‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.’ (Mother Teresa)
Small things are big things in the hands of the poor. Imagine this: you live in dire poverty, in a cemetery. You and your neighbours each have only a handful of possessions – mostly a few clothes – and have nowhere to keep them clean or dry. In fact, you live life day-by-day, moment-by-moment, and have no discretionary income whatsoever. No-one sees you, and no-one helps.
Then, today, a woman appears, as if out of nowhere, carrying sturdy plastic boxes and offers them to you freely, as ‘a gift from Jesus’. At first, you can’t believe it. Your face lights up as you realise: they really are for you and for your friends. A woman in your group, who hasn’t been able to hear or speak since birth, rushes to this woman, throws her arms around her neck…and cries.
A box full of love. A beautiful hug. Small things are big things. We can be hope.
‘The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference. That’s what it is to live and to have lived well.’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Life is hard-edged for the poor.
The last person who reached out to this marginalised community was stabbed. That was an unhappy ending to a hope-filled good intention. Not deterred by this, a Filipina saw the unseen, the unloved, the people considered criminal, unworthy and unlovable. She was warned to stay away from this mixed group of families who eek out a living among the dead, and the dangerous gangs who wouldn’t hesitate to end her life. Nevertheless, she heard Jesus' call so she went.
Not long afterwards, she stepped off public transport near this place only to witness, beside her, a woman shot dead in a hail of bullets. She learned later that the woman was killed by drug dealers, concerned she might disclose their identities to the authorities. Scared yet persevering, this Filipina has persisted in reaching out in love, building friendships, ‘sacred encounters’, as she calls them, and providing food and simple mattresses for those in greatest need.
I ask her why she does it. ‘I want to show them the living Jesus walking among them, the Jesus who loves them and cares for them. I want them to know that they matter to God.’ I’m humbled, challenged and inspired (from a safe distance) by her courage and self-sacrificing love. I keep reflecting on Bob Hunter’s (founder of Greenpeace) radical stance: ‘Put your body where your mouth is.’ That’s what Jesus did – the Incarnate divine – and that’s what she’s doing now.
‘Poverty is a very complicated issue, but feeding a child isn’t.’ (Jeff Bridges)
A little girl runs around excitedly while her parents wait patiently in a queue. She – I don’t know her name – pauses from time to time, crouches down and writes words or draws flags and hearts on the ground with blue and yellow chalks. She runs off again, full of energy and laughter, and her parents call to her to not stray too far.
This is the opening of a new food bank hall in South Germany for asylum seekers, refugees and other people in need. I’m struck by the passion and organisation of the volunteers and by the generosity of 30+ shops that provide food weekly for some 200 families. Not stale food past its sell-by date. Freshly baked bread, vegetables etc.
My tiny role, shifting empty food containers, gives me a chance to witness this event from the inside. The workers embody Jesus’ call to support and care for people who are poor and most vulnerable and it inspires me to see their love in action. The little girl skips across the car park now. Her parents look happy as they head off home.
‘Money – it’s a hit. Don't give me that do goody good bullsh*t.’ (Pink Floyd)
‘When I die, if I leave ten pounds behind me, you and all humanity may bear witness against me that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.’ (John Wesley)
Now that’s extreme. In his lifetime, UK Christian preacher John Wesley is estimated to have earned around £30,000 (roughly equivalent to £1,000,000 today). When he died in 1791, 47 years after having written these astonishing words (above), he was found only to have a few coins left in his pocket. He had given everything away. Wesley believed that to follow Jesus meant intrinsically to use whatever resources God had given him to help others in need. He challenged fundamentally those who believed that material acquisition was a blessing from God to enjoy for their own benefit. As his own income increased, he stayed at the same simple baseline and gave even more away.
I find Wesley’s example incredibly humbling and challenging. I live in a society that is individual-, wealth- and future-orientated. An implicit cultural imperative is that we should each make as much money as we can; both so that we can improve our own quality of life today and prepare for the future, confident that we will have plenty to spend then as now. I once had a long journey home from working among the poor in Cambodia. An intrigued Indian Hindu businessman travelling next to me on the plane confessed in bemusement that he found my work for a Christian NGO shameful: ‘Shouldn’t you be earning as much money as possible to increase your own family’s wealth?’
He had a point. To take care of one’s own family is, of course, an important, universal, human value. Yet, still, our worldviews collide. I find my life inspired by a different ethic, exemplified by Jasmin, a radical follower of Jesus among the poor in the Philippines: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ That isn’t about self-righteousness. It’s not a denial of the visceral tug of anxiety and security. It is about choice, decision and stance.
What beliefs, values and principles guide your life? What do they look like in practice?
