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Author: Cath Taylor

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.  

Find out more about the project

“You got me a what?”

Uncle Earl is squinting at your card, breath a little yeasty from the Christmas pudding, and frankly, he’s disappointed. It was socks he wanted. Seriously. Socks. Or a fishing magazine. He also had his eye on a new case for his iphone.

You got him a goat.

“Well, it’s for a family in Zimbabwe, see?” you tell him, a little flustered. “They’ll breed the goats and with the money they can get for them at the market, they’ll send their kids to school. It’s pretty cool, actually.”

Uncle Earl looks sceptical. He doesn’t actually say it, but what he’s thinking – you can see it on his face – is: “So you got me nothing. You got them goats, but you got me nothing.”

Let’s face it: not everyone loves goats, and not everyone gets the idea that you bought them something for someone else. (And actually, some people genuinely need socks).

So here you are, with your desire to do something to change the world this Christmas, and a cranky Uncle. What to do… what to do?

Look, buy Uncle Earl the socks. Buy your seven year old nephew that game he wanted, but maybe not the really flashy one. And tell him the true story of a gift that transforms lives.  Start it with the birth of a child.  But don’t end it there.

Tell him about Amos, who’ll spend the days before Christmas in his ute in South Sudan, bucketing along some of the worst roads you can imagine. He’s travelling to spend time in communities who’ve seen their neighbours literally torn apart by violence. This is Amos’ whole life’s work, devoted to helping people understand and listen to one another, learning to forgive and move on from decades of a war that doesn’t just live in army fatigues but stalks people’s homes and lives in people’s minds. This gift of reconciliation – a microcosm of something even grander – is the ongoing story that begins with the cradle.

If the people you know and love won’t appreciate the idea behind a goat, don’t give up. Simply make your donation directly to the work of someone who continues to live the Christmas story – every day, in some of the  most difficult parts of our globe.

Christmas isn’t just about making sure your nearest and dearest have everything they need. Christmas is about being swept up in a powerful gift of love and sharing that as far and wide as you can.  Every single one of us.

If goats are your thing and also Uncle Earl’s – check out our gifts here at www.everythingincommon.com

If you want to be generous because it’s Christmas and you believe in a world less hungry and more hopeful, please give here.  https://www.unitingworld.org.au/donate

Either way, know that you’ve honoured the Giver.  Thank you so much.

Coming soon:

Questions my hairdresser asks: how do you even know they get the money?

“My letterbox is full of guide dogs and children in refugee camps and blind people and endangered orangutans and Royal lifesavers (complete with budgie smugglers) and still you keep coming.

 You keep asking me for money.

 Don’t get me wrong. I like your cause. I believe in what you’re doing. But seriously, why so clingy? Why so persistent? There’s only so much a person can take.”

I hear you, people.

In fact, I work for one of those causes you sometimes want to break up with because our never-ending requests for money, like some teenager with an online shopping addiction, are getting you down. You can’t quite bring yourself to cut us off because either you can’t find our phone number or you still believe in us. (I’m hoping it’s the latter.) Please keep believing in us. We want you to know that we really appreciate your gifts, we understand that you can’t always give and we don’t want you to feel guilty when you can’t donate.  

But here’s why we keep asking you for money.

  1. We ask because your money is doing amazing things. You’re part of a community who are changing lives.

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your financial gift, combined with others, has genuinely saved the lives of thousands of people. I mean, seriously.  You should be quietly pretty chuffed with yourself!  It’s given hope to whole communities, changed the future for children, allowed mothers to hold their babies in their arms when they would otherwise have died. You don’t bear the needs and pains of the world on your shoulders alone, but together with others, you’re helping create a world where that suffering is lifted.    No matter the size of your gift, when you combine with others, it’s powerful. Thank you so much!

  1. We ask because the people we work with really, seriously need it.

We are not messing around when we describe to you the needs of the people with whom we work. Compared to the way we live, our partners struggle with challenges impossible for us to comprehend. War. Filthy water. Systemic injustice and corrupt politics. Crushing poverty. Disability without health care. Sometimes, when we spend time in communities, we think to ourselves: if our supporters saw all this – both the grind and the sheer grit of our partners – we would never need to ask for money again. People would simply give. But sadly, it doesn’t work like that. We are not routinely as generous as we think we are and the world is ridiculously unequal. The latest stats show that the world’s 63 richest people own more wealth than 50% of the global population. We ask because if we didn’t, that stat would continue to grow. Even you and I, simply having a roof above our heads, running water in our homes, enough to eat and clothes to wear fall into the top 15% of the world’s wealthiest people.  Most of you know that already.  But some of us need reminding.

  1. We ask because “if we don’t ask, we don’t get”.

Boil it right down and if we don’t repeatedly ask you to be generous, we simply don’t get the money we need. So we ask. And we ask again. Each time, our supporters open their hearts and give with a generosity that amazes us. And we are grateful beyond belief. Of course, we know that in continuing to ask, we risk tiring some of our supporters. But we continue to put needs before you because the needs are great, and miraculously, people continue to give. (FYI, all our financials are here.)

