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About two months ago, I interviewed a 55-year-old single woman who pastors a church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Mexico. My interview with her didn’t make it into a story, but my interactions with her left a deep impression on me as my church begins praying about how to help the marginalized in our community.
Virginia Ponce has been pastoring El Rey Ya Viene (The King is Coming Soon) Church in Anapra, Mexico, for more than 25 years. Anapra is close to the U.S-Mexico border, so when the migrant caravans started arriving at the border three years ago, many asylum-seekers from Central America spilled over into Ponce’s town. Her church—as tiny and dirt-poor as it is—opened its doors and gave them food, shelter, and legal help. It could only house 10 people, so sometimes Ponce invited migrants into her own house right next to the church. At any given time, the yards around the church and Ponce’s house were full of children’s laughter and squeals.
And then the pandemic hit. If first-world folks in the U.S. are reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic shutdown, imagine how much more asylum-seekers and migrants in an already-poverty-stricken Mexico border town must be suffering. Before the pandemic, many were barely scraping by day-by-day, doing low-paid manual labor such as cleaning houses, washing cars, working in factories, and peddling snacks and trinkets on the streets. When local authorities enforced public health measures, migrants were the first to lose their jobs.
Despite lockdown orders, Ponce decided her ministry couldn’t stop. As often as she could, she piled her van with dispensas (baskets filled with basic staples such as dried beans, rice, milk, and some fresh produce and candy if Ponce had extra money) and drove door-to-door to the 50 families she knows. A coalition of American churches in Las Cruces, N.M., regularly sent funds to Ponce to provide for those basic needs.
Ponce always took precautions. She would stay in her van and honk when she arrived. The family would come out to greet her, and Ponce would pass out the dispensa from inside her van, knowing if she stepped out, the kids would jump over to hug her. She would check up on each family, ask if they needed anything, and prayed out loud for them. God’s work need not cease due to the pandemic, even if it continues in a van.
I was amazed at Ponce’s positive attitude and active love for her community during this time. This is a woman who had suffered her share of trauma in the past, a single woman who gives her all to serve the needs of others despite having very little for herself. No matter the obstacles, she finds ways to care for and love people in her community.
Here’s another way she’s serving her community: Schools are closed, and all classes are virtual. However, a lot of poorer folks—particularly migrants—cannot afford internet service, which means their kids have no access to education. So Ponce went to her local school district, asked for that year’s schoolwork, and printed out all the classwork. She then packaged the print-outs in plastic booklets and distributed them to each kid according to grade level, along with a Bible study curriculum she created. Each time she visits in her van, she asks the kids about their schoolwork, answers any questions they may have, and if needed, calls the teachers for help on solving a question in their booklet.
Children are the heart of Ponce’s ministry. And I sensed a childlikeness to Ponce’s spirit as well, in the way she sees the world with childlike faith and trust. It is a purity of heart and soul that isn’t naïve—Ponce knows better than most of us Americans what fear, hardship, persecution, and poverty are—but her purity is one that is both childlike and mature. Her posture and perception don’t sink into today’s cynicism, conspiracies, and criticism. Instead, I sensed in Ponce a constant, daily wonder in the world God has created, a strong belief in the supernatural, and a trusting acceptance of God’s mysteries.
And because of that childlikeness, Ponce doesn’t miss the opportunity to see God’s work. Every time I talked to Ponce, she praised and thanked God for every little thing that happened, then expressed delight in the people in her life—especially the kids, who unlike their parents, are not weighed down by cynicism.
Ponce sees the difference between adults and children: The parents are worried and anxious. They watch the news on TV, hear things on the radio, and ask Ponce, “Is this a political attack?” “Are we being manipulated?” “Did God send us a plague to punish us?” And Ponce directs them back to God’s Word: “No, this is humanity. This is part of living in a fallen world. Let us look to God. Didn’t He promise to be with us, to strengthen and guard us? Trust in God to carry us through this.”
The parents, momentarily encouraged, nod their heads and respond, “Amen, amen.” But whenever they watch the news or count the few pesos they have left, their hearts fail them again. That’s when their children turn to remind them, “Remember what the pastor said? We need to look to God!”
I was reminded of Matthew 18:1-5, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus called a child into His arms and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” At a time when society dismissed children, Jesus uplifted them in front of all and publicly recognized their innocence and purity as something to be valued and celebrated.
Ponce said when she first began her ministry, she cried out to God, “How will I know that I’m doing Your will?” And she said God answered, “Look at the faces of My children. When you see them smiling, that’s Me smiling.”
What a simple yet profound way to test and do God’s will. Let us never grow too old and too sophisticated to become like little children in God’s eyes.
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On a recent Saturday, I didn’t speak to my husband for a whole day. Something had happened that triggered memories from our first year of dating, fanning a dusty cloud of hurts and wounds that I had assumed were long ago swept away. But no, there they were, settled in the dark corners of my heart, and all it took was one forceful blow to blast them out into the open.
