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Author: Cath Taylor

“What makes you happy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Cath Taylor

UnitingWorld

 

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

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

Donate today.

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

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

Tick. Done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?

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

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

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

Here’s an interesting fact.

In 2016, a  survey of ordinary Aussies by the Campaign for Australian Aid found that most people believed the Australian Government was spending about 13% of our total budget on foreign aid.

“Way too high!”  the people shrieked.  “What about those in need here in Australia?  The homeless?  Our elderly?”

Fair enough. 13% is quite a lot… So if it were left up them, what did most people think was a reasonable percentage to spend on foreign aid?

On average?  Most people thought around 10% would be fair.

Say what? How much?  Yep: 10% of the Australian budget to be spent on foreign aid.

There’s a massive black hole between public perception and reality in the debate about Australian aid. Average Australians regularly state we give ‘too much’ to foreign aid.  Those same people think we should give ‘about 10%’.

Australia actually gives much less than 1% of its budget to foreign aid and its getting less every year.   

We give only 22 cents in every hundred dollars to life-saving vaccines, providing clean water and vital medical assistance.

Yet even such a tiny amount is helping us make some stunning progress toward overcoming poverty.

  • 2 billion people have been lifted out of poverty and the proportion living below the absolute poverty line has halved.
  • An additional 110 million children are in school, and over 90% of all children at primary level are now enrolled
  • Child deaths have been cut by half.

Australian Aid has contributed to much of this good news.

Imagine what we could achieve if we gave anywhere near the amount that average Aussies think is ‘reasonable’?

So how can you help create the change we need to see on this issue?

Post shouty rants at the Australian Government on Facebook?  Um, no.

  1. Join the Campaign For Australian Aid here and let your local politicians know that you care about supporting our neighbours to lift themselves out of poverty.  It’s good for all of us.
  2. Donate to projects that are supported by the Australian Government’s aid program.  This lets the Australian Government know you support well-administered, accountable aid.

Right now, the Australian Government wants to know what you think of us. They’re prepared to support us with significant funding, but they want to know you’ll back us with your own money first, because you know us best. For every $5 they make available to us through Australian Aid Funding, we need you to show your commitment with a donation of at least $1.

This is a big opportunity to show the Australian Government you care about Australian Aid funding and want to see it increased. And it will allow us to make your gift go up to six times as far this end of financial year.  Please make your gift here – and thank you so much!

To see how your donation will change lives in powerful ways, watch our new video here.

It doesn’t matter where I travel across this world of ours – China’s lakeside Colleges, India’s dusty villages, a storm-chewed community in one of Fiji’s most lush northern valleys – it’s always the mothers who sidle up to me for a chat. Maybe I’m a bit unusual – the white woman grinning at their kids among the men who come here as dignitaries, diagnosticians or dispensers of cash. These women hold quiet power in their communities – they’re tellers of stories and keepers of knowledge. And they’re keen to connect.

Today it’s Anna: mother of two, intelligent, articulate and gently spoken. She talks about her village, Nausori, squeezed tight in Cyclone Winston’s fist as houses and people alike are shaken and stirred. Her sister’s home was taken apart while the whole family ran, taking nothing with them, to a neighbour. They still live there today. Anna’s sister is pregnant. The government has stepped up, but with more than 60,000 people left homeless in Fiji after Winston, the job is huge.

This is what’s left of the family home.

As we talk together, women gather in the nearby church, praying and singing. Their voices drift across the valley, right on dusk, and I wonder yet again about the place of faith in this country. The majority of people are believers of one kind or another, although the traditional Christian denominations have recently lost some ground to other flavours, from the spice of Pentecostalism to Adventist wholefoods. Hindus have always existed reasonably happily alongside the majority Christian population, and so have Muslims. It’s hard to say what they all make, collectively, of the constant battering the Pacific takes from natural disasters. Fijians – and you’ll know this if you’ve been there on holiday – are a friendly, laid-back people. They pitch in. They accept life. And they love their church.  Why?

Because the church stands strong when everything else is shaken.