‘If you can remove the hazard, do it. If you can’t do that, do what you can to minimise the impact of the hazard. If you can’t do that, prepare for recovery in the aftermath.’ (Bill Crooks)
That was a proud moment. I stepped into the lift in a Phnom Penh hotel and there, blazoned on the wall, was a poster with a stark warning, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ It was a campaign against the child sex tourism trade, led by international Christian NGO World Vision and the Cambodian police. I had just arrived there on assignment with World Vision and, seeing its logo displayed alongside this message, it gave fresh inspiration and passion to my own work.
Later that evening, I was taken by World Vision activists into a dark city alleyway to meet with some street children. The workers brought lanterns, food, drink and first aid kits to meet the children’s immediate needs before sitting on the ground to chat with them. I was amazed by the kids’ bright spirits, laughing playfully as they spoke with us. The activists opened picture books and talked the children through how to avoid the dangers of sexual exploitation.
It was sobering at the end to watch the children drift off back into the mist and darkness, still smiling and waving at us as they went. I wondered what their lives must be like, eking out an existence by scavenging and begging, and I felt deeply affected by this encounter. I noticed my instinctive desire to rescue these children who were clearly so poor and vulnerable. I was struck, by contrast, by the activists’ approach to developing the children’s own resilience.
On asking about this later, the activists explained to me that the scale of the challenge is so great that it dwarfs the physical resources they have to meet it. They had chosen a strategy that enabled them to reach the greatest numbers of children – recognising the hard realities of these kids’ worlds and enabling, where possible, their safety and wellbeing within those contexts. It was protection by preparation and mitigation, by standing alongside in the midst.
This agonisingly difficult choice enabled the activists to focus their more intensive support and care on children who were the most vulnerable among the vulnerable; for instance, those who were sick or dying or living with severe disabilities or mental health issues. They partnered with the children, local communities, civil society organisations and central government agencies to catalyse and sustain an effective response. Love in action. We can be hope.
'What is the true cost of a hoodie?' (Hannah Marriott)
I hate it. She works in a textile factory in South East Asia, more commonly known as a sweat-shop, for £4.50 (US$ 6) per day. It’s long hours in sweltering conditions and arduous, back-breaking work. The little money she earns is barely enough to feed herself and her small children. If she, or they, get sick or injured, they're in deep trouble. With no discretionary income, she would need to borrow from a loan shark to pay for a doctor, medicine, or whatever else they may need. The extortionate fees and harsh interest rates make even the most rudimentary healthcare impossible, out of reach.
The parent company, a well-known global brand, feels pressure from its customers to ensure that its clothing is produced ethically. Most consumers don’t wonder or ask how it’s possible we can buy a t-shirt in the UK for just £5 that was manufactured on the opposite side of the planet. Somebody, somewhere at the sharp end, is paying a heavy price. The company decides to visit the factory to carry out an inspection. On hearing this, the local HR manager calls all the employees, mostly women, together: ‘You will smile and tell them we pay you £10 per day and provide you with 3 healthy meals a day – or else.’
This half-whispered threat is far from idle. The women know that, if they were to blow the whistle, they would be dismissed as soon as the inspectors leave. That would plunge them and their families into even worse poverty, if that were possible, and there are plenty of other poor women outside willing to take their place. All the while, the local managers pocket the difference that the parent company intends for its workers. They wear smart clothes, live in nice houses and drive around in expensive cars. They know they can bribe any official to whom a desperate worker may dare to appeal. Money talks.
Do we care? What can we do? Write to your MP (your political representative). Write to your favourite brand CEO. Check out: Clean Clothes Campaign; Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.
('The Asia Pacific region employed roughly 65 million garment workers in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the International Labour Organisation. 80% of garment workers globally are women.' Tara Donaldson, WWD)
On the edge of a New Year, social media accounts have been bombarded with messages about how terrible 2020 has been and how we can’t get out of it fast enough. Of course, 2020 has posed some significant challenges; most notably, on the global stage, the Covid-19 pandemic. The challenges in the wealthier countries, where we have tended to make the most emotional drama out of it, pale into insignificance when compared to the those faced by the poorest. We’re not used to this level of vulnerability, uncertainty and threat. It has freaked us out and, perhaps in some ways, that’s a good thing.
My hope for 2021 is that this glimpse of vulnerability, of real fear and helplessness, will engender far greater empathy for those poorest people in the world who live with that anxiety every day. And not just empathy, but a greater resolve to do something tangible to bring about positive and sustainable change. I hope it will drive us re-evaluate our crazy consumerism that is pushing the world further into irreversible environmental disaster. I hope it will reveal, too, our fundamental interdependence; although reports of rich countries racing to buy-up Covid vaccines first fills me with near-despair.
Yet there have been, for me, silver linings in the midst of all this. I’ve been grateful to God for the opportunity to live with my parents all year, to support each other during the lockdown and to spend valuable, irreplaceable time with them. I’ve been grateful for free technology that has allowed me, and others, to do so much online that would otherwise have been impossible. I’ve been grateful for the chance, with others, to support the poor in the Philippines; an experience that has often brought at least as much richness and joy to my life as to theirs. What have been your silver linings in 2020?
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