What happens when we love our neighbours as ourselves!

Last year, Tearfund President Elaine Storkey and Vice-President Katei Kirby visited Uganda to see first-hand how the church there is transforming local communities. What they saw made a huge impression on them both

Africa is a needy continent. Outside the capital cities one soon becomes aware of the endemic poverty, with children suffering from malnutrition and people struggling for a livelihood. Yet much of Africa is also very rich. By that I don’t mean the mineral deposits or coltan, for they have been a mixed blessing. They have often led to exploitation and links with the West which fuel corruption and the spread of arms. The real wealth of Africa is in its relationships – its rich community life and strong neighbour relations. And it is that which made the deepest impression on us during our trip to Uganda.

Our journey took us north east, into a dry, hot region, with dust-red roads and parched land. The rains in Soroti were late. In each village we visited there was a sense of patient anticipation. Crops needed to be planted, but not in a drought. Wells needed to be replenished. The thirsty land needed to drink. We realised how close to the natural cycles of life people lived. They were only too aware of their dependence on the rhythms of creation. However, we were not there to monitor the weather, but to see for ourselves what was happening with a process begun a decade ago.

Tearfund has been working with local churches to empower communities to lift themselves out of poverty. The process is a simple one, but has enormous implications. Communities map out the resources they already possess, appoint community leaders, assess the needs of families and individuals and then look at what needs to be done to eliminate hardship and destitution. I kept thinking of Jesus’ parable of the talents. Each community we visited had been given resources by God. They had land, skills, strength, ability to work, and, most importantly, one another. So, rather than be overcome by the overwhelming problems they faced, the focus was on how to access these resources and maximise them most effectively.

We were struck by the huge difference in the lives of those communities which had started the process 10 years ago, from those who were just beginning. The evidence rose to greet us as we came to visit: clean water, sanitation, healthy animal stocks, citrus trees, good diets, strong buildings and well-nourished children enjoying the benefits of education. Turkeys, chickens, pigs and goats fed contentedly, and their manure was collected to fertilise the land. Fish farms, bee-keeping and crop-growing all provided revenue and brought prosperity to the villages. There was evidence of distribution, too, as those with more resources shared them with neighbours who had fewer. Everywhere we looked we saw the benefits of co-operation and care for one’s neighbour.

Yet the aim was not simply to increase material benefits. That would have missed the point. There is little benefit in exporting western individualist materialism to communities which are economically poor but relationally rich. They don’t want the spiritual and emotional poverty that we know too well in the loneliness and apathy of our own culture. Real empowerment is less about economics than transformation, where spiritual, physical, emotional, educational, health and relational needs are all acknowledged and addressed. The Christian leaders knew this well, and shared their vision with the whole community. Showered by warm hospitality, we saw it for ourselves.

In one community we were entertained by a dramatic production designed to show the impact of empowerment on the lives of women. Neither the script nor the acting were very profound, but the point was well made. Amidst much hilarity from the audience, we were left in no doubt that women were to be treated with real dignity and value, not simply subjected to the whims of men!

The underlying biblical principles provided a powerful base for the process of empowerment. The intrinsic worth of every human being was demonstrated in the care for Aids sufferers, and treatment of disability. It was there in the inclusion of young and old, women and men, Christians and non-Christian in the stewardship of resources. It was evident in the readiness of the church to be servants of the community. People were encouraged, not to see themselves as victims, but to accept responsibility and take initiative to find solutions. And so, change was taking place, not because of the activities of rich Western organisations, but because poor communities put into practice the fundamental principle of neighbour-love.

Katei and I came to enjoy the way we were enveloped also in these relationships. People shared their food, their stories, and their lives. Their welcome was tangible; their warmth was infectious. Eyalama noi! became the language of our relationship, language natural to our hosts, but something we had to learn. And this was symbolic of our whole visit. We were not the experts, but the students. We were not the benefactors, but the recipients.

In spending time with Christians whose lives were so different from our own, we were learning more of what it meant to be part of the body of Christ. In leaving behind the individualist preoccupations of our society we were discovering more of our own identity as people-in-relationship. What we found has reinforced what I have long believed. It is that biblical principles have deeply practical consequences. And especially when we love our neighbour as ourselves and seek the common good, we release God’s transforming power into the whole life of a community.

