Of all people, Christians should believe in the power of faithful ideas to change the world.
So says the Rev. Alistair Macrae, President of the Uniting Church in Australia, whose speech, “How a Generous Faith Can Change the World” will be a major presentation at the Synod meeting in April.
He said scripture is full of calls to the faithful to be agents of transformation and to exercise imagination in order to prayerfully and creatively seek ways to express the overflowing generosity of God.
The stories that follow are of people taking this call to heart.
“Our natural tendency, sadly even in the Church, is to adjust and adapt to the way things are,” Mr Macrae told Insights.
“Can we see the Church as, among other things, a laboratory where ideas for creative mission receive encouragement, where God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing to the world is front and foremost in our understanding of mission?”
Creation itself was presumably an “idea” generated within the life of God, he said, and the delivery of Jesus was the world-transforming idea par excellence.
Making finance fair
Two and a half centuries ago, John Wesley set up a program in London that provided small grants of capital to the poor to develop small, viable enterprises.
In 1971, a member of the Uniting Church in Australia, David Bussau, founded Opportunity International, an organisation that supports microfinance for the poor in Indonesia, the Philippines and India.
Current CEO Robert Dunn describes it as a business with compassion.
“We provide money to microfinance institutions by investing in their equity, which makes them strong and enables them to borrow off the back of that investment,” said Mr Dunn.
If the money was simply gifted, a third of it would go in tax. Partnering microfinance institutions provides small loans (normally between $50 and $200) to clients wanting to start a business. The loan is repaid over six or 12 months, with interest.
“The interest is important because that enables the organisation making the loan to be sustainable,” said Mr Dunn.
Opportunity International Australia has more than two million clients worldwide. In developing countries, a loan like this could mean the difference between hopeless destitution and financial stability.
“One of the cool things about microfinance is that they lift themselves out of poverty, we just give them a fair chance,” said Mr Dunn.
Another impressive aspect is that money put into microfinance is recycled — the current repayment rate is better than 98 per cent, which means a donor giving $100 in Australia can have their $100 not work as just $100 in India but $500 or $600.
Beyond financial support, Opportunity International assists partners in their “capacity building” to strengthen their internal foundations around human resources and IT structures. Additionally, they partner with organisations to provide water stations, veterinary services (for clients with livestock), and micro-insurance. Their aim is not just to offer microfinance, but also to build up and strengthen sustainable communities.
“What’s the point in having a few extra sheckles in your pocket if you still have no school for your kids?” said Mr Dunn.
“That’s not creating generational change. If you’re going to have a water station you may as well put a community centre on the back, and a community doctor, and a library for kids to look at. As rich an intervention as possible, that’s David (Bussau). That DNA is in us.”
He said Opportunity International had a strong Christian heritage. Their motivation was Jesus, who called on Christians to serve the poor. “People of faith resonate with us because it’s Kingdom on Earth. It’s the Samaritan on the road; it’s Jesus with the hurting,” said Mr Dunn.
“We are careful to not be the benevolent benefactor — it is the locals who make the calls. What we’re doing is growing the size of the pie. My view is everybody can be a winner.”
Sydney Alliance: Working together for the common good
Niall Reid, Moderator of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT, believes there is one very convincing reason for the Uniting Church to become involved with the Sydney Alliance: it had to.
“Our Synod Vision Statement is ‘Moving with God Transforming Communities’,” said Mr Reid.
“The community has come to us and said, ‘Would you like to help us transform? And we don’t want you to sell God short in the process. We want you to come as a Christian church.’ It was something the Uniting Church couldn’t afford to refuse.”
The Sydney Alliance is an offshoot of the Industrial Areas Movement, a community organising movement which started in Chicago in 1940s.
It already has produced key achievements abroad, including the establishment of the “living wage” in Baltimore 1994, which significantly raised the minimum wage to a level where people could “afford” to work.
During his speech at the December meeting of the Sydney Alliance, Mr Reid further defined his reasons for the Synod’s involvement: “I have realised that together, even with different motivations and agendas, we can change this city, building community and providing opportunities for better, more fulfilling and enriched lives, in which people care about the environment they live in and the people they share it with. I want to be part of that!”
Glen Powell, Community Organiser with the Sydney Alliance, said that Sydneysiders took a lot of things for granted that they didn’t like about the city, including public transport, pollution, racism and affordable housing.
“If you have a broad enough alliance you can start to change these things,” he said. “A single church or trade union can’t always do that. An alliance can.”
