Word or deed: How should faith be shown?

“Lord, I can’t really love these people unless you love them through me.” …

I was surprised to discover an uneasy theological tension between the gospel in “word” and the gospel in “deed.” By some kind of osmosis I grew up understanding that each lent eloquence to the other and that both were indispensable.

I was born in Devon, England, the fourth of eight children. Dad ran a successful business, small but growing, in sales and service of agricultural machinery, including a John Deere franchise. Our journey to Australia began when a visiting missionary showed a picture of an elderly Aboriginal man in the Western Australian desert and issued the challenge, “Who will go and help this man?” Dad, moved by what he saw and heard, whispered a prayer, “Lord, I’ll go.”

In June 1966, Dad, Mum and six kids arrived at the port of Fremantle, Western Australia, ready to begin life at Kurrawang, an Aboriginal community near Kalgoorlie, about 600km east of Perth. It was no small journey from Devon to outback WA, from English businessman to faith missionary. One of Dad’s first jobs in the community was tending the veggie garden. Despite his farming background and a career in repairing, servicing and selling agricultural machinery, working the veggie patch wasn’t his favourite activity. While in the garden one day, thinking about his call and the huge changes that had taken place, he took off his hat and talked to Jesus, “Lord, I can’t really love these people unless you love them through me.”

Dad’s original call was to help elderly Aboriginal people and I have clear childhood memories of him bringing some of the old men from “the camp” about half a kilometre away to our house. He would run a bath for them, wash and cut their hair, trim their beards and give them a clean set of clothes. He’d take them back to their camps – quite basic shacks – and if they were frail he’d push them home in a wheel barrow. There was nothing as luxurious as a wheel chair.

His last task at night, before the community’s generator was shut down, was to go to the camp and make up fires for the old people. Most slept on the ground next to their fire, so Dad would put an old shearer’s bed – a steel tube frame with a wire mesh base – on its side, between them and the fire, to keep them from accidently rolling into it during the night. On one such night, an old man known as Paddy pulled Dad down close to speak to him. He didn’t have much voice and spoke little English but he managed to whisper the words, “I love Jesus.” I’ve often wondered what Paddy understood of Jesus. He wasn’t literate. His worldview was that of a tribal Aboriginal man. He had probably heard stories but I wonder whether, in some way, his understanding of Jesus took the shape of my Dad.

A few days later, Dad’s regular visit to the camp was delayed. When he arrived he found that Paddy had rolled into the fire. His burns were severe and sadly he died in hospital soon afterwards. Paddy had “heard” the gospel. I’m not absolutely sure, but perhaps he had heard it most clearly in the conduct of a man who asked the Saviour to love through him: a man who embraced the Apostle John’s injunction not to love with “words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” Later, in my youth, I was surprised to discover an uneasy theological tension between the gospel in “word” and the gospel in “deed.” By some kind of osmosis I grew up understanding that each lent eloquence to the other and that both were indispensable.

In Darwin a few decades later, as Pastor to one of the city’s Baptist churches; I felt, as did other Baptist church leaders in the NT, that we were proclaiming The Word but falling a bit short on practicing in deed; at least in any strategic or collaborative way. We needed to redress the imbalance, acting cooperatively rather than independently.

With generous financial support from Baptist Care Australia, the visionary support of its Chair June Heinrich, and the auspices of the Baptist Union of the NT, a needs analysis was undertaken to gauge community needs in the greater Darwin area. The intent was not to duplicate what others were doing but to identify gaps. It was crucial that whatever emerged would be embedded into the life of the churches and not simply an adjunct.

Research identified two major unaddressed or inadequately addressed needs: food and housing. The housing challenge loomed way too large for this embryonic entity with a zero capital base. The logical beginning was to explore how to respond strategically to the need for food.

There was no food bank in the NT and good, usable food was going to landfill. Foodbank Northern Territory was formed and negotiations with retailers commenced. Just before Christmas 2009, Foodbank NT began “rescuing” food and distributing it to community service organisations. Since then, Foodbank NT has distributed more than 20 tonnes of food (equivalent to over 15,000 meals) to more than 20 agencies in the Darwin region. And this is just the beginning.

This project seems to capture people’s imagination without needing too much explanation. A hire firm now provides our food collection truck for the cost of fuel consumed. A Christian businessman supplies a warehouse at vastly reduced rental rates. Volunteers from our churches have locked on to the project and have responded with energy and passion. Feeding the hungry? That’s a no brainer!

This has been, and continues to be, an exercise in applied faith. Cash flows keep us on our knees. The Territory’s needs are so great while the donor base is small. Nevertheless, we keep getting assurance that we’re on track. At one particular low point, a businessman donated over $70,000 worth of shelving and pallet racking for the warehouse and a state Baptist care organisation donated an additional $25,000. Individuals can donate on-line at www.givenow.com.au/baptistcarentfoodforlife. (Pardon the pitch!)

Foodbank NT is now a ministry of the newly created company, Baptist Care NT. In its next phase, Baptist Care NT will open Food 4 Life outlets where people can receive encouragement, friendship, care, counsel and food: more opportunities for our churches to ‘do the gospel’.

As I write, the words of Jesus keep resonating in my head: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these … you did for me.”

“In word and deed” by Mal Sercombe, Senior Pastor of Darwin Baptist Church and Chair of Baptist Care Northern Territory. He is married to Ellen and has 3 children and 3 grand-children. prac10.