1800 998 122Contact

Author: Cath Taylor

Ask just about anyone about the state of the world over the past few years and they’ll have shaken their head in dismay. In response to a YouGov study conducted worldwide in 2018, which asked the question ‘All things considered, is the world getting better or worse?” only 3% of Australians chose ‘better.’

Given the general disaster that was 2020, that percentage may have dropped even further. For the first time in two decades, we’re at risk of going backwards on extreme global poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the economic and health impacts are very real for many people we know and love.

In spite of that, the facts are that on balance, almost all aspects of human development are getting better, not worse.

On just about every measure you can think of, we’re in the best shape of our global lives.  

Health, education, gender equality, political democracy, peace, economic opportunity – humanity is in the midst of the most comprehensive, fastest progress we’ve ever made. Even with the impact of the pandemic, we’re still streets ahead of where we were ten years ago.

Alongside people of all faiths and none, Christians have played a significant role in much of this progress, and the Church continues to thrive in large parts of Asia, the Pacific and Africa. In these communities, Church leaders and ordinary Christian people are sharing the hope and dignity of Christ as they roll up their sleeves alongside people working to overcome challenges that include the changing climate, conflict and the impact of COVID-19.

These are significant wins worth celebrating – never more so than when faced with the impact of a global pandemic. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go – there absolutely is, particularly as we face together the critical challenge of climate change. But the same drive that kept our ancestors hyper vigilant in the face of sabre tooth tigers is also powerfully at work among us today – we tend to focus on the negative. And in keeping our eyes on the dangers at our feet, we miss the stunning horizon.

What if we were to zoom out a little, and take a look at where we fit within the broader family of faith? We are members of a vast worldwide network of people who have been shaken and shaped by the love of the risen Christ, and life looks different from within their midst. The longer arc of history is truly bending toward justice.

UnitingWorld is calling congregations to learn and celebrate in a new initiative called Seven Days of Solidarity.

It’s a week to meet the preachers, teachers, farmers, leaders and workers who are behind incredible change in our global neighbourhood, animated by the spirit of Christ. The week begins with a service which includes a prayer and video encouraging people to lift their eyes to see where God is at work in the world. Seven inspiring stories, with ideas for action and prayer points, are available online or as print copies. At the end of the week, gather your congregation again to celebrate and recommit to the work, making use of a sermon (pre-recorded or notes available) and a full order of service, including prayers, call to worship and music ideas.

The Church in Australia has been part of a global family of changemakers – through mission, prayer, giving and advocacy – for decades. Now seems like the perfect time to take a fresh look at all we’ve achieved, to give thanks and to pledge ourselves anew to God’s work together.

Check out www.sevendaysofsolidarity.com.au for more details and to download/request resources. Seven Days of Solidarity will officially run April 18-25, but you can use the resources any time that suits you best!

 

While two thirds of Australians say they’ll definitely get vaccinated against COVID-19, another 27% are still undecided. The number of people who say they’ll never get the jab is on the rise, up to 11% from 8% a few months back. These numbers are higher in other places around the world, and they show how deeply divided we are on the matter of the COVID-19 vaccination.

So what makes the difference in terms of changing minds on controversial matters like vaccination? Good information, or good friends?

Good friends.

Many people are surprised to know that the most important factor in shaping beliefs and decisions isn’t necessarily the supply of good information. It’s good relationships. And that’s because decisions are driven by a complex range of factors, with emotion top of the list.

“Good information”, delivered in a relational vacuum, can even harden opinions rather than change them. When people are drowning in shared global feelings like fear, sadness and isolation, ‘facts’ can be the last thing on their minds.

When a person contemplates taking up a particular position or belief,  she’s considering what makes her feel safest. Will a different view threaten her position among like-minded people who’ve given her a sense of belonging? If so, there’s little chance she’ll risk it – unless she has another safe place to take refuge.

That’s why listening and providing reassurance is the most effective way to engage with those who are cautious or opposed to the vaccine (or anything else, for that matter.) If you know people who are sceptical or fearful, hear them out. If you have a good relationship with them, they’ll likely ask your opinion – the perfect time to share reliable information. Avoid handwringing, scorn or contempt about someone else’s views – you’ve instantly lost the emotional airwaves.

This approach is critical in places around the world where COVID-19 cases are sky rocketing.

In many communities, faith in government is low and fear is high. Hearing information from people who are known and trusted makes all the difference, and following the example of high-profile leaders can be especially influential.

In Indonesia, more than 1.3 million people currently have COVID-19.

A recent poll suggests only 37% of people will take the vaccine voluntarily, with 40% undecided.

The Indonesian Government is delivering an intensive education campaign to help improve knowledge and confidence. But it also plans to implement fines and restrict access to social services in some regions for those who refuse the vaccination. Its ambitious plan is to vaccinate 181.5 million people in the next five months.

How do we win the emotional air waves and create community?

