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Matthew Bolton

Saturday, October 29, 2005
Story last updated at 11:38 AM on Saturday, October 29, 2005
Neff's Christian outreach took him around the world

London Beating his way through the jungle in northeastern India, Charles D. Neff and his companion G.S. Chawla trekked more than 60 miles in July 1966 "through foothills, dense undergrowth, and small streams on a narrow rocky path" to visit remote villages far off the beaten track.

Naively, Neff had worn a new pair of shoes. By the end of one journey his feet were badly blistered and bruised. Upon arriving in a village, he sat down and removed his shoes. The curious onlookers who gathered around him looked in awe at his injured feet.

One "toothless old woman" walked away back to her hut, returning with a bowl of water, and breaking several cultural taboos, knelt before him and "carefully washed and massaged his aching feet." Neff would often recall this act of kindness as one of the finest examples of Christian witness he had ever seen a re-enactment of Jesus washing the disciples' feet.

From a farm boy of the Midwestern American plains, to a naval officer who witnessed the horrific effects of nuclear war at Hiroshima, from congregational pastor to globe-trotting missionary and humanitarian, the late Charles D. Neff, an Independence resident, traveled more than 1 million miles in his life-long sojourn.

Charles Neff
His story is that of one man's struggle to make sense of the great suffering in the world, and overcome it. As a missionary, he was at the heart of the transformation of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now Community of Christ, from a small, provincial sect centered in Independence to a worldwide church spanning over 50 countries.

"Charles D. Neff was a leading force in the recent history of the Community of Christ," said former Community of Christ historian Richard Howard. "For this reason alone the study of his life is a prerequisite for those wanting a clearer understanding of how the past fifty years of our church's history has unfolded."

Next weekend, Nov. 4-6, more than 400 people will gather at the Community of Christ Temple in Independence for the annual Peace Colloquy, to explore how the religions of the world can move "From Fears to Friendship."

This was an issue that Neff, who died in 1991, struggled with his whole career. His experiences in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, India, Nigeria, Liberia, and Kenya challenged him to rethink the church's theology, opening it to the voices of other cultures and religions and reinterpreting it as a radical witness of the value of each human life.

Rather than seeing it as a crusade, forcing people to abandon their culture, Neff envisioned mission as a dialog between different faith and cultural communities. He believed mission goes two ways a process of mutual enlightenment.

Having grown up in the Great Depression, Neff had great empathy for those living in the massive poverty he encountered throughout the developing world. He saw no trade-offs between preaching the gospel and serving the poor he believed in a God who loved every person with the intimacy of a parent or friend, a God scandalized by oppression, hunger, and disease.

"When I think of the mission of the church, I recall the face of the poorest person and ask: Will it restore the dignity that every man should enjoy? Will it set him free? Will it heal his broken heart?" he said.

Profoundly affected by the human condition, he dedicated his life to bringing relief, release and dignity to the suffering by founding several humanitarian organizations, including Outreach International, now headquartered on the Independence Square.

Outreach, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, works in 12 countries to help poor communities organize to improve their lives, and funds childhood literacy programs.

"Outreach International continues the important legacy of Charles Neff," said Matthew Naylor, Outreach's President. "We try to maintain his passion for helping the poor help themselves, and like him, provide people with opportunities to express their charitable concern."

Matthew Bolton will launch his new book, Apostle of the Poor: The Life and Work of Missionary and Humanitarian Charles D. Neff, with a talk on Charles Neff's encounter with world religions at the upcoming Peace Colloquy.

He will speak at 3:45 to 5p.m. Nov. 5 in the Continents Room 1 West of the Community of Christ Temple. For those not registered for the Peace Colloquy, tickets are available for his talk for $10 each, by calling (816) 521-3077.

Check out the Peace Colloquy "From Fears to Friendship: Exploring Religions of the World" Web site:

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