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No Neutral Ground by Pete Portal

No Neutral Ground by Pete Portal

No Neutral Ground is one of those books that encourages and challenges at the same time. It tells the story of Pete Portal’s calling to live amongst and minister to the inhabitants of Manenberg, a deprived suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. Manenberg was established in the 1960s as an area for people of colour who had been forcibly removed from their former homes in the newly-declared “whites only” city centre, and was notorious as a haven for gangs, violence and various forms of addiction.

The book is a testimony of how Portal has experienced God at work in an area which was shunned by many because of its fearful reputation. It is challenging because it underlines the fact that God does not call us to a life of ease and comfort, and that following Him can sometimes be difficult and frightening. However, No Neutral Ground also encourages the reader by reminding us that when we seek to be obedient to God’s calling then He can use us in ways that are far beyond our expectations.

Portal uses the opening chapters to describe how he came to faith, and the events that led up to him moving to South Africa. Most of the book is taken up with stories of his life in Manenberg and the people who live there. It’s a story of extreme highs and  lows, of miraculous transformation and crushing disappointment. One of the strengths of Portal’s account is that he doesn’t attempt to gloss over the more difficult parts of his story, and that he is honest about his emotional response when things don’t go as well as he’d hoped. 

A major theme of the book is understanding that seeing other people’s lives transformed through the Gospel is not something that can be done at a distance. Portal realises that to be faithful to God’s calling, he needs to live in Manenberg among the addicts and the dealers. He writes of how he gradually became aware of the danger of being aligned with a life of privilege and came to realise that his Christian belief required him to be committed to rooting out oppression. 

There is a lesson here for all of us as we seek to extend God’s Kingdom. We should remember that Jesus commanded us to make disciples – not just converts – and so we need to recognise the importance of being present and sharing in people’s lives as they grow in their faith. Those who turn to Jesus and away from their former lives of crime-funded addictions will need close support every step of the way rather than a well-intentioned believer who leads them through a prayer of repentance and then leaves them to get on with it. 

Portal also emphasises how this work is not about what he can do, but what God can do through him. There are many instances in Pete’s story where he feels broken, with nothing left to give, and yet time after time he discovers – like the Apostle Paul in biblical times – that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). He writes: “Whatever we have, however small, if we give it all to Him, He’ll make sure there’s more than enough for our need”.

It’s sobering to think that God can use our struggles to teach us new things about Himself, and to help us grow towards spiritual maturity. In the New Testament, meekness is often cited as a virtue, which contrasts sharply with the modern Western view that to be meek is to be weak and spineless. Portal reminds us that biblical meekness is about admitting our weaknesses while at the same time acknowledging God’s strength. He underlines this by pointing out that in Scripture it was usually the poor and destitute who were the first to recognise who Jesus was, and in Manenberg, he finds that those he works with – addicts, prostitutes, criminals – are teaching him new facets of the Gospel message.

It would be easy to read some of the stories in this book and feel discouraged because our own lives look so different, so it’s important to say that Portal doesn’t view himself and his work as somehow superior. Instead, he emphasises that all Christian service should be viewed as being “on the frontline” for God, and that we need to be in it for the long haul. Success is not about numbers or quick results, but about serving wherever God wants us to be.

Review by Fiona Lloyd, Together Magazine

Fiona Lloyd is vice-chair of the Association of Christian Writers and is married with three grown-up children. Her first novel, The Diary of a (trying to be holy) Mum, was published by Instant Apostle in January 2018.

Together Magazine

Together is the window to the UK Christian retail and trade. Providing the very best in product information, trade news, publisher and retail store profiles and much more

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No Neutral Ground (Paperback)
Portal, Pete
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