Here’s some tips to keep our relationship fresh (because everyone needs hot tips now and then!)

1. We hope you won’t see every request you get in the mail as an attempt to twist your arm for cash. We have no expectation that every person will give every time, but asking reminds those who are able to do what they can. When you can’t give, please use the material to get informed and inspired about the work. Pass it on to someone else or use it to pray for the people we’re writing to you about. We use environmentally friendly, recycled print materials, but we’d love you to recycle too and spread our material around rather than simply throwing it out – leave it in your church, your train station or your dentist’s waiting room!  We don’t send you things you don’t need like bags, pens or stickers, but we hope you’ll use what we do send to stay connected to the people you support in knowledge, prayer and advocacy.  This in itself is a great gift to our partners.

2. If you really prefer not to receive material from us in the mail, give us a quick call or email and let us know. But please stay in touch via email and through our newsletters.

3. Consider becoming a regular giver. This works best for our partners, who know they can rely on steady income instead of repeated requests for fundraising. And it works best for you, because you have the chance to develop some depth of understanding about the project and people you’re supporting. If you like, you can request only to receive material about special appeals and faithfully commit to one project as a Regular Giver.  But remember, receiving our material can also keep you up to date even if you’re not able to give.

4. Think about other ways you can connect with communities who are benefitting so much from your support. You could volunteer or visit them through our InSolidarity trips. We have so much to learn from being part of the lives of others. Giving is a two way street.

Thanks for sticking with us. We hope this honest answer to your question encourages you not to feel guilty about your giving, and explains why we continue to ask. Please know that we take great care with your gifts and appreciate your generosity. Most of all, the people to whom you give appreciate it more than we’ll ever know.

Right now, yes, we have an excellent opportunity for you to give!

When you give to our Community Development Programs, we’re able to make your gift go up to six times as far because it’s matched by Government Funding.  This makes your donation, whatever its size, much more powerful than usual.

Please consider making a gift before June 30 for the most impact.  Donate here. And thank you!

Why should we send money overseas to look after others while some of our own homeless, indigenous people and elderly aren’t adequately cared for?

Great question.   “Charity begins at home” and there are still far too many people in Australia who live in poverty.

Most Australians agree that we should put our own people first and believe me: we do.

In our Federal Budget,  98.8% of all our spending is currently directed at looking after Aussies: Australian health care, education, welfare, defence spending and so on.

But what about the other *1.22%? Should we dedicate our entire budget exclusively to Australians until we all have a standard of living we find acceptable?

A couple of things to think about.

If 98.8% won’t fix it, 100% probably won’t either.

Unfortunately, we could probably spend every last cent of our budget domestically and at least some of these same problems would persist. Why? There are lots of reasons but in general, problems like intergenerational poverty and homelessness are highly complex. It’s possible that no amount of cash alone can solve them. While we can always do better, if directing 98.8% of the budget internally hasn’t completely solved the problem, it’s unlikely that 100% will fix it either. This means we need to work harder and smarter at addressing these complex issues, but the fact that they currently still exist may not be a good argument for withholding all assistance to other desperate people simply because not every Australian has the standard of living we’d like.

It’s an interesting fact that some of Australia’s most disadvantaged people are among its most generous when it comes to giving to others.  Maybe we really can spare that 1.22% for people living in truly desperate situations in other parts of the globe.

Hello, neighbour.

Gone are the days when we could think of ourselves as an island. These days the world is more like a street. So imagine this: you can get your own house in order, but if a couple of the neighbours are in trouble, it won’t be long before their situation has an impact.   If our neighbours are in conflict, there’s a chance our children will get caught up in it while walking home from school, and even if we try to avoid the area, our relative wealth isn’t going to un-noticed. The way we live – particularly if we flash it around while others are desperately struggling –  is likely to cause jealousy and tension in the ‘hood, possibly even thefts or break-ins if people are desperate enough.  And if our neighbours get seriously sick and we do nothing to help, we’ll almost certainly be caught up in the outbreak sooner or later. As our neighbours grow poorer, our real estate prices may fall and our own financial stability will suffer.

That’s how the globe operates too. Even from a purely selfish perspective, it’s to our benefit to live in a more stable world; one that helps countries develop peacefully and equally so that extreme ideas are less likely to get a foothold – the seed bed for terrorism. It’s to our benefit to keep working worldwide against easily communicated diseases; to help hose down conflicts so that they don’t swallow up whole regions; to work for peace and stability between nations so that the economy grows and trade benefits us all.

Aid in all forms – whether it’s assisting refugees, sending development experts, peacekeepers or cash – assists all this. Our world is becoming more and more inter-connected. It’s no longer an option to suggest none of this is our problem when it quite clearly has an impact on our wellbeing and the future wellbeing of our children.

 

How much bang for your buck?

In theory, most people would be reluctant to suggest that some lives matter more than others – white lives more than black, people in the west more than in other places. If we agree this is the case, we’ll want to save the most lives possible for our dollar, regardless of where they’re from.