In Bali, UnitingWorld’s partner staff have already built strong relationships through training and support on the issues people care about – health, sanitation, opportunities to earn a living . They’ve often gone to remote areas where people feel forgotten by the authorities.

Years of work have laid the foundation for their information to be taken seriously, and for people to feel a part of a supportive community. With special permission to move within communities impacted by lockdowns, they find people open to reassurance and willing to listen. Their innovations include a new 24/7 hotline for people to call with questions, intensive face to face conversations about the safety of the vaccine as well as social and traditional media drops. With movement largely shut down because of the pandemic, they’ve also developed a website that matches suppliers in remote areas with those who need their products in the cities.

All this firms up people’s sense of belonging and security. In this emotional context, people are far more likely to be open to the new information that vaccination represents.

Relational influence from the top is important too.

Rev Mery Kolimon, Moderator of our partner church in West Timor, was contacted by government officials to be among the first to take the vaccine. While happy to get the shot, Rev Mery was still anxious about possible side effects. Unlike many parts of the West where vaccines have become an accepted part of life, millions of people around the world are completely unfamiliar with the concept. Their fears are understandable, and the role our partners play in providing reassurance is significant.

 

Rev Kolimon writes openly here about her fact-finding mission to determine the safety of the vaccine, the feeling of waking up the morning after the shot, and her conviction that the church has an important role to play in helping people understand not only the science of disease, but the role of God in suffering.

 “We entered the beginning of the year with too many wounds,” Rev Kolimon writes.

“Facebook pages are full of sad news that drains inner energy.  The young and old are dying every day.  The threat is now so close.  We all ask: When will this end?”

In naming the context and articulating her own anxiety and quest for accurate knowledge, Rev Kolimon helps people feel heard rather than dismissed when they doubt.

It’s one of the reasons our church partners are particularly useful in the war on COVID-19. As people of faith, they have a natural bias toward a relational approach and are well networked in some of the areas others can’t reach. They’re able to develop influential communities who stick together ‘on message’ – an important factor given how much we’re influenced by our ‘herd’.

Please continue to pray for the work of all our partners. They’re constantly innovating while under pressure, and they need our continued love, prayer and financial support. You can make a gift to this work during Lent at www.lentevent.com.au

If you have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccination, talk to your local General Practitioner.

You can find information about the safety, testing protocols, expected side effects and more HERE from the Australian Department of Health.

 

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only come through understanding.”
-Albert Einstein.

One of my favourite moments as a kid was blowing out my birthday candles. It wasn’t just the seductive sight of tiny flames snuffed out in an instant – very early on, I’d heard that if you made a wish while you blew, it would come true. Every year I asked for the same thing, more or less: world peace. For people everywhere. Just peace. (Once or twice I may have also requested a guinea pig, which came to fruition).

Still hoping for peace.

In a world where we often feel powerless, here are four practical steps to move beyond wishful thinking.

1. Learn

Understanding is at the heart of peace – peace in the heart, peace in the home, peace in the nation. But where does understanding come from? It’s the intersection of listening, experience and knowledge – all of which has never been more accessible. We’re flooded with opportunity – an internet that opens the worlds of others to our gaze; self development in the form of talks, groups, courses; news that’s instant and graphic and not always reliable. As the lines between fact and fiction blur, it’s tempting to opt out altogether in the quest for genuine understanding – of others, ourselves and the world. Hang in there. Keep learning. Keep seeking. This is where peace begins.

2. Pray

 “While I follow closely all  your stories and updates, I want you all to know that I am particularly and prayerfully aware right now of Rev John Yor,” a beautiful donor wrote to us recently.  “Just ‘knowing about’ these people and communities touches me deeply – I find myself praying for Rev Yor throughout the day as I go about the activities with the people who are part of my day.”

The Apostle Paul suggested to the Church at Thessalonica that they should pray without ceasing. Is it practical? Is it possible? Many of our supporters say yes, extending their knowledge of people and places into their daily prayer routines.

  • Scroll down here for our prayer points for the people of South Sudan, who are desperately in need of peace
  • Set an alarm that reminds you to pray during the day; take time to write a short prayer and send it to us to pass on to our partners peacebuilding on the front lines at info@unitingworld.org.au

3. Give

John Wesley flipped the idea of giving on his head when, as a young minister, he set a budget for his annual needs and regarded any extra as belonging to God and others. In the first year he earned 32 pounds, lived on 28 and gave the rest away. As his income increased, doubled and then tripled, he continued to live on 28 pounds. Wesley began a school, a sewing co-op, a free health clinic and a lending agency for the poor: he preached that using financial resources for others was a central part of faith. In a world where poverty and gross inequality drives a huge amount of conflict, what’s your approach to giving? How are you passing on your approach to others, and are you planning to leave a legacy?