We’re helping this village and others “Build Back Better” – hat tip to Australian Aid through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. UnitingWorld’s support happens in partnership with the local church, which is respected and revered. It’s not Australia. There’s little scepticism here. In fact, the sight of a shattered church high on the hill in the middle of a village is so demoralising for Pacific people that it’s often repaired first – a defiant sign that the phoenix rises from the ashes. The local church is a place of respite not only for people in need throughout the year, but people shelter in her arms during cyclone and storm. It symbolises strength, unity and the certainty that something bigger is at play in the universe. As we leave the village in the growing darkness, children are playing outside the church, where light spills from within and prayers are rising. It’s not even a Sunday.

Churches in Fiji are taking the lead in the “Build Back” campaign – not just in the obvious ways, with bricks and mortar, but assisting with long term plans to plant the right crops for the changing climate so that communities can stay in rural areas, helping train carpenters so that the ‘drain’ of skills to the city doesn’t continue.  God’s people are determined to get on with the business of living in ways that demonstrate the hands-on approach of Jesus, proof that God is alive and well in the Pacific.  This is a culture where faith is still central – the Bible is the ‘go to’ for everything in life and the church is a genuine change maker in society. Call it gospel living, call it what you like. People of faith make a difference.  The Pacific church restores hope, sets a light on a hill, rebuilds what is broken, sorts out practical stuff like where to find food and comfort. In short, the church is a mover and a shaker.  And people respond with love.

That’s why we continue not only to learn from our Pacific neighbours, but to draw hope from their example.  So many of our people over the years served faithfully in the Pacific as missionaries – in word and deed.  This is their legacy.  So many Pacific people now find their homes within the Uniting Church of Australia, sharing their gifts with us.  Our bonds are strong.

Please share the news of our most recent project together:  saving lives by preparing communities to withstand disasters before they strike.  $1 invested now can save $15 in the aftermath of a cyclone, storm or flood.  Every dollar adds up.  Please give if you’re able.

Click here to donate.

The first I knew of 16 million people inundated by floodwater were the photos from a friend on Facebook.

Outstretched hands, bare shoulders, muddy torrents: they were the first of what I expected to be a mainstream media deluge. Instead: silence. Families across Nepal, India and Bangladesh have been drowned, buried alive and starving for almost a month now, it turns out, and the media vacuum is profound.

This is South Asia’s annual monsoon nightmare – the natural disaster that no longer makes the news. Yes, we #prayfor the victims of terror attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona, but at the same time a bus full of school children in Nepal is buried alive by a landslide. It’s the second in a week, and these families are just a handful of the sixteen million people in the last month who are losing everything to forces they can’t control. There are no hashtags; only the prayers of the families themselves, who sleep in the rain while their bellies growl for food and their hearts long for the dead.

I guess there are a few factors at play in the world’s collective shrug in the direction of the disaster. The numbers – so huge it’s hard to imagine. The inevitability – South Asia ‘always floods’. The media – it feeds the appetites we offer up, and we have little interest in floods. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We’re preoccupied with family, work stresses and the routines of every day life.

In the midst of it all, perhaps some pray for the less fortunate, a blanket offering for anyone doing it tough, and idly wonder at times why God doesn’t intervene more often in a crisis.

The fact is, God does. I think of my friend who is part of the Church of North India. I’ve not only visited her in the urban settlements where she works beside those who’ve fallen through the cracks in her society, but over the last few days I’ve watched on Facebook as she wades through flood waters to deliver dhal and black plastic to families who have seen their homes washed away. God is present in and through people like Nita, who act out what it means to be God’s light and love within the world.

Although we may not be able to gag Mother Nature, we have been given the means to prevent these disasters before they become sixteen-million-life tragedies. After all, we know that monsoon rains will reliably take the lives of men, women and children in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, year after year, simply because they live in low lying areas, in homes that are badly built, beside rivers that will swell and swallow them whole: they’re too poor to move elsewhere. It won’t be flooding that kills these people and their livelihoods. It will be the lack of evacuation plans, poor communication, homes built on the side of mountains where they shouldn’t be, and outbreaks of disease. In short, it’ll be poverty, and the lack of opportunity that comes with it.