Well, here are the facts. At home in Australia, the 1% of our budget “left over” might, for example, ‘buy’ us the lives of a hundred people.   That’s great, but in a developing nation it can save the lives of a thousand people. That’s because very simple, inexpensive changes can mean the difference between life and death for people living in developing countries.

The UK’s National Health Service considers it cost-effective to spend more than $30,000 for a single year of healthy life added to a person. By contrast, Against Malaria Foundation can distribute malaria nets and save a life at the cost of $3,340 per person. Or consider this one. It costs $40,000 to train a Guide Dog to help a blind person in the UK lead a ‘quality’ life. In the developing world, simple operations to cure trachoma induced blindness cost $20. One person with a Guide Dog vs 2000 people entirely cured. 30 lives completely saved or thirty years added to a single life.

It’s absolutely clear that spending money in the developing world is outstanding value in terms of saving lives. While our 1% may not go very far here in Australia, it goes a long, long way in other places.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes…

I like to think that the question about people in need here in Australia being disadvantaged by sending aid out of the country is asked by people who genuinely care about others – perhaps someone who knows a homeless person or who regularly visits an elderly person.   You’re a person of genuine compassion, someone with a big heart for others. The last thing to take into consideration, therefore, is this: how would you feel if you were trying to care for a homeless, elderly person or child in a country completely without all the benefits of stability, good health and democracy that Australia offers? What would it be like to live, completely by the accident of your birth, in a country where bombs fall, you could be arrested because of your beliefs, you were separated from your children or rape was used as a weapon of war? If you find your situation difficult here in Australia, how much harder would it be in another country? These are the people we are turning away when we withhold our 1.2%.

It’s the right thing to do

For me, the most compelling reason to share our 1.22% (and personally, I think we could share a lot more) is because it’s the right thing to do. We have so much. Life may not be perfect for everyone here, but maybe I can share more of my own wealth, my own time or expertise to help make it happen. And if I believe that every single person on this planet matters equally, I can’t begrudge anyone a share of the enormous abundance I inherited when, through absolutely no merit of my own, I was lucky enough to be born Australian when others were not.  It’s not just my faith that calls me to share.  It’s my simple humanity.

Combine your personal gift to end poverty with an Australian Government Aid grant and make it go six times as far.  

(1.22% of the Australian budget is indeed spent on foreign aid. Most Australians hear big numbers trotted out when talking about assisting people overseas and assume the percentage must be huge. It isn’t. It’s 1.22% of the Annual Australian Budget.)

Source http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-20/tim-costell-correct-on-budget-foreign-aid-cuts/5452698

Budget http://www.budget.gov.au/2015-16/content/bp1/html/bp1_bs5-01.htm

Profound?

I certainly fell into the Festive camp on Christmas Day, but as I surveyed a mini-tsunami of wrapping paper after the gift giving, I also found myself wondering yet again about both excess and sloth.  Even our cats (who move as little as possible under normal circumstances) hardly bothered to roll over between Christmas and New Year.  In the midst of all this, it’s pretty easy to lose the image of a child born in a backwater, growing up beside the poor and living out his call to share bread with strangers.  Even more challenging is translating the sentimentality of the Christmas season into something solid and life changing all year round.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably hoping to regain a bit of a balance now that you’ve settled back into work.  No doubt top of the list:  cutting back on excess, paying more attention to our inner lives and perhaps thinking more consistently of others.

In a couple of weeks on Feb 10, just as school goes back and most of us wonder where on earth January went, the season of Lent will begin.  Typically it’s the time in the Christian calendar to reflect on our spiritual lives in a quest for growth, forgiveness and connection. These forty days are a God-given opportunity to recalibrate:  heart, mind, spirit.

With this in mind, I’m planning to take up a Challenge through UnitingWorld’s Lent Event – attempting to live simply, reflect more deeply on my faith and act to support people working hard to free themselves from poverty.  For me and my family, it’ll be a chance to start the year right by thinking about what we eat and why, including the little luxuries we sometimes enjoy a little too much (snack foods, the occasional take- away including lunch at work, desserts, alcohol) and our reliance on technology.  We’ll donate the money we would have spent on all this to a couple of projects I’ve seen first-hand creating change in the Pacific, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

We’ll also be aiming to spend time reflecting, meditating and praying, reading and learning about our faith as well as the faith of our partners in Asia, Africa and the Pacific.  I’m often amazed by how easy it is to see people in these parts of the world as ‘needy’ and underestimate their creativity, spiritual depth and sheer courage.

Through it all, I’m hoping that February and March won’t only be times of growth for our family, but will contribute to the efforts of people who probably didn’t get a chance to lose themselves in a cheese platter this Christmas.

If you want to get involved, check out www.Lentevent.com and sign up today.  There are plenty of ideas to make Lent a time of simple living as well as action alongside some of the world’s poorest people. More resources, including an app (download it right now from the App Store and Google Play), videos and resources for children, are being added every week in the lead up to Feb 10.

Time to make plans to end the confusion?  Lent Event could be exactly what you’re looking for.