4. Speak & act

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
-Matthew 5:9

While most of us like to think of ourselves as peacemakers, often what we’re really doing is avoiding or delaying conflict. Genuine peacemakers are pro-active, not re-active. They have a strategy – they observe, they listen, and they act to help restore shalom – the wholeness of God – wherever they can. What are your personal peacemaking skills like? How much do you understand about the process and how committed to it are you in your everyday relationships?

  • Read up on resources like this one: How to be a peacemaker
  • Write a letter to your local MP about your commitment to building wholeness for everyone, not simply for the affluent here in Australia. Ask what financial resources are being put into developing relationships with our neighbours and what Australia’s vision is as a peace building nation in our region.

Can faith really heal a nation?

If you tried to make a plate of bean stew in South Sudan right now, you’d spend up to 201% of your daily wage simply on ingredients. The same meal here would absorb less than 1% of a typical income.

South Sudan’s food crisis is just one swirl in the vortex of a perfect storm. Drought, locusts and flooding have decimated crops. COVID-19 lockdowns have slammed borders shut and are choking off food, fuel and water supplies. An economic crisis has sent the cost of living through the roof. And simmering away beneath it all, conflict has driven 1.4 million people into makeshift refugee camps and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

And it’s not a new problem. Sometimes, when we share news on Facebook of South Sudan and other places in conflict, we attract comments that are scathing about the ‘dysfunction of African countries.’ While there’s often not much insight behind the sentiments, they tap a frustration with the devastating long term disorder that seems to characterise life in places like South Sudan.

Why? Why is famine and war and corruption so deeply entrenched? Why does foreign aid seem to leak through such places like a sieve?

The answers aren’t simple, but you don’t have to look that far to find them.

It’s history: the impact of decades of colonial rule stunting the development of good leadership and allowing corruption to prosper.

It’s poverty, crippling everything from education, healthcare and hope.

It’s living in some of the most volatile places in the world in terms of climate and natural disaster.

And it’s the heart breaking normalisation of violence among people who are desperate for land and stock for food.

If these are the problems, what are the solutions? Those living in South Sudan itself say the most critical underlying need is for peace: stability in government and society from which to build a better future. But peace requires a movement – a deeply committed, organised base from among local people themselves. And in the context of such long term deprivation, where is the leadership for such a movement to be found?

A recent study by the US Institute of Peace found that faith-based people and organisations in South Sudan are the most important peace actors in the country*. Since independence in 2011, and indeed well before, it’s the churches who’ve stood at the forefront of peace negotiations and trauma healing. It’s people of faith who’ve risked their lives to travel to places where rape is a routine weapon of war against women and girls. It’s people of faith who are restoring unity, one by one, amongst people tired and suspicious of government efforts.

Many people, of course, find that hard to believe. Isn’t religion divisive? Doesn’t it tend toward the submissive, preferring to rely on the heart of God rather than the hands of people?

Sure, sometimes. As in most developing regions, religion is central to life in South Sudan, and the way theology is applied differs from place to place.

But right at the heart of religion is the unshakeable belief that transformation is possible, that love wins over death. And that’s a powerful force. Ask any of the faith leaders why they stay, and it’s a rock solid sense of call. “God hasn’t left us orphans,” they say. “God is at work in the world, healing and renewing. And we are part of it.”

It’s a shared conviction. Religion in South Sudan isn’t the major flash point of conflict – it’s cultural differences between tribal groups that go back centuries. While Christianity is the majority faith (around 60% of the population), since 2011 there’s been relative harmony between Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional African religions. From city cathedrals to mosques and village chapels, the leadership of faith communities have the confidence of the people and are united in their desire for peace. But is it enough? Why isn’t change happening faster?

The South Sudan Council of Churches, the country’s largest unifying faith-based body, is working on it. With more than six million members from seven denominations, they’ve developed a strategic plan which represents South Sudan’s most comprehensive road map out of conflict – nothing quite like it exists even within government. Based on four pillars – advocacy, neutral forums for negotiation, reconciliation and organisational strengthening – the Council of Churches’ Action Plan for Peace was officially adopted in 2015. But what does it look like in practise?

Rolling out a peace action plan

The Uniting Church in Australia, through UnitingWorld, has some insight into the process. In 2012, it developed a partnership with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS), a pivotal member of the Council with networks that reach well beyond the cities into regional areas and places ravaged by conflict, including refugee camps outside the country. Simply put, the Action Plan for Peace is the sending of ministers to teach, preach, counsel and care – treacherous journeys to communities where hunger and despair are woven into the fabric of life. It’s developing leadership skills and training theological students in Juba. It’s women marching for peace, month after month, in the capital, Juba. And it’s working alongside government to advocate for change in a context where deliberate neglect of certain groups – sometimes to the point of starvation- is seen a legitimate tactic in quelling dissent.

