Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The women were very hesitant ...

Photo by Rick Lister
The women were very hesitant at first to draw symbols to help memorize the story.  'We have never held a pen in our lives.’ Then Karima*, an old grandmother, took a pen and had a go at drawing and finally all the ladies got involved. At the end, Karima stood in front of everyone and told the whole Bible story from beginning to end. She cried and said: ‘We can learn even if we cannot hold a pen! We are all equal, those who went to school and those who didn’t!’
What do you feel as you hear this real story?  

I feel a mixture of emotions.  Partly joy that these women are growing in confidence and in their ability to engage with the Bible, the book of life.  And partly sadness that so often people like Fatima, who cannot read, find themselves excluded.  

And we're talking about excluding many many people.  Across central Africa, for example, 70 to 85% of people aged over 15 cannot read and write (literacy rates in Africa).

But what if we discussed ideas in more creative ways?  Like stories, drama and drawings and so moved beyond the written word?  Last week Barbara*, over a vegetarian supper, shared with me the ideas of oral or creative discipleship.  I became excited.  Why?  Because I think this approach will help us to more deeply connect with people on the fringes.   And by engaging in more diverse ways we are all more likely to receive, remember and apply what we are learning.  Whatever our background.

Perhaps we need to learn from Jesus.  Jesus, who taught without ever writing a book.  He transformed people with story after story, questions that reached their hearts and actions that practically showed what love is.

*Name changed for privacy.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The water doesn't care

'The water is at the knee level inside my house and at waist level on the street… Food and clean water are expensive and in short supply… The flood water is so dirty and has germs in it… There is water everywhere: huts and houses, markets and department stores, factories and shops, schools and universities, hospitals and temples. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, old or young, healthy or sick, the water doesn’t care…’ Soontaree, Bangkok City (www.ilsc.com/blog).

Image result for thailand floods 2011 tearfund imageThis was back in October 2011 when severe flooding inundated one third of Thailand including large areas of the capitol Bangkok. Some churches in the city responded tirelessly to support those affected but Pastor Aat* tells me that sadly many ‘churches were very slow to engage with the flooding’. We’re sharing lunch some seven years on in a small restaurant in the heart of Bangkok.
On one level I can understand why churches here may have been slow to respond to the crisis. The Christian church is small, just 1.4% of the total population, and the understanding of many churches here is that ‘social issues are not our role’. Yet as followers of Jesus we are called to live as he lived with a passion for justice and practical compassion for those in need. Pastor Aat puts it this way: ‘The ‘gospel’ (the good news about Jesus) permeates every area of life’.
How can we help people like Pastor Aat to encourage more of the church in Thailand to live out the fullness of the good news in every area of life? Here’s three thoughts:
Good thinking and good practice We need good thinking about what our faith really means for, as Pastor Aat explains, ‘teach the gospel [in all its fullness] and everything else follows’. This needs to be shared both with current church leaders and also with those preparing at theological colleges. We also need to share examples of good practice in living out our faith in love.
And the two strands, thinking and practice, can helpfully come together. For instance theological students can engage in and reflect on practical community work. In north Thailand some theological students realised that one hill tribe community was travelling 18km to collect rice. Reflecting on Jesus’ compassion for people living in poverty resulted in the students working with the community to build a small warehouse to store rice at the village.
Encourage a movement Pastor Aat was not aware of some other people with a similar heart in northern Thailand and they weren’t aware of him. However when linked together there is the opportunity to learn from one another (Proverbs 27v17), encourage one another (Hebrews 10v25) and see God’s blessing poured out on and through our unity (Psalm 133).
Pray big Even though the church is comparatively small in Thailand, our God is able to do amazing things as ‘nothing is impossible with God’ (Luke 1v37) including using what can seem small and inadequate in incredible ways. The boy with five loaves and two fish probably didn’t expect Jesus to use it to feed over 5,000 people...

