The Missional Community on the River
While wandering through the internet and listening to a past sermon from a guest speaker at church, I remember the speaker mentioning a story that hit a chord in my heart. It spoke volumes to me because I study and love history. It was the story of a solider captured during the early years of World War II in the classic movie starring Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai. In the past decade, the book Miracle on the River Kwai, and the film To End all Wars, fill in the details on the story and life of Ernest Gordon, a British Army officer captured at sea by the Japanese at the age of 24. Gordon was sent to work on the Burma-Siam railway line.
The construction of railways was straight out Dante’s Inferno. The soldiers were subject to 120-degree heat, with their bodies stung by insects; their bare feet cut and bruised by sharp stones. Death was common – if a prisoner appeared to be lagging behind, Japanese guards would beat him to death, bayonet him or decapitate him in full view of the other prisoner. Some would die from sheer exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease under this condition. About 80,000 men died completing this railway, 393 fatalities for every mile of track. These circumstances did not stop God from forming missional communities in a place with despair and death.
Greater Love Hath No Man Than This… That a Man Lay Down His Life for His Friends
During most of the war, the prison camp had been a place of survival of the fittest, every man for himself. Prisoners fought each other over scraps of food; men lived like animals. The motivation of living became hate. However, one event changed the entire scene and became the greatest experiment and the beginning of missional communities in a place where death was commonplace. During one of the work days, the soldiers would drop off their shovels with the Japanese solider, who would take inventory and count the shovels at end of the workday.
One shovel was apparently missing as the Japanese officer screamed and demanded where the missing shovel had gone. Many of the prisoners were scared and confused, responding only by shaking their head. Upset, the Japanese officer screamed “All die, All die” and took aim at the first prisoner in line. However, one brave man stepped forward and said “I did it.” The Japanese surrounded him and beat and kick him to death. Afterward, they carried his body back to the camp. It was then that they found out no shovel was missing because it was miscounted. The prisoner that stood up for the rest of the group presents the picture of my favorite verse, “Greater love hath no man than this… that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Out of Death, God Had Not Left Us, He Was With Us.
The sacrifice of this one man penetrated the hearts of these prisoners, whose attitudes began to change in the camp. They began treating the dead with respect and gave them proper burials and funerals. Without prompting, prisoners began to look out for one another, which allowed for Ernest Gordon to live and witness one of the most amazing transformations. Gordon would soon recover from his injury and sickness from the care of the people in the camp. This new spirit continued to spread Gordon writes:
Death was still with us-no doubt about that. But we were slowly being freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death. Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealous, greed, self-indulgence, laziness and pride were all anti-life. Love, heroism, self sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its trust sense These were the gifts of God to men….True there was hatred, but there was also love. There was death, but there was also life. God had not left us. He was with us calling us to live the divine life in fellowship.
This new spirit encouraged people to form Jungle university where prisoners began to teach others philosophy, mathematics, natural science, history, and nine languages. Prisoners with artistic talents painted and put on an art exhibition. A few prisoners carved and made instruments while one prisoner with a photographic memory wrote complete scores and symphonies of the works of Beethoven and Schubert.
As I continued to investigate, my heart began to burn as streams of tears ran down my face at the thought of such missional communities surfacing in a place filled with death and hatred. These prisoners clung to desperate hope that their lives would not end there but resume, after liberation, back in the hills of Scotland, in the streets of London or wherever they called home. When the day came, the prisoners treated their enemy with grace, compassion, and love.
It is amazing how we are called to plant and plow on our campuses in this violent, disordered world. Our fellowships, churches and missional communities are alternative communities that may take root. Using the gifts talents where God has placed us to share and love, should compel us to treat people like the prisoners in the camp. We can witness an amazing transformation on our campuses. With the purpose in mind and hope when Lord comes again. In the meantime, our missional communities should align themselves with another world, spreading not just stories and the love of Jesus but establishing communities in anticipation of His coming reign.
Anthony Deng is the New York City Metro Campus Coordinator for Campus Renewal. He leads and coordinates volunteers for events such as One Cry and helps facilitate the New York City Metro Area student core team. Anthony was born and raised in New York City graduated from CUNY the City College of New York, and has a B.A in History and Asian Studies. Anthony gives New York City tours to freshmen of various campuses. On his tour, he teaches and shows students various hidden gems of New York City. On the side, he loves to collect college sweatshirts and t-shirts. In addition, he loves to play and watch basketball and football. He an avid fan of the Pacers & Colts.