Canadian Christian organizations urge action for the world’s poor
[Photo above:] Tearfund worked with Katunga, a farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to adjust her crops and distribution method during the pandemic. PHOTO: TEARFUND CANADA
As Katunga, a farmer and 60-year-old mother of four in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, prepared her small plot of land for the year ahead, she was confident her crops would thrive and earn a competitive price in the city marketplace. She had learned to prepare for challenges, thanks to an agricultural training group established by Tearfund Canada and its local church partner. Over the past few years, Katunga’s involvement in the group meant community, purpose and the dignity of providing for her family.
Then Covid-19 began spreading across the country. The government restricted the movement of people and goods. Suddenly Katunga couldn’t travel from her village to the city to sell her vegetables. They began to rot. "Distribution had never been an issue, but it became a major issue on almost every single project we had," says Wayne Johnson, Tearfund Canada executive director and CEO (www.Tearfund.ca).
To help solve the problem, Tearfund partners supported Katunga and other farmers by helping them shift to crops that would last longer such as onion, garlic and ginger, and by helping them transport their produce on a single shared truck.
A farmer who puts food on the back of a donkey and walks a day and a half to the market will be stopped by police upon entering the city, Johnson explains. But the police will allow a truck to go in with ten or 20 bags of food inside because it’s a food distribution business.
Local churches also established stores as a secondary means of helping farmers sell their produce. "Typically, in the rural community, churches are the strongest civil society organizations who are responding and helping their neighbours," says Johnson. Instead of her business shrinking, Katunga found it ended up growing during the pandemic, much to her relief.
Tearfund works to restore broken relationships – with God, families, communities and creation – that are at the root cause of poverty around the world. In additional to agricultural training, Tearfund also works with local churches to organize groups to help families save and access loans, advocates to reduce sexual and gender-based violence, and implements creation stewardship programs such as planting trees in Ethiopia. They also serve people in crisis through emergency relief.
"Our partners are having to work three times as hard because of Covid-19 and the effect it has had," says Matthew Schroeder, Tearfund’s marketing and communications manager. "Families have had to work so hard to escape the level of poverty they were in only to be faced with this and the threat of going back" to how it was before.
The World Bank estimates that decades of progress on extreme poverty are in reverse due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The organization now expects 122 million newly impoverished people in 2021 (its previous estimate was between 88 and 115 million), with around 60 per cent living in South Asia.
The pandemic means Canadian Christian international relief organizations have had to quickly pivot and adapt to challenges imposed by the pandemic abroad – while simultaneously confronting challenges at home. They posted stories on their blogs, revised and added new programs, and launched joint appeals in hopes Canadians would give to the world’s poor, pray and discuss global issues at the kitchen table.
And many responded with an "outpouring of generosity," says Schroeder – often sacrificial donations from people who themselves are facing financial, health and personal difficulties.
The global Church
"The people who have been most impacted were people who were already living on the margins," says Jennifer Lau, Canadian Baptist Ministries’ executive director. "Day wage earners – the people who have to work today to be able to eat today or tomorrow – were not able to work anymore when the lockdown hit.
"So a lot of support we ended up providing was not necessarily for healthcare, but for food assistance because people were just starving." CBM is a global mission organization based in Mississauga, Ont. (www.CBMin.org).
They partnered with local churches to enable pastors to buy food and distribute it to people’s homes, despite the risk of contracting Covid-19 themselves.
"What we’ve seen emerge in almost all the countries where we work is that the Church continued to be the Church, even though people couldn’t come to the church building. Pastors are at the forefront carrying on the work."
In addition to food assistance projects, CBM is participating in UNICEF’s Love Thy Neighbour campaign, with the goal to provide vaccines to every country in the world. At the current rate that is not expected to happen until 2024.
Experts say trade and travel will continue to be disrupted, and economic recovery will be further delayed as vaccines slowly roll out in the Majority World. Ensuring adequate supply and equitable distribution of vaccines will help end the acute stage of the pandemic and spur on global recovery efforts.
"Whether we’re talking in Canada or around the world, a phrase my Latin American colleague coined has resonated – ‘It’s been zero per cent business as usual, 100 per cent mission as usual,’ " says Michael Messenger, World Vision Canada’s president and CEO (www.WorldVision.ca).
"Our calling to follow Jesus and serve the needs of the most vulnerable – especially girls and boys – hasn’t changed. If anything, our needs are even greater."
On March 11, 2020, the date the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, World Vision launched the largest emergency response in its history. The plan involved more than 70 countries, engaged 400,000 faith leaders and 150,000 community health volunteers, to reach 72 million people, including 36 million children.
Top priorities included preventing the spread of the virus by equipping communities with information and safety materials, strengthening local health systems by training community health volunteers and providing personal protective equipment, and supporting children affected by Covid-19 school closures through educational resources, emergency food, access to clean water, child protection information and help for parents.
More than 60 million people had been reached through this plan, World Vision reported in the spring. Of those, 27 million were children.
"Often in humanitarian emergencies we think of people ‘over there’ who are affected, whereas in this case we’re all experiencing this together," says Messenger. "But the kind of things that we think about and that restricted us here have had an impact on families in parts of the developing world – but dialled up."
In Canada, he explains, social distancing was relatively easy in terms of space compared with a refugee family in Cox’s Bazar, a city in Bangladesh where there are 30–40 people living in a home. Likewise, clean water is easily accessible in Canada, whereas in the Congo the nearest source of clean water is six kilometres away.
