Lament, Reality and Hope

This is a talk that was originally given by David Smyth, Director of Evangelical Alliance at Thrive Ireland’s “Speaking Out” Conference on 19th November 2019. He was subsequently asked to use the content again at the re-launch of Contemporary Christianity under the updated title above.

David Smyth, Director Evangelical Alliance, N. Ireland.

Introduction

I love this title.

I’m not sure it was meant to be ironic – but we literally can’t even agree on the state we are in….its name or the constitutional authority of this place.

I have been asked to speak tonight using a talk I gave a few months ago at a Thrive Ireland conference, but under the updated title – The state we are in: Lament, reality and hope.

In fact right now, as I’ll come to shortly, I’m not sure we can agree on very much – is my cause for lament your cause for hope – Can we even agree on reality any more?

But enough of the existential questions – for a moment.

The Assembly is just back after a three year hiatus and still struggling with a huge vacuum, with only a few notable exceptions, abdication of leadership at a political level.

This week Finance Minister announced there is a £600m funding deficit before any of the New Decade New Approach commitments are even considered.

Poverty, welfare reform, a lack of social housing, addictions, mental health –  indeed a health service which is being stretched to breaking point.

Brexit – We have left the European Union and future trade & immigration policies remain uncertain.

Re-unification – A few days ago Sinn Fein announced they will appoint a Minister for Irish unity if they can form a government in the South – approaching 100 year anniversary of partition – what better time for a bid for reunification?

Tonight I want us to think about the state we are in alongside reconciliation – which I think encompasses ‘lament, reality and hope’…

  • I want us to consider reconciliation in the broadest sense – the worldviews and ways of being in the world, through which we approach these issues.
  • Then I want to localise that to Northern Ireland in 2020
  • Finally I want us to think about how we might faithfully navigate these interface spaces as Jesus’ ambassadors of reconciliation and hope.

The journey from lament to hope, through reality, takes us right to the heart of huge philosophical and religious questions like, can some situations ever be redeemed? Is justice really possible? What does it really mean to be human?

As followers of Jesus who are seeking to answer these questions, it is important to appreciate just how different the biblical approach is from the prevailing cultural outlook. If we fail to recognise how different our starting points, ending points and the stories we are living in are, we will miss each other – it is as if we are talking different languages.

So what is the big story being told in Western prevailing culture that sits behind much of academia, politics and media….?

There is no God. Religion is a relic from our primitive past. Human life is a cosmic fluke. Human beings have no objective or inherent value above a leaf or an ape. Any value, worth, purpose and dignity we have, we give to ourselves above other animals. Any sense of justice, compassion, morality is again our own invention.

Richard Dawkins said this,

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

It’s pretty bleak, but most people I know who live outside the Christian story are not nihilistic. They don’t live day to day like they really believe the reality that Richard Dawkins outlines so starkly.

There is a strong but vague hope that things are going to get better.

Many people live in this space between the utter meaningless of everything and the myth of progress. So ultimately there is a mood that individual choice reigns supreme. You be you.

Because death is end, this life is all there is. There still remains some sort of notion of an afterlife where loved ones smile down on us, but this is more of a cosmic comfort blanket than a strongly held religious belief. Very importantly, there is no ultimate moral Judge or justice beyond this life.

And so the current obsession with human rights and equality is interesting in the Western worldview around us. Some of this is really good and evidence that despite the scars of the fall, humanity still seeks justice and redemption – putting wrong things right.

But there is ultimately a doomed attempt here to seek justice without acknowledging the Judge, Kingdom values without the King, redemption without repentance, an attempt to give dignity to humanity while refusing to acknowledge the One in whose very image we are made. Our society wants the fruit of the Christianity while hacking at the roots.

I say all this to point out that in this way of seeing and being in the world, at bottom, there is no over-arching story which ends in redemption, nor an agreed moral framework within which to reconcile.

The reality is that lament falls upon the indifferent ears of the universe and hope is limited to the best efforts of the human project.

The biblical story

In the beginning God….. Four words in our language shape everything else….

Not us, or our conception of God, but God…The story starts with Him, not with us. That’s a radically different starting point than the current worldview around us.

Christianity claims to be public truth, an unfolding story of the whole world.

Identity – Imago Dei – image of God, worth, value,

Relationships, God, each other, the world around us.

Purpose – To live in these relationships, to steward and co-rule the earth.

We also have the concept of Sin – the fall and it’s effects on identity and relationships, the roots of sickness, suffering and death. Sin fractures human dignity and identity and breaks relationships.

Sin leads to idolatry and injustice – The displacement of God and people made in his image from their proper place.

But at the heart of the Gospel is a gift of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. While we were far from him and living in open rebellion, He called us to be his children.

So the biblical story is one where we are invited and pursued to be transformed from enemies to family.  How incredible…. Imagine a God who pursues his enemies calling them instead to become family. This is difficult for us humanly to get our heads around and so we don’t miss it, scripture uses many different images…

So God is our Father, we are brothers and sisters, we are adopted and born again and our relationship with Jesus as the Church is best communicated through the living symbol of marriage. The not so subtle message that runs throughout the gospel, from seeds in Genesis to the healing leaves of the tree of life in Revelation is that we are pursued by God to be transformed from enemies to family.

Ultimately, we believe that Jesus is returning with judgment and justice and new life in a new Kingdom. This provides a basis for repentance and hope, because one day there will be accountability, justice and mercy meeting in Christ’s rule upon the earth. We look forward to when death will be no more and believe that God is making all things news (Revelation 21).

So in the biblical story, love, truth and reality are revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Lament falls upon the ears of a loving and just God. Hope, life and redemption are found in the kingdom of God.

What I have just covered briefly are simply a few of the orthodox claims of the Christian Church – you’ll find them in any creed or catechism and yet they are huge claims and vastly different from the prevailing concepts of life and death and justice around us today.

Lets give this interface space between the cultural story and the biblical story a local accent…

  • Battle of the Boyne – a Dutch Protestant King with the backing of the Pope fought an English Catholic King on the banks of an Irish river as part of a wider European war…
  • No matter what your moral view on the history of this place, our history tells us that Protestantism came to these shores in turbulent and violent times. Something of this culture remains today….
  • The Troubles – and I don’t raise this issue lightly, even in a room this size, people affected…
  • Without going into the origins of the modern day troubles in a lot of detail, we can say it happened in a context of political, social, religious tension and injustice.
  • Around 20% of all deaths happened in one square mile in North Belfast – in this area today, 22 years after the Belfast Agreement, this is where we see some of the highest levels of social and family breakdown and ongoing unresolved community trauma.
  • Put simply – Reconciliation is one of the greatest moral and social justice issues facing Northern Ireland today.
  • Two stories to earth these statistics into real lives…

On 24 July 1997 – Clough – A 16 year old boy called James had just sat his GCSEs…killed just because he was a Catholic.

Darkley – November 20 1983, 3 people, tin hut, small Pentecostal Fellowship, singing ‘Are you washed in the blood of the lamb…’.. ‘an act of sectarian slaughter on a worshipping community which goes beyond any previous deed of violence’. A local priest went to visit the wife of one of murdered elder. He was interviewed on TV afterwards, and he said one of the first words on her lips was ‘forgiveness’.