Christian women marching for peace in South Sudan, 2017

It’s clear that the wisdom and spiritual care of church leaders really matters: 82% of Peace Institute Survey respondents, when asked where they would turn for help aside from immediate family, mentioned their religious leaders. Research found that 39% of people regarded their community and religious leaders as their main source of information – combined with the fact that only 8% of people have internet and 20% have mobile phones, the equipping of leaders with accurate, harmonising and life giving messages is critical. These messages often come direct from the pulpit – 54% said the most useful contribution of the faith community towards peace is through sermons and prayers*, and UnitingWorld’s partners are certainly hands-on in terms of changing hearts and minds at the local level. But it’s not their only tactic.

25% of survey respondents said that more important than spiritual care was the organisation by faith groups of peace conferences and workshops. These are the teaching moments – often in hard to reach, conflict ridden places – that bring together the leaders of warring tribes to negotiate, listen, learn conflict resolution skills and support trauma healing.

A UnitingWorld-funded conference took place earlier this year in Cairo, Egypt. It was a tough assignment, drawing on refugees from different tribal groups who’ve traditionally resisted reconciliation. A second workshop in Juba, attended by church leaders, led to the resolution of a conflict between groups in one community. Three trained ministers intervened after negotiations about leadership became heated; they were able to bring the groups together and the leadership appointment went ahead without violence.

It’s these local leaders who’ll go back to their tribal groups, one by one, to share the skills that underpin peace. Without them, the movement can’t gain momentum. Very little will change.

What makes the critical difference?

The churches’ ability to capitalise on this reach and influence depends very much on developing their own capacity. Within the Nile Theological College, students are learning not just theological ideas but practical skills like peace building and fundamental human rights values that have gone undeveloped for decades. National Assemblies of various denominations strive to bring together their members to seek spiritual guidance and encourage one another. And leaders are being invited to advise government and demonstrate their negotiation skills in forums as significant as the 2018 Peace Negotiations in Addis Ababa, Egypt.

Right now, all eyes are on the need to safeguard South Sudan from the likely ravages of COVID-19, providing food, water and medicine to stave off hunger – and the need is huge. But in addition, the churches haven’t wavered from the big picture. They’re fiercely committed to investing in the peace process and the nurture of leaders who’ll shepherd their nation toward long term stability.

It’s incredibly difficult work. In Juba, members of the PCOSS leadership are hungry, without reliable food supplies, electricity, water or internet. Their own day to day existence is absolutely precarious, even as they care for others.

That’s why over the coming year, UnitingWorld is even more committed to supporting our partners. We’re funding two more peace workshops, the training of theological students through the Nile College, upgrades of vital transport to allow travel to remote area and investment into helping the Presbyterian Church bring together people for its General Assembly. All of this is in addition to humanitarian work in response to the pandemic. It’s long term, painstaking work and it often lacks the immediate punch of livelihood investment, or water and sanitation projects. But it’s also exactly consistent with the way transformation happens – incrementally, in small steps. Most significantly? The church is investing in individuals who drive change.

If faith really can heal a nation, this is how it happens.

UnitingWorld is looking for people with a heart for nurturing Christian leadership to bring lasting change in South Sudan and other places around the world. You can contribute by praying and sending messages of solidarity to partners in South Sudan, or help meet some of the long term costs of the project. If this project is your call, please be in touch with our Partnerships Team on 1800 998 122 or email us on info@unitingworld.org.au.
You can donate here

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven…
A time for war, a time for peace… A time for mourning and a time for rejoicing…”

They’re words from the writer of Ecclesiastes, but like a lot of people, I heard them first in the classic song ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ by The Byrds. I was 16, devouring all the classics from the 50’s and 60’s. Pete Seeger’s melodic conjuring of the seasons – nothing out of place, nothing unexpected – was reassuring. It was also biblical: a win win.

Fast forward to the chaos facing so many around the world – an estimated 265 million people are facing acute food insecurity due to COVID-19, for example – and I’m not so sure.

This is a season of suffering, and I want it to end.

I spoke recently to Rev John Yor in South Sudan. The line was terrible – electricity is reliable for only a few hours each morning in the capital Juba – and he’s softly spoken, with an undercurrent of strength that makes you think of the tallest tree in a silent forest. I had trouble hearing everything he said, but what I heard was enough.

He’s put aside two pieces of bread for his dinner, he tells me when I ask about hunger, and will look for more food in the markets with hundreds of others. Food prices, he says, are through the roof. Local crops have been destroyed this year by drought, a locust plague and now flooding; border closures, lockdowns and conflict have choked supplies coming in from Kenya and Ethiopia. In his church compound, he finds people who have walked for days to beg for food, water and shelter. His heart is breaking as he struggles to respond. “We have little but prayer,” he says.

South Sudan’s long season of suffering is well past it’s due date. Her people are vibrant and her land a diamond in the rough, but the country holds the dual honour of being the site of Africa’s longest running civil war and its worst refugee crisis. The causes of this tragedy reach deep into history – Egyptian and British rulers who favoured the north (known simply as Sudan since the South won independence in 2012) and provided basic infrastructure like roads, hospitals and water systems that the South still lacks; brazen raiding of the South for slaves; tribal groups warring over access to land and livestock to feed themselves as natural disasters constantly push the country to the brink of famine.