My husband, David, and I had a very rocky start to our relationship. We said things, hurt each other, shed barrels of tears. But we pushed through together, and three years later, we got married. Everything seemed fine, except I had unconsciously carried into our marriage a secret sack full of dust from the past—not just from our dating relationship, but from all the way into my childhood and teenage years—shovelfuls and shovelfuls of trauma, insecurities, and semi-healed wounds that leak easily when poked. We could be so full of laughter and love one day, and the next day, something happens that reopens 15-year-old and 3-year-old wounds that bleed into each other and become one big, messy, sticky gash.
That’s what happened that Saturday when I woke up with a wounded heart and sought to draw blood from my own husband. I was cold and withdrawn, answered his efforts to make me laugh with curt responses, sat next to him but let my mind roam in the past and thought of all the times David had failed or wronged me. The person I love and committed to love became my adversary. Having no advocate except myself, I sought to enact my own form of justice on him.
The justice of a hurt, unhealed person can be mean and reactionary. In my mind, I was righting a wrong—justice. But the problem was that it was a very retributive form of justice, one that sought to hurt the other to soothe my own hurt. By pushing David away, I ultimately hoped to punish him, even if that wasn’t a fully conscious intention. As much as I thought punishing the other would satisfy me, it only hurt me more to see him hurt. All my “justice” accomplished was more pain and turmoil for both sides.
Like many others, I’ve been thinking a lot about justice—what it is, how it looks, where it comes from, and whose justice it is. I’ve been studying the Bible and praying for a godly understanding of justice, and I saw that word everywhere in the Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament. I don’t recall learning much about Biblical justice from the church while growing up. Any mention of “oppression” was almost always over-spiritualized, having little or no relevance to societal or systemic oppression. So it was eye-opening to recognize how deeply God cares about justice, to see Him not just as a personal God who saves and loves and comforts me individually, but as a God of justice and righteousness who cares passionately for the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in society, who desires His people to do justice. Justice originates from God, and only God is inherently, perfectly just.
One term I’ve heard secular groups use a lot is “restorative justice”—a theory primarily used in criminology that emphasizes a cooperative process between both victim and perpetrator to repair harm done. But that’s actually a Biblical idea: The Bible refers more to restorative justice—one that makes room for recognition of wrongdoing, repentance, material restitution, and reconciliation—than retributive or punitive justice (Numbers 5:6-7, Leviticus 6:1-7, Ezekiel 33:11, Isaiah 53:5, Micah 7:18, Matthew 5:23-24, Luke 19:8, 2 Corinthians 2:6-8, 10-11, Galatians 6:1).
These comprehensive, holistic, beautiful principles of restorative justice culminate on the cross, where the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ made the restoration of our broken relationship with God possible. We became right with God and were made righteous due to His grace, mercy, and forgiveness. But it still came with a price: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ who willingly died for our sins. This mystery and power of the cross must become our model and framework of how we view, comprehend, and do justice in all sectors of our lives, from self to family to community to the world, from criminal justice to racial justice. Biblical justice doesn’t put one down for the sake of the other—it makes everyone, both wrongdoers and the wronged, whole.
This is where we cross-bearing Christ-followers can lead the way to a fuller, richer, more satisfying model of Biblical justice. The entire narrative of the Bible points to God’s restorative justice at work in the world—restoring our relationship with Him and one another, directing us to see each other as image-bearers of God and to treat everyone with equality, fairness, and justice. We are tasked to create, restore, and sustain dignity in relationships with the same grace and love that God gave us.
But we don’t always do a good job at that. Today, we are seeing intense divisions and chaos in the United States not just because Marxism or critical race theory have indoctrinated minds, or simply because white supremacy has soaked into our institutions, but because we human beings—and I mean all human beings—have not followed the life-giving, wrong-fixing, reconciling justice that God displayed through Christ. Throughout history, we humans have taken advantage of people more vulnerable than us, or remained apathetic or oblivious to the injustice around us. Yet nobody is immune to committing injustice: We all share that sinful desire to be greater and better than others. One day the oppressed will cry out and in comes retributive justice: “You hurt me. I’ll make you hurt so you feel my hurt. I’ll make you pay.”
That Saturday, as I performed my own twisted form of justice on my husband, I was miserable, and so was he. I was playing both victim and judge. The result was two victims standing before one mean and angry judge when what we both longed for was a perfect, loving, righteous judge. If we had been two strangers, our relationship would have been severed long before a relationship even existed (and that’s what’s happening in society right now). But as man and wife, bonded into a lifelong covenant under God, love and trust won.
By that night, we were talking and listening to each other. In the midst of that conversation, my self-centered sense of justice shifted to a more cross-centered one: I was honest about what I felt, but my aim was to restore—not punish. It started from a place of love, then recognition of past wounds that weren’t adequately addressed, then transitioned into David asking, “What can I do to make things right?” and me acknowledging my own failures. And then we ended the night by saying, “I love you.”
That’s just a small example of restorative justice practiced in real life, but what a reminder that what happened on the cross is not just something that happened more than 2,000 years ago. It was a world-shaking event that should continue to shake every person, every marriage, every church, every community to the ends of the earth.
