Last Thursday was Ascension Day, today is the last day of Christian Aid Week, this year held from 10th to 16th May, just seven days in which, country-wide, the Church concentrates effort and prayer on the world’s poorest people. The poor are also, inevitably, those who deal with some of the worst effects of pollution, global warming and the destruction of the earth’s ecosystem, much of the damage being the result of the activities and consumption of the world’s affluent developed countries.
Like many of us I’ve spent a lot of lockdown time clearing out old papers and clutter. One particular little hoard aroused many memories. It was all my old Christian Aid stuff going back years: collector’s identity badges, surplus envelopes for putting through doors, leaflets with that year’s theme, thank you cards from Christian Aid noting the sums of money raised.
All this stirred up memories going back 40 years, taking the youngest child with me in the buggy when I put envelopes through doors on the Saturday and then back to collect, hopefully, bulging envelopes the next Saturday with said child holding the carrier bag into which full envelopes accumulated as we trailed up and down St Anne’s Hill. Of course, back then, working full-time, it seemed like sheer Hell trying to fit this into busy weekends. But looking back, it was a mini pilgrimage, and one which benefited me, my mini helper and those with whom I made friends in the houses on whose doors I knocked once a year, explaining again that Christian Aid wasn’t aid for Christians but from Christians to everyone in poorer parts of the world. As often noted by collectors, it was the poorer households who gave gladly. One woman, our local lollipop lady, always emptied her purse of all the change into the envelope with much cheery banter; she made a big thing of giving it to my small child who was in charge of the plastic bag of envelopes. One year, in yet another 80s economic recession, I knocked on her door and was met with, ‘Not this year, love, my husband’s laid off, finding it difficult myself with the kids.’ I was so glad she was honest, and sad that I didn’t know how to react to her need, whip out my purse and press something into her hand? Instead, I said how sorry I was and hoped he found something soon. You learn valuable life lessons like this, and feel the unity of the poor throughout the world.
It was a mini pilgrimage because Christian Aid material has always been well produced and given us a picture of the lives of those they are helping, encouraging us to truly relate to them, imagining how we would cope, or not, with the hunger, hardship, despair, confusion.
Vishvapani, a British Buddhist monk, put it very well on Thought for Day this week. He was talking about the Covid crisis in India with tens of thousands dying in dreadful conditions. His Buddhist friend had died, aged 51, in India, working with Dalits – the excluded ‘untouchables’ – in whose community Covid had run riot. Vishvapani said it was not enough to give aid, money, oxygen, medical supplies; we had to be at one with those who suffered, we had to ‘be there’, we had to feel the heat, imagine the smells, the dust, ‘hear’ the cries of those in distress. Only then, Vishvapani said could we truly respond, by feeling it strongly and imagining it deeply.
That resonated with me – recently I’ve found truly praying for India difficult, because of my anger with the Indian Government, with society, with the wealthy who do nothing. His words hit me, forget all that anger – concentrate on feeling it strongly, imagining it deeply.
That’s how Christian Aid Week has always been for me, an opportunity to enter into community with the world’s poor. Back 40 years ago we had an Ignatian prayer group at St Anne’s, linked to the Sisters at the Convent at Ham who led us in Ignatian meditation, love shown in deeds, finding God in all things and using the imagination and senses to enter into community with the world’s poorest. It made Christian Aid Week a spiritual exercise, not just collecting money.
At St Barnabas we have had over the years many visits from Christian Aid staff. We’ve learnt about their work, heard colourful stories of the families they have helped. All of this helps to break down the barriers, protects us from compassion fatigue, avoids the automatic giving of money without engaging spiritually. It enables us to become a community with those we’ve never met, whose lives are so different from ours. It enables us to come to a common–unity, a community, sharing through our common humanity, the needs of others.
This year’s Christian Aid literature asks us to ‘Stand with Rose’, a 68 year-old grandmother who makes a six-hour round trip on foot every other day to collect water for her family’s needs and that of their farm. She does this for her grandchildren and worries she won’t have the strength to continue for ever. She lives in Eastern Kenya, suffering severe drought, climate emergency and unpredictable weather changes – this destroys crops, kills livestock, depletes water sources, and then there’s the pandemic.
As Visvapani said on Thought for the Day, 85% of the world’s population which has been vaccinated lives in the world’s wealthy countries. Rose and those like her have a very great deal to cope with, whilst the rich West agonises over Covid preventing them taking a foreign holiday this year. As Christians we can do nothing but stand shoulder to shoulder with Rose, with India, with those overwhelmed by climate change, with those who have nothing, and even that is being taken from them.
‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’
It is no accident that Christian Aid Week always comes around the time of or just after Ascension.
Before his Ascension, Christ commissioned his disciples to continue his work, promising to always be with them, and to strengthen them and comfort them with the Holy Spirit.
We share in those promises, and we share in that Commission. Christian Aid gives us the opportunity to share with the world’s poorest what we have, to practise love through deeds, to be in common unity with our brothers and sisters, finding God in all things.
Our creator God commissions us to help protect His children and His creation, through the love and creative power of His Holy Spirit.