Love starts with acceptance

Uganda was hot. And the further north we travelled, it seemed to get hotter. The rainy season that we had dressed to expect was either running late, or keeping a safe distance. Any rain that did fall was warm and welcomed, sometimes sharp but invariably short-lived, disappearing into the rich red earth almost as quickly as it had fallen. As the temperatures soared effortlessly above the forecast for each day, so too did my expectations of my first visit to the ‘pearl of Africa’.

Uganda is one of the 48 landlocked countries of the world, and one of three African countries that shoulder the shimmering body of water called Lake Victoria. Having flown into Entebbe at night, this majestic liquid expanse and the landscape that cradles it were well hidden till morning, opening up like a tranquil surprise on our northward journey by road through Kampala to Soroti. But this isn’t a reflection on the weather or the geography of Uganda, although both were inescapable and frame every picture in the stack of memorable moments that I can still recall. No, this is a reflection on the something that I saw in bustling city streets of Kampala and the more remote settlements like Ogongora.

I heard it in the conversations we had in brick buildings and in stories told in the afternoon shade of a flourishing citrus grove. It was in the beaming smiles of curious children and in the hope-filled eyes of women living with HIV/Aids. It was in the round-thatched homes peppered across the arid landscape, yearning for overdue rain. And it clung to my thoughts as I sat in the air-conditioned airport complex on the way home. No, it is not the distinctive red dust that clung to everything and everyone it encountered. It is the intangible but visible gift of Uganda: acceptance.

First of all, Uganda accepted us, not just because we had the appropriate inoculation papers to get our entry visas. In the hot, night air that circled the airport, I heard airport officials, families and returning visitors use the greeting “Eyalama noi”, a greeting and a welcome which I would later hear church leaders and council leaders exchange, and see children and young people offer with a smile, wave or sometimes a bow. We said it as we drove through villages or spoke to groups, often to a beautiful, unified response of the same phrase. When others in our group used more of the local language, the communities responded with rapturous applause, whether we got it right or not!

The combination of my Caribbean skin and English voice seemed to be an anomaly to some of the local people. While the children seemed mesmerised by our water bottles, their parents seemed equally amused that I didn’t recognise their foods and customs, often whispering to our guides “... but she looks like us ...”. Where my grasp of the local language failed, a smile, wave or hug needed no translation. The gift of acceptance feels good.

Secondly, the Church accepted its communities, dared to share a simple and clear vision for transformation and invited meaningful participation in finding solutions. The simplicity of this approach, ably supported by pastors and community leaders alike, had given hope and purpose to entire families and whole communities. We met former alcohol abusers and drug users who had become family men; we listened to marginalised women who were aspiring to major roles in their communities. We sat with young people who had larger-than-life dreams to see their communities and their country recover from the ravages of war. The Church had taken biblical principles, and dared to engage Christians and non-Christians, men and women, children and young people in finding solutions for their communities. The gift of acceptance looks good.

Thirdly, communities gave acceptance. The ripple effect that the simple message of God’s love, shared by a community of believers, is having is refreshing and is an energising witness of what can happen when the Church comes together and offers acceptance the way that I think Jesus does. This is not the kind of acceptance that says ‘anything goes’, but the kind that says ‘Eyalama noi’ – ‘you are welcome’. This kind of acceptance sees each person as purposeful, and encourages them to realise their potential. In the communities we visited, it had begun to challenge arrogance and ignorance alike, and to overcome behavioural barriers and social stigma, particularly those attached to illness and disability. School teachers accepted practical gifts for learning, and a widow beamed with delight at the beautiful hand-made garment she received. Families, groups and congregations listened to our comments and welcomed our prayers, and we listened as they answered our questions and shared their stories of transformation. The gift of acceptance does good.

Tearfund’s vision to support community transformation through the local church is evident in Uganda. Didn’t Jesus say “If you love me keep my commandments?” The local churches that Tearfund has come alongside in Uganda are seeing their communities transformed by simply keeping the most significant commandment of all: loving their neighbours as themselves. Loving people in this way starts with acceptance. Thanks to the local churches in Uganda, acceptance feels good, looks good and is doing good to those giving it and to those receiving it. What a gift!