Jackie Pullinger

Jackie Pullinger

            Another English Woman whose missionary outreach has gained the attention of the broader public is Jackie Pullinger whose work in the Walled City has been the subject of several television documentaries.  Like Mother Teresa, her mission was to the “poorest of the poor”—in this case in a walled, drug-infested area of Hong Kong.  She arrived in the Walled City in 1966.  The area is Hak Nam, in Chinese, appropriately meaning darkness.  “Behind these tawdry shops rose the ramshackle skyscrapers,” writes Pullinger, telling of her first visit.  “We squeezed through a narrow gap between the shops and started walking down a slime covered passageway. I will never forget the smell and the darkness, a fetid smell of rotten foodstuffs, excrement, offal and general rubbish.”  The narrow alleys, filled with opium and gambling dens and drug-ravaged prostitutes were dark even at midday, except for occasional shafts of sunlight.  It was a lawless six-acre cesspool of humanity—tens of thousands—where police rarely ventured.  Such a place seemed impossible in the midst of the wealth of Hong Kong, but there was a reason, as Pullinger explained, writing in 1980:

How can such a place exist inside the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong?  Over eighty years ago when Britain apportioned to herself not only the Chinese island of Hong Kong, but also the mainland Peninsula of Kowloon, and the Chinese territories behind it, one exception was made.
The old wall village of Kowloon was to remain under Chinese Imperial Administration. . . . The Chinese magistrate died—he was never succeeded by either Chinese or British, and lawlessness inside the Walled City came to stay.  It became a haven for gold smuggling, drug smuggling, illegal gambling dens and every kind of vice.  [Jackie Pullinger with Andrew Quicke, Chasing the Dragon (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980), 36.]

In an era when community and mission teams and were being emphasized, Pullinger was the ultimate example of individualism—a true “lone-ranger.”  But she defended her decision to go alone with neither a partner nor mission-board support:  “Abraham was willing to leave his country and follow Jehovah to a promised land without knowing where he was going,” she argued. “In the same way thousands of years later Gladys Aylward journeyed in faith to China.”  [Pullinger, Chasing, 31.] 

Born a twin in a family of four daughters, she had sensed a call to missions at a young age.  After graduating from the Royal College of Music, “the missionary idea came back,” she later recalled.  “So I wrote to Africa (that’s where missionaries go to) to schools, to societies, to broadcasting companies.  And they all wrote back, no—they did not want me.” It was after a dream, in which she saw Hong Kong in the middle of a map of Africa, that she decided to venture out on her own. The advice of a minister launched her on her journey:  “If I were you I would go out and buy a ticket for a boat going on the longest journey you can find and pray to know where to get off.”  That advice, combined with her dream, brought her to Hong Kong.  [Pullinger, Chasing , 28, 31.]

Pullinger was able to make connections with others who were ministering in the Walled City, and she began teaching classes part-time in singing, percussion band, and English at a mission-run school.  But her primary concern was a youth club that she organized and conducted with occasional volunteer help.  To those who wondered what kind of work she actually did, she had a ready reply:  “I’m doing unstructured Youth work.” [Pullinger, Chasing, 84.]

Initially Pullinger saw very little success in her ministry.  She struggled with the language, and most of those who showed interest turned out to be “rice Christians”—expecting money or something else from what they perceived to be a rich English woman.  But then, quite suddenly things began to change, as young men made decisions that took hold.  It was “speaking in tongues”—the power of the Holy Spirit—that she credits for turning things around.  “As I continued parying in the Spirit,” she testifies, “the results became apparent when more boys like Christopher made decisions to become Christians.”  [69]

Christopher was going through initiation to become one of the Triads, a Mafia-like organization that had its roots in the early nineteenth century.  By the time Pullinger became familiar with them they had “degenerated into hundreds of separate Triad societies all claiming to be part of the Triad tradition.”  Yet they still had power by they very fact that they still “inspired terror” both inside and outside the Walled City.  Christopher had attended the Youth Club but then dropped out and avoided Pullinger—until one day when he was cornered in a narrow passageway—she carrying her accordion and blocking the way so that he unable to pass by.   “He was wedged in and I asked him to carry the instrument for me to the repair shop.”  Through that encounter and her “praying in the Spirit,” he severed his connections with the Triads, got a legitimate job, turned his life around, and began helping out in the Youth Club. [Pullinger, Chasing, 67-69.]

Standard evangelism tactics did not work for Pullinger in her ministry to people in the Walled City.  Rather than “insisting that new young Christians join the church,” she writes, “I expanded our Bible study group; we met several times a week and were now open on Sunday mornings also. . . . We had raucous singing sessions and ping pong.  If I insisted on a prayer most of them would go outside and hoot in a friendly fashion in the alley till I had got it over with.  Then back they swarmed.”  She justified her lack of emphasis on Christian literature, after a young man had expressed interest in becoming a Christian.  She talked with him and then gave him a Gospel of John.  With that he left and she did not see him again for two years.  When she unexpectedly encountered him one day, she asked why he had stayed away for so long.  He responded:  “I wanted to know Jesus and you gave me a library.”  That response set the stage for a new direction in her thinking:  “I re-examined some of my concepts about studying the word of God.  The early Christians certainly had no Bibles; they must have learned another way.”  [Pullinger, Chasing, 77.]  She was determined focus on personal interaction and not insist that reading be a required aspect of Christian devotion.

Despite her best efforts, Pullinger faced setbacks in her work.  The more influence she had, the more threatening her work became and there were some who wanted her out of the Walled City.  A break-in and a night of vandalism could have destroyed her Youth Club, but she was determined to clean up the mess and repair the damage.  After that she was given unsolicited protection from a notorious gang leader, whom she referred to as “Big Brother.”  But she never had enough help to accomplish what needed to be done:  “Many people came to me and asked to help in the club.  It sounded romantic and exciting to work in the Walled City, but few stuck it [out] more than a few weeks.”  Her solution?  “I learned how to cat-nap, sleeping on busses and ferries.”  [Pullinger, Chasing, 84-86.]

Her most effective co-workers were those whose home was the Walled City and had been converted through her ministry.  Through their outreach, the work continued to expand and adjust to change—including the destruction of her “mission field.”.  In 1993, work began on the demolition of the Walled City.  In its place a park.  But for many people, the adjustment was difficult, and Pullinger was there in the transition.  In there years since the work has continued to focus on drug rehabilitation and evangelism, and there are centers and camps, not only in Hong Kong but elsewhere around the world—in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Europe.

Reflecting back over her early years of ministry, Pullinger writes: “It was a time of learning and of growing up: often I was in awful confusion.”   [Pullinger, Chasing, 133.]  But those years laid the foundation for a worldwide ministry of bringing hope to society’s most hopeless.  The secret of her effective ministry may have been her perspective—her attitude toward her surroundings—that stayed with her through the decades, even after the Walled City was no more.

I loved this dark place.  I hated what was happening in it but I wanted to be nowhere else.  It was almost as if I could already see another city in its place and that city was ablaze with light.  It was my dream.  There was no more crying, no more death or pain. . . . I had no idea how to bring this about but with “visionary zeal” imagined introducing the Walled City people to the one who could change it all: Jesus.  [Jackie Pullinger, Crack In the Wall: Life and Death in Kowloon Walled City (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), 16.]