She ’s well known for her life-changing work with drug addicts in Hong Kong and she’s seen thousands of lives changed. But Jackie Pullinger-To shuns evangelistic strategies and has few resources. So how exactly does she do it? Roger Harper finds out.
Jackie Pullinger-To was walking down a hill in Hong Kong, praying in tongues. She bumped into Matthew, whom she had met once before. They said hello. “How about a cup of tea at Ah Chan’s?” asked Jackie. Matthew didn’t look at all keen but, embarrassed, he agreed. As they sat in the café Jackie showed Matthew pictures of people he had known who had been on drugs, and who now, as Christians, were free from addiction. He looked fidgety and finally said, “I have to go.” Off he went.
A few weeks later Jackie was walking down the same hill, praying in tongues. She bumped into Matthew again. “Hello Matthew, how about a cup of tea at Ah Chan’s?” He looked even less keen, but was embarrassed and in a corner. He came and gulped down a cup of tea. Jackie said, “Matthew, all these guys were changed by Jesus and I know that you’ve got a problem. If you ever want an answer, Jesus is here, and I’m here, so here’s my number. And this is free.” Off he went.
Jackie didn’t see Matthew for five years. One day she had a knock on the door. It was Matthew. “I’m ready now,” he said. “Well what’s happened in the middle?” asked Jackie. Set free“I was on drugs,” Matthew said, “really needing money. I had decided to go and rob a goldsmith. I bought the gun. I found out when the guard changed. I timed it exactly and I was on my way to the robbery. And then I bumped into you! And you said, ‘How about a cup of tea?’ I was much too embarrassed to tell you I was on my way to a robbery. So we had tea, and I missed it. It was too late. A few weeks later I planned it again. I had the whole thing worked out and was on my way to the robbery, and I bumped into you again! After that, I threw the gun into the harbour. I thought ‘I’ll go to sea. I can’t get rid of this habit so I’ll move away.’ But whatever it was that controlled me in Hong Kong, controlled me in every port I went to. Finally I remembered what you said about those other people who found Jesus. So I’ve come now to be set free.”
“Are you willing to believe in Jesus?” asked Jackie. “Yes of course!” said Matthew like many people who have seen others changed by Jesus. “Will you believe He died for your sins? Matthew didn’t understand this, but, again like many others, he simply said “Yes.” He trusted Jackie and her Jesus. She hadn’t just flown into Hong Kong with a message on a platform to fly out again the next day.
Jackie and her colleagues prayed in tongues for Matthew. The Holy Spirit came to him. He welcomed Jesus into his life and he too spoke in tongues. As he continued praying in tongues and others prayed with him constantly, 24 hours a day, for 10 days, he came off his drugs with no withdrawal symptoms. He joined one of the family houses, learning a pattern of family life, of meals and fun and rules and worship, which he had never known before. Jackie Pullinger-To told this story at the Greenbelt festival in Cheltenham last year. Over 25 years ago she wrote of similar people in a book, written with Andrew Quicke, called Chasing the Dragon. For a while in the early 1980s Jackie Pullinger was a household name among Christians. Since then, most people have heard little of her. But, out of the limelight, Jackie has continued to do the same things she wrote about.
Now she is part of the St Stephen’s Society, continuing to develop the approach she pioneered, working in Thailand and the Philippines and other places as well as Hong Kong. Last year a new edition of Chasing the Dragon was published, with a new introduction and two new chapters.
For over 30 years Jackie and others have been praying with drug addicts in Hong Kong, bringing them to Jesus, introducing them to praying in tongues, seeing them set free to a new life without drugs. It is remarkable how little has changed. The St Stephen’s approach works among drug addicts in Hong Kong. What is this approach?
Bringing people to JesusJackie sees herself as a missionary. “I don’t work among drug addicts. My job is to share Jesus with whoever wants to hear and also to help those who are trapped in some kind of poverty or slavery… We start with Jesus.” Jackie has wanted to be a missionary since the age of five when she heard a woman missionary give a talk at her Sunday School. Nothing else is as important, as joyous, as fun, as sharing in the joy of heaven over one sinner who repents.
Jackie brought nothing to Matthew except her message – no tracts, no videos, no evangelistic services with culturally relevant music, not even an invitation to come on a course. She was continuing the same approach as when, over 30 years ago, she left England on a boat with nothing, not even a return ticket.
Jackie says that making new Christians is “the easy bit.” She doesn’t think it needs great strategies and resources. People see the difference Jesus makes in the lives of people they know or in their own life when Christians pray. Eventually they want to become Christians. This may take a time, as it did with Matthew. Once they have seen the difference Jesus makes in people today, it is up to them to respond. But until people are ready, there is little point in pursuing them with adverts and offers.
Long-term careJackie says people trust St Stephen’s because they are not going to be leaving on the next plane. Jackie herself has made Hong Kong her home. She speaks like a Chinese woman who had a very good English teacher. Ask her to write something and she writes in Cantonese. Jackie has welcomed hundreds of people on short-term outreach but she also writes of some of them as ‘voyeurs.’