  • Geographical – we are caught between London and Dublin with many people feeling dislocated from both, the odd cousin at the family wedding, related but very different… Western edge of Europe – rural, island, …affects outlook.
  • If you look at maps of distribution of religious identities you can see Church history reflected in Church geography.
  • Unionism – little future vision to realise, it is already achieved…. looking backwards and energy invested in defence of the status quo.
  • Nationalism – hope for change…. Energy invested in a goal yet to be achieved.
  • Historical mind-set of siege, suspicion, no surrender and defence.
  • Don’t underestimate how deep this runs into the psychological and spiritual mindset of people here…
  • In setting up a community group in a mainly protestant/unionist area…. we knocked on 200 doors… not invited over the threshold once… But a Catholic friend said you’d be in every house for a cup of tea in his community.
  • Parishes of proximity (Catholic Church)
  • Parishes of belief – evangelical. Parish model is still alive and well, but more and more so, evangelicals gather around parishes of belief…People travelling past 12 Churches to get to one with whose teachings they agree. I say this simply to remind us that this is a luxury that believers in other parts of the world don’t have….
  • And yet Contemporary – Western, secular, prevailing worldview creeping in – becoming more homogeneous with any western country – culture is becoming more homogeneous – globalised cultural fads and values. So even in Cullybackey or Castlewellan tonight you will find a teenager connecting with the world through their iPhone ... just like some other kids in Australia or New York…

In the last census, 82.3% of Northern Ireland’s population identified as Christian. In England & Wales it was 59%.

In a Tearfund survey 45.3% of people in NI attend Church at least once per month compared to UK average of 15.5%.

BBC figures show that 42% of over 50s go to Church weekly but only 10% of 18-24 year olds.

Demographics are shifting fast…

So a historically ultra-religious and politically contested culture… changing very rapidly – increasingly de-churched & secular yet still divided….

Incarnational Interfaces

So….

Are we the masters of our own destiny in a universe of blind pitiless indifference?

Or are we living under the reign and rule of God in His unfolding story of reconciliation?

Are we citizens of the United Kingdom, pursuing a united Ireland or both?

What is reality in this moment?

Because this will shape what both lament and hope looks like here and now.

At this interface of worldviews, we are called to be incarnational, sent with a distinct:-

Presence

Power

Purpose

We are Christ’s Ambassadors – I love this image from 2 Corinthians 5:20 The phrases from the passage….

Ambassadors of Christ, God making his appeal through us.’

Christ’s Ambassadors”

Ministers of Reconciliation”

It’s a deeply political image… Ambassadors are sent from one kingdom to another. They have a purpose, they are not just there on holiday or sent to live as private citizens. They are sent to live in one culture but are loyal citizens of another. Sent with a purpose of representation to another culture.

They have to read two cultures and practice diplomacy, translating their message appropriately, carrying the values and truth of the gospel into the world around us.

Do you think of the gospel in this way – primarily a message of reconciliation proclaimed at the interface?

What could it look like to be a peace-maker in the middle of a culture war? Where is the common ground?

More specifically what does the gospel as a message of reconciliation have to say and bring to Northern Ireland in 2020 – a society where division still runs deep?

So as we try to bring together a biblical understanding of reconciliation in a post-modern 21st century and a specific place and people, here are a few scattered thoughts about how we might respond as followers of Jesus to public issues and collectively as the Church….

Church

In these times, churches and para-church organisations are feeding the poor, housing the homeless, welcoming Syrian refugees, endowing value into the lives of young people, fostering children, including the disabled, caring for the sick and the isolated.

During ‘The Troubles’, the Church buried the dead, cared for the bereaved, made statements which called for violence to end, and pointed to a better way.  Members of the Church made key political decisions, were state forces, were killed or injured, or lost loved ones, took lives and have come to saving faith in Christ.

And while much good work and care was given by Churches, simply put, the Church has not always got it right.

I think there are three broad ways that the Church could act as ambassadors of reconciliation in the state we are in:-

Prophetic, pastoral, practical.

  1. Prophetic

Repent and lament

This is not a bland or blanket statement or the idea that everyone was responsible for everything that happened.

But on occasion earthly empires have been confused with the kingdom of God. As Christians our primary identity is now, and will one day be, as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven. We need to hold our other legitimate political or national identities loosely in comparison. At times the Church has been too vocal, at other times deafeningly silent. Culture, politics and religion have been confused and conflated.

God pre-dates and transcends the many labels used in Northern Ireland. Perhaps we just need to remember at times that God is not a Protestant, nor a Catholic. He is the almighty Holy God – we need to be careful not to fall into the age-old sin of remaking him in our image.

Where the Church has fallen short, we should lament and repent.

· Development of a public theology of reconciliation – REALITY

Many great and noble attempts have been made at political leadership and grassroots level across civil society to make and maintain peace here. It has been a long and costly journey for many people involved in and/or victimised by the conflict.

But today we are trying to make peace in a very different context to when the modern-day troubles broke out over fifty years ago – or when the roots of the conflict began hundreds of years before that.

Modern Western secular culture is deeply shaped by individualism and the privatisation of truth. Might I suggest that his makes the restoration of broken relationships a much more difficult task today?

As we know the language of reconciliation is deeply biblical – truth, justice, repentance, forgiveness, redemption. But when God is removed from the thinking and practice of reconciliation – when the world is dis-enchanted from the presence and possibilities of the Almighty – the horizons of possibility narrow.

So for example, justice is reduced to what can be achieved by human beings within this lifetime, and any moral imperative to our neighbour or indeed enemy has moved from an issue of relationship to one of rights.

Remedies are often contractual and not covenantal. Government efforts are limited to the realms where they can exercise some economic or constitutional carrots or sticks. Many secular attempts at reconciliation though entirely genuine, are thin, asking too little, rather than too much.

Authority cannot be exercised in the realm of hearts and minds. All of this often lacks the depth of the biblical concept of shalom.

The redemption found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides hope for the hardest of human experiences.

The victim who will never receive an earthly apology and the perpetrator who will never receive an earthly pardon both find new identities and relationships through the cross.

This is the type of prophetic public theology – the reality – that we need to hear and see more of, which promotes faithful biblical understanding and collective imagination of what a reconciled and restored community could look like.

How can society pivot from the fear of betraying our forbearers from the past, on all sides, to a healthy fear of betraying our children in the future?

The Church can contribute vision, language, spaces and practical opportunities for hope and healing.

2. Pastoral

Pastoral Care and mediation

Almost every congregation will have victims/survivors, ex-paramilitaries or states forces – sometimes all three. The commitment in the New Decade New Approach deal to legislate for the Stormont House Agreement institutions like the Historical Investigations Unit within the first 100 days will raise huge issues of expectation and pastoral care over the next five years.

How can the Church model being a radical community of honour, hope and healing between and across the range of people affected here?

  • Practical

· Church community initiatives – How can Churches in areas where new and mixed social housing is urgently required collaborate to create a safe space of welcome and conversation for those moving into the area?  How can they help position themselves to mediate the inevitable tensions that will arise between mixed groups who will be living together?

. Churches are welcoming spaces for all members of the community – A gospel-centered and missional conversation is required at Church denominational and local level about the place of flags, parades, symbols, church buildings and Church culture.

. Education – There is great work going on through the Churches in the sphere of education and Christian ethos schools across the maintained, integrated and controlled sectors. How can the Church be even more strategic in the formation of the next generation in line with the biblical story of reconciliation while respecting different theologies, pupils, parents and processes?

· Training for Church leaders on mission and pastoral care in a post-conflict culture – Blessed are the peacemakers – they will be called the sons of a God. But they will also be misunderstood and called many other names, traitors or even ecumenists.

We would never send Church planters to Gaza without training them on the conflict there and its cultural impact, yet it seems we send Church leaders out into this place without comprehensive understanding of the conflict and culture around us. Yet often, that is what we do here as churches in NI.

FINALLY –

Let’s bring this back down from the Church to the individual….