Community organisations had been in decline, he said, and their relationships had been strained under competition for funds, air time and volunteers. The Sydney Alliance hoped to reverse that cycle, strengthening relationships within and between community organisations and restoring some of their former power.
The idea was to make Sydney a better place by working together to achieve gains that benefited local citizens, he said. Agendas were set through a series of listening sessions.
The Sydney Alliance is scheduled to launch in December 2011. Leadership training sessions are being held four times a year and Uniting Church people are invited to attend.
The Uniting Church is already a core partner of the fledgling alliance, with various bodies including UnitingCare NSW.ACT, Wesley Mission, the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT and some presbyteries already signed up.
Dialogue for self discovery
More than a vague intention to get along, interfaith relations is a formal and long-running dialogue that ultimately aims for something quite ambitious: world peace.
The Rev. Seforosa Carroll, convenor of the Uniting Church national Assembly’s working group on Relations with Other Faiths (ROF), said the long-term goal was to be able to live together and share a national space without the need for one faith to dominate another.
In the shorter term, dialogues on an international, national and Asia-Pacific level could develop a united front on issues such as poverty and the environment.
Part of the idea is that the world does not belong to one particular people or race or religion, said Ms Carroll.
“In Christianity we’ve had a history of domination through colonialism or Christendom and there’s a shift beginning to happen to say that we are sharing this space, this world. Therefore as good stewards we have the responsibility to ensure that we share it as best as we can, fairly. And also that we do our best to ensure people have abundant life without resorting to violence.”
In formal dialogues, people from a number of faiths meet around a set of agreed guidelines to build relationships, learn about each other’s beliefs, examine areas of division or contention, talk about issues in Australian society that affect the communities, and see what can be done to support each other through difficult times.
The Uniting Church has advocated interfaith relationships since 1983 and is involved in a number of dialogues, including the National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews.
“All religions have a tendency to demonise and that can be validated through their own scriptures,” said Ms Carroll.
“At the same time, all religions have within them the resources for reconciliation to make things better. It is a double-edged sword.”
She said that religious difference, though at times contentious, could also provide the opportunity for both sides to question, strengthen and better articulate their faith.
Rabbi Fred Morgan, Senior Rabbi at the Temple of Beth Israel in Melbourne, said that faiths had much to offer each other by respectfully challenging each other’s beliefs.
He said there was much benefit in taking the conversation beyond “Why don’t you believe in Jesus” to asking questions about the core essentials of each faith and what it takes to be respected as a Christian or a Jew.
In the DVD Jews and Judaism: A Statement by the Uniting Church in Australia, he said “the people of the Uniting Church could then be challenged in turn to think through their own Christianity and to discover what is most significant to them, what is most meaningful.
“And I think, in the end, we’d both be talking about ways of changing the world.”
Turn from exploitation to sustainability
The term may conjure up feelings of doom and gloom but the topic is rich with hope, creativity and dreams of a better way of living sustainably.
That is the belief of the Rev. Rex Graham, Social Justice Consultant with UnitingCare NSW.ACT, who said the idea of sustainability over exploitation — recognising the earth’s limits and finding sources of renewable energy — could change the world.
In fact, he said, it will have to.
“If climate change is not arrested and reversed, we can expect large parts of Australia to become unliveable because there’ll be no water there to support human life. The Murray Darling Basin — a significant food bowl for Australia — will be little more than a parched, inhospitable wasteland.”
According to Mr Graham, some people think the environmental movement kicked into being with the Apollo moon landings.
“One of the astronauts remarked that, while he was a part of discovering the moon, the real discovery was of Earth and how fragile it looks from the moon,” he said.
He said the idea that the world could keep using more and more resources had been a very harmful one, but he was hopeful that renewable energy from sources such as wind, solar and ocean tidal power would challenge the unlimited economic growth model.
In the meantime, the Uniting Church was responding in creative and considered ways.
Mr Graham has drafted a Discussion Paper on Climate Change Policy to be made available at the Synod meeting in April. Others in UnitingCare and the wider church had provided input to collectively determine how the church should respond to the enormous challenge climate change presents to us as stewards of God’s creation.
In Queensland, Caloundra Uniting Church has combined the Christ message with one of sustainability by installing solar panels in the shape of the cross on their church roof, with the tagline, “The church is powered by divine energy.”
Meanwhile, Maroubra Junction Uniting Church has recently completed Project Green Church, which sought to merge all things church with all things green, from “ecomowers” and water tanks to organic veggie gardens and car sharing schemes.
Why limit greener pastures to the afterlife?
Choose peace over violence
When, in Exodus, midwives refused to kill Hebrew boys at birth, they could not have known that their act of civil disobedience would become the earliest documented act of nonviolent resistance.