You know what we need to save these lives? We need vision. And if it all looks too hard, too big, too far away and too hard, who better to take on all that but a community who passionately believe that life is possible from death? We can beat this giant. We already know that $1 invested to reduce risks and prepare communities for disaster saves $15 in recovery efforts after a cyclone, flood or earthquake hits. That’s not just lives saved, but good economic sense – an achievable, smart investment.

If there’s anything I believe as a follower of Christ, it’s that transformation is possible. Not just individual lives turned around, but whole systems shaken to their core. Institutionalised human slavery – ended. Children valued and universal education won, wrought from a world where babies where routinely discarded on mountainsides to die. Diseases eradicated. Women’s rights championed. In all of these cataclysmic wins, Christians have been at the forefront with a vision for things that must, at the time, have seemed impossible.

So it is with saving lives before natural disasters strike. As a changing climate increases the severity and frequency of extreme weather, especially in our own Asia/Pacific region, we’ll need to be smarter and more determined about the ways we protect ourselves – and especially our most vulnerable – from tragedy. Allowing sixteen million lives each year to sink beneath muddy waters simply isn’t an option.

When we’re tempted to ask why God doesn’t intervene more directly in natural disasters, perhaps the better question to ask is: why don’t we? Big change, bold vision: this is our call, this is our identity. And as droughts, floods, cyclones, and famines increasingly stalk our world, this is the challenge we’re called on to meet – before disasters become tragedies.

UnitingWorld has launched an appeal to support partner churches in the Pacific as they build critical resilience to disasters and climate change. Donate now: https://www.unitingworld.org.au/stop-disasters-becoming-tragedies/

Almost exactly two months after our son died in 2004, some 250,000 people were killed by a series of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. It was described at the time as the worst tsunami event the world had ever seen. I didn’t watch any of the footage. That kind of graphic imagery simply wasn’t needed to help me share a tiny fraction of the pain and loss countless families were experiencing around the world in that moment.

Death, especially unexpected death, doesn’t just leave us gutted. It leaves us helpless and angry. In the outpouring of grief and gifts following the Boxing Day Tsunami, as well as in the expressions of love we received after Hugh’s death, there was a common theme: if only we could have done something – anything – to prevent this cavernous loss.

Here’s the astonishing fact. Often we can. We just choose not to.

Massive-scale loss – of life, homes and livelihoods in natural disasters – is preventable. So are the deaths of individuals like Hughie, babies who die at the rate of 2000 a day from complications arising form dirty water. Each of these lives matter no less than Hugh’s.

Preventable.

We’ve heard a lot about how to prevent the deaths of children from disease, but natural disasters seem to fall into a different hand-wringing category altogether. They’re so random! So mercilessly destructive!

True, and an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale underneath the Indian ocean is always going to create havoc. But here’s the thing. The sheer number of lives lost and ruined by natural disasters can be dramatically reduced.

Here’s how:

  • Investing in early warning systems and planning for evacuation, especially in isolated regions and areas where poverty is widespread – co-incidentally often the places where natural disasters strike hardest
  • Training leaders in life saving responses before, during and after emergency, and giving them the resources they need to carry them out
  • Building housing and shelters in areas that are less likely to be hammered by storms, floods, quakes and the slow death march of changing climate
  • Planning for water and food supplies that can survive sudden shocks so that people don’t fall critically ill or lose their means of making a living after disaster

In the years following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which killed almost 16,000 people, all these steps were put in place. It cost billions of dollars. But the result is that people live with a great deal more security – not certainty, but security – about their chances of surviving natural disasters, short and long term.

It’s simply not the case for others in the Asia/Pacific region, where 70% of the world’s worst natural disasters wreak their unholy havoc. These nations are too poor, too under-resourced, and too far from the media spotlight to thoroughly invest in the kind of changes that would increase survival rates. They only hit the headlines once their men, women and children are washed up on beaches or buried alive beneath the mud.

And that’s when the world suddenly digs deep to give, to grieve and to ask one another: “How can Mother Nature be so cruel?”

There’s actually a better question to ask, but few of us will confront it head on. It’s along the lines of “How can human beings be so short-sighted?”

Classrooms being ‘built back better’ in Fiji

If we know how to save lives today, why do we wait until it’s too late?

