becoming an enemy of injustice: IJM’s Sharon Cohn Wu at Urbana 06

29 Jun

This is the first in what will be a series of posts reflecting purposefully on books, sermons, and testimonies that have impacted the way I think, pray, and live out my faith. I understand that religion and spirituality are sensitive topics for many and I know that not all of my friends and family hold the same convictions that I do. With that in mind, all posts of this nature will be labeled, so that if you prefer to skip them it will be easy to do so.

Whatever your perspective, I would be honored if you chose to read and/or respond to this post. But I wanted to provide fair warning that it explores a specific set of beliefs about the character of God, His call to justice for all people, and His ability to transform the world through the sacrifice of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

In December 2006 I attended my first Urbana convention. For those not in the know, Urbana is InterVarsity Christian Fellowship‘s triennial missions summit. It is hosted by IVCF/USA and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of Canada. The  first IVCF missions convention was held in 1946 in Toronto*, with the theme “Complete Christ’s Commission.” From 1948 to 2003, it was held in Urbana-Champaign Illinois, taking on the name of its location. 2006 was the first year Urbana was held in St. Louis, MO. It is projected to continue to happen in St. Louis, where the use of the Edward Jones Dome means that more delegates will be able to attend. In 2006, I was one of about 22,000 students, university faculty, and career missionaries who attended Urbana and had a chance to hear hundreds of great speakers explore God’s calling for his global church.

One of those speakers was Sharon Cohn, then Senior Vice President of Interventions at the International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that seeks justice for enslaved and oppressed people. She is still serving with IJM, although she is now Sharon Cohn Wu and her title is Senior Vice President of Structural Transformation. You can watch the entire address that Ms. Cohn Wu delivered at Urbana 06 at this link, and the audio version is available here. It is thirteen minutes long and absolutely worth your time to watch (or rewatch) her powerful testimony about God’s work through IJM.

I intended to record a few of my favorite quotes from the video; I ended up transcribing most of it. Ms. Cohn Wu’s testimony remains a powerful challenge to God’s people. I believe she was anointed to speak to Urbana 06, and I can only hope that her words continue to have an impact.

“As I came to know God, I became interested in what interested Him. Or at least I wanted to [be]. For example, His relentless concern for the poor. His peculiar preoccupation with the last, the least, the lost and the littlest. His remembrance of the people that the world forgot. Among all of God’s characters revealed in scripture, God reserves his strongest commentary for the offense of injustice. Proverbs 14 says, ‘He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker’.”

Cohn Wu goes on to tell the story of Elizabeth, a Malaysian girl who was sold into sexual slavery at 16. She resisted for three months but finally submitted to the brothel keeper’s demands, because she was literally starving to death. Her first customer paid 500 USD to take her virginity. The other girls in the brothel taunted her when she asked them to pray with her: “God cannot hear you in here.” But she believed.

“She prayed and asked that God would rescue her before her first year anniversary in the brothel. As Elizabeth cries out for a rescue, what do we imagine happens? I think God mobilizes his people. I think God asks His people to stand up, speak up, show up on behalf of the oppressed. Isaiah 1:17 is a directive– ‘Seek justice. Rescue the oppressed. Defend the fatherless. Provide for the widow.’ Or in 2 Corinthians where Paul says, ‘We are Christ’s ambassadors to the world, as if God was making His appeal through us.’ We are the instruments of His grace to demonstrate the good news of His love through justice. The problem is it’s not so simple, is it? What obscures our ability to be interested in the things that interest God? I think it is the smallness of us, and the massiveness of the need. Our smallness– we have two kinds. The first is the smallness of our concerns. My concerns are what impacts me: my day, my circumstances, my needs. The second is the smallness of my expectations.

“Tonight I would just like to bring you the good news that God is not knocked backwards by the massiveness of the need. It does not blur the contours of each person He so passionately loves, and He so passionately pursues.”

Elizabeth’s brothel was raided by IJM and local law enforcement officers.

