On February 23, the film Amazing Grace: The William Wilberforce Story will release in theatres across the United States. Wilberforce was one of the greatest social reformers of all history. While best known for his lifelong work to end the slave trade in the British Empire, he tirelessly labored for the poor and downtrodden as well as started the royal society to end cruelty to animals. Wilberforce changed the world and, as such, has been a great inspiration to many who seek to make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, while a great hero to some, Wilberforce is simply not on the radar of most people today.
Wilberforce was a man of deep faith – Evangelical Faith. In today’s world, the word evangelical conjures up so many different images – arrogant, pompous, self-righteous, right-wing, power hungry and hypocritical, to name a few. While I would like to say all the caricatures are media biases and conspiracy, as a leader of a global network that serves 420 million evangelicals, I have to hang my head and say I have seen it all and sometimes it is not very pretty.
However, there is another side to evangelicals. As someone who travels 250,000 miles a year around the world, I have come across hundreds of unsung heroes, women and men of faith who are profoundly changing the world where they have been planted. These individuals don’t have a big TV “ministry” or influential radio show or even pastor a big church. They are people who every day serve the poor, the neglected, the sick and ill-treated. They sacrifice their time and often their own personal resources for the sake of others. For some, they risk their lives everyday.
I think of Walter, a soft-spoken and humble man from Ghana. Over the last several years, Walter has rescued over 3,000 young women who had been bartered as sex slaves to village witch doctors. These women are now being counseled, educated and trained so they can take up a meaningful place in their society.
I think of a former PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) fighter who ended up in America. After 10 years in America, he found evangelical Christian faith. Today, he and his rural Wisconsin-born wife are living in Gaza city running a school for poor Palestine kids.
I think of Fidelis, a vibrant young Kenyan woman who works with poor farmers as she challenges the injustices and the need for land reform.
I think of the situation in Colombia where in the last 20 years hundreds of thousand of innocent people have died and over 3 million have become refugees because of civil war. Now the guerrillas have asked evangelicals to help broker piece with the government. Why? The leaders of guerrilla movement have observed the evangelical pastors in the area of the country they control and have said these pastors live and die with the poor. We can trust them. The Colombian government agrees and wants the evangelicals to help as well.
I think of Godfrey, who risks his life everyday to care for victims of the civil war in Sri Lanka. While providing care for the suffering on both sides of the conflict, he boldly speaks out against the human rights violations and atrocities conducted by both parties in this civil war.
I think of a church in Kampala, Uganda. Every week, each of the over 1,000 small neighborhood groups care for HIV or AIDS impacted families in their community. It is not very sophisticated. Providing a piece of fruit, cleaning house and just spending time with a dying person to show they are loved and have dignity as they lose their life to this dreadful disease.
I think of Salim, an Arab evangelical Christian in Jerusalem (talk about a minority among a minority) who is committed to reconciling people in his part of the world. He takes Israelis and Arabs into the desert for a five-day camel trek. Over 1,000 people have taken this trek, and in the wilderness, have been able to have dialogue and confront their own prejudices and find various degrees of reconciliation.
Then there is Darfur. Sudanese evangelicals at great risk are providing care and sustenance for thousands impacted by this senseless genocide.
You multiply these stories by the tens of thousands around the world and you begin to get another picture of contemporary evangelical faith. However, much more needs to be done in world of conflict, pain and struggle. It is my hope that as the story of William Wilberforce is introduced to a whole new generation, we will see rising tide of heroes and social activists. Not just among evangelicals but among all people of good will.
Geoff Tunnicliffe is International Director of World Evanglical Alliance.