Dionne Gravesande explores how the Church helps to develop individuals, build communities and stands alongside the poor, vulnerable and marginalised.
In December 2014, I had my first visit inside the United Nations Headquarters in New York. I was attending a Micah Challenge Faith Summit, with an exciting agenda.
In 2000, the Global Church came together – inspired by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – around human development and progression; there they birthed the Micah Challenge Vision. Fourteen years on, the group returned to examine what has been achieved.
It was acknowledged that the Church is often the first to reach out to broken and vulnerable people in times of need and crisis. As a result, we are closely embedded and committed to local communities. In the developing world, the Church runs many schools and health clinics in rural communities. In Sub-Saharan Africa, we provide more than 50% of all health and education services, and reach poor people largely untouched by other institutions.
It is no wonder that the World Bank has focused on a faith-development dialogue, because faith communities have earned high levels of community trust, and work directly on development, most significantly in education, the environment and health. [The World Bank is a United Nations international financial institution that provides loans to developing countries for capital programmes. The World Bank is a component of the World Bank Group, and a member of the United Nations Development Group.]
It is well documented how church communities promote public support for development assistance, and help forge consensus around hard choices. In addition, the Church plays a key role in life skill training, raising awareness of risks to health and wellbeing, and offering moral and spiritual relief. In post-conflict settings, the Church has been a crucial component in structural peace-building and reconciliation projects, promotion of human rights, inclusive education and curriculum development. We do this, because we live out our commitment to our neighbours both near and far.
Time and time again we say churches have a unique and important role in making the world a better place, and this caused me to think and question my development and the wider development of friends, peers, church folk and professional associates. The reality is, I am a product of hard-working parents, sound gospel teachings, and a stable home environment, in a land that exposed me to opportunities to live, learn, experience and work towards a common good framework. The Ubuntu phase, ‘I am because we are’, is true for me, and I suspect it is true for many of you, too.
“Churches have a unique and important role in making the world a better place.”
Without the collective ‘we’ – by that I mean my parents, grandparents, collective community and church family – I would not be who I am. And so the phrase continues, ‘because we are, you are’. This simple statement encapsulates a profound understanding of human inter-connectedness. It is a statement of being. Ubuntu is an ancient African word, meaning ‘humanity to others’. It also means ‘I am what I am, because of who we all are’. The Ubuntu framework tends to talk about Kingdom living, community wholeness, and goes beyond just caring for our nuclear family: the ‘it takes a village’ mentality, in terms of how we care for others and who we extend our mercy to, as we respond to God.
‘I am’ and ‘you are’ refer to the individual, and ‘we are’ refers to the community. Does it mean that the individual is more important than the community, or that the community is more important than the individual? For me, they are interdependent and therefore in balance.
Communal faithfulness, and caring for the health and life of the whole community, is actually much closer to the biblical mindset that the prophets and Jesus embodied, than to an individualistic mentality. God called a whole nation – the Jews, a people group – to follow Him and be formed as a community into the faithful witness of God on earth. Christ came into this people group, and then widened the call to Gentiles – in fact, to anyone who believed in His vision for a new Kingdom (which, you could say, is a social group or communal order with a specific King that rules those people). I point this out, because the thinking reflects our culture and nature as Christians. It cannot be disputed that churches are very good at establishing social action projects that benefit communities of people.
So, let me take the point back to the MDG’s meeting I attended in December. I firmly believe the prophetic role of the Church is to call the nations to repentance – not just the Church. We are called to stand with the marginalised and oppressed and, very often, we do. I am testimony to that. Had it not been for someone standing with my Caribbean great-grandparents, who made a way for my grandparents to come to the UK, I would not be reaping the blessings.
Let us not forget those still suffering, nor be complacent; our challenge is to live right, while righting wrongs together. In this sense, some of the strongest community advocators are also pastors and ministers. I believe change and transformation of ourselves and our communities are possible.