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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

This is adapted from a sermon delivered by UnitingWorld’s Rev Dr Ji Zhang in April 2017 after returning from the 15th General Assembly of GKI-TP in West Papua (-Ed).

Reading

Romans 8:1-2, 6-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to Gods law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Reflection

The Romans reading is a part last week’s lectionary. I have been avoiding this passage and preached on more “juicy” Gospel readings. After hearing a feminist critique of Christian theology’s treatment of the body, I could not look at the passage same again. This year, having traveled to Papua recently, I have a different insight.

The passage is a part of Paul’s debate of Law and Grace. The Law can be traced to the time of Moses. In the Old Testament books, human behavior and community organisation are defined and written down, and then passed on from generation to generation. In the New Testament, we know Jesus has simplified all laws down to two commandments: to love God, and to love neighbours.

We also know that Paul took the Gospel from Jerusalem all the way to the Romans. On this journey towards a new identity, he discovered a contradiction. Paul tells his Christian community there is a conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. The connecting point for today’s reading is in the early passage where Paul talks about his struggle. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). This is not just a problem for Paul, but also an existential struggle of all Christians.

By talking about his struggle, Paul names a common problem – “I do what I do not want” (7:17). Like Reinhold Niebuhr once said: Human beings are self-contradictory beings.

Recently I attended the 15th General Assembly of the Papuan Church. Our partner church GKI-TP gathered 5000 people from different parts of the church that has a membership of 1 million. I remember vividly a re-enactment of Gospel arriving in the land over 150 years ago. Church members dressed in traditional cloth to represent their past lives, practicing tribal law and using ‘black magic’ on their enemies. When the Gospel came, it appeared as light in the darkness; people took the old clothes off, and put on the new clothes – representing a new life in Christ.

However, the culture of tribal war still lingers. We see a similar situation in Papua New Guinea.  People are always ready to go into battle, and use conflict to resolve difference. These conflicts always cost lives, but never bring peace.

The theme of the GKI-TP General Assembly was “May your kingdom come, on earth as well as in heaven”. After a courageous message from preacher Rev Dr Rumbwas, I spoke on the behalf of the UCA and made this point: “When we listen to God, we are able to listen to each other”.

Our partner church was in a time of major change. The spirit of God chooses this vulnerable time to reshape it. Despite imperfect nature of the process, the church has grown as it receives migrants; but in the transmigration program some of the newcomers have taken the lands and businesses of indigenous Papuans. The church has elected a new Synod leadership team, and by doing this the Assembly has turned a volatile leadership conflict, into and opportunity for peace – not just in the leadership, but in the culture of the whole church.

“You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” This passage is real in the life of Papuan church.

From this experience I read Paul’s writing again, and realise that Paul is doing contextual theology. We know his people believed in the Hellenistic worldview, the Body-Soul dualism. In the Neo-Platonic world, the physical is inferior whereas the spiritual is transcendental. Plato once described our desires are like horses pulling in different directions whereas the soul is like the charioteer who wants the wagon to move in one direction.

But here, two key words indicate Paul has different ideas: Kata sarka – meaning ‘after the flesh,’ and Kata pneuma – ‘after the Spirit’. Notice Paul did not use the word ‘psych’ i.e. “the Soul”, but the Spirit, which is the Spirit of God.

Is Paul accepting the Hellenistic thinking: the body bad, the spirit good? No. He is encouraging unity, not duality. By speaking the language of the Romans, he inserts two new ideas: Zwh – Zoe – meaning ‘life’, and Oikei – ‘making its home’. This is the same root word for World Council of Churches  – which means ‘becoming a household.’

Paul further uses the word – ‘making its home’ – to stage his key argument about God. God’s life and peace are making home in our lives, more importantly making home in our bodily life. This is a new union between the flesh and the spirit. This indwelling nature of God speaks the beauty of Christian life. I have seen this partaking nature of God among our partners where the Spirit is transforming communities.

So, what does this mean for us today?

We struggle with many things. Yet God is graciously making home in our lives. It calls us not to go after the world of desire, instead to go after the Spirit of life and peace. Desire separates people, but peace unifies us across racial, national and religious divides.

