UnitingWorld’s Cath Taylor reflects on expectations and transformations over the Christmas period and how the journey towards positive change is life-long, relational and hard won.
There’s an assumption about “poor people” that gets splashed around this time of year, when many of us are celebrating and feeling a tad guilty about it.
It shows up in the face of the African child, gaunt and wide-eyed; the helpless mother, utterly dependant on someone to hand out the donation that will change her life forever. It’s there in the lyrics of the immortal BandAid fundraiser from the 1980s: “Do they even know it’s Christmas time?”
The answer, actually, is yes. “The poor” are not always miserable and desperate, and we are not always their only saviours.
Not so long ago, high up in the mountains of Timor Leste, I realised I was running a few oblivious assumptions of my own. Same (Sarmay) is a place where poverty keeps its foot heavy on the necks of families who’ve traditionally been at the mercy of their brutal history and the whims of the land. I was there to meet families who’ve been learning health and life skills from their local clinic, run by our partner the Protestant Church of Timor Leste. Their homes are clean and mostly empty—a raised wooden platform for the entire family to sleep on together, dirt floors, no electricity or water. Malnutrition stalks the children.
Yet at the end of a full day, the family asked us to eat with them—corn they’d have sold at the market for precious supplies had they not spent the time with us instead.
“Don’t eat the corn!” I told my colleagues, wide-eyed and appalled at this turn of events. “We must not eat the corn! It’s all they have!”
One of our photographers, who’s been around a bit, gave me some context. The family were unlikely, as I feared, to be in a panic about having to provide a meal for their unexpected guests. In fact, eating together after a day spent revealing the story of their lives was an important part of hospitality and self-respect. The corn was better eaten fresh and shared; they had faith there would be provisions for a new day. And our local clinic would be on hand, as would other families, sharing what they had. There would be joy in the meal together, and dignity in the giving and receiving.
Perhaps it’s just me, but many of the people I meet exceed my expectations in every way—expectations I don’t even realise I have. They speak multiple languages. Their faith carries them in times of hardship. They have a resilience, creativity and determination that’s humbling (and of course, just as I begin to romanticise their long suffering nobility, they can be brutal and selfish just like the rest of us and in case I let myself off the hook: without justice and the sharing of resources, hundreds will die from dirty water in the time it takes you to read this article).
The Christmas story blows our simple, unquestioning assumptions about human need and “giving to the poor” completely out of the water. We’re tempted by mass media and short attention spans to see need in black and white, as though we can meet our obligations through one-off donations in response to a heart-rending story in which we subtly become the hero.
But in Christ we see the messiness of God drawing close to the pain of humanity in the form of a child, a man sharing life and death and life again. In the process, people are brought to hope and wholeness. There’s nothing simple or one-off about the encounter. It’s life-long, relational and hard won.
UnitingWorld invites you to join us in the same kind of journey. We work long term with global churches who allow us to share their knowledge and passion for their people and communities. In the process, we’re transformed: Uniting Church members from Queensland’s synod as they travel to Amritsar in India; Rockhampton’s congregation as they pray for the women of Kiribati; families from Glebe Road as they gather to fundraise for health clinics in Timor Leste.
Start now with a gift from UnitingWorld’s Everything in Common catalogue—a pig, some chickens, leadership training. You’re investing in a community of God’s people with a genuine vision for Christ’s Kingdom come. Challenge your own and other’s expectations of how poverty ends by starting important conversations with friends and family.
But don’t stop there. You can follow the progress of your gift throughout the year by signing up to our update or becoming a regular giver. Pray for our partners, as they pray for us. Challenge your understanding of the issues they face—from drought and disaster to gender violence—and learn from their strengths.
God’s kingdom comes when we go beyond expectations—of who we’re called to serve and how; of where God is found; of what part we play. Go beyond by taking the first step.
To find out more, visit everythingincommon.com.au