of God for people who suffer, and she is rewarded when she acts in faith. In this reading, the book is almost a hagiography, with all the attendant miracle stories and awe-inspiring accounts. In a way, this book continues the tradition of the Acts of the Apostles from the Bible, the “missionary history” of the early church. As with the Book of Acts, in Pullinger’s story, the Holy Spirit is constatntly on the move, entering people’s lives in dramatic ways.
However, embedded in this book there are also some hints of a more human and approachable Jackie Pullinger. She shares how in her formative years of faith, she was being confirmed at her church, but wasn’t really sure what it was all about. She writes, “I found my service sheet and covered up my face so that no one should see me smiling in the pew… I was giving my life to God; I had expected nothing back.”Here she reflects that she was a giggling schoolgirl, irreverently trying to understand all pomp and ceremony of the church of her youth.
After her early adventures in Hong Kong, she confides, “looking back at the experiences of those years in Lung Kong Road, I have mixed emotions. It was a time of learning and of growing up. Often, I was in awful confusion.” This is one of the rare humanizing moments in the book, but it is important.
Contemporary personal memoirs tend to have much more self-doubt, personal failings and “bloopers” than this one offers. This will be a disconnect for some readers today, who often respect the “authenticity” of a writer’s failings more so than their successes.
Towards the end of her book, Pullinger tries to sum up her perspective on this missionary life. She writes, “knowing not what the future might bring in a political sense or what would be permitted in terms of formal structure, I had always wished for such simplicity, no need for organization. One poor man reaching one poor man. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ seemed to sum it up.”
This is a way to view Jackie Pullinger. Less the “classic hero” of mythic proportions… Less the “better than you” evangelist or minister… And perhaps, instead, the young girl in England, not sure of her future. The one who turns to God and trusts in small ways and in large ones. The one who doesn’t know what her future will bring, but who centers on the common core: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
In doing that in Jesus’ name, Jackie Pullinger has surely impacted the world and changed countless lives. And the calling that we have, in whatever sort of ministry we pursue, is to do the same. To trust God with big things and small, and to serve the world in Christ’s name. I suspect when we focus on doing those things, we will spend less time comparing ourselves with this amazing overseas missionary, or with the church down the block.
Bernice Chan, “Briton’s 50 Years of Helping Hong Kong Addicts Beat Drugs – and Find God,” South China Morning Post, November 24, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/article/2048647/britons-50-years-helping-hong-kong-addicts-beat-drugs-and-find-god.
Donna Eggett, “Chasing the Dragon,” Christian Book Preiews, accessed May 24, 2018, http://www.christianbookpreviews.com/christian-book-detail.php?isbn=0830743280.