And now COVID-19. Last year the World Food Bank fed five million people in South Sudan; this year the numbers are expected to double. Mask wearing, soap and water for hand washing – these things are far beyond the reach of ordinary people, even if they had access to the televisions, radios and social media that carry public health messages. In rural areas where Rev John and his team from the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan work, people look to the skies for food drops from the UNHCR. They live in tents and shacks thrown together in places where tribal fighting hasn’t yet left homes looted and burnt. They’ve fled with the clothes on their back and little else. Since 2013, 1.4 million people have become refugees inside the country and another two million live in camps across the border in Kenya and Ethiopia.

I watched a report from Al Jazeera on YouTube that brought the painful reality of life in South Sudan into agonizing focus. And I looked at images sent to us by John and his team of their time in a refugee camp, giving out food, masks, hand sanitiser and clean water. The people they meet simply cannot believe that on top of everything else, a deadly virus stalks their country. South Sudan has 80 beds in its new infectious unit facility, and only one COVID-19 testing center in the capital. John and the Presbyterian Church have been out in communities teaching about social distancing, a massive challenge in place where hundreds of people touch the same bore handle for water and families live shoulder to shoulder under tarps.

“John,” I said to him, heart as low in my chest as it’s been in a long time, “How do you maintain your hope through all this?”

His reply was both as strong and as gentle as his description of South Sudan’s pain.

“I hold close the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes,” he said. “For everything there is a season – a time to be born, a time to die. A time for war, a time for peace; a time to mourn and a time to rejoice. And God has made all things beautiful and set eternity in our hearts.”

This is no wishful thinking – no glib quote to justify an indulgent life backed by the belief that God has everything under control and there’s no need to act.

It’s the lifeblood of a faith that drives a man to risk his life daily for others, alone in a city too dangerous for his family to make their home. It’s the steely heart of a commitment to God’s world and God’s people no matter what; a rock-solid anthem that life can and will be redeemed. It’s the language of call and conviction and all the weight of intimately knowing an unshakeable love that transforms.

It leaves me, to be honest, a bit torn apart. My own faith is a pale shadow in comparison; I have questions and doubts and anger that simmers. I have no doubt John does too.

But John is the man in the moment, the person for whom all this is more than simply a phone call. His eyes are on eternity and his hands and heart are raw from the ruthless realities of here, of now – and still he hopes. Still he proves the presence of Christ, alive and at work in the world, forever faithful.

If that isn’t enough to galvanise us to action, then what is?

Life in Australia has its own share of sorrows right now: there’s a breath-holding claustrophobia as case numbers rise and fall and many of us remain locked away from each other and our ordinary dreams of work, family, future. Part of the antidote to this suffering is opening the window to a bigger picture, a wider world into which we’re woven through our shared experiences of loss and love. John’s voice, the steadfastness of Christian people scattered throughout South Sudan, India, Zimbabwe, Indonesia – these are the flickers of hope that warm us, the places where we see God’s presence in the midst of absolutely ordinary people like us.

We might long for a new season, but the truth John and others reveal is that whatever our pain, whatever our joys – God is present and God’s people are faithful. Our brothers and sisters in South Sudan call us to a season of steady determination, the bending of our hands and hearts to give and pray and reflect, the quiet faith that grows with solidarity. It feels familiar, but with each story we collect of ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary, it becomes new. There’s strength in that. It’s enough.

Our church partners in South Sudan are racing against the clock to get food and water to people in lockdown and in refugee camps, and providing masks, sanitiser and health messaging. Please give, pray and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in South Sudan here: www.unitingworld.org.au/southsudancrisis

Almost exactly three months ago, a colleague and I threw on medical masks to board a plane for Colombo, Sri Lanka. We snapped off a few pics for laughs and then chucked them in our bags for the rest of the trip…I haven’t seen them since.

Over five steaming hot days (think humidity so solid you can eat it), I met people who left me feeling inspired and hopeless and uplifted and angry and helpless and all the usual things because #Cathgetsfeels… but one young guy in particular, let’s call him Raj, put down a little anchor in my heart. He has Down syndrome and went through schooling provided by the disability unit of the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka, mainstreamed within his local school. His teachers remember him as ‘cheeky, talkative and always ready with a laugh ❤️

Finding people who love and respect the value of others, especially those with disabilities, can be a challenge anywhere in the world, including right here in Australia, yes? But in developing countries, that heartbreak is magnified tenfold. The staff in that school weren’t just pinpricks of light in the lives of individuals, they were a blazing counter-cultural beacon. Raj’s family knew it, too. They were anxious about what would become of him once he outgrew formal schooling. Poverty among Tamil people on the east coast of Sri Lanka is much higher than for the rest of the population – and many times worse for people with disabilities.