Friday, 29 March 2019

A different world

Sometimes I open a door to a different world. On Tuesday I cycled down a peaceful street in my local town. This street is full of red bricked cottages warmed by the afternoon sun. I locked up my bike and stepped into a 'food bank'. Here, in the middle of a fairly rich town, I met people with a radically different experience of life. The stories of Peter and Anne* challenged my heart and made me think.

Peter, a broad man with a weather-beaten face, has recently agreed to welcome his nephew, Alan, to stay at his home. Alan is a troubled young man and his mother has been struggling to cope with him. But Peter's kind action has had consequences. He works but the work is really badly paid and so he relies on government benefits to help meet his family's basic needs. The government officer told him that, because the number of people in his household has changed, his case will need to be reassessed. Fair enough. But while this happens his benefits will be completely stopped. So Peter's act of kindness will tip his household into crisis. Don't you think that's wrong?
Image result for photo washing up liquid basic
The food bank** can help people in such difficulties with 3 days emergency food and toiletries, listening care and signposting to other support services.  People in crisis welcome the support they receive. People like Anne. She’s a young lady whose eyes fill with tears when she receives a bottle of shampoo.  For the last 3 months she could only afford to wash her hair with washing up liquid.

I loved seeing the gentle, unjudging compassion of the food bank volunteers as they provided much needed support.  Some were from different local churches and some were motivated by humanist or other caring motivations. However should people like Peter and Anne be so poor in a country with plenty of resources? After all the UK is the 5th largest economy in the world.  I long for us to tackle the injustice of the systems.  To lobby businesses to provide decently paid and more secure jobs, lobby government for the benefit system to be made more efficient and fair and to strengthen the opportunities for people to grow their confidence, skills and voice.

Caring people often help meet the immediate needs of people like Peter and Anne.  But how willing are we to challenge the systems that made them vulnerable? Those of us who are Christians are called to live out the character of our God who is both ‘the Father of compassion’ 2 Corinthians 1v3 and the ‘God of justicePsalm 50v6.

What are the unjust issues in your country and context?  And what could you do, with others, to bring what is right?

You may be in the UK and share the Trussell Trust’s passion to end hunger and poverty in this nation.  If so you can join in with campaigns, based on strong research, to do just that.  You can find out more here.  It’s time for a better life for Peter and Anne.

*All names and some specific details changed to protect privacy.
** This food bank is run by local churches and supported by the Trussell Trust.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Many crazy people

‘There are many crazy people around the world’.  Martinez, Kristel and Sheryl* are some of them.  Martinez looks like a world famous football player but tells me he’s not actually good at football.  

He’s 18 years old and has an engaging smile and light in his eyes.  ‘Many things churches do are just sticking plasters.  But following the Transforma Joven (Transforming Youth) workshops we decided to do more.  We developed an initiative called ‘playing for peace’. It was aimed at preventing kids from joining the maras (gangs).  Every week for 3 months we’d play 2O minutes of football then have a short reflection time and something to eat and then play football again.  It gave the young people an alternative.

Three churches from different denominations joined in but some pastors said they didn’t want to be involved.  God was faithful and He supported us. The next year we shared this vision with others. The results were very good.  With a group of friends we have now decided to bring food and supplies to people in hospital.

My area is one of the two most dangerous in the city.  People are used to seeing lots of guns, gangs and violence.  It’s not easy. Last year I was persecuted. One day the maras came into my house.  Sometimes I’m afraid. But people are now realizing that change can happen’.

The Transforma Joven movement ‘helps us to do mission in our context.  It is a space to train young people to live out the fullness of God’s good news, to find local resources, develop initiatives and plans and lobby for change’.

Kristel and Sheryl, two sisters with beautiful long black hair, join in the conversation.  Kristel says ‘the challenge after we complete the training is to develop an initiative in our communities.  We don’t need a lot of resources. We have resources in our churches. We just need to work as a team.  My brother (in Christ) has this skill and I have another. I believe at the end of this training we’ll be like dynamite!’

