If I say ‘cupcake,’ what comes to mind – teatime perhaps, or… party? Whatever the case, I doubt that among your first thoughts would be ‘prostitute’, ‘dominatrix’ or ‘discipline’. No wonder I’m rendered momentarily speechless when my interviewee makes an extraordinary connection between baking and brothels.
I can’t deny that listening to Captain Danielle Strickland is having an impact, triggering a sudden desire in me to be rocketed out of my comfort zone. It seems she has this effect on most people.
‘We started doing this brothel ministry where we’d take cupcakes for the women,’ she informs me, ‘and I recently had a full tour of a bondage and discipline bordello.’ It’s all in a day’s work for Strickland, the Salvation Army’s social justice director for the Australian Southern Territory.
This job title is something for which she has certainly earned her stripes, having spent years living in the toughest of neighbourhoods in Canada and Australia in order to carry out church planting and social action initiatives. Her incarnational approach to ministry in Canada, where she lived among the people she was reaching out to, organically developed into advocating for victims of prostitution and human trafficking, and developing strategies to help oppressed people groups. This is what she does today.
Maybe what helps is the fact she has travelled widely and seen the seedier side of life herself. Experiencing drug addiction, rehab, crime and prison life undoubtedly gave her insight into what really matters. So she has no time for squabbling in church ranks when there’s a war to be won. Indeed who would want to argue with her given her knack for putting things so succinctly and accurately that you’d be hard pushed to disagree?
Listening to Strickland I also feel the need to revisit the thorny subject of the place of women in the church. After all, how many dynamic, motivational females are regularly on speakers’ bills and evoke comments such as ‘This girl’s ON FIRE!’ Her conviction that much of the church has simply got it wrong when it comes to women is substantiated by her own effectiveness as a leader and communicator.
She is forceful; but what also comes through is her heart for people and great sense of humour as a raconteur, punctuating her anecdotes with ready laughter, while she reflects on her experiences and what it means to be part of the Lord’s army.
What sparked your passion for social action? Was it a moment of epiphany or a gradual realisation of its importance?
It was gradual, through being in close proximity to the poor. As a juvenile delinquent I witnessed people in Malawi dying of hunger. Now it’s forever etched in me that in the West we shrink the whole world down to our own needs and wants all the time. Also I saw that in Western societies there can still be poverty. Where I lived in Vancouver there were literally third world conditions. People were paying exorbitant rent for filthy oneroom properties with bed-bug infested mattresses, showers that didn’t work and no kitchen facilities.
I was trying to do church planting there and came across a lot of injustice, so I found myself having to do advocacy on an individual basis. Seeking justice from a grassroots level was crazy and hard and soon I realised larger, systemic things needed to change.
What are some of the things you witness on a daily basis?
The most eye-opening nowadays is getting to know women through a brothel chaplaincy network we’ve started. There’s all this rhetoric in Australia about prostitution, about how it’s a woman’s right, full of liberated women who just can’t wait to sell their bodies. Of course the reality is very different. We’re meeting wonderful people who are trapped in this oppressive system. By far the majority of those I meet would do something else if they could.
I’ve been praying with female dominatrix in little brothel staffrooms with pentagrams (a mystic symbol) on the walls and bondage videos playing in the background; yet they’re hungry for God, for someone to care and know their real name. We often assume that they’re closed to this, that there’s some weird hardness that keeps them from God. I’ve spent a lot of time with streetwalkers and it’s been the same there. In fact they want the Lord, but we just haven’t bothered to go to them.
It’s been revealing in terms of the systemic oppression of prostitution because the women in there are primarily poor of course. They need jobs but the wages don’t even cover the rent. If they don’t pay that they lose their kids. They’re stuck, literally working to survive. No one is advocating for them or changing the system.
What has prevented many evangelicals from engaging with social justice issues?
I think we’ve been in love with comfort, so the church has vacated the neighbourhoods where it’s needed most. It’s a lot easier to preach a spirituality message than a social reform one if you’re not living differently, but we can’t properly live out the gospel without it being uncomfortable. Also evangelists often see social justice as a gutless way of living out the gospel, whereas people engaged in social action often assume the evangelists are hypocritical Bible bashers, but actually we need both proclamation and demonstration.
