On the surface, the staff of Word Made Flesh might seem easily pigeonholed as standard-issue evangelicals. These are the kind of Christians who close their eyes and raise their hands while singing worship tunes. The stereotype is that these are also the kind of Christians for whom faith means only individual piety. But these young people are choosing to live in the world's most destitute urban slums, among the poorest of the poor. Why? Because the Bible tells them so.
In Galati, Romania, Word Made Flesh's largest drop-in center is a fully functioning three-ring circus of street kids, staff members, and stray dogs. The center has the usual services, but also offers amenities that are meaningful to children who sleep in alleys - laundry facilities, an art center, a woodworking and stonemasonry workshop, and individual lockers. The Galati center also has a terraced garden for which the children share responsibility. "[It will] teach the kids a usable skill as well as provide food," staff member Bill Haley notes. "Part of their learning is to participate in the work of...the place that is meant for them and is truly theirs."
In El Alto, Bolivia, initial research revealed that women in prostitution were receiving little attention or care. After visiting brothels and becoming acquainted with the women who worked there, Word Made Flesh built a drop-in center that has become a safe haven and lunchtime gathering spot. The women named it "House of Hope," and in addition to the reading groups and social gatherings it hosts, it will soon offer free medical care, counseling, legal services, and job training to the women and their families.
Essentially, says Haley, Word Made Flesh is "sort of like a young Missionaries of Charity for Protestants." These missionaries certainly look different - men and women in their 20s sporting tattoos and piercings, rather than nuns in white and blue habits. But both groups share a conviction about the necessity of incarnation in ministry, the impact of being there, in the flesh. With service sites in seven countries - Bolivia, Brazil, India, Nepal, Peru, Romania, and Thailand - Word Made Flesh responds holistically to the bleak realities of poverty, meeting physical hunger and spiritual thirst with equal religious fervor. In the past eight years, the community has expanded to more than 100 full-time staff members, as well as continually revolving groups of shorter-term "servant teams."
SHUNNING PATERNALISTIC projects, the group focuses on entering into egalitarian friendships and offering services that the people request. "The emphasis is daily living among the poor in a way that communicates Christ's love, versus designing programs that are conversion tools," says Sarah Mosely, who served in Bolivia with the organization last fall. "It's a theologically mandated lifestyle as opposed to a strategic way to win souls. We build relationships because the Bible tells us to love people, period."
The people whom Word Made Flesh feels called to love are certainly among those who need it most. Their mission seeks out the most vulnerable populations in places that receive the least concern and assistance: the women, children, and disabled in the teeming urban centers of the developing world. Partnering with existing organizations already offering social services, the field staff tackles pediatric AIDS care, rehabilitation for abused and destitute women (often forced to make a living in prostitution), residential care for mentally and physically disabled children, advocacy, housing, and rehabilitation for street kids, and protection and prevention for the sexually exploited.
Word Made Flesh sees itself mainly as a resource, deferring much of the responsibility to the local churches it partners with. Recognizing that missionary work often exports an alien culture along with the gospel, the organization emphasizes that "nationals have the greatest opportunity for the intense identification necessary for ongoing transformation among the poorest of the poor. It is arrogant for us to believe that we have all the answers." Mosely, for instance, balked at the suggestion that the group "empowers" local churches, ardent that Word Made Flesh staff members are there to "work alongside [them] in a servant capacity, submitting and learning from the national church."
Mosely is one of hundreds of young adults who have been drawn to Word Made Flesh because of this humble approach. At 24, she is also representative of the demographic to which the organization's other emphasis - intensive discipleship - appeals. Most staff members are in their mid-20s; executive director Chris Heuertz is one of the group's "grandfathers" in his early 30s. These young people commit to developing nine "lifestyle celebrations" through a combination of hands-on service and dedicated study: intimacy with Jesus, obedience to God, humility before God and people, serving all people, community with each other, voluntary simplicity, submission to Christ and one another, brokenness among the broken, and suffering with the poor.
Although the home office visits international sites regularly and consults on major decisions, the individual field teams enjoy a great deal of autonomy - an unusual characteristic in the world of missions. Each Word Made Flesh center has a long-term field staff (usually including at least one person native to the area) that keeps it functioning from day to day, and a "servant team" of several young people that rotates every four months. Each of these teams is trusted to determine the particular needs of the people it's there to serve and creates programming around those needs.
IN A SOCIETY of instant gratification and everything-all-the-time, some evangelicals have fallen prey to megachurches that implicitly preach a health-and-wealth prosperity gospel. In contrast, Francis and Clare of Assisi, who abandoned privileged lives to become poor with God's poor and afflicted with God's afflicted, could be the patron saints of Word Made Flesh. (In fact, Heuertz's arms are tattooed with Francis's Cross of San Damiano.)
Many staff members passionately appeal to their "conversion through the poor" and describe instances of brokenness, the moments their hardened hearts gave way to the vitality and otherness of God's upside-down kingdom. And ultimately, the organization's young people hope they can also be a prophetic voice speaking these truths back to other American churchgoers, announcing "the cry of God for the poor, and the cry of the poor for God."
In this brand of discipleship, serious study is not separated from practical experience - both are seen as catalyzing growth through continual dialogue with one another. Sarah Mosely remembers the impact of studying Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed while riots over the unfair distribution of gas were taking place throughout Bolivia. "I would be reading about the steps to revolution, and then literally see them taking place in my own city," she says. "It was heartbreaking and eye-opening to watch a whole country rise up and say enough.' At the same time, it was an interesting lesson in feeling powerless. Ultimately it was [the Bolivians'] struggle; we couldn't win it for them. And that's crucial to any kind of sustainable change."
Kate Bowman lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. To receive Word Made Flesh's quarterly publication The Cry, visit www.wordmadeflesh.com.