‘I just finished the training last month’ says Sheryl.  ‘I really liked that it brought together people from different denominations.  It empowered 16 year olds like me to share ideas about what we can do to transform our communities and country.  We need to be salt and light (Matthew 4v13-16).

‘We are working on a process for recycling and we want to avoid using styrofoam’.  Styrofoam is the ‘disposable’ white plastic that takes 500+ years to degrade and is used everywhere in Honduras (and the US).  ‘We plan to share environmental awareness in our city.  We want to reach 150 teenagers in our church. It’s small steps but so exciting’.

God brings hope for this nation through young people like this.
*Names changed for privacy and safety.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

'Never go in alone'

'Never go in alone.  We lobbied to improve conditions for guards and cleaners.  They are some of the most vulnerable people in Honduras. But one of our staff was killed and another was kidnapped so we had to stop.  Now we always go in to challenge injustice in alliance with others: universities, other Christian organisations, churches etc'. Angely and Lizzy* inspire me.  We are talking over breakfast on a sunlit terrace.

Angely and Lizzy are part of Transparency International in Honduras.  Our vision is to be brave Christians to make the government system function for the most vulnerable groups'.  Brave is highly appropriate for this work.  'We have martyrs.  We have many threats.  The Directors have bodyguards'.

I am very impressed by how much has been achieved in this context.  For example, the organization has been a key part of the ‘Transform Honduras’ movement of 50,000 volunteers.  This movement carried out a survey of all the schools and health centers in selected parts of the country.  ‘We now know why many schools and health centers do not function effectively’.  The organization is part of two government commissions who will monitor the implementation of mandatory improvement plans.  And the commissions have even higher authority than government ministries.
Some of the work is directly practical.  They’ve been involved in helping provide three link people to substantially improve cooperation between communities and police in the roughest neighbourhoods.  This has been instrumental in reductions in crime of up to 50%. And they’re planning to train pastors on security. Gangs can feel threatened by church leaders and have assassinated 35 pastors in recent years.  ‘Sometimes pastors have so much love for communities that when they are threatened they just pray and carry on but then get killed’.

For the future ‘we need the biggest churches to get involved in issues of justice.  You need one who is brave enough to go first. Church leaders don’t have the bodyguards but the bodyguards wouldn’t be able to protect them anyway’.  The good news is that some of the biggest denominations are now waking up.  ‘In one denomination 35,000 youth are planning to carry out acts of justice.  We couldn’t even have dreamed about this before’.

How can you and I respond to this?  Please join me in praying for ongoing wisdom, protection and success for Angely and Lizzy and this inspiring organization and consider supporting them (Transparency International Honduras).

I am also challenged about how willing I am to challenge injustice in my society. There are, for instance, unacceptable delays in benefit payments to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK.  These delays can plunge them into spiraling debt and force them into having to rely on handouts to feed their families. What are the justice issues in your context? I wonder how willing you might be to bravely tackle them in the company of others and with wisdom.

‘Seek first the kingdom and [God’s] justice** and all these things will be added unto you.’  Matthew 6v33.
*Names changed for privacy and safety. Angely was supported by Tearfund as an 'inspired individual' for 3 years.

**  The word ‘justice’ here is often translated as ‘righteousness’ in English.  However the original Hebrew words for justice and righteousness mean essentially the same thing.  They are sometimes used together to reinforce a point (eg Isaiah 11v4), as there was no underlining or bold in oral culture.


Saturday, 17 November 2018

I was very lost

I'd be very scared to be here after dusk.  It's partly the narrow alley and the dark looks from some of the men, who may or may not be on drugs.  But it is more because of the haunting stories from today.  This morning I listened to Mario*, a 22 year old young man with a smiling bright-eyed face.  'I came from a struggling family.  My Mum had to be both Mum and Dad for me.  She worked very long hours as a nurse.  At secondary school I got involved in gangs.  In my district there was lots of killing and I was part of this.  I was becoming someone I didn't want to be, an animal.  I killed a person.  I was very lost in drugs and alcohol'.