In addition we’ve bought into this dualism, separating spiritual things from practical things when that’s really not a gospel thing to do. We think evangelism is something that’s just about a spiritual decision somebody makes and we separate it from the rest of their life. This leads to poor conversions because there’s an intellectual assent but not a lifestyle change.
However, I think over the last decade the worldwide church has started to wake up to social justice. There’s been a shock awareness and education around it, and a revisiting of what it means to be a Christian, and since it’s happening globally I think it must be high on God’s agenda.
What is the message of your recently published book Just Imagine: A Call To Action and what impact do you hope it will have?
It’s about dreaming of living larger and seeing the redemption of the whole world. There’s a pessimism that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and the best we can do is hope Jesus will come back. It’s about dismissing that and saying, actually there’s this thing called redemption that God is doing and wants to do around the whole earth, and he’s inviting us to be part of it. The book also addresses how this could happen, how we can be part of that plan, how we can get started. It’s action-based. I really hope it’ll awaken people to live a different way and give them tools for community involvement and stimulate their interest in justice.
When it comes to social action, is there a middle ground for people between giving money from a distance and dropping everything to live among the needy?
I think the kingdom is big enough to span the whole gamut. There are different things that God puts on people’s heart to do and the trick is to listen to him and be obedient. For me as a Christian the journey always seems to spiral downwards towards the poor. God seems to have a bias towards them. Proximity does matter; so even if you are in middle-class-land the journey for you is to come and meet the needy. Evangelism and social action aren’t done from a distance, they’re done close up and personal. So there has to be a meeting point and the poor can’t move. They’re actually stuck, so it’s up to us.
How would you encourage people who are in churches which are not really involved in their communities?
The first thing to do is look, use your eyes. Choosing to see injustice is the first step to doing something about it. Start prayer walking your neighbourhood and learning your neighbours’ names, because in every community there are going to be these injustices that surface and that’s where you begin. When you come into proximity with injustice something grows in you for God’s heart, you don’t have to learn it. Churches can ask, what community are we in? What are the needs of the community? Are we meeting any of them? Take another look at Jesus and how he lived and then ask some hard questions about whether you’re representing him where you are, and what would it look like if you did?
If someone is big on social action how concerned would you be about their personal holiness?
That’s interesting because I’m writing a book now called Just Holy. I’ve written about how personal holiness and social justice work can come together in a beautiful way. I would say that social reform at its best in a gospel setting needs to be accompanied by holy living. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, said the conditions of men need to change, such as injustices and exploitation but he also said the character of men needs to change and that’s the inner work of the Holy Spirit. You can take a man out of a slum but you need to take the slum out of the man. I think that’s where holiness comes in. When I meet the drug addicts in downtown east side, both their character and the conditions they’re stuck in need to change.
What is your view of salvation? Do you call people to a moment of salvation/decision?
Salvation is finding Jesus and following him. There’s nothing I want more for people than that they should come to know him. Yes I do call people to a decision but often before I do, Jesus does! When I’m praying with someone in a brothel they might say ‘I have no peace,’ and I say, ‘Well I know the Prince of Peace, his name is Jesus. He can give you peace if you follow him. Do you want me to pray to him for you?’ So it comes up quite naturally. It’s not to make me feel good, it’s so that they might feel good! It’s about taking a step back and not making it about me. It’s about them, and it’s about what I can give. Sometimes I’m in situations where all I have to offer is prayer because I don’t have any other answers. So like Peter I say, ‘I don’t have any money but I do have prayer, how about that?’
Your zeal doesn’t end at social justice. You have also been involved in church planting and church leadership. How did you experience that?