Of course, the answer to that question is as complex as humanity itself. Some of us are genuinely unaware of how effective Disaster Risk Reduction is, how to go about supporting it, or how it’s desperately needed in parts of the world where poverty already robs people of so much. Some of us are only moved by the plight of our neighbours once we see them clutching their children and wading through waist-deep water, or burying their loved ones. And all those reactions are human.

But here are the facts. Just $1 invested in preparation before a disaster saves $15 in recovery efforts later. That means the money you invest today is 15 times more effective than giving it after the disaster hits.  The economic kickbacks of preparing communities to plan, build and shock proof are astronomical. But the lives saved are even more impressive.

If only there was something we could have done? There is. Don’t let others die while we’re wondering.

“God is good in the midst of the darkness; God is good in the midst of evil. God is in the midst, no matter what is happening in the world. And he loves you, and he’s here for you.”

It’s not a bad quote – a rallying call to bring comfort to thousands of young people mourning the loss of family and friends after terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.

Many will be surprised, then, to know these words came from the lips of pop star Justin Bieber. Whatever you think of Bieber’s music and his reputation, his assertion that “God is in the midst” is powerful. It’s the central claim we share as people of faith – God is present, and God is love – even in the midst of deliberate acts of violence, hunger, the slow destruction of the earth, the seemingly senseless decisions of our political leaders. God is here.

Understandably though, many question the validity of such a claim. Too often, God’s presence is shadowy; arguably invisible. For us, working with partners in places like South Sudan, India and Kiribati, there are glimpses of the divine in the everyday – people who’ve been part of tribal groups fighting hand to hand who now work together to take sacks of maize to hungry families in South Sudan; the straight-backed concentration of a young woman who is the first of her family to attend high school in India; a family welcoming others into their home because theirs is the only one still standing after a cyclone. This, we believe, is our God at work in the midst of darkness and despair.

How? Mystifyingly, God has always chosen to work through ordinary people. In South Sudan, it’s people like Paska, who supports women through the local church to recover from the violence they’ve experienced throughout the 25-year civil war. In India, Parmjeet works with children, especially girls, to lay down the foundations for a completely different future – one where people not only have the skills to earn a living but understand and can advocate for their rights. In the Pacific, Maina has been working for the last twelve months with his community in Tuvalu to help them understand the vital importance of preparing for and adapting to the changes brought about by a rapidly shifting climate. The result will be families better prepared for cyclones, droughts and king tides that would otherwise devastate homes and livelihoods.

This is how God shows up. Perhaps it’s not glamorous, but it works. And when we’re tempted to ask, as we often are – where is God in the midst of suffering? – this is the answer.

God is present in and through God’s people. Astonishingly, humblingly, that means we each play a vital part in this presence

Our prayer, our advocacy and our giving is part of overcoming the darkness. We participate in God’s work in the world.

Thank you for your continued commitment to our shared vision of a world renewed, people made whole and hopeful in Christ’s love.  We are incredibly grateful for your prayer, financial gifts and support.

-Cath Taylor
UnitingWorld

“Rough day at work, hey?” says my fifteen year old with a grin when she comes home and notices the first draft for our upcoming UnitingWorld campaign.

We don’t believe in charity,” declares my scrawl on a large sheet of paper, folded in two.

It’s a tagline probably worthy of the raised eyebrow. For years when they were younger, whenever other kids asked our girls what their parents did, they tended to reply that we ‘worked for charities.’ It was easier than explaining the ins and outs of overseas aid or social entrepreneurship here in Sydney. Everyone gets the concept of charity: “Generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill or helpless”. Good stuff, right?

“Open it up,” I tell Jem. “You have to read the next bit.”

Inside: We don’t believe in charity. We believe in solidarity.

 Ah,” says Jem. “Nice.”

“We believe in solidarity.”

None of us want to be regarded as ‘charity cases.’ We’d much rather just be people – with strengths and weaknesses, sure – but always essentially just people. Charity is a beautiful word of course – it’s always meant love and brotherhood, generosity, kindness. But it sometimes feels like it also has overtones of pity, distance: “I’m giving because I feel sorry for you, and you’re so helpless, so here: please take this.” Even better than charity, I think, is solidarity – the idea that our equal and shared humanity is what matters most, even if the details of our experience are sometimes quite different.

