Global neighbours

A Sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens, Bella Ikpasaja and Ruth Wooldridge for Harvest

Readings: Deuteronomy 26.1-11, Philippians 4.4-9, John 6.25-35

I’m in a car travelling along one of the main freeways in Johannesburg. To our left is Sandton, Johannesburg’s equivalent of Canary Wharf, a collection of gleaming skyscrapers housing the headquarters of major corporations; a concentration of wealth, power and influence. We turn off the freeway but, instead of turning left to Sandton, we turn right into an industrial zone. In South Africa, under apartheid, such industrial areas were used as buffer zones separating wealthy white areas, such as Sandton, from the townships where the black community lived.

We move beyond the industrial units and are now on the edge of an immense expanse of small, low one or two room shacks built of the roughest materials and stacked one against the other. People throng the streets so our car slows to a crawl as we negotiate our way deeper into what appears to be a shanty town where every shack is also a shop and everything you can imagine is for sale. This is the township of Alexandra and we are making our way to St Michael and All Angels.

There we join Fr Clayton and his congregation for a midweek Eucharist. We join in the congregational singing which arises out of the familiar liturgy enabling our participation together in worship. Fr Clayton has a conversational preaching style and encourages questions following his homily. In that time one of the questions asked enables us to reflect on the patriarchal nature of some Bible passages which can hinder our joining together in equality. Fr Clayton reminds us that there is no male or female, slave or free, but all are one in Christ. Then singing and dancing we process with our offerings or pledges to give from what we have been given by God before we receive, with thanksgiving, the very life of God itself in communion.

After the service Fr Clayton takes me to the Alexandra Heritage Centre from where we have a view across the cluttered chaotic expanse of Alex. Poverty, lack of basic infrastructure and facilities are clearly to be seen; demonstrations of disadvantage and discrimination, particularly when contrasted with Sandton on the other side of the freeway. Yet, Alex, historically, has also been an area enabling a measure of independence by being one of the few areas where the black community in Johannesburg could own land.

A panel at the end of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg says essentially that land, and the ownership of land, was at the heart of the apartheid system and continues to be a source of contention and inequality within South Africa today.

Our reading from the Hebrew scriptures reminds us that, although the People of Israel had been led by God to the Promised Land, that land was not theirs to own. It belonged to God and, as a reminder of that reality, they gave to God, with thanksgiving, a tithe – a tenth – of the harvest which came from the land. The instruction to do so came from the Law of Moses, which also put in place a set of social mechanisms designed to prevent the concentration of land and wealth in the hands of a few.

At its heart was the recognition, that the congregation in Alex possessed, that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The circle of life functions normally and naturally when we recognise that truth, but is disrupted, even destroyed, when human beings dominate and exploit the land for our own gain instead of providing the tending and care with which we were tasked by God in the creation stories that are found in Genesis. In recent months we have, perhaps, seen this human tendency to dominate, own and exploit land most graphically in the climate-change denying Donald Trump seeking to buy Greenland in order to exploit the natural resources that climate change is now making accessible to our human greed in ways that were not previously possible; all the while, denying the reality that to do so will only accelerate the climate emergency.

Our global neighbours, whether in South Africa, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Malawi, Melanesia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have much to teach us about ways of life which are closer to the attitudes, behaviours and structures of a societies that view land, with gratitude; as sacred in and of itself and, therefore, not for ownership or exploitation.

As Global neighbours with St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, we have had the opportunity to encounter and enjoy the vibrancy of their worship of God and welcome of others sustained, originally, in the face of great oppression and, now, of significant social challenges. I bring back greetings, love and prayers to all of us from our friends, neighbours and partners at the Cathedral and in Alex, Sophiatown and Soweto.

Our Global neighbours extend well beyond our South African partnerships, however. The prayer booklet you were given last Sunday shares news of all our Global neighbours and Ruth and Bella are now going to add to our understanding by sharing more about our partners in Nepal and Tanzania.

Ruth Wooldridge

On the day the earth shook in Nepal in 2015, homes, schools, medical centres — thousands of buildings altogether – collapsed or were badly damaged. Around 9000 people died.  Land slipped down mountainsides,  enveloping nature in its course.  Trees, crops, animals, houses and people were all sucked in the paths of landslides.

The Nepalese people have learnt to be resilient in this country of few resources. Survivors rebuilt and repaired their homes, reworked their land and set about trying to regenerate their livelihoods.

Whenever disasters such as earthquakes, severe flooding and droughts or major cyclones and hurricanes happen, it is not only the land that is fractured but family life too. The vulnerability of children in particular is exposed at such times.

In Nepal, the earthquake left behind orphaned children – and families and communities struggling desperately to cope with children. Children who had no school to go to any more, who were more prone to hunger and illness. Children who found themselves alone and vulnerable… and potentially embarking on a highly risky life on the street. The earthquake left more girls prey to sex traffickers.

The charity Community Support Nepal responded by offering sanctuary and safety in a family home. That home now cares for around 15 vulnerable children off the street. They are part of the family — loved, fed, and provided with schooling. The charity also tries to trace any family that the child may have.

The home is already too small and food and clothing are a continuous need that has to be met by Community Support Nepal . The organisation was brought to the attention of our Global Neighbours committee through members of St Martin’s community. Since then we have visited it too and seen for ourselves the warmth of the hospitality – the true good neighbourliness – that it offers. The money St Martin’s has given and will continue to give is a small contribution towards the welfare of these children who are often traumatised by the disaster, loss of family and living on the streets as well as in need of care and a home.