"Every piece of vulnerability that we have in Canada is felt even greater where we work," he says. "We need to develop a deeper sense of empathy to what the day-to-day life of an individual child is like in one of the most challenging parts of the world, and perhaps make some connections we couldn’t make before."
For the past 30 years, Galcom International Canada in Hamilton, Ont., has partnered with local churches and missionaries from other agencies on the ground to set up radio stations, distribute radios and broadcast the gospel to nearly 150 different countries (www.Galcom.org).
When the pandemic hit, many of the Canadian volunteers who built the radios, mainly seniors in the immune-compromised category, were locked down. To get around this hurdle, Galcom delivered parts to people’s homes so radios could continue to be made.
"We haven’t been able to send a team overseas to build a radio station now in over a year, which has been difficult," says Tim Whitehead, Galcom’s executive director. "So we’re shipping a lot more and doing a lot of training over Skype and Zoom – to try to explain how to repair a station in Tanzania, for example.
"It’s been difficult, but it’s also opened up opportunities because governments have recognized that radio is the answer for communication more than ever before."
Countries that had Galcom radio stations were abruptly called upon to broadcast school lessons to children and relay Covid-19 updates to once-isolated communities.
"Working in partnership with pastors is absolutely vital because they build the credibility and they know the culture, language and context," says Whitehead. "Our job is to just come alongside and give them tools to do what they do more efficiently."
Rising to the challenge
Compassion Canada is a child development organization that partners with local churches in child sponsorship and community-based child development centres (www.Compassion.ca). When government-mandated shutdowns and social distancing restricted regular activities, such as Christian education, healthcare and food aid, the organization quickly pivoted to continue their work.
"Instead of having the children come to us, our teams had to find ways to go to where the children and their families were," says Jamie McIntosh, executive director of partner relations. "But they did it and rose to the challenge."
Compassion Canada with its international partners and local churches delivered more than 13.3 million food packs in countries around the world from April 2020 to March 2021. It also assisted more than 1.2 million individuals with access to medical care, provided 9 million hygiene kits and gave 400,000 cash transfers to families not able to continue working.
"Wherever there are injustices and the wounds of the world, Jesus beckons us to help bandage those wounds, not because we are the saviours, but because what a great salvation is lavished upon us," says McIntosh, pointing out the great needs in the Majority World related to the pandemic will not go away quickly. "We have to do our best to help because it’s why we’re here … to love one another."
FOUR WAYS TO HELP
1 FOLLOW NEWS from credible sources to become aware about what is happening in the world, even after global disasters stop making headlines.
2 DEVELOP EMPATHY by watching and reading stories of people who are suffering. Put yourself in their shoes. "When we sit around the dinner table, how do we metaphorically add a couple more chairs to balance the focus, not only on us and our needs, which are legitimate and real, but also extend our arms to think of our neighbours across the [other] side of the world?" asks Michael Messenger, World Vision Canada.
3 TALK ABOUT IT AND PRAY about global concerns with your social circle. "If you don’t talk about it with your children, your spouse, family and friends, it won’t get dealt with," says Wayne Johnson, Tearfund.
4 DONATE to a trusted organization working in the field and help them get the resources they need.
Global Aid Network (GAiN) Canada, the humanitarian partner of Power to Change, has helped provide safe water to more than 2.3 million people in countries such as Benin, Togo and Tanzania (www.GlobalAid.net). As part of their Water for Life Strategy, providing a deep-capped water well in a community includes training in hygiene and sanitation practices, the provision of handwashing stations and an opportunity to hear about God’s love through the Jesus Film Church Planting Strategy.
All this came to a pause for several months during the height of the pandemic.
"As part of our drilling [of the wells], it gathers people as they come out to watch what happens, and some of our rigs couldn’t even get to communities because of blocked off roads," says Jennifer Thornton, GAiN’s marketing and communications director. "We also train a water committee on how to maintain the well, and all of that requires gathering of people, so our whole program was affected by Covid-19 until restrictions lifted."
GAiN responded by sharing health promotion messages, distributed hand hygiene materials (such as soap and sanitizer) to church pastors, clinics and households, and continued to raise support for other initiatives such as vocational training for women, building churches and helping staff at Mukti Mission in India, which provides secure homes and medical care for people in need.
Since congregations could no longer meet at churches, GAiN also fundraised for pastors and their families to remove the financial stress of being able to provide for their families. "We care for them so they can be freed up to care and minister to those who would have been attending their church.
30 million additional children are at risk of disease and death.
As staff, partners, and leaders at Canadian Christian international relief organizations begin to imagine life after the Covid-19 pandemic, they are hopeful a collective global effort will alleviate the potentially devastating impacts among the world’s vulnerable for years to come.
Because of the pandemic, 30 million additional children are at risk of disease and death from secondary impacts, according to World Vision’s research. And 85 million children are at risk of violence, particularly girls, including 13 million additional child marriages (4 million within the next few years). About 8 million children may be forced into child labour in Asia alone, and 1 million additional girls across sub-Saharan Africa may never return to school.
"If Covid-19 is the earthquake, what we’re concerned about are the aftershocks," says Messenger. "I can’t underestimate how profoundly our world has changed, yet we live knowing that in Jesus’ Kingdom, there won’t be heartache. Suffering and conflict will be gone.
"So how will we live according to the values of that future Kingdom today?"
Find links to the organizations mentioned in this story and others like them at www.CCRDA.ca, the website of the Canadian Christian Relief & Development Association.
is a Faith Today writer from Richmond Hill, Ont.