Eduardo Galeano wrote: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”

Solidarity recognises that beneath the cards that life has dealt us, we’re equally human, with equal strengths and weaknesses, even if they’re vastly magnified by our circumstances. Making the quiet effort to redistribute our resources is a respectful (if inadequate) attempt to recognise this. You could argue it’s just semantics, but I think it’s actually important.

In West Timor I met Betcy, a mum probably around my age.

Betcy has four children, and although she’s functionally blind she used a low interest loan from the Church of West Timor to start a small business selling used clothes and saved enough money to build her own home. It has almost-reliable electricity, a shared bed for the three boys, and a brand new water tank to safeguard their often-dirty water supply. When she speaks about the dreams she has for her children (another small loan to send her eldest to university to study engineering, for example), and when she proudly shows me the wardrobe where her children hang their school uniforms, or shyly grins at the antics of her eight year old daughter chasing the family dog – we share one of those wordless ‘mum’ moments. That’s about all it takes.

Betcy and her daughter

I come home here to my house with the two bathrooms, the car that conveniently beeps as I mow down my recycling bin on the way to my children’s excellent schools, and Betcy stays with me. She’s with me in the knowledge that I have a huge amount of practical resources to share, simply because I was born in a different place, through no merit of my own. She’s here in the knowledge that resilience, courage, love and aspiration are universal, and that my children are not the only ones who deserve to have those dreams nurtured. She’s alongside me in the certainty that “poor people” are not helpless – they’re determined, creative and capable. And they may be in some cases geographically removed, but they share many of my life experiences.

Most especially, I realise that any one of us could be Betcy if the world tilted its axis just a fraction and the lottery of birth placed us somewhere where rains stubbornly refused to fall or life is shattered in a hail of bullets; if our parents had to choose between sending us to school or finding us work to do to help keep the family fed. All of this knowledge and the shared humanity it points to – that’s solidarity.

This knowledge changes how I live, what I think, how I use my money and my time. Before you offer me a sainthood, I’m a reluctant learner. Always.

Does this lead to generous acts and donations? Hopefully. But not just edge of my life, got-a-bit-left-over donations from pity. Ideally, this is using the resources I have in an attempt to express genuine respect for people who are fully human, fully deserving of the same opportunities as me and my family, and fully able to make use of them. Giving money this way might mean I go without something I’d kinda like. Because three quarters of the world go without things that kinda-keep-them-alive, and they have every much a right to that life as I do.

For me, solidarity will always be more meaningful than charity. So no, Jem, it wasn’t a rough day at work. It was another good one, and I’m grateful as always for everything I learn with UnitingWorld and with our partners in West Timor, Fiji, India, China, Vanuatu and South Sudan. Most especially, I’m grateful for the confronting and motivating fact of our equal, beautiful and shared humanity. I’ll continue to learn and be challenged by how to respond to it.

– Cath

Support determined, creative and capable people freeing themselves from poverty by making a tax-deductible donation to our End of Financial Year campaign before June 30:

To be totally honest, I didn’t think a beauty salon business was going to make the most compelling ‘poverty alleviation’ story I’d ever seen. Um – why are people in this highly disadvantaged part of the world popping off for a manicure? Surely they have better things to be doing with their money?

This, I confess, is the narrative running through my sweat-addled brain as we haul up in a hilly neighbourhood outside West Timor’s capital of Kupang, where motorbikes clog the winding streets and the air is thick with humidity. And then I meet Ana and Aron, clearly delighted but also a bundle of nerves to host us in the small home they share with their four year old son Ryder (…I know. I’m not sure where that came from, but Ryder is wearing Power Ranger shorts pulled up to his chin, and he’s entirely awesome).

It’s a beautiful house, tended with loving hands. Stones line the paths; there are handmade shell windchimes and mobiles; plants and colourful pots are carefully arranged around the door. Whatever else you think you know about ‘people living in poverty’, plant this one right here: creatives are creative no matter where you find them and how much money they have to “spare”.