I think there is an amazing opportunity just now in recovering our understanding of the gospel fundamentally as a message of reconciliation to a watching world.

Think of your favourite book or TV show or film or piece of music and think about it ending, unresolved, three quarters of the way through.

At our deepest level we yearn for and desire resolution and reconciliation – it is part of the human condition – the way we are made.

As Karl Rahner has said though, ‘ultimately in this world there is no finished symphony.’

As Dallas Willard says, ‘When we fall away from God, the desire for the infinite remains, but it is displaced upon things that will certainly lead to destruction.’

And so today as we see lament, division and restlessness. Into this space, we bring a radical message of reconciliation and redemption. As people feel increasingly fearful and frustrated by the world, we can draw alongside and whisper – ‘It’s almost like it wasn’t meant to be this way….’

The invitation of God to ‘Be Reconciled’ to him through Christ is still good news today. It aligns with the deepest desires of the human heart bringing meaning out of chaos and hope and life out of death and despair.

Thank you and may you leave here tonight as Ambassadors of the ministry of reconciliation.

Turning Mission Upside Down

We are instructed in the bible to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”. Jesus also tells us to “love our neighbour”. But this message goes out to all Christians in every country.

I wonder how much of our idea of global mission is shaped by media images of what we call third world countries or how the news of charities such as Comic Relief have presented the need of some of the people there. How much is our perception of the poor on our doorstep been shaped by the programmes we watch or the newspaper we read, rather than by the bible?

God has been challenging me personally about this and has brought me on a strange but challenging journey of building relationships both locally here in Northern Ireland and also in Africa in counties such as Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

I have reflected on what I have seen, the people I have met, the concerns they had, what made them laugh and what made them cry and I have come to an unsurprising conclusion. No matter where you are in the world – people are people. They love, they laugh, they cry, they hurt, they get angry. Some are better off than others, some make better choices, some deal better with their life circumstances – but people are people no matter where they live.

Let me tell you two stories: one from Africa and one from Northern Ireland.

Margaret lives in Uganda. The big issue in her community was lack of access to clean water. Women and children spent much of their time walking long distances to collect water and as a consequence, children did not go to school and women did not work. The economic situation of families was not good.

Margaret was chosen by her village to train to be a water tank builder. Her husband laughed at her and told her that she would never be able to make a difference – she was only a woman. She was living in a patriarchal society.

So Margaret was trained with the support of a Tearfund partner and helped her village build the water tanks they needed to collect water from the roofs of houses. Things greatly improved as less time needed to be spent on walking to collect water. Children were able to go to school and women able to work in other jobs. The village is beginning to transform.

Another Margaret lives in a town in Northern Ireland. She lives on a public housing estate controlled by a paramilitary organisation which exerts control on the daily lives of the people who live there. She is married to one of those who belong to the organisation. She is living in a patriarchal society.

Margaret was trained in community leadership with the help of a Christian community development organisation. Her confidence and skill grew and she began to understand the difference that she could make in her community. She worked to enable women in the community to come together to learn about their own Protestant identity and begin to understand more of the Catholic community. She facilitated an older people’s group and inter-generational work – finding out the needs of her local community and seeking to meet them. She is now the Chairperson of her local resident’s association. That community is beginning to transform.

In both these situations there is a long way to go. The poverty might have looked very different, but the issues were the same.

What was I expecting when I travelled to Africa?  Perhaps I had an idealized view of what poverty might look like.

Poverty is never simple. It is a symptom of a series of interlocking factors which conspire to bring people down and prevent them from thriving and flourishing. I don’t always know what issues there are in other poor countries. Is the government corrupt? How much support do people have? What is the attitude to women? How active is the Church?

However, when I started working in local community, coming from a very privileged background, I thought I knew what caused people to be in poverty and had a simplified idea of how they would be able to get out. What I had not thought through was: the complex and unfair nature of the benefits system; that not everyone has the same intellectual ability; that poverty affects mental health as well as physical and mental health saps your energy for doing anything; people in general are not very self-aware and they rarely can see for themselves what might be glaringly obvious to others. (I include myself in this category!!)

Africa Map

At Thrive Ireland we want to bring you on a journey of understanding through a global lens, learning from Christians in Africa who have, with God’s help and grace brought amazing transformation to their communities, regions and even countries. How can we not learn from this incredible experience?

PS. Our next event is a Conference learning from the Churches in Zimbabwe who have mobilised to speak out against social injustice and the corruption of the Mugabe and current regimes. You can register free for the event on 19th November 2019 here.

If you would like to be placed on the Thrive Ireland mailing list to hear about events and resources, then email info@thriveireland.org

Have we forgotten the importance of relationship?Pt 3.

I work with churches across N. Ireland helping them to connect and reach out to their local community. Part of this process is enabling them to conduct a community audit of need in their area. There are few communities where isolation and loneliness is not one of the biggest issues – and not just among the elderly.

The University of Ulster conducted research and found that 30% of the population of N. Ireland suffers from mental health problems and more than half of these are directly related to the Troubles.  There are high levels of untreated PTSD as a result of decades of violence.

Outwardly, Northern Ireland looks good.  We’ve become a popular tourist destination! Blockbuster TV and films are made in our beautiful countryside. Infrastructure is much better. People can shop together now, without barricades, but as  my colleague Derek Poole has spoken and written about – we’ve settled for tolerance, and tolerance is not enough.  We’ve done the superficial stuff but we haven’t dealt with relationships, people’s hearts and minds.  He wrote in the Thrive Ireland “lessons from Rwanda resource,

“Having a peace process is not the same as having made peace with one another.”

The lid that we put on the pain and the suffering manifests itself in other ways. Not by accident is Northern Ireland the poorest part of the UK.

According to research from Joseph Rowntree:

“The level of persistent child poverty in N. Ireland is more than double that in the rest of the UK”

“Nearly one third of the working age population in N. Ireland is not in paid work. At 31% this is the highest of any other region in the UK”.

Last time Inspired Individual and Christian Leader, Christophe Mbonyingabo from Rwanda visited N orthern Ireland he spoke at Stormont to the cross party group for Global development.

He spoke about the Gacaca courts which were set up:

  • To enable truth telling
  • To promote reconciliation
  • To eradicate the culture of impunity
  • To speed up the trial of genocide suspects and
  • To demonstrate Rwanda’s own problem solving capacity.

It also enabled victims and survivors to learn the truth of the fate of their loved one – not one persons truth – but the communal truth. Because as these courts took place in local communities where people knew each other well –  perpetrators could be challenged on the stories they were telling by other members of the community who were also there.

The Gacaca courts “encouraged offenders to confess, to express public apology and offer reparations – this was to facilitate the reintegration of the perpetrators back into Rwandan society. This was Rwanda’s restorative way of dealing with the past.

  • The Gacaca courts also enabled victims and survivors to tell their stories and from my experience of listening to these harrowing stories – this seemed a very important part of their healing.

Indeed Walter Bruggerman says,

“There can be no healing from hurt – without the public affirmation of the legitimacy of your story. “

To enhance and encourage the building of cross community relationships the people of Rwanda also practice Umuganda.

This tradition was revived by the Rwandan government in 1998, but only institutionalized with laws passed in 2007 and 2009. The aim of this initiative is to use the resources of the community, to foster growth in community – through activities such as tree planting, building houses, schools, clinics and so on. In so doing the activities associated with Umuganda encourage reconciliation by bringing together former opponents to work on constructive tasks which in turn promote national reconstruction. It is a recurring activity, taking place on the last Saturday of every month. It lasts for 3 hours and is mandatory for all able persons aged 18 – 65.