But Raj struck gold again – the church approached his neighbour, a mechanic, who took him on as an apprentice. When we met him, he was welding bike bits and dreaming of, “never marrying. Just buying as many shoes as I like.” ?? What’s not to love about that ambition?


His sense of freedom was as radiant as the sparks from his tools. Inclusive education and an advocate who believed in him have changed his future forever.

We left with his tale and his pics and I promised him we’d tell his story far and wide. Within two weeks of our return, Australia’s borders were shut; since then 349,000 people have died from COVID-19. And this is the first time I’ve spoken about Raj to anyone other than family.

Do you know how many people like Raj, who took the opportunities in front of them and ran for life, face the prospect of being dragged back to poverty’s dungeon as a result of COVID-19?

Half a billion. Half a billion.

In Sri Lanka, the streets are quiet. There are no bikes to fix and no school; those with the means clean out the supermarkets on the few days they’re open, and people who relied on a daily wage – like servants, construction workers, small stall holders – have no money for food. Raj isn’t working, isn’t earning an income, and doesn’t have a place to share his grin – not now, and not for the foreseeable future. This is what COVID-19 will take from him and millions of others.

I know it’s not only Raj and people in the developing world who are struggling; it’s also our own families and friends who’ve had jobs and income snatched away, and lost maybe just as much at the visceral level of anxiety and loneliness and hopes eroded. Acknowledging our local need is deeply significant, but it’s not the whole story, and it’s not forever. What comes next?

There’s been so much talk of ‘in this together’ but how long can it last? As our own restrictions start to lift and we put toes back into social and economic waters, how long will we still speak about ‘together’? And who’s included in that category? It’d be so easy for us to try to just ‘get back to normal’, albeit with an even greater commitment to safeguarding ourselves physically, emotionally and economically from another event like this one.

And yet for a few more weeks at least, here we are, still a bit raw and nervy with our bellies exposed. For just a few more weeks, the absolute fragility of our lives still hangs in the balance and we feel, perhaps a little, what it might be like to be without job security, or deflated entirely by the reality of what’s hit and what’s to come. And maybe even a bit alone.

We know that when budget time comes around next, the Australian Government will most likely raid the foreign aid budget to help make up the massive debt we’ve racked up rescuing ourselves from this train wreck. And we know that most Australians will get behind the move, because even though we give 0.21% of GNI (Gross National Income – about 21c for every $100 Australia earns) to support our neighbours, the population in general THINKS it’s about 14%, which they believe is too high and should be reduced to 10% ?. Every single country in the world will do the same. And the people with the least means to survive this thing, once again, will suffer the most.

Unless?

Tonight, flicking through the pics on my iPhone, I found Alex, me and Raj in a selfie (okay quite a few selfies) and I wonder: how is he doing? What is he thinking? Is there any hope for his future?

Actually, there is. But it means each of us continuing to embrace the vision of ‘together’ and walking away from the fear that makes us wonder if we have the means to look after anyone but ourselves.

We do. We can. If we were each to give even just a small amount, today, or even better each month, we could be part of making life immeasurably, unimaginably, better for someone like Raj. It really doesn’t take that much- but it gives back out of all proportion.

The video below is the story we told, when we got home, instead of Raj’s. I feel sadder about that than anything. Please take a look and if you can, act. Donations to UnitingWorld can go up to six times as far for people like Raj right now thanks to the help of Australian Government funding.*

I’m delighted to see the way we’ve managed this crisis as a nation and the steps we’re making toward recovery.  But it also breaks my heart that once again, that recovery will be deeply uneven around the world.  Please don’t chuck your mask in your bag and move on forever. This story still needs telling.



*As a valued partner of the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), we are eligible for funding that means tax-time donations can go up to six times as far in the field saving lives. We’ve committed to raise $1 for every $5 for which we’re eligible, and that’s where your donation has its power.

Every dollar will be used for immediate COVID-19 responses providing food and sanitation packs, health information and hand washing facilities, as well as fighting to keep poverty at bay long term through sustainable development projects.

Please give at www.unitingworld.org.au/actnow or call us on 1800 998 122

UnitingWorld is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).

The word is out.

COVID-19 is God’s global hammer against sin – and only those who maintain purity of faith will be spared.

In one place, the ‘evils of homosexuality’ are to blame; in another it’s women in ministry, globalisation or loss of family values. On Facebook, people boast of relying on the ‘protective Blood of the Saviour’ rather than sanitiser; in the US, Kenneth Copeland has attempted to “blow” COVID-19 away with the wind of God, an anti-lockdown protest rallies around the slogan “Jesus is my vaccine”; and in New Zealand a pastor is quoted as calling his congregation to continue to gather because “I’m not about to let a filthy virus scare me out of worship.”