“On the day of the raid, an unusual sight was found on the wall in one of the rooms of the brothel. On the wall of the brothel where Elizabeth was subjected to daily sexual assault, she had written Psalm 27: 1-3. ‘The LORD is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege against me my heart will not fear, though war break out against me, even then I will be confident!'”

When Sharon worried over Elizabeth as she recovered from her experience, Elizabeth reassured her, “God loves me so much, Sharon. He is so good.”

“There is– it is just true– massive injustice in the world and it is contrary to the purpose for which God imagined us. But imagine what God might want you to do about it.

“One person rescued from police brutality told me that he was studying law because then injustice would have a new enemy. Twenty-two thousand people. Imagine how many more enemies injustice could have this evening!

“The great news is that the world does not revolve around you, but you matter immensely. Not just to God (though that should be enough to raise the lowest head) but to Elizabeth, and to the millions of others who cry out for justice.”

The prophet Amos said, “I was not a prophet… but then God.” Ms. Cohn Wu went on to say, “I think God demands and provides us courage, not just to give us character, but to give others life.

“I asked Elizabeth to read Psalm 27 to me once, but she said, ‘No.’ She said Psalm 27 was what she read when she was in the brothel, but she wanted to share with me Psalm 34. ‘I sought the LORD, and He answered me, and He delivered me from all my fears.’

“We are all called to seriously consider God’s love and concern for the oppressed. We are also all called to be relentless in pursuing God’s justice in whatever ways He shows us.”

“Like Elizabeth, you were not just rescued ‘from’. You were rescued ‘for’– for God’s purpose, for God’s promise, and for God’s infinite glory.”

As I reflect on my life more than four years after hearing these words for the first time, I know I have a long way to go.  I want to desire God’s justice the way I did as a twenty-year-old first time Urbana delegate. I want to believe the truth that God is more than equal to the massive need in our world; that my smallness is easily rendered unimportant by his power. I want God to soften my heart to those who are oppressed, because all too often I feel calloused to the reality of the world’s suffering.

Friends, what do you think about this challenging message? If you are one who prays, will you join me in the prayer that God will reveal more every day what he has rescued us “for”?

*Edit 07.16.2011: Thanks to my friend Andrew for bringing it to my attention that many links in this post were broken. InterVarsity revamped their Urbana website soon after I published this post, and the new site does not have all the archived material from previous Urbanas that I had linked to! I updated the post with correct links to the video, posted on Gary Haugen’s Facebook page, and the audio, still available through intervarsity.org. I hope you take the time to listen to Ms. Cohn Wu’s testimony if you’re interested in hearing her words for yourself.

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5 Responses to “becoming an enemy of injustice: IJM’s Sharon Cohn Wu at Urbana 06”

  1. Mark H. June 29, 2011 at 4:18 PM #

    Hey Katie!

    Thanks so much for this post. At first I didn’t think I remembered this as well as I thought, but then when I started reading the quotes I realized I could easily remember almost the exact words. I think the key point for me is the thing about our ‘smallness’, especially in how we get distracted by our daily ‘concerns’ that usually don’t deserve a fraction of the attention we give them. It’s good to be reminded about how much God cares about injustice, and about how much I actually care, even though I often lose sight of that.

    • Emily Adams June 29, 2011 at 8:12 PM #

      Hi Katie! This was one of my FAVORITE speeches at Urbana….she was so encouraging :)

      • hopingfor June 29, 2011 at 11:02 PM #

        Thanks, Emily! I agree. And how awesome is it that 4.5 years later… you’re a full-fledged lawyer ready to bring some literal justice to the world!

    • hopingfor June 29, 2011 at 11:00 PM #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mark. I had a similar experience. Between the power of the original testimony and the time I spent meditating on it years ago, this message is pretty entrenched in my mind.

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  1. the postal code for Vancouver is V6B4G3, and other lessons I’ll never forget « here is hoping. - August 1, 2011

    […] of the Church’s calling to be diverse in terms of culture, and as I’ve experienced God’s call to justice for the oppressed, I’ve found that the very way I perceive the world has changed. Certainly […]

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