In this season of Lent, we remember the recent Cyclone in QLD, the transition in the Papuan church, the famine in South Sudan, and the millions of people displaced by wars the Middle East. We also remember God is making home in the lives of these people. UnitingWorld’s Lent Event fundraising appeal supports our partners in Africa, India, PNG, and China. The way we support them is by showing how God of peace and justice is making home in the lives of the faithful.

The Church is the Body of Christ. The church is not just aiming for survival, but making an impact through witness and action. By working together we begin to understand Paul’s writing. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you”.

May we live and act according to the Spirit this Easter.

And may we share the same hope of our partners in Papua:

May your kingdom come, on earth as well as in heaven”.

Amen.

Rev Dr Ji Zhang
Manager of Church Partnerships, Asia
UnitingWorld

The following was adapted from a letter sent to encourage a large network of partners who work, pray and advocate alongside the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS). South Sudan is currently the epicenter of an emergency in Africa described by the United Nations as the largest humanitarian crisis since WWII.

April, 2017

I am sensing that many of us who advocate for the people of South Sudan are feeling discouraged. We all desperately seek an immediate end to conflict, to loss of life, and a way to provide humanitarian assistance for the people who suffer unimaginably. Millions displaced; uncounted killed; thousands starving… but they are not just numbers for us. They are family, friends and neighbours.

 

We feel the pain of the people and pray for them, yet nothing seems to improve. Our pleas seem to fall on deaf ears.

Sometimes we feel that we have done everything we can, yet nothing works. The truth is that the political, military and humanitarian situation in South Sudan is hard. People and governments disappoint and discourage us; the government of South Sudan seems to have become evil and the United States seems unwilling to intervene.

Photo credit: ABC, Martin Cuddihy (2016)

There is no value in pretending we don’t feel what we feel. We will never overcome discouragement by ignoring it or letting it paralyse our efforts. We always think that good will triumph, yet right now it seems more like failure.

When opposition seems to triumph, real conviction and genuine dedication are needed to stand against it. In my mind, I hear the clock ticking. Each tick equates to a baby starving, a woman being raped, a child being conscripted into the war, senseless killing of an aid worker… it is an ongoing nightmare. But we can’t just do nothing.

The following words of God were not just for Joshua, and that encourages me.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

We must stop looking backwards at efforts that did not work; instead, we must shake off discouragement and keep trying. The price of failure is measured in lives lost and lives wasted. We cannot allow ourselves to falter or fail.

We won’t give up

At the same time, we, who work alongside you and consider you our friends and family in South Sudan, want you to know that we have not given up, and you must not either. We remember you, weep with you, and pray for you daily. We do not know when, but this horror will end. You will have a chance to rebuild your lives and establish a proper government that seeks to assist you rather than hold you back.

We know that people are divided and that even within ethnic groups there is disunity and distrust. But we also know that there is strength and unity in Christ.

South Sudan will be free

Just as there was a time when God called on Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt, there will be a time when God provides freedom, justice, stability and peace for the people of South Sudan.

Time and time again, God tells us, “Do not be afraid.”

You are never alone. God walks ahead of you to guide you, beside you to be your friend, above and below you to support you, and behind you to encourage you. Call out to God for help in these troubled times.

Remember Jesus’ words at the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, “I am always with you, to the end of the age.”

Shake off discouragement. Don’t accept failure.

Instead, take heart – God’s success is inevitable.

– Bill Andress
Trinity Presbyterian South Sudan Ministry
South Carolina, USA

How many times can you say that you were involved in a ‘life-or-death’ situation? A situation where your actions and decisions could make the difference between someone living or dying? Once? Twice? Never? What if I told you that as you read this, that’s exactly where you find yourself…

The word ‘famine’ is used relatively frequently in modern language, but it’s actually not something that happens often. On 20 February, the United Nations declared famine in two counties of South Sudan. It was the first time famine had been declared anywhere in more than six years. Some are saying that the current severity of food insecurity in South Sudan hasn’t been seen since a post-war Europe experienced famine in 1947. But what exactly is food insecurity?

A crash course in food insecurity

There are five official categories of food insecurity: 1) minimal, 2) stressed, 3) crisis, 4) emergency, and 5) catastrophe (i.e. ‘famine’). Currently in South Sudan, there are an estimated 4.9 million people in categories 3, 4 and 5. Of these 4.9 million people, it’s estimated that 100,000 people are in category 5: catastrophe (famine). People in categories 3 and 4 are at risk of severe malnutrition, which causes lasting impacts – entrenching people in poverty and disrupting education for generations.