Many people tried to help Mario.  'My elder brother's big mission in life was to rescue me.  I was in a drug rehabilitation center but not for long... I was in many homes and a psychiatric center...But I arrived home full of drugs and I hit my Mum in the face.  My Mum never stopped loving me.  She said 'with God we will find a way'.  As Lucila* hears again the story of her son she hides her face behind her hand, deep distress in her eyes.

Eventually the times of hope start to get more and the relapses less frequent.  'I arrived at my brother's home to live and had an encounter with Jesus and myself.  I decided to go to drug rehabilitation.  I am a person who can testify that God is real.  Many times I was close to death.  I ask God for perseverance'.

Mario will graduate tomorrow from a vocational center that is run by inspiring people from the Catholic Salesian movement.  'The Salesians work with the poorest people in the poorest countries of the world.  And amongst the poorest we work with those with the most urgent needs' says Santiago* the Center Director.  

Mario has been studying industrial mechanics and also attending drug rehabilitation run by a ACAB, a Christian association.  'I'd like a stable job.  I dream of being able to support my children.  I am just a biological dad, the kids live with their mothers.  I want to meet others to testify to a real God, He is the only one who can change lives.  I want to tell them about drugs, to help young people to clean their minds and break with drugs.  We need to show these young people that they are valuable.'

Mario still faces major challenges.  He may have to deal all his life with the temptation to return to drugs.  'I need to keep away from a lot of my old friends'.  And 'there are very few jobs', even for graduates from the vocational center.  

I am deeply impressed by Mario's perseverance, by his Mum's total commitment and the deep care of the Salesian staff.  But my heart joins the cry of most Hondurans that deep change is needed in this country.  Change so that people in such dangerous cities will have a better life.

*Name changed for privacy.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Two girls and big business

Two girls walk with their mother down to the river's edge.  The girls are wearing pretty school dresses and long white socks.  What happens next provides a clue to what is going on here.  Their mother takes her shoes off, lifts one girl onto her back and wades across the shallow water to the far side.  She then does the same for her other daughter.

'The mother is sacrificing herself' says my friend Antonio* as we watch this happen.  When I find out about the water that she's wading through I understand what Antonio is saying.  This is no ordinary river water.  It's full of chemical pollution from the city morgue, an international fizzy drinks company and a meat processing factory.  Plastic rubbish floats in the water and you have to be careful not to step on syringes used to inject drugs.

These children and hundreds like them cross this stinking river at least twice a day to get to and from school.  If they don't cross here its a 5km round trip to use a bridge.  The water quality is so poor here that kids frequently catch serious skin infections and have to miss 2 to 3 months of schooling to recover.

The church and community are lobbying the local government to agree to the construction of a footbridge at this site.  The officials are unlikely to say yes as this would start to legalise the whole 'bordo' community who are living without official permission in the flood zone.

This is also about justice.  There are some environmental protection laws but they are not being enforced.  If local people challenge the polluting companies then they risk being sued.  And the big multi-nationals can threaten to cut jobs (ostensibly to release the money to raise their environmental standards) or even threaten to move to another location in Honduras or another country.  So the local government says nothing.

'The city is full of businessmen focused on making money.  The priority is never the environment'.  But does it have to remain this way?  I think Christians too often have a blind spot about business.  We think about changing civil society or maybe the government but rarely business.  And yet business has a huge influence on the lives of people and particularly the poorest.  Churches can respond with charity donations to respond to the symptoms but can also help bring justice within business to address this root cause.

Completing Capitalism: Heal Business to Heal the World sets out an inspiring vision for renewed values in the business world.  The authors make the case that is practical as well as ethical for business to focus their core business on bringing social and environmental good as well as generating an appropriate profit.  I pray that churches will increasingly support people of integrity within businesses to bring transformation from within.  Heal business to heal the world.

*Name changed for privacy.