Jackie Pullinger is one of the world’s best known missionaries, and a heroine of the charismatic movement. Here, she talks about her dislike of being a celebrity, burnout, and whether salvation comes through grace or works
Jackie Pullinger is reluctant to be interviewed and really hates her photograph being taken. When visiting the UK she was happier sitting with some of the former addicts she has helped than hobnobbing with pastors and journalists. It is clear that she is suspicious of her semi-iconic status as the woman who evangelised and loved the forgotten addicts of a diabolical slum in Hong Kong, and who sees miraculous conversions, healings and transformations in the lives of some of the world’s most desperate people. It’s pretty rare that she makes a public appearance. When she does, it is usually to call the Church to get out there and do more to help the poor and the suffering. This summer she has visited churches around the UK in conjunction with the International Substance Abuse and Addiction Coalition (ISAAC), a Christian network of ministries to the addicted, putting on workshops to pass on some of her experience to those working in the field. In the evenings, she has had a simple message for the wider group of attendees: ‘Go!’ ‘All over the world, there are places for you to go and people for you to meet, people for you to heal and people for you to bring back from the dead,’ she tells the crowd gathered in Coventry, where she is speaking. ‘They are waiting for you. Nobody else can do what you are called to do. If you don’t do it, someone else might miss out [on] knowing God’s love.’ ‘Go’ is exactly what she did as a young woman in her early 20s, fresh out of music college where she studied the oboe. She wanted to be a missionary, but she was turned down by the organisations she applied to. Still, she felt that God was telling her to ‘go’. When, in 1966, she followed the advice of a vicar – to get on a boat and get off where she felt God told her to – she found herself in Hong Kong. She soon came across the Walled City, a dire slum full of Triad gangsters, heroin addicts, prostitution, and with barely a chink of light in the whole place. Tens of thousands of desperate people were crammed into a few acres of space. She received the gift of speaking in tongues, and began praying for people while in the Spirit, finding that as she did so, addicts would sometimes detox without any withdrawal symptoms. She spent her time befriending the people, praying for them, and telling them about Jesus. She is tight-lipped about how many addicts she has helped over the years, but it is estimated to be many thousands. The Walled City – once notorious for sin and despair – has since been knocked down by the Hong Kong government and is now a pleasant park area. But Pullinger still works for the addicts of Hong Kong, and currently houses around 300 people recovering from the ravages of addiction at St Stephen’s Society, which she founded. Of all the Christians in the public eye, Pullinger must surely be one of the most deserving of attention and admiration. But she is very reluctant to be in the spotlight, telling the audience that it makes her nervous due to the addictive nature of fame: ‘We do things that we know won’t satisfy, but they trick us that they do,’ she tells them. ‘The same thing is likely and possible for pop stars, pastors, worship leaders, anything where there are performances. That’s why I’m personally terribly nervous of big meetings, because there’s a high…then afterwards…you get a pop star alone without the crowds, and then there is the low.’ So when she begins a healing ministry in a worship service, she won’t let people come to the front so she can pray for them, instead telling the Christians around them to pray: ‘The work of Jesus is through everyone. It’s not someone at the front,’ she explains. ‘Jesus said everyone could do what he had been doing. He said together we could all do even greater [things] than he had [done]. So we had better all get on and do it.’ You sounded very cautious earlier on about being in front of people and being interviewed. Is there something about being a celebrity Christian that you find difficult? Yes, very, because it’s anti the gospel. In the Old Testament you had a few special people like judges or kings or prophets. In the New Testament God said, ‘I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh.’ So, the more you put one person on a pedestal, the more people think there’s a special anointing or something, which is not true, and it actually makes the Church go backwards and not forwards. We’re not going to reach the ends of the earth if we’re relying on a few specially anointed or gifted people. The good news is that the job was given to every ordinary, weak kind of person. Now, why he did it that way, I don’t know. It seems an awful risk, but that’s the way he chose. As much as you don’t like that feeling of being famous, your book has inspired many others. Would you say that’s true? Oh, that’s good…That’s why I’m not writing a whole lot more. Just in case people want one more book, instead of ‘you go and do it’. So is that what you’re saying to the Church? Are you saying, ‘You can do this too?’ Well, I do sometimes (laughs). That’s partly why we’re here in the UK. We’re here to specially give a few things that people can get hold of to help the broken and the addicted. How does it make you feel when you see people who have been set free? Well, clearly I’m thrilled, but it doesn’t make it worth it because they got healed. It was always worth it because of Jesus. I felt fine before they were healed, but it is wonderful to be in what Jesus is doing. It’s such a privilege. If you ask Christians in addiction work about the best way to deal with people who have addictions or are in crime, there seems to be two kinds of ways of approaching it. One says go and support people where they’re at unconditionally. And the other would say that you’ve got to encourage them to come out of sin…if you’re feeding and housing people, then you might be encouraging them in their addiction, rather than encouraging them to stop. I hardly ever tell people to get off drugs. I mean, what a waste of time. But I’ve had friends, and they know that I love them. I’ve visited them in prison and they’ve come out and gone back to drugs. I’ve said to them after a while, ‘I won’t see you any more because it distresses me to eat with you while you’re going to hell. So when you’re ready to deal with your problem, come and find me.’ I said that to one man and he could only stand it for a day, and then he said, ‘Now I’m ready.’ They probably really need to know you love them before you can get to that point. But, of course, you can’t facilitate their lifestyle. Of course not. That’s not very loving. In churches there tends to be a minority who are doing the difficult work on the ground – the evangelism, soup kitchens, that sort of thing. I think if you ask any pastor they’d say that 10% of the church do 90% of the work. It’s not my job to comment on churches, Britain, Christianity here, or anything. It is my job to get people to read scripture – which is, as an individual, what’s your response to Jesus and the lost? Because [we are told] in Matthew 25 that our eternal salvation is going to depend on whether we helped the lost or not. So don’t ask me what I think of churches or other people. I can’t point fingers, but I can read scripture. A similar message comes from Keith Green and others, and you tend to get a lot of pastors saying that it’s salvation by works. What would you say? Read your Bible! It says, ‘If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need and does not have compassion on him, how can the love of Christ be in him?’ This is scripture. It isn’t, ‘Oh well, I’m saved by grace and so I don’t need to do good works.’ It is ‘If you see your brother in need and have material possessions and you do nothing, how can the love of God be in you?’ So there’s certainly something in scripture which leads us to question: Do I really know the love of God? Because if I’ve met him, in forgiveness and grace, then it will overflow to the lost. If it doesn’t, have I met him? They absolutely go together. It’s what Wesley said, and I guess Wesley believed in salvation by grace. The works prove your salvation. They don’t earn it. So, by that measure, a lot of people who say they’re Christians, aren’t? That’s not for me to say. It’s just for me to say, ‘Read the Bible.’ Often Christians start in social action ministries and get burned out and people don’t change, and they don’t see any fruit. Why do you think that is, and what would your advice be to them? I don’t think ‘burnout’ is a Christian word. You actually can’t burn out if you’re on the right fuel, doing the thing that you’re supposed to be doing. I think you can burn out if you’re doing somebody else’s work that you’re not supposed to be doing. Probably the chief problem is that a lot of people are expecting results; we’re results-orientated. If you want to help the poor, you can’t be results-orientated because they can smell that. We’re living in an age where people put something in and they expect to get something out: ‘I did this. I was kind to this one. It backfired. I got burned out. I got disappointed.’ Well, yes! (laughs) That’s why Jesus said, ‘Lay your life down for the lost.’ It’s going to happen. Sometimes it has to do with funding. If someone has funded you, you have to produce a report and come up with some statistics. Mercifully, people don’t fund us so we don’t have to come up with statistics, though people ask for them. Do you think you’ll ever retire? I’m not employed, so I can’t retire. Do you think you’ll always carry on doing this on the ground… doing the work? Well, that’s why we’re on the ground, isn’t it? So, while you’re on the ground, you’ll be on the ground? That’s why we’re on the ground, isn’t it? Otherwise you might as well go to heaven. And do you still get really involved in the day-to-day work of St Stephens? Yes. I still get called at 2 or 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Yep. And, you know, if – because I’ve got a whole load of government meetings or a trip like this – if I do get out of touch, God’s very kind, and the lost are very kind too, and the poor, because they’re no respecters of persons. They’ll ring up with their problems and I’ll trip over them, so God’s good at keeping me real. How do you think your faith has grown over the years? Well, by exercising. We need to pray for a whole lot more money now, but it’s not harder to pray for $1m than $1. It’s the same thing. It’s as easy or as difficult. So, you just keep practising. Do you ever get scared of the Triads or some of the criminal aspects of your work? Do you ever feel afraid? Only backwards. Only after the case. But, you know, they’re not more scary than anyone else. If you approached them at the wrong time, it would be [scary]. Last night I talked about when one gang leader invited me to share [the gospel] in drug dens and gambling dens, but I was invited, you see. I was in Germany once, and some people asked me to go and address drug addicts in a park. I said, ‘I don’t think I can, because this is not my park.’ And I do not assume that just because I’ve made friends with a bunch of gangsters in one place that all gangsters in the world will therefore respect me. Why should they? When I told the gangsters in Germany that our guys had got free from drugs without pain, they didn’t believe me. Why should they? So, I wouldn’t be presumptuous. Do you have any regrets? About what? Anything you’ve ever done? No. The scripture says that with repentance there is no regret, so how can you have regrets if you’ve repented? I’ve done dumb things, but then you get forgiven and then there are no regrets. What is the most amazing thing that you’ve seen God do in your life? Anyone coming to Jesus is amazing. There isn’t a comparison. If everyone is worth him dying for, everyone is amazing. There are quite unlovable people who he made for himself. So, you know, it’s just a privilege to come across them too, even if they don’t change. You said last night, your advice to someone who wants to get into mission of any kind is firstly, get healed as much as possible yourself. Secondly, learn how to pray for the sick and see them healed, and thirdly, avoid bad relationships. Well, I would never say one, two, three, but those would be some of the ingredients, yes. What about if you feel a call, you want to do something, but you don’t know what and God isn’t telling you yet? Start praying for the sick, feeding the poor; learn how to cast out demons. While you’re waiting, get busy. Anything else apart from those three? Anything else that you would advise? Counsel? I give very little counsel. There’s plenty in the Bible. What Bible verses would you recommend? Go. Go into all the world. Go and make disciples of all nations.