You might shrug off such examples as fringe territory, but the temptation to fall back on the truism of ‘faith alone’ doesn’t only loiter at the edges. And as part of the scrutiny of ideas spawned by COVID-19, we have the chance to ask ourselves anew: how do we live out the heart of authentic faith?

“The simplistic option during a crisis like this one is to turn to religion and prayer as the only solution,” says Rev James Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches. “That’s not only problematic, it’s risky and reckless. Yes, Christians are saved through the gospel of God’s grace. However, this salvation does not mean we escape physical corruption, futility, and death.”

That reality has seldom been more evident among the poorest on our planet, where the arm of this disease is longest and its grip most devastating.

Half a billion people – or more – confront the prospect of being tipped back into poverty as the economic fallout from COVID-19 bites hard. Alongside the terror of the virus itself lurks hunger and loss of hope. For decades our international church partners have poured heart and soul into communities fighting poverty across Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia. Now they face their greatest challenge in a generation.

Some struggle personally with lockdowns, unreliable electricity or lack of clean water. But each, with the support of Uniting Church communities through UnitingWorld, has immediately turned their efforts toward meeting urgent needs.

Critically, it’s not just health and hunger that weigh on their minds. Worldwide, in a context where 84% of the population identify with a religious group, the pandemic is seeding big questions – where is God? Who is to blame? What of faith? What of fear?

Rev Bhagwan, like others across the Pacific, Asia and Africa, is helping communities hold and heal together. As people wrestle with sovereignty and suffering, our partners are coming out strong to emphasise the interconnectedness of faith, prayer, science and human responsibility in tackling the virus from all angles.

“We’re called to join our hearts in solidarity with each other, to mourn with those who mourn, to share peace with those who are anxious,” says Rev Bhagwan.

“In many of our regions and across the planet, access to clean water and soap, shelter for protection, and other basic services are a real challenge. Our role is to provide hope and manifest the love of God in practical ways.”

In places where the need is overwhelming, our partners are holding faith, resilience and action together – and that’s a beacon. But their example goes even further.

It calls us to hold our own theologies and practices up to scrutiny too. The connectedness of our world has been laid bare by the virus; our need to take seriously the ecological damage that threatens to unleash new strains of disease; our commitment to ‘one global Catholic church’ united in Christ.

Crisis always prompts innovation and reflection. Keeping these questions at the heart of our journey, even as we grapple with local suffering, is proof of the risky, all-encompassing love of God. And that, right there, is what it means to live an authentic faith.

– Cath Taylor


Join the power of people uniting by praying and giving to save lives and share hope during COVID-19.

Right now your donation has six times the impact! Every donation you make to this appeal will be combined with funding from the Australian Government to reach more people. We have committed to contribute $1 for every $5 we receive from the Australian government. Your donation will allow us to extend our programs!

Please help bring hope, health and good theology. Read more at www.unitingworld.org.au/actnow

As a valued partner of the Australian Government, UnitingWorld receives flexible funding under the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP) each year to implement development and poverty alleviation programs overseas.

A Prayer During Times of Disaster

Leader: We come before the God of compassion who aches with those hurting in the world,

and before the risen Christ who heals. We stand in silence and offer up our prayers.

As the candle is extinguished, we acknowledge the darkness that disasters bring to the lives of many.

Leader extinguishes the candle.

Leader: Let us pray.

All: God of mercy, love and compassion

Christ who enters into the pain of the whole creation

We cry out to you for all the suffering people of the world,

and especially today the victims of natural disaster –

the dead, the injured, the bereaved;

and those who have lost everything and their livelihood.

Leader lights the candle

All: God of mercy, love and compassion

Creator who calls us to care for people and the earth,

Fill us with love for our neighbours that we may know

the encouragement that comes from solidarity

Give us the wisdom to act; generosity, courage and unity

Most of all we pray that the God

of all comfort and renewal will be powerfully present

In and through your people

In Christ’s name we pray.

Amen.

Prayer by Cath Taylor

“What makes you happy?”

I ask the question of an old woman on a green mountainside beyond the remote village of Same, five hours inland from Dili, Timor Leste.  Every line on her face tells a story.

“Being here with these people – my family and friends – makes me happy. We look after each other and I like this place. We are all together.”

And there you have it, folks. The secret to life. Being with the ones you love. Looking after each other, in a place you like. In spite of hardship – a jerrycan full of water lies at this woman’s feet, carried from a stream twenty minutes walk away – you know what’s important.

As I stand gazing out into mist through shrouds of green, past chickens that serenely scratch near bits of tin shackled together, my head goes feral.

Trump makes no sense in a place like this. Energy renewal targets? Who cares. Low carb diets and immigration policy and the side effects of antidepressants and why can’t I remember my Netflix login?  Nope.