People in category 5 are dying of starvation. Not tomorrow, not next week… now. And the reality is the majority of the people in category 5 are among the most vulnerable; typically pregnant women, children and lactating mothers.

I was speaking to a friend recently about how dire the situation is, and he asked what he thought might have been a silly question. He wanted to know why, when faced with the imminent starvation of 100,000 of South Sudan’s most vulnerable people, the international community couldn’t just “bring them food.” Not a silly question at all, but definitely not as simple as he thought.

And in the coming months it’s about to get more complicated.

$1 today is worth more than $1 in two months

South Sudan is facing more than one crisis. Set among the backdrop of a failing economy, collapsing infrastructure and the constant threat of conflict, famine response is not an easy task. In addition to all of this, May will see the start of the rainy season. Roads will become impassable, and the only option for delivering food and non-food essential items will be by air freight. Air freight is significantly more expensive than ground freight.

Right now aid workers are in a position to be able to ‘pre-place’ food and non-food items into the hardest hit areas, to be distributed now and as the lean season continues. Not only does immediate action mean that we can reduce the number of those 100,000 people who will die of starvation, but it also limits the number of additional people moving into category 5 during the lean season.

Acting at once means that more money can be spent on essential items as opposed to transport costs. More money on food and non-food necessities means more lives are saved.

That’s where you come in

You’re faced with a life-or-death situation, only it’s not your life at stake. Despite this famine happening to people thousands of miles away – people you’ll probably never meet – you can save a life by taking action today. Tomorrow could be too late for the 100,000 in South Sudan who will go to bed on the brink of starvation.

Lots of my friends and family tell me they plan to donate. I tell them: don’t wait.

– Megan

Megan Calcaterra
International Programs Manager, Asia/Africa

Donate now

“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?

I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, but living in the Bible Belt of the United States meant that I wasn’t short of church experiences when I was a kid. For a long time the norms and traditions of the church felt strange and unfamiliar to me, and there were a lot of things about ‘doing church’ that I didn’t quite understand.

I remember the thing that seemed the oddest at the time was ‘passing the peace’. I learned very quickly what to say and do, but the reasons behind the custom didn’t make a lot of sense to me. After being a Christian for more than ten years, I still thought of passing the peace as some sort of nicety that we do as a means of encouraging fellowship and making one another feel at ease within the congregation. That is, until a trip to South Sudan made me see peace in a whole new light.

On my first full day in the capital Juba, I attended a peace and reconciliation workshop run by the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan, UnitingWorld’s partner church in the country. With pride of place right up the very front, my eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the banner hanging in the middle of the stage. Written on it in both English and Arabic, was the theme of the training inspired by Ephesians 4:3:

“Do your best to preserve the unity which the spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together.”

Reading that banner I started to think about peace and my experiences of it. In Australia, peace is abundant. And I often take it for granted. But sitting in that church hall in Juba, I started to really think about what it means when peace isn’t present in a place.

As Christians, we’re called to love our neighbours and forgive those who sin against us. We’re bound together in unity because of the peace that exists between one person and another. But how many of us in Australia have ever had to forgive someone who has killed their family member? Perpetrated a war crime? Violated a loved one? How many of us has ever looked into the eyes of someone who has wronged us and unconditionally offered them peace?

For the people of South Sudan, peace isn’t a passive state of being. Without the luxury of taking it for granted, they are constantly working towards peace. Fighting for peace. Praying for peace. Throughout the Bible, all of us are called to seek peace, and many faithful South Sudanese people are answering this call. But I wonder – are we answering?

When our typical experience is the absence of conflict – the reality for most Australians – it’s easy to forget what it means to seek peace, especially when the peace we’re seeking is halfway across the world. But seeking peace doesn’t mean we have to be in the room at the ceasefire negotiations. It doesn’t mean that we have to be the ones laying down arms.

Seeking peace takes many forms. It’s the prayer you say before bed every night. It’s the letter you write your MP asking them to put peace at the top of their agenda. It’s the monthly donation you put aside to support the ministers working towards reconciliation.

It’s passing the peace, not just to your immediate neighbour, but those sisters and brothers that are keeping faith and building a church of peace in the hard places of the world.

We can all make a difference. We are all peacemakers. And together we can help bring peace to South Sudan.

