WITHIN - Mike Riddell
I was fresh from six years of theological study—the last part of it in a leafy suburb of Zürich. And now it was time to put the theory into practice. I was in my thirties, full of piss and vinegar as we say in New Zealand. By choice, I’d washed up in Ponsonby, a central city village in Auckland.
In my enthusiasm, I’d agreed to become pastor of a small church with a proud history. Like many urban congregations, it had dwindled under the pressure of suburban migration. Now there were only twenty people in the building on a Sunday. The church had been upfront in telling me they could only afford to pay me for one year. After that they would have run out of money.
The church had been established in 1880. It was once a thriving enterprise, packed with parishioners and held a strong sense of identity. Now it was facing pressure from denominational authorities to close its doors. But the church secretary, Alex, had made a personal vow that while he was alive, Ponsonby Baptist Church would maintain a presence in its community.
Choosing me to be the minister was a last roll of the dice. Desperate times call for desperate measures. My reputation as a radical and a troublemaker preceded me. No other church in the country had any interest in my availability, aware as they were of my inclinations toward social and political activism.
So my induction into the new role was something of a shotgun wedding. Neither I, nor the people of the church, had many other options open to us. We formed an alliance built on the hope of mutual survival. One of my first tasks as pastor was to dig up the drains of the toilet block to clear a sewage overflow. Let it suffice to say that my studies in ancient Greek hadn’t prepared me for this particular task.
Alex, the church secretary, was New Zealand-born Chinese, with a wife who had come to the country from mainland China. Together with their adult children, they owned and staffed the fruit and vegetable store in the central part of Ponsonby. Like all such enterprises, it was a busy and colorful venture.
I recognized early on that Alex was a central figure in the life of the church. He carried the personal burden of “keeping the doors open,” a line in the sand that he often reminded us of. Part of this mission was to support the congregation both financially and through participation. Of the twenty souls who regularly attended on a Sunday, six were from his family.
Baptist churches operate on a principle of congregational governance, and I knew from my first days in the job that it would be important for me to establish a strong relationship with this man who had considerable influence in the affairs of the church.
We were very different people. Alex was a man who had battled prejudice and hardship to establish a thriving business. He and his family worked tirelessly in it. By five in the morning, Alex was to be found at the fruit and vegetable markets, buying stock at the vigorous auctions. And it was late in the evening before all the stock was packed away in the cooler and they could all go home.
He was naturally suspicious of me—a young man who had spent the last six years reading books and talking about ideas. I needed to do something to bridge the gap and form a relationship with him. So I began the practice of weekly visits to the shop.
I would stand in the back near the cooler, to be out of the way of the steady stream of customers. In whatever breaks available, Alex or his wife would chat with me. By being in their workplace, I learned a lot about them and the history of Ponsonby.
The area was on the cusp of gentrification. Alex regaled me with the stories of when the village had been full of Pacific Island immigrants, and he could sell a container-load of their staple diet, Taro, every week. Now people from renovated villas wanted exotic items like pomegranate. Each week I was presented with a gift bag full of produce for the family.
It was a few years before I realized that my overtures had not been successful. I’d done my part to keep the doors of the church open. There was an influx of young professional people to the congregation, and we’d begun many ventures, including the provision of community housing. While Alex might have been pleased at the numbers, he felt his own position as leader being diluted by the changes.
I was slow to discover that Alex was quietly doing the numbers for a coup to get me deposed as minister. As this plot emerged I was both hurt and angry. It led to a number of distressing confrontations. We survived them, but I began to regard him as an enemy, and felt I couldn’t trust his intentions anymore. When you classify someone as an enemy, you cease to really see them at all.
I surrounded myself with supporters, and began to ease my adversary out of the central position he’d held in the life of the church. I considered myself betrayed and sought revenge. My rationale was that I was under attack, and that the obvious reaction was to retaliate. I’m not proud of how I acted. It was from a place of hurt that had fermented into anger.
It was Alex’s wife who one day confided in me the family secret. She had many years ago given birth to their first-born—a son. In a Chinese family, of course, this was particularly auspicious. It was in the time when the fruit shop was intensely busy. They both needed to work there, and the baby was placed safely in a box in the back where he slept, as they say, like a baby.
One fateful morning she went to check on him. He wasn’t breathing. It was cot death, before such a thing was even known. Neither of the parents were interested in medical explanations. The story that crushed their hearts was that they had failed to care properly for their son and had been punished because of it.
She told me through tears that this was the reason they had become Christians, in a sense to appease the God that had delivered this verdict upon them. Instantly I understood the crippling damage this story, harbored in their hearts for decades, had done to them. I suddenly saw Alex and his family in a completely new light. I recognized their pain and shame.
It was too late. I’d already pushed Alex away, and he would no longer trust me as someone with whom he could be vulnerable. I’d been so quick to cast him into the role of enemy, without stopping to search for the cause of the antagonism. In so doing I had become the enemy, the feared one. I succeeded as minister, but failed as pastor.
A whole generation has passed since then. Alex is dead. I’m a writer rather than a clergyman. I’ve tried to learn that enmity is often driven by pain, and that listening for it can transform relationships. The differences that divide us are so often generated by the humanity we share. Our enemies are within.