Simple humanity is a complex thing to deal with. Taking in the scene of creative domesticity before me, a handmade wind-chime hits hard: you are like me. You value beauty and self expression. It’s life-giving. You’ll fight to preserve it no matter what.  And that makes you no longer ‘other’ – the poor West Timorese woman – but a mum like me, finding the hopeful and the happy, the quirky, in the midst of the mess.

Many of us are curiously reluctant to acknowledge simple humanity in people who have less – the right to leisure time, investment in beauty, choice.  Somewhere deep and un-named there’s a sense that surely every cent, every moment should be spent surviving. Yet here’s the truth: the same tiny fires of elation are lit in hearts everywhere by things we all share – the joy of making something perfect with your own hands; the first smile of a child; sunsets, stars and potted plants.

These are the vital reminders that we are all human, equally wonderful and worthwhile but not equally resourced. Why? A simple toss of the dice places some of us here and others there. And this is a deeper challenge to us than simply being able to hand out cash or charity to ‘the deserving poor’ – for whom we can feel sorry because they’re so unlike us. It serves up some bigger questions and unsettles us deeply.

Ana, it turns out, has a spinal birth defect that means she stands only 1.3metres tall – she’s tiny and has struggled all her life with pain. She walks a little unevenly but she’s tenacious. Her husband Aron and son Ryder both have eyesight problems – Aron is functionally blind and Ryder has recently had cataract operations. He turns his head like a little bird to follow the sound of our voices and gallantly attempts to see us using his unaffected peripheral vision. The three of them sit close on a bench outside their home and tell us about the business they run together.

Beauty and massage, they tell us, are the heart of their work – hair cuts and shampoos and sometimes nails; massages for tourists and people who need them for health reasons. Not everyone in West Timor lives on $2 a day. They came up with the idea because Aron is good with his hands and can work easily without sight. He has a mobile phone, fully voice equipped – while we’re talking he takes a message and lines up an appointment, shyly chuffed to be able to show his business in action. He has strong hands, Ana tells us, also proud of her husband. And her passion is for cutting and styling – people will always need haircuts.

The low-interest business loan the pair manage through TLM – the social services agency of the Protestant Church in West Timor – was a godsend. It meant the family could turn a small profit – afford Ryder’s cataract operation, restore the well that is their only water supply, invest in the equipment they both need for their businesses, and also to plan for the kind of schooling Ryder will need as a child with a disability.

Because make no mistake about it – life for people with disabilities in the developing world is beyond tough. No social security. No NDIS. No respite, counselling or advice from experts. Ana, Aron and Ryder are pretty much on their own in a city where eating means working – crooked spine, sightless eyes, whatever your challenge.

Here’s what’s impressive about this model of poverty prevention: microfinance loans give people the skills and confidence to run businesses in a vast range of areas, doing stuff that they know other people need. It allows them the dignity of real work – and in Ana and Aron’s case – creative work that gives them what’s clearly a certain amount of joy. And why should we, in the ‘let’s go to Uni, choose our careers and live happy, fulfilled lives’ be the only ones to experience that? Why shouldn’t Ryder, in his hand-me-down Power Ranger pants, have the same dreams as our own kids?

Here’s the confronting truth of the human condition – any one of us could be Ana or Aron. Opening our hearts and hands to this reality is freeing – helping us to live with solidarity, generosity and simplicity; assessing how much we really need to be happy; and where and how we find beauty. It’s in standing together to bring life to each other that we discover what it means to be fully human.

UnitingWorld is a valued partner of the Australian Government, receiving flexible funding under the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP) each year to implement development and poverty alleviation programs overseas. Every donation you make to this project will be combined with funding from the Australian government to reach more people. We have committed to contribute $1 for every $5 we receive from the Australian government. Your donation will allow us to extend our programs.

That means your gift will go five times as far toward ending poverty and providing dignity for families like Ana and Aron’s in West Timor, Bali and Zimbabwe.  

There are probably dents in my forehead from pressing it up against the window pane as Fiji’s coastline sneaks into view beneath us – I’ll never tire of watching the land creep up under the wing tip of a plane as we tilt away from the sun. There’s something about seeing the earth from the air like this: I’m small, I’m huge, I’m fragile, I’m a billion nerve endings all wired-up wrong and firing, like a kid on Christmas morning.  A new perspective is a gift.