– Megan

Find out how you can support the Peacemakers of South Sudan: https://www.unitingworld.org.au/projects/peacebuilding-and-trauma-healing

Fiji’s recovery from Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston is a great story of what partnerships can achieve:  partnerships between government, local church and people from all over the world, including Australian Uniting Church members who provided over $500,000 toward recovery efforts.

Six months on, we look back.

When Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston hit Fiji on 20 February, 2016 it was one of the strongest category-five cyclones ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. Winds over 300 km per hour flattened villages and cut a path of destruction across the country, taking the lives of 42 people and displacing more than 62,000. At the height of the disaster, there were more than 120,000 Fijians in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, and more than 540,000 were affected by its impacts.

At least 28,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, and in the hardest-hit towns, up to 90 per cent of structures were completely destroyed. In just one night the cyclone caused over a billion dollars in damage (approx. half a billion USD).

Fiji was well prepared, with vital disaster management measures in place before the storm. Early warning alerts and disaster mitigation policies saved countless lives. People were able to get to

MCIF volunteers packing relief supplies in Suva

evacuation shelters well in advance – most of them in schools, churches and community halls.  In cooperation with church networks, government services communicated effectively to get the word out about where and when people should move.

After a state of emergency was declared, relief began to be distributed and countries around the world pledged their assistance, including Australia. Our partner, the Methodist Church in Fiji (MCIF) immediately organized a fundraising drive within the country, asking for donations and goods from people in unaffected areas. People generously helped their neighbors, sending in food, clothes, blankets, cooking utensils, kerosene stoves and lamps, solar lights, and other essential living items.

The MCIF then organized hundreds of volunteers and Methodist youth to help sort and distribute goods in the days following the emergency, ensuring the relief supplies were quickly transferred to where they were needed most.

After setting up an office to coordinate disaster relief and responses, the MCIF used their existing church networks to assist the Fijian government in assessing and mapping the extent of damage across Fiji. Building assessment teams were then deployed to identify where to allocate resources for the recovery efforts.

Working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, the MCIF has been purchasing food crops and helping people re-establish their livelihoods.  The Church is also working with civil society organisations on long-term disaster risk reduction strategies.

The work of the MCIF has been helped by the generous donations of people in Australia. In response to an appeal launched by UnitingWorld, Australians raised over $AU 500,000, which is going a long way in the rebuild and recovery efforts. MCIF are committed to a ‘build back better’ approach, ensuring new buildings are more resilient to extreme weather events.

The spirit and perseverance of the Fijian people never faltered, even as Cyclone Zena closely followed Winston, threatening to make relief efforts even harder. Miraculous stories highlighted their courage, like the women of Naveiveiwali village, “heroines” who saved 22 lives.

A social media campaign quickly sprang up in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston. The hashtag ‘#StrongerThanWinston’ started to feature in all that related to the disaster recovery, a rallying call for a strong and resilient people not to despair – and a reminder that together they would overcome the odds.

Six months on, this strength and character were on show at the Rio Olympic Games, with their Rugby Sevens squad routing every team they faced to win Fiji’s first Olympic gold medal! When the final whistle blew, the Fijians boldly sang a hymn together in the middle of the field with characteristic Polynesian harmonies.

There are still many challenges facing the people of Fiji as they work to rebuild. Thousands lost their homes and their sources of income. Many are struggling to access food and essential infrastructure after it was wiped out, and is yet to be rebuilt or repaired. Remote communities have been especially slow to recover, with fewer supply runs reaching them. It is unclear how long it will take for Fiji to fully recover, but they they are well underway.

We are grateful to God for His love in helping us in rebuilding the lives of the victims across Fiji. It is anticipated that it will take 4 to 5 years to recover from this situation and I appeal to you today that we need to stand together and work together – Rev. Dr. Epineri Vakadewavosa, General Secretary, Methodist Church in Fiji.

Thank you for helping the Fijian people get back on their feet by supporting the great work of our partner, the Methodist Church of Fiji. As the partnerships agency of the Uniting Church in Australia, we’re heartened to tell you this story of people working across all sectors to build back better.


Please continue to pray for Fiji and the work of MCIF. You can continue to support their work by donating here.