I just loved it! We were actually experimenting in a lot of different ways. Our first post in a rural community actually got us doing some incredible things in the city with a lot of churches. I was able to be president of the ministerial there and we did a lot of city winning strategies together. It was amazing to see the church unified in mission. We still disagreed on a lot of theology but we all agreed God wanted to save the world! For me as a woman it was a bit weird even though I was leading the ministerial. There were some churches involved that didn’t have women leaders, but the fact that I was a woman didn’t seem to matter because we were focusing away from ourselves and onto the world. We were able to unify and march in the same direction. I think when it comes to theological differences we can fight and fight but in the end the unbeliever or oppressed person doesn’t really care about my theology; they need hope and life and truth; someone needs to tell them. I think if we focus on our mission to the world instead of on our petty differences it will help us a lot.
When did you first discover you could preach and how did you develop this gift, given that large parts of the church hold the view women shouldn’t preach?
I guess I started when I went to training college. I was always the testimony girl because I was a known rebel and when I got saved I did a sort of testimony circuit. I started out on a platform, but once I began delving into God’s word and preaching that I really loved it, then it wasn’t always about me, which was helpful. I enjoyed going to preaching classes. I listened to a lot of preachers and carried out preaching engagements on Sundays. It happened organically; I would speak and a church leader might be there and invite me to preach to their congregation. I also had mentors who gave me feedback, pointers and opportunities in their sphere of influence. It was bizarre because one church which didn’t have women leaders invited me to preach. I think it was partly people recognising I had a gift and partly because I’m not one of them, so there seemed safety in inviting me. Being with the Salvation Army also helped because we’re seen as pretty neutral when it comes to theology. It seems we’re often the good guys in the church. We feed the poor so everyone feels safe with the Salvos!
You say that theology which states women may not be preachers and church leaders is faulty. What is the correct place of women in the church and how do you interpret Paul’s teaching on it?
Well, I think we need all hands on deck. I think every person has different gifts and skills, and God doesn’t give them out based on our gender. He gives them out freely, so it’s to the church’s great joy to use every person and every gift for the salvation of the world.
A book which deals with this very well is Why Not Women? by YWAM founder Loren Cunningham and David Hamilton, who is a biblical scholar. Hamilton deals specifically with verses about women and explains them in context, looking at key words in different translations. Basically what Paul said is contextual, given for specific churches which were dealing with specific issues. Clearly Paul is not against women preachers, he addresses them, calling them elders and deacons. I think it’s a misread of scripture, it’s a contextual problem.
What has been the impact of this theology on the life of the church, and on women in particular?
It’s been hellish. It’s limited people in mission, like tying our hands behind our back while we’re trying to fight, which isn’t the role of the church; on the contrary! I mean, the church is at least 50% women, isn’t it? What army does that? It’s absolutely crazy. I think it’s been frustrating for some women and weakening and debilitating for others. It’s tragic. I often feel like the ‘token woman’ on speaking bills but I’m ok with that because if that’s what’s needed to get some women liberated then I’m pleased to do it. There aren’t enough women speakers on the circuit; I’d love to see more.
What would your ‘future perfect’ look like in terms of men, women and church leadership and what must happen for this to be realised?
I’d like to see one hundred percent mobilization, based on giftedness and full-on commitment by everyone to the mission field, in every community; a full on frontal assault against the enemy. To make that happen I think we all just need to fall in love with Jesus and have a totally reckless abandonment to obeying his voice. I think if we were really going into battle we’d stop fussing about things like the women issue. We’d stop looking at who’s to the side of us and start looking frontward at the battle, grabbing whoever we’re next to and not caring whether they’re black, white, male or female! We just need to see more of that. I easily get peeved with these controversies. To me they’re peacetime issues, like bureaucracy. When you’re trying to fight; it’s just not the point.
Danielle Strickland was born in Toronto in 1972. After a period of juvenile delinquency she became a Christian and got involved in overseas mission. She underwent missionary training then headed up a rural Salvation Army unit. She then moved to Canada’s poorest postal code and planted several churches, also leading the Salvation Army’s War College and a human trafficking response unit. Now as social justice director for the Salvation Army’s Southern Territory in Australia she advocates and sets up provision for marginalised and exploited groups. She is married to Salvation Army officer Stephen Court and they have two children.