In Rwanda the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 1999 and still operates now. “the focus of this Commission is on reconciling Rwandan society into a unified peaceful nation. Interestingly they go on to say, “While it does acknowledge the events of the past, its primary focus is not investigation.”

The differences in N. Ireland’s way of dealing with the past were highlighted by members of that Stormont Committee who recognized straight away that we are mostly missing any “relational” element.

Here, in terms of Transitional Justice: There have been various official methods for investigating the past:

The Stormont House Agreement in 2014 included a range of measures associated with dealing with the past including:

  • A commission on flags, identity, culture and tradition
  • Responsibility for parades to be given to the N. Ireland Assembly
  • An oral history archive
  • An independent historical enquiries unit to take over from the Historical Enquires Team and take on legacy cases from the Police Ombudsman
  • An Independent commission on Information Retrieval.

The irony of this last point was highlighted by a member of the Global Development Committee who said that whilst Rwanda had sought truth telling and the promotion of reconciliation through the Gacaca counts – we couldn’t even use the word truth and had dehumanized it to “Information retrieval.”

As Christians, I think we expect the church to be different.

However, I have worked with churches across the denominations in N. Ireland for more than 20 years, and sadly I have witnessed much internal strife and conflict which is damaging and life draining.  We seem to struggle to build authentic, vulnerable relationships – even in our Christian communities. If we are unable to do this – how can we lead others in our communities to build courageous relationships and make courageous and difficult decisions.

Jesus – the word himself, became flesh and dwelt among us. Relationship was obviously important to him and his friends were many and varied.

Our words  – our theory if you like,  need to become flesh if we are to bring transformation to this troubled part of our lovely island.

Have we forgotten the importance of relationship Part 2.

So in Part 1 I talked about Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals programme and how it got me thinking about the importance of relationship and community – and how relationship is at the heart of peacebuilding, advocacy, pastoral care and what we will call prophetics. That is:

  • keeping faith with truthfulness,
  • challenging power,
  • naming injustice and
  • inspiring dreams and visions of hope.

We can’t do any of these without the slow process of building relationship and trust.

Our modelling, our listening or praying  and our time spent with others in the “ministry of presence” is vital to the work that we do.

Broken Relationships

Working with Tearfund, I found it interesting that their theory of poverty states that “poverty is holistic; it is not just economic or physical but it is also social, environmental and spiritual.” The root cause of poverty is broken relationships – with God and with each other – our neighbour. And of course – while conflict manifests itself in different ways – Conflict is about – broken relationships.

My experience has been that incredibly – even though relationship is at the heart of the gospel message – there seems to be a lack of understanding of this – whether in Africa – as expressed by the isolation and lack of support of our Inspired or in the UK where I have experienced it myself in my work –  in a local Christian community project and with Thrive Ireland. “You can’t love your neighbour – if you don’t know your neighbour.” Perceptions and myths develop – and do not change until relationship is established.  In fact, until relationship is built – Perception is reality for you – or for the other person!

So Perceptions… exist! Of course they do.

Them and Us

Whether it is perceptions from those in Africa about the white people or Musungu! And equally important our perceptions of people in Africa – “more spiritual” or “lacking in understanding” or “they are all living in poverty”. Or whether it is perceptions about “people who live in loyalist or republican housing estates.” Or, from the “community” outside the church –  of those middle class “Snobs and “do gooders” from the church. 

This makes it initially difficult to build authentic relationship because of the perceptions involved. Eg. The Colonial legacy where white people came with a superior attitude – creating a hierarchy.

The West is where the money comes from and is looked to for support when resources and skills are plentiful within these beautiful places. How easy it is to disempower others.

And Unequal power balance can also make authentic relationship hard to build.

But in a Leadership Support Programme which requires trust to be built to enable support to be offered. It was important to meet each Inspired Individual where they were, visit their homes, meet their families, laugh and cry with them, eat their food and be guided by them.

It was also important to be vulnerable. To enable them to see, I was not the one with all knowledge, power and wisdom. In pastoral care situations I also needed to share personally about my life, ask for their prayers and let them see my struggles.

We love because he first loved us

When you build that relationship and get to know someone – your perception changes with relationship, actual knowledge and understanding. You get to know someone for Who they are – not for what they are labelled as – or what they do. You get to know their sense of humour, you spend time with them because you are interested and you care – “We love (simply) because he loved us.” not because you have an agenda.

My first real job was in sales. I worked for a Theatre and Drama Publishing company. It was a very niche market – and most buyers in the shops I was selling to didn’t know much about the subject matter of the books I was selling.

But it was never about the books. It was about the relationship I built with them. They didn’t buy books from me because they thought the books were great – or they would sell 100’s of copies in Bognor Regis or Ahoghill! Many times they bought the books from me because we had a good relationship.

Without relationship – with people different to us – we lack knowledge and understanding of the issues that they are dealing with or the reality of their lives. This makes us quick to judge, condemn, label and scapegoat.

Without knowledge we are unable to offer support or seek to address the issues that plague our community, whether issues of poverty, violence, sectarianism, racism. We can’t advocate without knowledge and we can’t gain knowledge without relationship with people different to us.

Without relationships – we are just going to have more theory.

But we need to move from theory to relationship.

In Part 3, I will be looking at the results of not focusing on the building and development of relationship in Northern Ireland and bringing some excellent examples of how the Rwandese put the building of relationships at the heart of their country’s journey and development following the genocide.

Have we forgotten the importance of relationship? Part 1.

The Link

Until 4 years ago my experience in community development and peacebuilding was all from N. Ireland. I spent 15 years working in community in Newtownards in an organisation called The Link Family and Community Centre.

During my time there, it became clear quite quickly that programmes and projects were all very well, but it was in the long, slow building of relationships within the community – across many different divides  – that progress could actually be made.

I don’t think I really reflected at that time on just how important the building of relationship was. But nearly four years with the Inspired Individuals programme in South and East Africa taught me a lot.  Both the model and also of some of the experiences – enabled me to join the dots between what I was seeing and learning from the work of some amazing leaders there. Sometimes we need to be taken outside our own context for clarity of focus and thought.

Inspired Individuals

I became the Development Facilitator for Tearfund’s unique leadership programme,  Inspired Individuals. The role used to be called Relationship Facilitator – and perhaps that’s a better title.

So who are Inspired Individuals?

The Inspired programme identifies, develops and connects Christian leaders from around the world who are incredible change makers in their communities. My area just happened to be in Africa.

I was supporting 2 cohorts of 7 inspired individuals, so 14 in total as well as some graduates from the previous years of the programme. One cohort was peace and reconciliation and the other –  peace, reconciliation and governance. The Leaders were drawn from Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Inspired Individuals Sept 2018

A unique feature of this programme is that the focus is on the individual, through the building of authentic relationships of trust. We are concerned about all aspects of their life; their personal health and well-being, their family; their physical and social as well as their spiritual health.

Practically,  this is through monthly one to one coaching, mentoring or pastoral care visits or calls as well as bringing individuals together into thematic or geographic cohorts for mutual support, learning and a sense of belonging and identity.

We found that most of the Inspired felt very isolated and their ministry or vision was not understood by the church they belonged to. They were working with some of the most marginalised people or with difficult / edgy issues. Because of this, the church was not able, often through a lack of theological understanding of whole life mission or a theology of peace building to offer support, or even see the need for it.

Graduation Sept 2018

The cohorts became places where they could talk openly and honestly and the relationships established there made it like a second family. During times of crisis the cohorts offered practical, spiritual, social support which was highlighted again and again as one of the most important aspects of the programme. This – and the fact that the focus was on them – not on what they did.

