“Suppose you have one guilder. Which poor person would you give it to – the one who’s a Christian, or the one who isn’t?”
It was around 1990 and my husband and I were facing The Dreaded Grilling by his home church elders. We worked with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in the Philippines, were back in the Netherlands on furlough, and these five evangelical heavyweights wanted to make sure we hadn’t gone off the rails. It was an utterly ridiculous question, of course, but we knew the answer they wanted, and much of our own financial support depended on giving it.
Social justice, a.k.a. the social gospel, was seen as competition, even a threat, to ‘the true gospel’ – saving souls. And one of the bizarre ways of demonstrating which side you stood on was loyalty to Christian brothers and sisters first and foremost.
I was born in London in 1960 to parents who were not church goers. What was to be of quite some spiritual significance, however, was that each bedtime they would read to me and my three siblings. The world of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia was more familiar in my memories than any of the homes we lived in throughout childhood.
When I was 15, one of my sisters became a Christian. She had been the Black Sheep of the family and suddenly she was being nice to me for the first time in our lives. ‘There must be a God!’ was my teenage logic. And, once open to the idea that God existed, I had very little hesitation in turning to the Divine. Narnia had laid the foundation: Aslan was good.
Soon after becoming a Christian myself, I started attending a small but lively Baptist church. At the age of 23, I headed over to the Netherlands to do a Discipleship Training School with YWAM. Then joined staff in Amsterdam, helping to organize street evangelism programs. It was there I met Paul, my Dutch husband-to-be, and together we experienced something of a reconversion through reading different books on social justice. In 1988 we first came here to Manila, the Philippines to do a (YWAM) primary healthcare school, located near a huge slum area built on a mountain of the city’s refuse. We decided to stay, later running a student sponsorship project.
Mental health was not understood then as it is understood now, especially in over-spiritualised Christian circles. Long story short: after 5 years we crashed and burned. We returned to the Netherlands, found ‘normal’ jobs, in graphic design and teaching. Then, years later, moving into the house of our dreams, we realised that our dreams actually lay elsewhere. So, in 2008, after being in the Netherlands 14 years, we came back to Manila. Since then, we’ve been helping to run a charity/NGO called Young Focus very close to where we were before.
We feel so lucky to be able to do this kind of work among folks caught in extreme poverty. And please don’t get me wrong, this is not about doing the missionary-colonising-white-saviour thing. Lord knows, there’s been enough of that in this country. The true heroes here are our Filipino colleagues and the families we work with, helping their children access education. There is a sense of collaborating with the Divine that I wouldn’t swop for the world.
As far as deconstruction/faith shifting is concerned: Looking back, there was such cognitive dissonance between the evangelical doctrine I followed in my head versus the deep-knowing sowed in my heart thanks to C. S. Lewis. The first implied a merciless rejection of most of the human race; the second embraced all in radically inclusive love. The first was sustained by constant exposure to the same message; the second brought me through all kinds of personal trials, challenges and heartache.
Over the course of missionary (10 years) and church (46 years) life, I’ve met some truly amazing people. But also, pretty inevitably, I’ve crossed paths with a number of complete jerks and deeply dysfunctional situations. It wasn’t, however, so much a case of one of those negative experiences triggering my turning away from evangelicalism. Instead, it has been a slow but sure, chunk by chunk dismantling: discarding an assumption here (only men should be in leadership), shedding of a prejudice there (homosexuality is wrong), these lies falling away like huge weights. Then, during the pandemic, the process seemed to snowball into a full unravelling of a formerly long-held belief system, particularly concerning the idea of everyone-is-destined-for-eternal-torment-in-hell-if-they-don’t-make-a-decision-for-Christ-before-they-die.
It’s a path of evolving theology and I’m still very much on it. Though the faith shifting journey can be quite scary at times – whatever am I going to throw out next, will it accidentally be the proverbial baby?? – mostly this journey has been a magnificent relief: mind and heart are finally getting in synch!
And there are many gifts-that-keep-giving. For example:
A new freedom to love: Before, I think there was a subconscious brake; I dared not truly care, because the implications were too horrifying – what if this person before me was destined for hell…?!?
A new sense of community: Those blinkers of dysfunctional theology kept me blind to everyone but my own clan, what a relief to be discovering the broader vision of fellow humans in all our diversity. How we have painted ourselves into a corner, cutting ourselves off from the world, missing out on so much… and doing so much harm to others in the process!
A freedom to befriend without an agenda. (Lordy, what a relief to everyone!!)
Back to those Dutch church elders mentioned at the beginning: our relationship with them continued to be strained over the following few years, till they officially cut us off for not ‘submitting 100%’ to them. Then, a decade or so later, most of those formerly hardened control freaks approached us, sincerely sorry for what they’d done. And on that note, I’ll finish. Super cliché, I know, but there’s hope for us all. Eustace and Emeth the Calorman very much included. We’re all on a journey. May we see the awesomeness in every step.
– Ann van Wijgerden