Jackie is grateful for those who, in her early days, asked her to stay and love the people. “All the unreasonable benefits came for me after nearly 20 years” she writes. “People I had spent time with so long before never forgot even though we lost each other for a while. Suddenly someone from the past appeared again and it turned out that he had not killed the memory of a love that was so extraordinary that the giver spent Himself in giving until He died. So we have been the delighted, sobbing representatives of the Father whose prodigal son crawled or rushed home after all.”
The people at St Stephen’s stay with people as they take their first steps as Christians. As many are heroin addicts, people stay with them 24 hours a day for 10 days, praying with them, massaging them, feeding them, loving them. They also stay with people after they become Christians. “If God meant a child to grow slowly and safely in a loving family for up to 18 years, why should we be angry at those who do not change at our pace?”
If making new disciples is ‘the easy bit’ the hard bit is staying with new Christians as they slowly work out their new life and are transformed by the renewing of their minds. People who have never known good ‘honest’ kind behaviour take time to learn it. “The man who prophesied last night beats up a helper in the morning.”
Jackie has learnt to be the anguished representative of the Father who never gives up on any of His children. “Whatever wrong things you do, you’re not out of the family.”
Making disciples No government agency will be able to support the propagation of one faith as opposed to another, as St Stephen’s aims to do. “If you have a partnership with the state, you can’t talk about Jesus,” says Jackie. For her the key question is: “Whether the state funds you or not would you do this?” They have occasional government grants for occasional projects, but no funding for the core work.
State-faith partnerships are much encouraged at the moment, and there is no doubt a place for Christians working together with other people who share similar ideals. But Christians need to keep and support ‘new disciples’, work which no-one else will do or support. “You’ve got all the poor missions somewhere downtown, run by strange people,” says Jackie. “Everybody admires them but doesn’t want to get near them. And then you’ve got all the nice people meeting somewhere with homes and families and jobs. One’s got what the other needs.” One of the most important men in Hong Kong visited St Stephen’s. A teenage delinquent gave him a word from God that changed his life. “We’ve got what will make them rich and they’ve got what will make us stable and wholesome.” Jackie wants to see people connecting more, sharing more.
Middle class people have to start with God’s heart for the poor, crying with those who cry, helping others with their own resources, joining with others who have a similar heart’s desire. “Starting a project, raising funds won’t do it,” says Jackie. “You have to have a broken heart and the power of the Holy Spirit.”
A gift for everyoneOnce someone wants to meet Jesus, the St Stephen’s people don’t tell them anything about Him. “Just close your eyes, and He’ll come,” is all they say. They pray quietly in tongues. The person sighs deeply, or starts to cry or smile, feeling light or happy or relaxed. “That’s because Jesus is the Son of God. Will you believe that?” they ask. “Yes,” the person replies. They try not to say very much but continue praying quietly in tongues. When the person then feels even more light or relaxed, they explain that Jesus has taken all their heavinesses, their guilt, their pain, on Himself in dying for them. “Will you believe that?” The person says “Yes.” They also explain that Jesus is not dead but alive and touching them now. With all they are feeling, it’s very easy for them to believe. Then they encourage the new Christian to talk to Jesus for themselves asking Him to take away fully all their guilt and pain, to save their life. “Then,” they say, “He’ll give you new words to talk to Him.” The person starts praying in tongues, “just like a baby who’s born cries – it’s a very natural thing.”
Jackie cannot understand why some people are so wary of this gift. She explains that praying in tongues is simply praying in sounds rather than words. People don’t understand what they are saying; they trust that the strange sounds they are making are prompted by the Holy Spirit inside them. People control when they begin to pray in tongues and can stop praying at any time. But they don’t control what sounds come out of their mouth. It is this humble handing over some of our control which is spiritually important – and initially scary.
“This is such a super gift and God is not picky in just giving it to some people. It’s the only gift of the Spirit that builds you up. So why not all have it? That’s why we read the Bible isn’t it? And tongues will be a great help if you know almost anyone with problems.”
The new Christians at St Stephen’s also learn to let the Holy Spirit speak through them in their own language – the gift of prophecy – as well as in strange sounds. Jackie’s sessions at Greenbelt began with a couple of members of her team speaking out in Cantonese what they believed the Holy Spirit wanted to say to the people there.
Real love“We love our people whether they turn out well or not,” says Jackie. “And the successes do not vindicate our ministry nor the disappointments nullify it. What is important is whether we have loved in a real way – not preached in an impassioned way from a pulpit.” From their first contact with people to the nurture of the oldest Christians, St Stephen’s people look to meet practical needs. “The spiritual and the practical go absolutely hand in hand.”
The approach of Jackie Pullinger-To and the St Stephen’s Society, tried and tested over many years, has been little adopted by other people, certainly in the UK. Yet what they do is far closer to Jesus’ mission instructions recorded in Luke 10 and Matthew 10 than most of our mission work. There Jesus tells those whom he chooses to send to go in pairs, with nothing, ready to stay with people where they are welcomed. They are to demonstrate the power of the Spirit before they talk of the Kingdom. Is Jackie Pullinger-To calling us back to Jesus’ way of mission? “Preach the Gospel and have fun,” she says, “because it’s good news, not good advice.”
Roger Harper is a regular contributor to Christianity magazine. He has worked for 18 years in Church of England parish ministry and is now a part-time hospice chaplain and writer.