Thrive Ireland has now adapted this model for Christian Leaders working in areas of socio-economic deprivation in N. Ireland and I see exactly the same issues here. We have a group of 8 leaders, and as they have been brought into a group of people who are involved in similar ministry (working in an area of socio-economic deprivation) – a sense of identity and belonging is quickly created and trusting supportive relationships begin to develop. They have all felt called to this ministry and are therefore passionate about it.

So –  relationship and community is the core of the success of the inspired programme and it has led me to think through how much relationship is at the heart of peacebuilding, advocacy, pastoral care and what we will call “prophetics”.

In Part 2 I’ll be looking at what I mean by “prophetics” and how vital relationship is in contexts were conflict is causing a community or Nation to fail in enabling people within it to thrive and flourish.

So what lessons can Northern Ireland learn from Rwanda?

Setting the Scene

 I spent 10 days last May hosting my friend and Tearfund Inspired Individual Christophe Mbonyingabo from Rwanda. Christophe at Stormont

In case you don’t know, and lets face it, not many of us know a lot about the history of Rwanda, I’ll try and help bring some understanding. It will help to contextualise what I hope to reflect on in this blog post.

In 1994, in 100 days just under 1 million, mainly Tutsi were killed by their Hutu friends, family and neighbours in what was one of the most brutal genocides of all time. Map of Rwanda

It didn’t happen by accident. I listened to Christophe explain in many of the groups and people we met, that the Hutu and Tutsi were not tribes. They were social groupings based around the number of cattle you owned. If you had 10 or more you were Tutsi – less and made a living by farming the land, then you were Hutu. More than that – you could move from one to the other – I suppose through a type of social mobility.

Then the Colonisers arrived, first the Germans and then the Belgians. The Belgians introduced ID cards which aligned you with one group and there you stayed. The King of Rwanda was Tutsi and so the Tutsi worked closely with the Belgians in developing and structuring civic society.

In the late 1950’s other African countries had been seeking, and moving to independence and Rwanda also wanted to move in this direction. The Belgians, unsurprisingly, were none too keen and began to move to a strategic alliance with the Hutu, setting them against their Tutsi neighbour suggesting that they had been their “oppressors”. During the first genocide in Rwanda happened in 1959, the Tutsi King was removed and many Tutsi were killed or displaced to the neighbouring countries.

When Belgium relinquished power and granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the Hutus took their place. Over subsequent decades, the Tutsis were portrayed as the scapegoats for every crisis. Propaganda from radio stations reduced the humanity and value of the Tutsi with words like cockroach and snake used to describe them. Legislation meant that only 10% of public service jobs could be accessed by Tutsi. The Church also followed this 10% rule, making themselves complicit in unjust practices.

In 1990 many of the Tutsi diaspora from the neighbouring countries where they had been displaced, formed themselves into a fighting force called the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) and a civil war began. In 1993/94 the United Nations facilitated peace talks and the Hutu President was in the process of signing a peace deal when his plane was shot down whilst returning to Kigali on 6th April 1994. This was the touch paper that began the 100 days of killing.

The numbers are staggering and hard to get your mind around. But it is the individual stories of pain, suffering and loss that bring home the full horror of the impact hate and scapegoating have on entire communities. The drip feed of propaganda about “the other” should be enough to make us here in Northern Ireland sit up and realise complacency is not an option. Burial Place

However, it is the response of Rwandan’s themselves and the leadership shown by those in power that has the most to teach us. As well as around 1 million people killed at least 2 million more fled to the neighbouring countries surrounding Rwanda. The structures of civic society were no longer functioning. Although horrific, it also enabled them to think extremely creatively about solutions to their problems.

Most of the genocide survivors had been close to death themselves. Most of them saw their immediate family members killed. Many sustained dreadful wounds. Rape had been used as a weapon and HIV aids passed onto numerous women and the children that were born from the rape. I’ve heard personal stories that are gut wrenching. This is a legacy which they are still dealing with today and a generation of children have been born with HIV.

Over 3 million people had sought refuge in neighbouring countries, and many more were internally displaced. There were countless orphans and widows, thousands of people with disabilities and generally a very vulnerable population.

The Rwandan People’s Army (remember a Tutsi army) – headed by a man called Paul Kigame – (who is still President today) formed a government of National Unity with members of all parties. Because of the numbers of men killed in the Genocide – many women were also involved in the new government. The break down of Civic Society and its structure like the judiciary, education and health were so broken that they almost had a clean slate to start again.

An important part of this was the establishment of a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. This commission was given the power of enabling unity and reconciliation at all levels of society – including with those in government. They ensured that the members of the government spent days of retreat away with each other to begin to hear each other’s stories and develop understanding. This has been hugely important as the top down governance of their country has taken place. They have modelled what they want to see in the rest of Rwanda.

Mass Grave

Each year in Rwanda from 6th April there are 100 days of remembrance for people to visit the sites of the burial of their relatives. But it’s not just about remembering or wallowing in the past –  the message for these 100 days is Remember, Unite, Renew.

Remember Unite RenewChristophe is the Leader of a Christian Community Initiative in Rwanda called CARSA (Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance) https://www.carsaministry.org/  – It brings together victims, survivors and their perpetrators. He works through local churches, enabling the victims, survivors and perpetrators who attend, to go on a journey together, to move towards healing and forgiveness. Genocide Survivors Rwanda  Last May he visited Northern Ireland and spoke at Stormont to the Cross Party International Development group. He talked about the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission facilitating retreats for all the new leaders to listen to each other’s stories and different  journeys and experiences.  When they heard this – the MLA’s listening to Christophe commented that this was something that our divided leaders at Stormont would have benefited from.  Christophe has subsequently returned to Northern Ireland in February of this year to speak at Thrive Ireland’s https://www.facebook.com/nithrive2015/ From Africa to Ireland. He also spoke to a victim’s/ survivors group here in N. Ireland and was warmly welcomed. Another blog post will look at the learning from this.

Restorative Justice – a model of dealing with the past!

Because of the lack of structure in civic society in Rwanda following the deaths of just under 1 million and the fact that over 2 million had escaped to neighbouring countries like the DRC, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania – the new government determined that they would go back to an old tribal form of Community Court System called Gachcha Courts. Gachacha means literally “on the grass” and these were local courts where local people voted for local leaders who they trusted to be trained to oversee justice within the community.

The first test was to try those who had been caught and imprisoned because of suspected crimes during the genocide. Each prisoner was given the opportunity to write, or have written their account of what they had done – a confession (if they were indeed guilty) and then each was brought to their local Gachacha court. These courts invited the entire local community to come and participate (on the grass!). So when confessions were read, community members were at liberty to agree with the statement or disagree and give their own account of what they had seen, or what had happened. For others it was a chance to find out what had happened to their family members. By the end there was community agreement of the facts of each individual case. The victim had the opportunity to be there. The perpetrator had the chance to offer repentance and sorrow and ask for forgiveness.

However, this did not mean that they did not suffer consequences for their crimes. Depending on the seriousness of what they had done – the fact of them being willing to confess and ask for forgiveness enabled them to have their sentence reduced by around half – so most people were in prison for about 12 – 15 years for the murders they had committed rather than 25 or 30. For lesser crimes and because of the numbers – the community were able to determine community recompense or recompense for the victim whose property had been damaged or stolen.

