It was 1949. Millions of refugees were starving in war-ravaged Europe. And as Frank Byatt, a young minister in Victoria looked at his heavily-laden Christmas dinner table, the contrast between the abundance in Australia and the needs of others around the world could not have been more stark.
As a Christian, he felt he had to do something. After all, it was Christmas, the one great day of sharing!
So he called on his congregation to “get a bowl to put on your Christmas dinner table as a Bowl of Remembrance and see if you can get everybody round the table to make a generous gift so that you can share your good dinner with hungry children in other lands.”
That was the very first Christmas Bowl appeal, and that year £1,808 was raised for refugees – no small sum for a congregation at the time. But Frank didn’t stop there. His mission was to unify Australians and today, 69 years later, thousands of Australian Christians like you still come together each Christmas to share God’s love through the Christmas Bowl.
It’s a beautiful legacy – and an incredibly important one. At a time when the world needs God’s love more than ever, Reverend Byatt’s call is as relevant today as it was when the first Christmas Bowl was shared back in 1949.
Right now, there are 68.5 million people who have been driven from their homes and loved ones by war or persecution; that is the highest number ever recorded. Among those most in need are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees forced to flee unimaginable violence in Myanmar last year. I appreciate you have likely already heard about this crisis. The violence that these families experienced is horrific. They witnessed their villages being burned, their wives and daughters raped and family members and neighbours being killed.
It is impossible to fully comprehend what these men, women and children have endured, and it is vitally important that we don’t turn our back on those who have already suffered so much. I had the opportunity to visit Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh earlier this year. My experience in the camp was intense and it felt very challenging to my soul. One of many, this camp sprung up spontaneously as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled across the border in search of safety last August. It is spread across rough, hilly terrain, creating large infrastructure problems. Building new shelter for families is nearly impossible in the heavy monsoon rains.
While I was there, I had the privilege of meeting with deeply troubled but highly resilient people. Like Ayesha, a young mother who escaped with her family at night when the Myanmar army attacked their village. Ayesha and her family travelled for days with little food or water to reach Bangladesh and the Jamtoli refugee camp. Conditions were bad. She lost her newborn baby.
Despite the trauma of what she’s experienced, Ayesha still faces each day with incredible dignity and resolve. She wants to raise her children with safety and opportunity. And she is working hard to support them on a daily basis. Life in the camp is incredibly hard. I felt around me a sense grief and loss that I haven’t experienced before. Personally I find it troubling and shocking that people in our time experience such violence and trauma. We have an extraordinary crisis on our door step and I continue to feel challenged about how we can reach out as Christ would in this situation.
I imagine that Rev. Frank Byatt felt challenged in a similar way in 1949, when he saw the plight of refugees who had fled the horrors of World War II. In 1958 he wrote:
In all this, there seems a fundamentally important challenge to the Christian. To know and not to feel a sense of concern –perhaps not to feel a sense of guilt – seems hardly possible for one whose life has been touched by the love of Christ. In Australia we are living with privilege heaped on privilege – while in so many places many are living in degradation, in poverty and death. The Bowl of Remembrance is an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of our Christian concern.
Frank saw the needs around him, and he felt God’s call to respond. He understood that when we work together, we can achieve so much more, and so he asked those around him to respond as well. Frank’s vision and action unified Australians to share the love of God and meet the urgent needs of our brothers and sisters suffering around the world.
As Christians I believe we all have a personal responsibility to learn about who Christ is and to understand how we apply what He tells us in the scriptures in our every day life. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ tells us to feed the hungry, heal the sick and welcome the stranger. That’s exactly what we are doing together as we celebrate the Christmas Bowl. They sound like three very basic statements: feed the hungry, heal the sick and welcome the stranger; but if we act in those ways, and if we meet those three challenges, then Christ is able to do the rest. We are working with the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus, fulfilling the calling that He gave us, and we can walk forward trusting Him, knowing that He is able to do what we are not able to do in this circumstance. If we just take those first steps and reach out with some really practical help.
This year as we celebrate the Christmas Bowl, it’s a significant time to stop and think about others less fortunate than ourselves, and to think about what we can give as we come together and celebrate Christ. As we sit down to share our Christmas meals with our families and friends and celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us also pause to be grateful for what we have. Let us remember to share our good blessings with our brothers and sisters in need, and respond to Jesus’ call to love our neighbours.
You can share God’s love through the Christmas Bowl and provide food, shelter and dignity to our brothers and sisters in urgent need around the world actforpeace.org.au/christmasbowl
Janet Cousens is the Chief Executive Officer at Act for Peace.