Bella Ikpasaja

I want to share some something with you today that would concern all of us here at St Martin-in-the-Fields, as well as give hope in our shared humanity – as sisters, mothers, brothers, fathers, aunts and uncles…

To give context, since 2016 I have been personally championing the cause of an NGO called Standing Voice, after reading a newspaper article about their important work. SV defends the rights of persons with albinism in Africa, primarily in Tanzania, East Africa. Its administrative headquarters is in London.

Harry Freeland, a British documentary filmmaker and photographer, officially set up the charity in 2013, after years informally working in Tanzania. If you get a chance do check out In the Shadow of the Sun, his 2012 BBC documentary, which has been screened in more than 80 countries around the world to an estimated global audience of 12.5 million.

Albinism is a genetic condition that reduces melanin in the skin and eyes, causing vision problems and vulnerability to skin cancer, particularly in hot countries. Ostracised as ‘white demons’, people with albinism are often socially excluded in Tanzania, and struggle to access healthcare, education, housing and employment.

In terms of statistics..

– 98% die before the age of 40 because of skin cancer.

– Only 10% of children with albinism attend secondary school.

Some have been attacked and even killed for their body parts, which are used in so-called witchcraft practises.

The tide is turning … despite the disturbing picture that is painted here, Standing Voice and its collaborators are giving hope to people with albinism in Tanzania (and increasingly in nearby Malawi), through local and international teams delivering Education, Health and Community programmes. From London, Standing Voice drives its Advocacy Programme working with partners including the UN, the World Bank, and multiple African governments.

Here is an excerpt from a Standing Voice Project Update, produced for St Martin in the Fields following our £1,000 donation last year: “In June 2018, Standing Voice was fortunate to deliver its second annual Summer Skills Workshop in Tanzania: a cross-disciplinary training programme helping people with albinism and their peers to develop skills and pursue income-generating opportunities and pathways of professional development. The workshops were delivered in the heart of Lake Victoria on the remote island of Ukerewe at our Umoja Training Centre: a community training facility providing skills development and economic enrichment to all users, and giving people with and without albinism a space to connect, learn and belong.

The support of St Martin-in-the-Fields allowed for the development of a demonstration community garden within our renovated grounds. Throughout the Summer Skills Workshop, land that had already been used informally to grow vegetables was treated and landscaped, ensuring a more successful yield in future. Ornamental plants and fruit trees were planted around the site. The subsequent planting of vegetables has had a significant impact on users’ nutritional intake, helping to diversify a local diet ordinarily consisting of just starch and fish.

Over time, we will continue training our beneficiaries to cultivate the plot of land into an efficient and well-managed community garden, improving the long-term health of participants and their dependents and furnishing an example to be replicated by others, improving the dietary health of the community at large. The introduction and initial development of the demonstration garden provided a fantastic opportunity for us to pilot a new training session in market gardening alongside our pre-established programmes.

Market gardening is a vital training discipline, not only due to the direct benefits an understanding of fresh food can have on the health of the community, but also because such training has the potential to provide an avenue for income through the selling of surplus products.”

In summary, SV is working tirelessly to change policy in African countries where persons with albinism are mostly affected, towards integrating our brothers and sisters under God’s creation back into mainstream society, to create environments to dream and prosper like you and me – as is our human right. My hope is that we continue our support, however small … until I win the lottery. Thank you.

During this year’s Marketplace, in response to our questions, many of you stuck words and phrases about neighbourliness on the map at the Global Neighbours stall. Some people clearly wrote about characteristics of being a neighbour that they’d witnessed or learnt from a global neighbour/friend. Others wrote something they’d learnt more generally. It’s a beautiful collection of experiences that we would like to read to you now.

This is what we’ve learnt from our global neighbours:

  • To seize the day
  • To live life to the full
  • A joy for adventure
  • To live joyfully
  • To delight in every day
  • To accept difference
  • To see different perspectives
  • We are equal in God’s eyes
  • We are one in Christ
  • We can learn from each other
  • We can stand together and work together for justice
  • We can keep in touch across distances
  • We can share celebrations
  • Friendship is HUGE
  • We are all part of one family

This is what we’ve learnt about being a neighbour:

  • Hospitality
  • Welcome
  • Caring
  • Sensitive
  • Depth of love
  • Generosity
  • Kindness
  • Open heartedness
  • Valuing simple things
  • Peace
  • Inner resourcefulness
  • Resilience
  • Building Bridges
  • Courage
  • Humility
  • Openness
  • Forgiveness
  • Hopefulness
  • Faithfulness

Just as faith seeks understanding, so neighbourliness should too. Our global neighbours share understanding with us and we deepen our roots in God and grow in our ability to live out faith in life, society and creation. That is the harvest which comes from the experience of having global neighbours. I have been helped and humbled by that experience in Johannesburg in the past week or so. Our Global Neighbours committee work throughout the year to strengthen and support the shared harvest of understanding and transformation that comes from our partnerships with our Global Neighbours. That harvest begins as we pray together for one another and as, in our different places around the world we join together in gratitude to God for the land, the world, the creation that has been gifted to us to tend, not exploit.