Response of the Churches in Rwanda 

Because Thrive Ireland is an organisation that works with churches, I want to tell you a bit about what the churches did. The Churches were equally complicit in the genocide, both before in terms of not speaking out against the injustice of the Hutu practices against the Tutsi and during the Genocide in the killing or leading people to places were their neighbours were hiding so they could be killed. I visited one memorial site –

Nyamata Sign

in Nyamata where there was a Catholic Church where 10,000 people had gone seeking refuge and protection. In previous genocides – when this had happened, churches had been respected as refuges.  Not this time. The Hutu came and put their rifles through the widows and grills of the church and killed every man, woman and child inside. Those who tried to run were killed with spears, clubs or machetes. Bodies were still being found on my first visit which was in 2015.

Clothes on pews

Blood stained alter

The clothes of those killed, stained with their blood were piled on the benches in the church – a Statue of Mary which had been said by the Hutu to look like a Tutsi – had her face shot off.

In 2014 – after a number of years of conversations, the Churches, who had been complicit both before and during the Genocide – right across the denominations produced a document called The Muzanze Declaration.  Here is their acknowledgement and confession. Contact me if you would like a copy of the full declaration.

Acknowledgement and Confession

 We fully acknowledge that:

  • The church focused too much on making people members of their denominations more than making them disciples of Jesus Christ, in so doing, many converts became only nominal Christians.
  • The church kept silent, and never spoke or fought openly against the evil.
  • The church never addressed fully the issue of social relationships of the Rwandese that had been characterized by division and discrimination.
  • The church lost her prophetic voice in the nation.

And then a statement of

Repentance and Forgiveness

 They said – As Rwanda church leaders:

  • We ask God for forgiveness for not fulfilling our mandate of making Rwandese disciples of Jesus Christ, and instead turning many of them into nominal Christians.
  • We ask the nation and the genocide survivors in particular for forgiveness, for not speaking enough against ethnic discrimination in the history of the nation and of the church, until it led to the genocide against Tutsi.
  • We ask forgiveness from the people of Rwanda in general who did not find in us the trustworthiness and compassion that they expected from us when people were being killed in the genocide against Tutsi.
  • We ask forgiveness from the genocide survivors and other vulnerable people, for we did not care and tend to their needs as much as we should have, and nor did we own their problems as if they were ours.
  • We ask forgiveness from the church members for the bad example set by some of our fellow church leaders who involved themselves in the politics of ethnic and regional divisions out of their personal interests, and who also were involved in the genocide against Tutsi.
  • We also ask forgiveness as church leaders for the situations where we used ethnic divisions as a means to gain or maintain leadership positions.
  • We church leaders of Rwanda, attest that the problem is not the so-called “Ethnic groups” (Hutu, Tutsi and Twa) but the way they have been used by some for personal interests.

Christophe encouraged us in Northern Ireland : “The post genocide story of Rwanda should send a message of hope and encouragement to those countries emerging from conflicts. It is true that Rwanda is not a paradise, in any case paradise is yet to be found anywhere on this earth. But Rwanda has definitely made a huge step towards sustainable peace and development.”

PURSUING TRANSFORMATION IN YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY. Part 2.

This is the second half of a seminar from New Wine in Sligo 2017.

Skills and Gifts

Another important fact is that local non-churched community members have many important skills and gifts – not least of which is community knowledge and community relationship. Of course church members have great skills and gifts too, often complimentary ones. However,  my experience is that they often lack the knowledge of the difficult issues that need addressed.

Public ServiceChurches are also full of doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants in various government departments, policemen…all of whom have a good knowledge of the issues in civic society. Sadly they are rarely used for this unique skills set.

Do we pray for these people in our own churches and send them out into their weekly jobs with God’s blessing, our prayers and the support of their congregation?  Could their knowledge be tapped into in addressing some of the local issues? Have we asked local community members for their opinions and suggestions of how the church could pray for them and support them?

Because my experience is that with knowledge and understanding comes action. For example mobilised by local ministers wives, a group of women in Newtownards in N. Ireland came together to pray for the needs of the local community. They realised quickly that they really did not know enough about the local needs to pray in a meaningful way. However because of my work through The Link I was able to introduce them to women in the community from organisations like Women’s Aid and Homestart who could talk about the needs from their charities perspective. Soon the women were not only praying, but volunteering in the local organisations and putting together packs for the women’s refuge. The prayer ministry grew into a group called “Christians Connecting with Community” and many voluntary groups and statutory organisations were prayed for on a regular basis. All the time the Christians praying were learning about the needs of their local community through prayer.

However, much more than learning and action took place. At a prayer breakfast about two years into the prayer ministry some of the women spoke. They talked about how judgemental they had been about some of the groups and activities within the local community. But as they had prayed and learned about the needs, so their hearts had changed.

Our judgement of others is important to recognise as we seek to bring transformation to our local community.

Pointing finger

As I began work in The Link and met with many people from different backgrounds and experiences to myself, I realised that I was very judgemental and was categorising people into the deserving and undeserving poor.

But here are a few local poverty facts:

“A man who lives in an area identified as one of poverty in N. Ireland lives – on average,17 years less than that of someone who lives in a middle class area.”

“25% of children in Northern Ireland live in poverty, 45,000 live in severe poverty and almost 1 in 5 live in persistent poverty.”

“53% of older people in N. Ireland say that television is their main source of company and 1 in 4 people aged 65 and over spend more than 15 hours alone each day.”

As a Christian I believe deeply that we are called to be salt and light wherever we are – right here on our doorstep. To shine the light of Christ into the darkness that encompasses much of our society. Many Christians in local churches feel the same way. However, I have worked with many churches right across the province and have been involved in research that shows that churches are struggling to understand how to better reach out within their communities. There is division within congregations and competing agenda’s mean that often churches spend much more time maintaining their own structures, and fire-fighting than building the Kingdom of God.ThriveLogo (1)

Thrive Ireland has been set up to enable the local church to realise its local mission and vision. Supporting the development of authentic relationships with the local unchurched community – to meet identified need and enable people to thrive, flourish and become the people that God created them to be.

Thrive Ireland’s Vision is

“The transformation of church and community to thrive as God intends.”

Our mission is “To equip churches in Ireland for transformation and relational engagement, through global learning, community engagement and leadership development.”

All that we do recognises that God wants His Kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” – he wants thriving and flourishing communities of healthy, happy, whole people.

One element is supporting local congregations – both individually and in partnership with others geographically – for Kingdom benefit.

Thrive Ireland uses Umoja, a Swahili word meaning togetherness and a model which Tearfund uses around the world to enable church and community transformation. Umoja enables churches to develop an understanding of community development and whole life mission, and engage with issues on their doorstep. Partnership 1

Part of this is recognising that you – clergy and lay folk alike – all of you here are also members of your local community – at the same time as being members of the church – and your everyday engagement with others in the community is part of the churches mission and witness.  You are it!! You are Christ’s hands and feet. His eyes and ears and his heart. So how you treat others in every social interaction is bringing Christ to them  – in the post office, in the supermarket, at the golf club, in the street…..Christ's hands and feetWe just need to be a little bit more strategic about what we do – and how we show who we are –as well as communicating more effectively both with each other and the community around us.

Umoja is not a course or a series of bible studies – though it includes elements of both  – it is a process. It creates space to enable a congregation to listen to God, each other and the local community to build relationships and begin to look at how they can help and support the community.

Stop Look Listen

“The process has four simples steps to help you cross the road into your community”.

Stop, Look, Listen, Walk

STOP – Take time to pause, assess, reflect and celebrate what your church is already doing both locally and globally and to explore God’s heart for mission. (Theological understanding) Take time to understand the complex nature of poverty and our different attitudes to local and global poverty.

Understand what God has already put in our hands, what we already know and understand of our community because many of us are members of that community as well as members of the church.

