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Author: Cath Taylor

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Half a billion. Half a billion.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless?

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

The word is out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Cath Taylor


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

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

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

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

A Prayer During Times of Disaster

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

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

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

Leader extinguishes the candle.

Leader: Let us pray.

All: God of mercy, love and compassion

Christ who enters into the pain of the whole creation

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

and especially today the victims of natural disaster –

the dead, the injured, the bereaved;

and those who have lost everything and their livelihood.

Leader lights the candle

All: God of mercy, love and compassion

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

Fill us with love for our neighbours that we may know

the encouragement that comes from solidarity

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

Most of all we pray that the God

of all comfort and renewal will be powerfully present

In and through your people

In Christ’s name we pray.

Amen.

Prayer by Cath Taylor

“What makes you happy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Cath Taylor

UnitingWorld

 

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

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

Donate today.

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

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

Tick. Done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?

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

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

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

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