This is going to sound crazy, but it’s strangely similar watching a roomful of women from all over the Pacific opening Bibles – of all things – in a whitewashed room lit by painful fluoro strips. The physical environment might be sterile but the mood is suddenly electric. There’s a buzz so palpable I can’t tear my eyes away.

At the front of the room, Pacific husband and wife duo Cliff and Siera Bird, both theologians, are smashing their way through a few cherished stereotypes about Mary Mother of Jesus. (Yep, that one).

And the women are loving it.

Betrothed at 14 to an elderly widower who already had a grown up family – the Joseph of a surprising number of historical studies – it turns out Mary probably had more sass than anyone in the room could have imagined. Cliff explains her boldness: not only does she question the angel who delivers the message of her ‘chosen’ status, but she also fearlessly delivers the tale of her pregnancy to her fiancé, Joseph, knowing what the likely consequences will be.

Death, no less.

As the dust settles on these revelations, you can practically reach out and touch the admiration in the room. On Instagram, someone is tagging Mary #yougogirl. Or they want to.

And it’s not just Mary who’s up for the high fives. Duped into what looks pretty much like ‘buying used goods’, Joseph would have been well within his rights to abandon his wife for her unbelievable tale of angelic impregnation, leaving her to be stoned on her father’s doorstep. This is a time and a place where women have few rights, are the property of men and expected to be virgins at the time of their marriage (although men aren’t.  Some would say not much has changed in many parts of the world.) Instead of disowning his shamed bride-to-be and leaving her to her fate, Joseph chooses to believe her story and stand by her side.  It’s a pretty unlikely twist: in a culture where violence against women was commonplace, the continued engagement and subsequent birth of Jesus is a triumph of epic proportions.

The women in the room in front of me – from Samoa to PNG – understand this all too well. They live in some of the most dangerous places in the world to grow up female. Many stats suggest three in four girls from the Pacific will experience violence at the hands of a family or community member.   For the first time, it probably strikes many of us how extraordinary it is that instead of slinking away quietly to hide her shame, Mary stands up and speaks boldly of her chosen status. And instead of leaving her to a violent end, Joseph keeps the faith and walks with her to Bethlehem and beyond.

This story not only flies full in the face of the accepted cultural norms of the day, it lights a wick under the kind of relationships so many are living in the Pacific and other places around the world right now. Is Christmas a sanitised tale of a sweet young couple in love and ready to bring into the world God’s baby son, or is it also a grenade under a culture close to home of casually accepted domestic violence and toxic relationships?

This is the Bible taught in a way that holds up a powerful mirror to real life and leaves people reeling in its wake. This is theology as it was always intended – spark to tinder, the wide arc of the lighthouse before the ship smashes on the rocks, that song you hear once and search high and low to hear again.

It’s the earth seen from the air, but it’s also the excitement of touchdown and new places to discover.

Watching it unfold – knowing the impact this teaching is having and will continue to have on Pacific women and men – I can’t help but feel the loss of that same teaching in my own life and the life of people I know in churches around me. When did we stop seeing the way the bible can rip us open, peel back our layers and turn us upside down? Or maybe it’s just me.

Either way, teaching on gender, violence and equality through the Scriptures is lighting fires in the Pacific like nothing else can. Christianity here is the cultural bedrock of society – secular human rights organisations, feminists and NGO’s have no tool that can equal it for influence. Right now, there’s still a prevailing sense that a woman belongs to a man; that a woman’s place is in the home; that what a woman can do, a man can do better. This works its way out in sexist practices, domestic violence, heart-rending stats relating to abuse, and paltry rates of political representation that are worse even than in the Gulf States.

But as the work of people like Cliff and Siera spreads throughout the church and society, we’ll see a shift.  It’s coming. You can see it in the faces and the voices of 15 women from the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Samoa – turning the pages of their bibles with hands that almost shake.

Real theology is a flame, and all over the Pacific, people will see differently in its light.

I was in Fiji for UnitingWorld to report on the Gender Conference for the Regional Women’s Fellowship May 23-29 2017.  

The workshop is part of UnitingWorld’s Partnering Women For Change program, which is part funded by Australian Aid.  

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