LOOK at what others within our congregation are already doing within that community and how that can enable us to build better relationships. (Church and skills audit)

LISTEN. Taking time to build relationships with our local community by listening and talking with people. Finding out about local needs, pain and suffering. Opening our hearts as well as our ears. Taking time to listen to God. (Community Audit)

WALK. Taking into account the learning from stop, look and listen, we begin to work and dream dreams with our community to make a difference. The congregation will vote on the actions to take, based on what they have discovered through the process. (Strategic Plan).

Thrive also helps support the training of church leaders in places like Edgehill Theological College, Union College and Belfast Bible College to enable ministers, pastors and churches leaders to be better equipped in the whole area of local community mission.

We are also seeking to promote understanding in civic society of the special role and skill of the church in supporting social justice issues. We seek to be salt and light in the secular community and voluntary sector.

Building on Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals model – Thrive Ireland is currently developing a bespoke leadership programme particularly aimed at Christian leaders in areas of socio-economic deprivation. Using a biblical model, it will offer pastoral, mentoring and coaching support, the chance for Christian leaders to meet with others in similar areas of ministry for mutual support and learning as well as leadership training and support for organisational/congregational development.

Thrive Ireland is also involved in the development of resources for the church. Our first resource is entitled Lessons from Rwanda – Biblical Reflections for the Church in Northern Ireland. 

Thrive Ireland in partnership with Contemporary Christianity produced a peace and reconciliation resource for churches in Northern Ireland. The material is based on the Rwandan churches response to the need for post-conflict National healing following the Genocide. The resource is designed to facilitated biblical reflection with Christians to consider how the Rwandan experience might inspire and inform our commitment to peace building. The resource explores, in the context of Northern Ireland, four essential themes: Forgiveness, Justice, Reconciliation and Repentance. Thrive Ireland provides facilitated workshops which include opportunity for study, reflection and interactive learning.

Thrive Ireland also facilitates workshops on understanding conflict, managing conflict and conflict transformation both within churches or the workplace and in local and national contexts. We also offer support to those in difficult conflict situations.

If you need further information or would like to discuss getting support from Thrive Ireland email: info@thriveireland.org

 

 

 

Pursuing Transformation in your local community. Part 1.

This is Part 1 of a talk I gave at New Wine this year in Sligo.        Diane Holt

For the last 20 years God has brought me on a journey of discovery and learning that I never expected.

I worked for the Irish Mission of the Presbyterian Church and  helped to establish The Link Family and Community Centre in Newtownards which was started by Regent Street Presbyterian Church. The Link works with marginalised young people, adults with addictions to alcohol and/or drugs, older people, people from different ethnic minorities and the communities in the loyalist estates surrounding Newtownards. During that time I became a facilitator of Tearfund’s Church Mobilisation process, Church, Community and Change and after 15 years felt God calling me to take what I had learned from working in the community in Newtownards back to the churches.

For the last 6 years I have worked for International Development Organisation Tearfund firstly in their UK Church Mobilisation Team, IMPACT UK and now within the Inspired Individual programme as the Development Facilitator for South and East Africa. So I have the privilege of travelling to many African countries and learning from some incredible people working in difficult ministries across that region.

However, today I am here representing a new organisation called Thrive Ireland which was birthed out of Tearfund in 2015. Thrive Ireland seeks to enable Churches and communities to thrive through equipping and releasing their God given potential, bringing hope and transformation across Ireland.

Thrive, taking the best of learning from international development – seeks to empower Christians to live out their faith locally, modelling Jesus’s servant leadership, honesty and integrity.

I am here today to try to share some of my learning of the last twenty plus years with you and to give an overview of some of the issues and a really practical process that I hope and pray will help you address some of these difficulties within local congregations to enable Christians to  “cross the road” from the church to the non -church going community.

If you feel like a novice well I was a novice when I started. I trained as an actor and singer in London before working with the BBC Singers on the daily service, Riding Lights Theatre Company and The Arts Theatre in Belfast. I never imagined that I would end up working in community development.

 One of the first things I want to talk about is that of perception.  The perception of church members about the community and it’s needs and problems and also from the non church going community members about the church – it’s agenda and what it does.

 The problem is that until relationship is built – perception is reality.

 Perceptions exist! Of course they do. Both perceptions from the church about the community – and –perceptions about the church from members of the local community. This is particularly true of more middle class churches and local loyalist estates.

Research in Ards showed that the community did not feel that the churches cared about them and cited examples of writing letters to clergy to invite them to community events – and not receiving even a reply – and no one attending.

The reality in this case was that clergy are often the ones that all the mail goes to, and one minister confessed that he had sometimes got to an invitation a couple of days after the event was over.

In Islandmagee a Presbyterian Church (doing a community audit for the first time) who felt that they had a good relationship with their local island community were shocked to find that feedback showed that a substantial number of people felt that the church was only interested in getting their money.

But as we know from experience perception changes with relationship, actual knowledge and understanding.

Secondly, what exactly are we talking about – when we say “community”? It sounds like it’s us and them.

But church members are at the same time members both of their church and their community at large – both locally, geographically in our town or village as well as the wider country.

But somehow it seems that we as church members forget once we are through the church door that we are also members of our local community. For example we pray about mission overseas more often than we pray about the issues in our local community – and by local I mean within a five mile radius of our churches.

Belfast                                 Ireland

Developing understanding of our identity as a people of God who have been placed in a specific location to “seek its welfare and transformation” has a huge impact on how we then look at mission. Mission becomes an integral part of all aspects of what we do as people of God.

 Jesus helps us to see integral or whole-life mission in action. Jesus did not just preach. He was an integral part of community life. He listened, asked people what they needed, gave people their place, healed the sick – both physically and mentally and wept over Jerusalem.

Jesus cares about the whole person and about the whole community; broken relationships, hurting and broken families, those suffering domestic violence, those crippled with debt and worry over that debt, those who feel unloved and unwanted because they just don’t fit into what society says is normal.

When I worked in The Link in Ards it took a long time to break down the perception amongst most of the non-church going community that if they came into our buidling – they would not be “preached at.” When people feel preached at they also feel judged.

Tony Campolo tells a story about a prostitute who made this statement about why she didn’t come to church –

“I already felt bad enough about myself, I didn’t need to be made to feel worse.”

 Authentic relationship takes time and more time – and listening as well as talking – there is so much mutual learning for both church and community members. If our approach is merely to tell others what they are doing wrong without recognising the huge log in our own eye – then relationship is hard to build.

Friendly helping young woman mum and baby

Therefore we need to look at how we offer our help and support to the community.  Modelling Jesus we need to listen with a humble heart. At The Link, I learned something about the model of Community Development which organisations like Tearfund, Christian Aid and Trochaire use in their support of disadvantaged communities mostly in other parts of the world. But community development is also used widely in community transformation in the UK and Ireland.  Rather than being a secular model of working it is biblical in its values. Community development is getting alongside people and doing things with them rather than for them. A hand up not a hand out! It starts from an understanding that God creates us all as valuable individuals with gifts and abilities. Our role as Christians is to enable broken and hurting people to understand what gifts and abilities they have – when they often believe they are worthless and have none.

Only by showing people that they are valuable to us enables us to show them that they are valuable to God. Of course this takes a lot of time. Take the example of a child and their homework. When my son or daughter brought me their difficult maths problem, it may have been easier for me to quickly do it for them. But how did that help? They would go back to school and the next day still unable to do it and feeling stupid. But, if I take the time to help them to understand how to do it for themselves, that brings transformation. We all know how we feel when we can at last do something difficult! There is a real sense of achievement and worth. Plus they are then less reliant on us.