It was a singular incident, later followed by several such acts by Jesus and more strategic, formulated campaigns by Mahatma Ghandi.
“Ghandi himself said that Jesus was the most perfect example of nonviolence in the world,” said Justin Whelan, Sydney-based facilitator of the Engage and From Violence to Wholeness programs for Pace e Bene Australia.
“People who pick up on the theology of nonviolence point to the crucifixion itself as the ultimate example of nonviolence. And, as John Dear points out, if ever there was a legitimate time for warfare it was when Jesus was arrested.”
Mr Whelan said nonviolence is a concept that is slowly growing in popularity in Australia but which remains a marginal idea within churches and church life — the very institution which should be the hub of nonviolent conflict transformation in the community.
For him, nonviolence is more than just about warfare or overthrowing dictatorships; it’s something to be modelled in congregational life and personal relationships.
Whether your opponent is a politician, the general public, or a stubborn fellow member of church council, nonviolent action can be practised by winning over the hearts and minds of your opposition — not simply forcing them to do things your way.
“The more there will be an ongoing personal relationship, the truer it is that the aim needs to be transformation of the relationship and not just a resolution of the conflict,” said Mr Whelan.
Joy Balazo, Coordinator of Uniting World’s Young Ambassadors for Peace (YAP) program, has been working at doing just this since 2001.
YAP has offices in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Burma, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Its job is to keep tabs on local conflict and to identify candidates within those conflicts who are willing to participate in peace-building workshops.
Remarkably, Ms Balazo claims a 100 per cent success rate from the six-to-ten workshops she runs each year to help breed peace in areas that suffer from violence and conflict.
YAP workshops are based around creating a safe place and an opportunity to get to know the enemy as a person, leaving prejudices behind to make room for peace.
Ms Balazo says everyone who attends a YAP workshop leaves after ten days transformed and committed to peace.
A crowning achievement for YAP was the signing of a peace treaty in 2008 between 32 long-warring tribes in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
“Roads could be opened, schools could be built,” said Ms Balazo, recalling the day of the signing (pictured).
“Women were crying — they couldn’t believe it. They never thought this could happen. When I first came to Tari in 2003 there were hardly any people around. It was too tense. Today it is full.”
For more information on the Uniting Church, nonviolence and peacemaking, see:
• Assembly DVD: Putting God’s Peace into Practice (available to purchase from Mediacom).
• Assembly resolution: “Uniting for Peace” (2003).
Try to imagine
Sitting in front of the television one night, Sarah White saw an image that would change the direction of her life.
On the screen, famine-ravaged women from Ethiopia held babies they were too malnourished to feed. She looked down at the healthy newborn in her own arms and felt struck as never before by the reality of inequality.
It was a small but powerful moment that would eventually lead to the raising of over $1.3 million to help alleviate suffering caused by extreme poverty.
“I thought, ‘This cannot be right,’” she said.
“I was a reasonably new Christian. I’d been in church and delving into my faith for only a few years. I prayed about it, asking, ‘God what could I do? Here I am, one mother, sleep-deprived myself. I can’t do anything.’”
But through prayer and consultation with her minister at West Epping Uniting Church, a strong idea began to form. The result was Lent Event, a program where participants abstain from a non-essential item during the period of Lent and give the money saved to those with far less.
The first Lent Event was held in 2004 and raised approximately $40,000 towards alleviating poverty through UnitingWorld projects.
But Ms White stressed that it was not simply a fundraising event. She credited a large part of the program’s success to the spiritual dimension of Lent Event, which includes carefully prepared Bible studies, reflections and a wealth of resources available for free on their website.
“That holistic journey really worked,” she said.
“People were engaged. The size of their gifts was considerable from the beginning. Even older pensioners were giving amounts like $100 because they were giving up something from their daily lifestyle and investing in the prayer, reflection and study.
“We have a lot of congregations who come in and share in the journey who don’t have ministers. There are a lot out there who really rely on the resources that we provide and it is a real highlight for these churches on their calendar. That is what they tell us.”
There are also countries and people where Lent Event generosity can improve people’s quality of life and make the difference between life and death.
“In Sudan, you can’t imagine what people live without,” said Ms White.
“Their life expectancy is 37 years — that’s how old I am. So it is game over and I’ve got kids to raise. We can’t imagine.”
To learn more, visit lentevent.com.
Stories in the Be Inspired: Ideas to Change the World feature were researched and written by Lyndal Irons (Insights’ journalist) and Megan Graham (Insights’ intern).