When Jesus introduced his ministry (Luke 4:18), he mentioned the passage in Isaiah 61 that speaks of bringing freedom to the imprisoned, to those in jail. I have always been struck by this double mention of prisoners or captives. The passage in Isaiah also speaks of broken hearts.
Evangelism is the task of bringing the good news of salvation to people and helping them to heal the wounds of the heart. In the words of John and Paula Sandford (founders of Elijah House), it is “the evangelization of the heart” because we bring the good news of Jesus to broken hearts. From a place that fully reflects the ministry of Jesus, I have felt his call to work with the brokenhearted in a very specific area: restoration and recovery of men and women who have suffered different kinds of abuse—physical, sexual, or emotional.
In 2000, Norberto Saracco, Lausanne International Deputy Director for Latin America, asked me to train women who were going to work in counseling at the church he pastors, Iglesia Buenas Nuevas, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We started with the course, “Healing the Wounds of Life,” an inner-healing process through the different stages of life. During the course, I began to learn about the leaders and their stories, and I saw that some of the women had suffered different abuse. These problems required a specific treatment and could not be solved merely with prayer. Unless the Church were to generate a space for their restoration, these hidden and forgotten (repressed, rather) things would turn the women into “hidden and forgotten” people.
Healing in the Women
We decided we would begin restoring the women’s lives (and equip them to help others) the following year. We saw the process of bringing freedom, grace, love, and the healing power of God to broken lives. We saw the women stand up for their rights, leave the secrets, and put themselves in the place of victory Christ wanted to give them.
This work is oriented toward the recovery from abuse. History cannot be changed; however, the consequences can be transformed and new capacities can emerge from the place of the injury. In the words of Isaiah, the women can have “a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” When scripture says that God “chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things,” it can be seen as referring to the people who are “hidden” and “forgotten” in our churches. These are the silent and wounded soldiers carrying their burdens without hope of restoration and with the mistaken “conviction” of having to submit to that pain, as they submitted to abuse before.
One of the distortions that abuse generates in people who are victims is that instead of occupying the healthy place of victim, they put themselves in the place of protecting the abuser and keeping silent. These experiences quench the spirit in the life of the person.
Healing in the Men
Because some of the women were married to men who also had been abused, the group also saw the need to work with men. If the women were hidden and forgotten in churches because no one knew what to do with them, more so were the men who, in their manliness, kept the secrets and the shame to themselves. These men may also be potential abusers of others.
I shared this issue with Pastor Saracco. The problem was we did not know who would lead the men’s group. I knew of no one who worked within the framework we had been using. We formed the men’s group with the same criteria as the women’s group, and one of the pastors was included with the idea of continuing the work later. The men accepted my coordination.
This was a wonderful experience, and we were amazed at the need the men had to open their broken hearts to receive the grace of God.
Therapeutic Groups with the Goal of Restoration
Today, we work with men and women, some of whom have recovered. This kind of work could be compared to “therapeutic” groups rather than self-help groups. Although recovered individuals can lead the group under supervision, they follow a list of topics for a year. Groups meet for two hours each week. Since our church is multi-cultural and multi-social, the groups are heterogeneous, which adds a great richness to the experience.
Each group makes a pact of confidentiality when it starts. This is important because we work with people who belong to the same church, and it would be devastating for a person going through a restoration process to have his or her deepest intimacy revealed.
With each passing year, people come with greater hurts and with stories of great grief. Many people, when they learn about this work, are profoundly touched and say, “What a harsh task!” However, they share that even though their life histories are extremely difficult, they can say with the writer of Romans (Romans 5:20), “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
The Dual Mission of the Church
As I reflect upon the mission of the Church and the concept of hidden and forgotten people, I believe the Church has an outward mission (evangelization) and an inward mission (formation for the maturity of the integral life of the individual). Generally, when we think of hidden and forgotten people, we have in mind marginalized people or people living in extreme conditions. This is true; however, there are many more people of these people in the seats of our churches.
Our leaders are not exempt from suffering abuse. If they do not work on their histories and heal their hurts, they will transmit these burdens to those under their authority. Hurting people hurt others when they do not heal their own hurts.
The Lord is calling us to recognize and bring light to those who are forgotten and hurting. Jesus came for them; we need to dedicate time and an attentive ear to them, firmly believing that the ministry of Jesus has power and validity in the midst of this impersonal and solitary world. We believe Jesus is the same today, yesterday, and forever. For this reason:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. (Isaiah 61:1-4)