Give me the simple life.  People I love, people I can look after, in a place I like. Life is tough, but these people are generous and spirited. They work hard. They hope harder. They get up, do what’s in front of them with what they have, make the best of it. Not for them the endless mental treadmill of deciding what to say, and wear, and spend – and should I respond to that post on Facebook or let it go? And what’s the truth about climate science and how young is too young for Instagram and what do I think about taking a stand on gay marriage in the church? Having a voice? Existential angst? What’s that?

Give. Me. The. Simple. Life. For long minutes, I stand there with tears hot under the surface and hammering heart thinking about all the crap this world serves up and wishing I could devote myself to just the basics – loving my family; a little more food for these families; kids whose skin is clean and clear instead of blossoming with scabies. Just that and no more. Just that. To be generous and focussed and determined and hopeful and That. Is. All.

And then a chicken lets out an almighty squawk – hit by a rock thrown by one of the kids who’s been silently observing me from behind a tree this whole time – and it’s like someone has slapped me hard around the head.

This is not my place and this is not my story. Outrageous fortune, yes, but I was born in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with a Twitter feed that delights in manufactured outrage during Q&A. I live in a town with more cafes per capita than almost anywhere in the southern hemisphere. I’ve got pets who eat more than most people in this village. I’ve got two and a half degrees. And I can romanticise all I want about “the simple life”, but it’s not my reality.

Yes, people and place and care create happiness. But that doesn’t just happen. Not for me, and not for this community, who alongside happiness speak their despair: no electricity, no running water, no respite from the rains that drive mud into their homes so that dogs and chickens and pigs take refuge with them at night on the raised wooden platforms they count as beds.

This simple life often sucks, and standing around starry eyed creates zero change.

From me, to whom much was given, much is also expected. Putin. Energy policy. Instagram and the world it creates for my daughters. Anti-depressants and economics and the ethics of vegetarianism. Creating social change alongside a generation suckled on screens and scrolling. Immigration and how to compost and politics and letter writing and how much we spend on foreign aid vs what we invest in the local farming industry during times of drought.

If having more means anything at all, it means making use of it. Where I live, with all I was given, that’s a constant, fierce challenge of mind and heart and spirit. It’s far from simple, and engaging with it is often tiring, and depressing, and really bloody hard.

But that’s okay. If that woman’s face means anything to me – if happiness is something I truly want for anyone other than myself – then stepping up with heart and mind and spirit is the absolute least I can do.

-Cath Taylor

UnitingWorld

 

UnitingWorld is the international aid and partnerships arm of the Uniting Church in Australia. Together we work for a world where lives are whole and hopeful, free from poverty and injustice. Because every person matters.

Your donation to support our work will make a huge difference in the lives of the world’s poorest.

Donate today.

I read recently that Australians have never been more generous – some of them, anyway.

Super wealthy, generous individuals are giving like never before. Their projects of choice? Things with measurable outcomes and big legacies. Medical research is a good example. Let’s find a cure for a disease and say: “We did that.”

Tick. Done.

Sadly, overseas aid is less popular. That’s because the issues are wickedly complex and appear to go on forever. Is poverty ever going to end? Will we ever be able to tick a box beside our donation and say, “Done!”?

The answer is both yes and no. I sat with a family high in the remote mountains north of Denpasar last month, watching chickens peck and a wary dog assess me from a doorway. For Kadek and Gede, life has never been better. A few simple, reasonably low-cost initiatives have changed their lives forever: a goat breeding project to provide income; regular visits from a doctor; access to a toilet and teaching about clean water. These things mean Gede worries less about her children going hungry and falling sick. Poverty, in its meanest form, has fled. But Gede’s own health is still fragile – she has a thyroid condition they can’t afford to have treated and she’s so unwell that she hasn’t been able to take part in the women’s groups that might have helped the family make a little more money.

Gede dreams of more for her children, the way that all mothers do. Our work is far from over.

I looked around this proud, gracious family’s garden, artfully tended with love, and I thought about how the human spirit is determined to flourish. How ending poverty isn’t a simple box to be ticked but a lifelong struggle we embark upon alongside people who live the reality of small gains and hard-won triumphs. l felt both gratitude and single-mindedness to persevere.

There are literally millions of families like Kadek and Gede’s. Hardworking and resilient, the day they raise their first piglet to sell so their daughter can stay in school will sound another nail in the coffin of poverty.

You and I, if we choose to, can celebrate alongside them. Because for real families every single day, the projects we support genuinely put an end to measurable suffering.

The scale of global poverty might appear to be astronomical, but working together, our progress has also been huge. Each family adds up. Since the turn of the century, the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved. So too has the maternal death rate, child mortality and deaths from malaria.


 HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?

Through the combined work of smart, capable people who dream big, plus governments, philanthropists, not-for-profits and people like you. We’re better together. Our goals are achievable. Right now, your gift can have up to six times the impact supporting families like Kadek and Gede’s, across West Timor,  Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and India.

Poverty won’t end with a single tick. But it will end, and we’ll do it together.

Please make your gift at www.unitingworld.org.au/together or call us on 1800 998 122.