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Poor Enough

Poor Enough
Peter Hoover


Growing up in southern Ontario we had many friends among the "Russländer" as we called them -- Russian Mennonites, who came to our province as refugees after both World Wars. One of my boyhood friends, Herman Goerz, belonged to a Russländer congregation (Mennonite Brethren) at St. Catharines, Ontario, and the year we both turned eight their church sent a young couple, David and Sharon Esau, as missionaries to Spain.

Forty years later (after we had lived for many years in Spanish-speaking countries ourselves) I began to hear from David Esau. Still holding to the vision, still calling seekers to the Kingdom of God, he and Sharon continue their work in the village of Villanueva de la Vera nestled among the foothills of the Los Gredos range in the dry Spanish province of Extremadura.

After forty years of "mission work" David has had much time to reflect and even though our perspectives may have varied widely while living close to one another in Southern Ontario in the 1960s (he with the Mennonite Brethren/Brüdergemeinde, and me with the Old Order), the Lord has been working on both of us and bringing us to remarkably similar conclusions.

During the last year David has been sharing with me his vision for a "granja-escuela" (community teaching farm) on which to bring people together in social equality (sharing the poverty of Christ in a constructive manner) as an outpost and sign of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Well, he and Sharon have just had their convictions tested out -- again.

For quite a few years Spain has sat at the receiving end of a "tidal wave of refugees" flowing north from Africa. Ninety percent of the illegal immigrants get caught and sent back home. But just recently, a Spanish government social worker called Dave up and asked whether they would take in a homeless refugee, without any documentation. (Every so often, based on humanitarian concerns, immigration authorities will allow some of the refugees to "slip through the cracks" and stay.)

Of course, Dave said, "Yes." Although their own situation, with four families struggling to keep the place afloat on very little money, does not seem to warrant taking in any more.

Ismael arrived shortly thereafter, and greeted Dave and Sharon by putting his hand to his heart.

"Aha, a Muslim," Dave thought to himself. "What a good chance to share with him the Gospel of Christ." But surprises followed.

Ismael spoke a halting English. It turned out he was from the southern Sudan (Darfur area) and only his father was a Muslim. His mother was a Christian and had named him "Collins" after a Christian singer (Phil Collins?). Ismael does not remember seeing his father who disappeared in his infancy, but he set out as a sixteen-year-old to look for him.

Try as he might, he never found him. And during that tumultous time (with civil war and genocide raging in his country) he lost track of his mother, and never found her again either. Setting out on foot, Ismael managed to flee into Niger, in the Sahara Desert, the poorest country in the world. From there he made his way west until he fell in with a group of refugees from Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon.

These people, just as poor, and homeless like himself, were believers in Christ. They taught him John 3:16 by memory (no one had a Bible) and they said he could only be with them if he attended their Christian meetings.

Finding their way, through nook and crook, to Morocco, Ismael finally managed to come by a Catholic Bible. During four years of begging and living on the street, he and his friends made enough money to pay a smuggler to row them across the Strait of Gibraltar by night in a small boat. (Many small boats, without motors, continue to slip through the Spanish security network.) There all his friends went their own way. They had relatives and connections in Europe, but Ismael, utterly alone, not a scap of paper to his name, speaking no Spanish fell into the hands of the authorities -- and by the grace of God ended up on Dave and Sharon's farm at La Vera.

There Dave put him to work with Milton, another homeless man they are keeping (from Ecuador, whose wife deserted him, supporting two little boys left behind in South America). Raul Galvez, a Mexican, and the Spanish brothers and sisters support one another as best they can.

How has it gone?

All I know is that Dave sounds as cheerful as ever in his communications, but he sends his e-mails to me from town. They have lost their telephone connection. Cutting back, tightening their belts, making do with less -- to have more and more.

More of Christ. More of the unearthly joy of giving freely as we have freely received. Giving even what we thought we needed. Five loaves and two small fish for him to multiply. . . .

* * * * *

This week they had clothing and shoes on a forty percent discount at the Metro-Centre Mall in Burnie. Susan and I went with our boys and found ourselves in a traffic jam of cars squeezing past the ticket metre into its multi-storey parking lot. Rivers of people with their arms loaded, with all the bags they could carry. Life-size posters of Santa in a flowered shirt, cut-offs, and cool shades, Santa in a wet-suit standing with his surf-board on the beach. Blinking lights, video games, noise, food, children yelling, the hub-bub of commerce and traffic on a mid-summer day, as if life consisted in getting as much as possible -- now!

Suddenly, my 12-year-old, who loves great Christian music tugged on my sleeve. "Do you hear that, Dad?"

I had to stop and strain to catch it, right in the check-out counters, but sure enough, like a breath from heaven, slowly, meaningfully, an English choir and orchestra in the loveliest of harmonies came over the public address system:

O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, Come ye, o come ye, to Bethlehem! Come and behold him, born the King of angels, O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

True God of true God, Light of light eternal! Our lowly nature he hath not abhorred, Son of the Father, begotten, not created, O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning! Jesus, to thee be glory giv’n, Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

* * * * *

What was it? The shock of something so utterly, tragically out-of-place, a sudden flood of memories of this season half a world away, with horses and snow and young people singing -- while I listened to these hauntingly beautiful words from Australia's far distant past, I found myself (with Jesus at the shopping mall) paying for the boys' shoes while wiping tears from my eyes.

Jesus' mother, Mary, sang before his birth: "His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm, he has scattered those who are proud in their innermost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty. . . ."

Have you -- have we at Rocky Cape -- come to adore Jesus this "Christmas season"? And, even more importantly, has he come, or will he come, to us again?

Perhaps -- if we get poor enough.