Magazines 2023 Jan - Feb The God That the Poor Seek. Conversion, Context, and the World of the Vulnerable

The God That the Poor Seek. Conversion, Context, and the World of the Vulnerable

23 December 2022 By Larry Hurst, with Matthew McBurney

An extended review of a 2022 book by Rupen Das.

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

Langham Global Library, 2022. 248 pages. $34 (e-book $14)

There are three unique elements in this book. (1) It has 41 first-person testimonies of conversion. (2) Public testimonies like these from Muslim and Hindu backgrounds are rare. And (3) it uses a contextualized interviewing process that ensures the voices of the converts are prioritized.

I was attracted to this book by its subject matter. I had recently read that a major factor in the exponential growth of the early Church was care for the poor (vulnerable, abandoned, sick and imprisoned people). This book goes a long way toward helping us understand those for whom poverty is a lived reality.

Author Rupen Das is president of the Canadian Bible Society and research professor of social justice, compassion and development at Tyndale University. This is not his first book on poverty. He brings his global mission experience to this unique study of what people in poverty experience when they encounter the good news of Jesus.

The centrepiece of the book is the conversion experience of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and slum dwellers in Bangalore, India. As Chapter 4 explains, much of what has previously been written on the conversion and spirituality of the poor is written by those who are neither poor nor insiders. This leads to the heart of the book – the lived experience of those of low economic status who find new identity in Jesus Christ.

In a chapter on Syrian refugees, former Muslims speak through their event-based poverty. (I had never considered that there were different types of poverty!) Imagine being a refugee who flees your homeland only to land in a failed, if not failing, state. In a chapter on Indian slum dwellers, former Hindus speak from a context of chronic poverty. (I learned that there were degrees of slum dwelling!)

The testimonies make up about 36 pages (conveniently charted in a five-page appendix), varying in length from half a page to two pages each. They describe why they chose to walk away from their former religion, how they encountered Jesus and their understanding of what it means to have the living God in their lives. Over two-thirds of the conversions include a supernatural component such as an answer to prayer, dream or vision of Jesus.

Das’s aim to highlight the voices of the poor shaped the process. The translator of these interviews was an insider, a bilingual local person whom the converts knew. In this way the testimony honours the words of the interviewee and not the interpretations and perceptions of the interviewer. This is outlined in more detail in an appendix.

So what do the testimonies reveal? I was surprised to learn it was not about potential relief from hardship. For the Muslims, it’s not about how great God is. Rather it is about His love and sacrifice for them. For the Hindus it is the realization God is almighty and more powerful than their situational deities. The good news of Jesus is that God is present with them in their situation.

A chapter on “Understanding Conversion to Christ among the Poor” takes these voices and lets them speak back into assumptions we have made, and continue to make, about conversion and contextualization. Das’s earlier chapters (“Conversion as a Window into the Spiritual Lives of the Poor” and “Contextualization and Cultures of Poverty”) provide exceptional background and history on the subject-matter at hand, a context for what you hear in the testimonies.

Das’s extensive experience with the poor is enhanced by detailed footnotes and a substantial bibliography, although the book lacks an index of authors or subject matter. Note: Langham Press (UK) ships free to Canada.

Who should read this book? Anyone who works with a development agency, refugee/relief ministry or mission that encounters poverty, local or global. It will adjust the lenses for how we approach those in need. Any pastor, church leader or volunteer who is involved in local ministry for the poor. Das reminds us how context matters. We need to listen to the voice of the person we are trying to help.

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