A challenge to me on this issue is that doing something for someone else makes me feel good about myself. It makes me feel worthwhile, whilst at the same time leaving the other person feeling ashamed about needing help and unwilling to ask. I know I hate asking for help! Sometimes we need to put ourselves into the shoes of someone else.

 

 

I’ll post part 2 in a few days.

On earth as it is in heaven….

 

I’m just back from my  3rd trip to Africa, to meet 13 inspirational people in my role as Development Facilitator  for Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals Programme. As much of my last 20 years has been working in community development and peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, I am hugely interested in transferable learning.

It was a mammoth trip covering Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Kenya, individual meetings with all my Inspired Individuals in 16 days. It was also wonderful to meet with many of the amazing Tearfund staff who work in the various countries.

My first stop was Rwanda. All of the Inspired Individuals in Rwanda and Burundi are involved in the Peace and Reconciliation Cohort and I was taken by Christophe Mbonyingabo who heads up an organisation in Rwanda called Carsa http://www.carsaministry.org/ to one of the villages where he works with survivors and their perpetrators in a project called “Cow for Peace. For someone from a Northern Ireland context most of whose  life was lived during “the troubles” it was humbling to see and hear those who had been supported on a difficult journey of reconciliation and forgiveness. Both survivors and perpetrators told their stories. They had grown up together, lived their lives together until the genocide. So when the perpetrators were released from prison after 11 or more years, they had nowhere to go, but return to the villages where they had built their lives. Carsa has not only helped them to work through their pain, anger or guilt and enabled a journey to reconciliation, but also recognized that those in poverty need economic support. Each survivor and perpetrator in the group is given a cow which their families jointly look after and benefit from. On the birth of the first calf, the survivor presents it to their perpetrator as a tangible symbol of their reconciliation.

It seems to me that Northern Ireland may have moved on economically and outwardly look more peaceful, but forgiveness is rarely an integral part of reconciliation. The churches seem to even struggle with the language of peace and reconciliation. We have much to learn from the Rwandan process of recovery from the genocide and the churches involvement in this. Community development and peace and reconciliation are intertwined here as in Rwanda and both need to be part of any process of social justice from a faith perspective.

There is so much that I could talk about in terms of learning from this trip, including the chance to provide training in the DRC from the peace and reconciliation work I had been involved in in N. Ireland. However, I want to highlight my time in the Kibera Slum in Nairobi followed by my visit to Nairobi Chapel the next day.

Kibira Church

Mobilised Church in Kibera Slum

 

 

Inspired Individual Moses Wanjiru grew up in the slum and managed through developing a livelihood, not only to change his life and that of his family, but to develop the Sustainable Livelihoods approach http://tilz.tearfund.org/en/themes/hiv/sustainable_livelihoods/ with Samaritains Purse in partnership with Tearfund. He is now passionate about mobilising churches through this model and I visited one of the small under-resourced churches that is successfully using the model. I was also introduced to a number of the women who are being enabled to develop livelihoods and lift themselves out of the poverty cycle. It is clear that as relationships are developed and they are encouraged to look around them at “what is in your hand”, so they begin to have hope and future as they tap into their God given potential. They begin to see themselves as valuable and hope is a powerful motivator.

Kibira Church 2

Church in Kibera Slum

The next day I visited Nairobi Chapel, a large well-resourced church which would not have looked out of place in the centre of London, bar the fact that the facilities were made up of a number of upmarket tents. The congregation numbered about 8000 with three services over the weekend. The worship was high tech and professional, the congregation from a more middle class background. It was a sharp contrast from the day before. During the service I learned about a week of social outreach to a predominantly Muslim community some distance away to provide medical care and support for access to medical insurance. There was a plea for more volunteers.

As an Umoja/ Church mobilisation facilitator myself of over 15 years, utilising the resources adapted by the IMPACT UK team it was interested to note the similiarities between what happens globally and locally. I attend a small church In the middle of a marginalised loyalist estate in N. Ireland. There are a number of more affluent churches around with good resources and skills, but little joining of the dots and understanding of how these churches might work in partnership to lift people out of poverty and build the Kingdom of God. It is not that people don’t want to help, more that they don’t understand the needs and issues in those areas, or how indeed they can help. They don’t have relationship with people different to them.Joining the dots

As I return to Northern Ireland, my trip to Africa will be an important influence on my development of the charity that I am involved in developing here, Thrive Ireland – which seeks to support Church mobilisation and support for peace and reconciliation locally. I will pray every day for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven wherever that is in the world.

Welcoming the Stranger Part 2

BE COMMUNITY MINDED

This is part 2 of a talk I gave as part of the Women’s World day of prayer a couple of years ago. If you haven’t read part 1, you might want to – it might make more sense.

We will only move towards welcoming the stranger when our view of community changes.

I visited a number of different congregations across the denominations in my role as Church in Community Advisor with Tearfund. I also was involved in commissioning and facilitating three pieces of research into the relationship between churches and between churches and the local community in different geographical areas.

In many cases the church is or has become community for many of its members. Many find their identity in the church and the church culture. So we identify with people in our congregations who are mostly similar to us – from a similar social background – with similar aspirations and values. So congregational members worship in their church – of course – but they also volunteer there, socialise there and spend most of their spare time there.   The church is then in danger of becoming the equivalent of a club of similar people.  It’s like a group of people who are holding hands in a circle and looking inward.

Of course, as with the picture of the church modelled in Acts it is important that within our church families we support and care for each other. But this is clearly to be a model of open and welcoming community, a community that others will be drawn
to. According to Acts people said – “Look how they love each other”. And “…daily added to their number.” Perhaps this would be a good baseline from which to start. Is this what people outside the church in our local community are saying about us? Do we stop, take time and ask people outside the church what they do think?

For many congregations there may be a need to turn around in our circles and face outward. We need to love one another in churches in a way that compels people to want to be a part of us – no matter who they are.

We need to move from our individual church values to Kingdom values. So we need to work out our Kingdom values in the towns and cities in which we live. Think of the impact this would have.

NB: As I was finishing this off today and reflecting on the recent atrocities in Paris, the Lebanon, Bagdad and earlier in the year in Kenya – it came home to me just how important our view of community is.

It’s not just in the church that we become inward looking. As individuals we spend so much time looking at ourselves and our problems, many of our own making.

In my own life I have learned that the more I do this the more narcissistic and unhappy I become. My “massive” problems overwhelm me leaving me little time, energy or indeed interest in or for other people. My life is the only reality I know – so obviously people must all think like me, have my intellect, my ability, my political leanings and prejudices.

It’s only in the times of reaching out to others in their pain, distress and need and the focus is taken off myself – that things begin to shift. We begin to create new norms of community as we lift our eyes to others. As we develop relationships or better – friendships across barriers, this shift is even greater. These barriers can be many; socio-economic, religious background, sexuality, ethnic, intellectual….and the barriers are often ones of prejudice which comes from lack of understanding.

This is not the time to dig ourselves more deeply into our insular trenches where we will never begin to know or understand those who are different to ourselves. Whilst in Rwanda I had the privilege of meeting a wise retired Bishop who had been put in charge of the country’s Commission for Unity and Reconciliation. His own family had experienced torture, violence and discrimination.

He was involved in the new government for National Unity which came together from opposing factions for the benefit of Rwanda as a whole. He looked me in the eye and he said, “We have taken the more difficult way of reconciliation. We did not ask ourselves, “As Rwandans, who are we? We asked ourselves, who do we want to be?”

So whether it is me as an individual, our church, our community, our country or our world – this is the question to ask. Who do we want to be?