Cover photo by Fiji Government
Other photos by MCIF

In front of Shanxi Christian Council office there is a park reconstructed on the top of the Tang dynasty city wall. The moderator Rev Wang pointed to the place below and said “This was the Western Gate”. In 635 the Prime Minister Fang travelled from the imperial court to this gate (today about 45 minutes driving) to receive the Patriarch from the Church of the East. The journey to the East reversed the direction of the Silk Road, and the missionary work was the result of two generations of Persian traders who lived in China. This story was recorded on the Nestorian Stele in Xian Stele Forrest Museum.

Theologically the church does not have a mission, but the mission of God calls the church into being. “Missio Dei ≥ Mission ad gentes + Missio inter gentes” – this is the formula that attempts to summarise the first introduction of Christianity to China.

According to the Record of Major Meetings of Tang Dynasty, a royal decree was issued in 638: “The Dao has no perpetual name; the Sage-hood has no unchanging form. Let [the Nestorians] have the access to establish this religion, so that many lives can be brought across [the ocean of suffering]”. In the period of 649-683, the Church grew quickly through interfaith dialogue with Buddhism and Daoism. The inscription says: “The religion was spread over ten administration zones, the country enjoyed prosperity and peace. The [Christian] Temples occupied close to a hundred cities, whilst households were enriched by the blessings of the Luminous [Christian] faith”.

Protestant missionaries came 1200 years after the Persians. Derived from the China Inland Mission in the late 1870’s, today Shanxi Christian Council has a large footprint in the remote west. Its theological education prepares leaders for 5 provinces covering a vast geography along the Silk Road to Xingjiang Autonomous Region. Xian was the capital of 13 dynasties. Most of the old buildings in Xian have various degrees of heritage protection, including some church buildings. The General Secretary shared with us their challenge to reclaim and redevelop church buildings. Contrary to coastal synods, here they were under resourced. A few years ago the synod was offered a free rental for a floor in the office building that the government purchased so the synod could move out of a basement.

The top priority is to equip enough leaders to sustain the growth in the west. Currently the college can only offer a 4-year diploma program, because some students only had middle school education. The synod has three approaches to capacity building: a) upgrade accreditation from diploma to degree, b) expand lay and continue education, c) construct a new college with 350 residents and redevelop the old college into a social service centre. Being a UCA president from the laity, Stuart resonated with their focus to equip the laity, and encouraged the UnitingWorld program to include this province.

The key to resolve the antithesis between mission to the gentiles and mission with gentiles is contextual theology. Xian is culturally diverse and religiously plural. During the Tang period, there was an innate openness to various cultures, even the Nestorian monks were invited by the Foreign Minister to take roles of diplomacy. Mission was done through a two-century long dialogue with Buddhism and Daoist in a Confucian society as a minority.

This non-Christendom context was a common interest between the moderator and the president. In Xian it is the 5000-year written history and the capital of 13 dynasties. In Australia’s Northern Territory it is the 40,000 years old indigenous culture from the land. Although the two cultures have never met, the task of contextual theology is the same: Gospel with Culture. In this light, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution is a contextual theology in the making. Two leaders exchanged the idea to have a joint conference in Xian on Theology and Culture.

The large need to equip the laity was not fully conceptualised until we attended the service on Sunday. The church was built in 1919 by British Baptist Church with a capacity for 500 people. Now it has a membership of 13,000. Because of its heritage overlay, the church built a 3-floor building next to the sanctuary for extra worship space. There were 5 services on Sunday, and we were at the 3rd of 5 Sunday services. On our arrival, we saw the 2nd service was overflowing – with people standing near the gate.

Stuart shared with the congregation about the UCA/CCC partnership, and social service training in Shandong. On a number of occasions his speech was either echoed or interrupted by a loud response of “Amen”. The lay preacher gave a well-researched and delivered sermon on child-parents relationships based on OT scriptures of God’s promise over future generations. She was a retired engineer, and this was her third sermon after completing lay education. When the congregation recited the Lord Prayer in one voice, we all felt the Spirit’s presence among the faithful. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they should see God”.

Our big surprise was visiting a church-run HIV clinic. We were shown two videos about the ministry by the laity, a number of elderly people from a small Christian gathering place. They wanted to care for the people suffering from HIV AIDS among migrant workers; they wanted to care for them regardless of their sexual orientation – to be loved by God. The staff showed us a city map marked with places where gay groups and sex workers gathered. The clinic went through a difficult journey to be accepted by the church and the society.