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There’s a popular Korean saying that I always heard growing up: “You can’t spit at a smiling face.” I’ve never spat in anyone’s face before, smiling or scowling, but I did notice this: I can never seem to despise someone enjoying a popsicle.
Hear me out. I grew up attending public schools in Singapore. I don’t know about now, but back in the 1990s, school discipline in the public schools I attended bordered on child abuse. I saw teachers do horrific things to young students in the name of discipline. In fourth grade, we had one particularly vicious teacher who was known to be the disciplinary matron of the school. Almost every day I would hear her shrill screeches at some poor kid who didn’t tuck his shirt in or was tardy to class. Or I’d cringe at the loud, wet smacks echoing down the hallway as she slapped the sweaty backs of non-compliant students. Nobody liked this teacher, and I despised her with all my 9-year-old heart. Until I saw her eating a popsicle.
It was during recess, and I spotted her standing alone on the second floor leaning against the balcony, sucking on a little popsicle (or “lolly,” as we call it there). It was hot and humid, as it is every day in Singapore, and she was clearly enjoying that sweet, cold treat—her lips tainted with the neon color of the popsicle, blissfully oblivious to me looking up at her.
I don’t know why, but all of a sudden, I felt a rush of warm feelings for this woman whom I had once detested. There was just something about her enjoying that simple, ageless, even vulnerable act of licking a popsicle. For that moment, I saw her not as a terrifying banshee but as a fellow human being who wasn’t so terrible after all. That feeling was nothing profound, but innate and organic—it was a 9-year-old girl somehow relating with a middle-aged woman through the shared experience of delighting in an icy popsicle on a hot day. And for those few minutes, I genuinely loved that woman.
As messy and complicated as we human beings are, we’re also wonderfully simple, lovable creations. Whatever our gender or age or ethnicity, we cry when we’re sad, laugh when we’re delighted, eat when we’re hungry, kiss when we’re in love, hug when we comfort. From everything I’ve learned in the Bible about God’s heart for us, I believe God laughed with joy when He created us in His image, and His smile is imprinted in our sacred dignity as human beings. Stripped of all our hurts and wounds, our politics, our selfishness and stubbornness, we all naturally yearn to love and be loved. We were made to enjoy the sweet, precious life that God gave us. As broken as our world is, it’s still full of daily miracles: the pink sun rising and birds chirping every morning, or the fact that despite all the guaranteed heartaches and disappointments, we human beings still choose to love someone every day.
Perhaps because much of my interaction with humankind has been limited to iPhone blurbs during the pandemic, I had forgotten this beautiful side of humanity. Over the past few weeks, my frustrations and disappointments at my fellow human beings—especially at my brothers and sisters in Christ—have been rising like a dangerous tidal wave, threatening to crush my love and faith in others.
Perhaps you feel the same way. I certainly see similar attitudes on social media as people—particularly Christians—react passionately to hot-button issues such as racial justice, protests, mask mandates, church reopenings, you name it. I felt shame as my non-Christian friends sent me texts genuinely questioning certain Christians’ rhetoric and decisions, felt irritation when I saw statements that so opposed my own beliefs and values, and frankly, felt a lot of self-righteousness and judgmentalism in doing so. I wanted to argue and reason my way to prove my point, believing that maybe more rigorous debates and nuanced understandings could change minds (incidentally, the only minds I thought needed changing were those of others, not mine).
And then something happened in my family that forced me to think long and hard about the intrinsic, sacred value of human life—human life, period. As I was pondering these things, I read a tweet from author and WORLD Radio commentator Trillia Newbell that cleared the fog of idolatries in my heart. She tweeted: “I believe that much of our problems with each other isn’t a lack of nuance or charity or patience or grace. It’s a lack of love. We don’t love each other and if we can admit it and confess it, maybe all those other things will change.”
Ouch. Trillia was right: At the core of it, what I was missing was love. With love God formed us human beings, and with that love we are able to love others. That’s when I thought back again to that day as a fourth-grader when I watched my teacher enjoy a popsicle and felt an unforced, raw surge of love for her—not because she reformed herself and became kinder to her students. It was because even as an immature kid lacking sophisticated words to describe that experience, I was experiencing that God-given capability to see someone not just for her behaviors but for who she is—a fellow wonderful, adorable, glorious human being. It really is that simple.
Imagine what our world would be like if we all loved each other—period. No conditions, no reservations based on political ideology or religious denomination. Just pure love. Imagine what our Christian witness would look like to a world so full of hate and ugliness. Imagine that we responded to angry retorts with love. From experience, I’ve seen genuine kindness tame even the most irate, stubborn individuals, even if we still end with disagreements.
Love is a God-given response that, to me, is so hard only when I believe it is hard, and so easy when I take the time to step back from my own ideas and see others through God’s eyes. Oh, may our Lord help clear all the clutter in our hearts that obstructs us from that innate ability to love, even if we have to imagine everyone sucking a popsicle in order to do so.