Sharper focus ‘These are our people’

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By Kelly Pontsler

I remain awestruck at the power of words. Have you ever noticed how sometimes it’s the simplest phrase that grabs our full attention and shapes change? I had one of those moments a few weeks ago, and the words still echo in my heart and mind.

It was South Asia night at the International College for Officers in London, one of five zonal nights that introduced us to the global Army and the world at large from the local perspective of officer colleagues. On this night we listened intently to the story of the Army’s work and witness in India and Sri Lanka.

Although I’ve been able to visit, live and work in many places around the world, India has never been in the mix and I found myself breathing out a barely audible, “I had no idea,” repeatedly throughout the evening.

I had no idea that to become a Christian in India means walking away from access to government-provided social and educational assistance. I had no idea that the dowry system, which places a crippling financial burden on the family of a bride, is still widely practiced in spite of being declared illegal in 1961. And although I’ve been aware of the caste system as a social structure, I had no idea of its implications for The Salvation Army. The untouchables—the lowest of the low on this man-made scale of relative human value—are our people. I had no idea.

It’s one thing to hear a phrase once. It’s another thing to hear it five times. Five times in one evening says, “pay attention!” With both humility and persistence, our brothers and sisters in Christ echoed the phrase, willing us to get it: “These are our people.” Not those people, or just some people. Our people—people with whom we need to identify and for whom we need to fight. Men and women and children with intrinsic value, because they were created by the same God who formed you and me.

Our people are the people Jesus would see. The Gospel of Luke is known for its focus on the least, the lost, the last—those who in the mind of many would be declared “untouchable” because of their physical condition or social status. Yet Luke repeatedly records that the Lord saw people, these people. His were not casual glances that swept the crowd for a friendly face. I get the sense that Jesus locked eyes with those that others would look past, his gaze moving beyond the exterior and penetrating deep into the soul, transmitting courage and strength, new resolve and healing all in a few fleeting seconds.

Suffering is not unique to any corner of this globe. The toll of injustice is as relevant in the U.S. as it is in India. The question is—what are we prepared to do about it? “These are our people” must become the rallying cry of every Salvationist, wherever injustice rears its ugly head. “These are our people” is the description we must begin to use in defense of those in our cities whose lot in life has pulled them down, lower than low.

I am beginning to understand that it is not enough to deliver humanitarian services because it feels good or does good. It is not enough to see the global picture and hope things change. “Untouchable” needs to be replaced with “unforgettable” in our hearts, minds and actions. I’m beginning to understand that we need to have the courage to look people in the eye and say, “you are our people.” You belong with us. We’re in this together.

It was just a simple phrase, but I tell you, it has changed me forever.

Saramma, Sarojini, Ashok, Salve…I don’t know that I will ever fully grasp the context in which you minister daily, but I am going to keep trying, I promise! May God grant you grace and strength enough for each day.

May God bless The Salvation Army in India! Amen!

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