Today this clinic has been licensed by the local government. It is supported by the CCC national office, recognised by the central government, and partly funded by Bill Gates Foundation. They have gathered hundreds of volunteers from nearby universities to engage HIV awareness programs and advocacy for caring migrant workers who have sacrificed their youth for urban development. The powerful ministry of the laity has manifested again in the social margins. The work is not based on doctrinal correctness, but compassion-driven praxis. Sometimes the ministry is a pastoral visit to gay communities, sometimes is to participate in a burial service for the deceased – the unwanted, lost, and forgotten.

When we visited the Nestorian Stele in Xian Stele Forrest Museum, one sentence in the inscription began to speak to us. Between 635 and 781, every year the Christians would gather in four places. “[They] prepared various [charity] works on the Pentecost Day. When the hungry came, they fed them; when the cold came, they clothed them. The sick were treated so [they could] get up; the dead were buried, and so [they were] laid to rest”.

The Mission of God is bigger than mission to the gentiles. In mission with the gentile, the horizon of God’s mission begins to open and brings the common interest of life between the secular and the sacred into focus. It is the Incarnation of God’s life in the world, regardless of the church’s capacity to conceptualise its fullness in theology. On this journey we have seen the work of the Spirit. The Church has been, and is, working hard – to capture the Spirit of life, by which the people of God have been captured.

Do you ever have days, even while you’re still in the middle of them, that you know will always stick with you? My first visit to a village in West Bengal, India, was one of those days.

My colleague Steph and I had driven three hours from the church office with our brilliant partners from the Diocese of Durgapur, through bustling market streets full of people and cows and very fresh butchers, past fields of corn and rice and cauliflower, and eventually along a long and bumpy dirt road to our first village visit of the day.

Before we even got out of the car, the welcome drums began. The pathway to the village was lined with beaming kids and their parents, clapping along as men and boys beat huge drums while women dressed in bright red and orange saris danced ahead of us. Kids began throwing handfuls of marigold petals over us (sometimes with a fairly abrupt whack in the face and giggles from all) and older women played seashells as trumpets. It was one of those moments you just try and drink everything in as quickly as you possibly can – the colours and sounds and sun beating down – but really there’s no way to absorb it all. All we could do was slowly shuffle along in the middle of it all, catching petals, clapping along and grinning back.

Once we made it to the village itself, after squirming a little during the impossibly generous foot-washing ceremonial welcome, the real purpose of our visit began. We were there to hear from women, men and children about what the Community Development Project, run by the Diocese of Durgapur and supported by UnitingWorld, really means. What difference is this making to you, in your everyday life? What has this meant for your community? What is life like here?

Answers were honest and direct. Life is hard, but this project is making a difference. Our children at the study centre are working hard and their grades are improving – they’re no longer at risk of dropping out of school and we’re not scared for them. This woman here (she is pointed out to us) was supported to apply for and access the old age pension, so she doesn’t have to work all day long in the forest gathering leaves anymore. Our community worker, from our village (he stands up), helped us get government grants to build houses and toilets and access to water sources for irrigation. The government health worker is visiting and we know how to stay healthy, how to keep our children well. Our women’s self-help groups (they raise their hands) have saved money this year, and have plans to start their own business.

Of course, life is still hard. The village is far from government services, seasons can no longer be relied upon, water has not reached everyone. But what struck me more than anything, and what we shared together that day, was the fierce sense of community in this place and determination to find solutions together. Even this project itself is not something that is ‘done to’ people here; it’s what they’re doing for themselves and what they’re supported to keep doing, day after day.  It’s just part of who they are – and it’s this determination and dogged effort that will change their futures.

This project is doing good: real, tangible, important things – and can do more. We left the village after dancing and drumming back to the car and went on to the next. And of course it wasn’t the only day like this I’ve had. But this really was one that stuck with me.  How we spend our days is our we spend our lives, and these days are well spent.

For just two more days you can make your donation to these projects up to six times more effective.  We need to raise $1 in supporter donations for every $5 we have access to in Government Funding for our Community Development Projects.  To see your gift multiplied to make a significant difference, please give now at here.

Laura McGilvray, among other roles with UnitingWorld, supports our partner the Church of North India.  She loves her work and wishes everyone had the opportunity to experience days like this one, seeing first hand the impact of long term planning, training and funding.