Paul Keenan reports on a Christian charity helping those in need to help themselves
If there is an illustration that best serves the guiding principles of the Tearfund charity, it is offered from the personal experience of their CEO, Reuben Coulter.
Just returned from Malawi, where he was overseeing ongoing Tearfund projects, Reuben attended a church service with local community members and was present as the collection was gathered from the congregation.
”This was like nothing you would see back home,” Reuben explains, ”someone offered a bar of soap, another a pair of socks, someone else a single egg. It was moving to witness people with next to nothing giving whatever they could for others.”
Inspiring as the image is, however, it touches on something much deeper and confirms for Reuben and his Dublin-based team the value of their labours.
”Here were people not waiting to be helped,” he explains, ”but helping themselves as much as they can.”
The converging elements of people working to help themselves and doing so through the church at the heart of their community are precisely the principles by which Tearfund has been doing its work over the last 40 years.
First launched in Britain, the charity later – in 2008 – established a dedicated base in Ireland to better reach those supporters who remain supportive of Tearfund’s Christian ethos and outreach through the mainstay of any Christian community, its local church.
Again, Reuben explains the thinking from his own experience, this time in Liberia.
”The war had just ended and people who had been in camps for up to 30 years were told to go home and rebuild. But in many cases the jungle had grown up around their villages.
”Over time, well-meaning agencies would come to help, but they would decide themselves what was needed and might, for example, construct a water pump. The result was conflict between different groups claiming ownership of the one pump within the community.”
”Tearfund tried to turn the approach on its head. We said ‘we won’t give you anything, you tell us your vision’. Then, through an initiative by which pictures of specific ideas of how the community should look were drawn, commonalities were identified and discussed, bringing broad agreement on those projects worth backing.
”After this, Tearfund engaged in leadership training so villagers became the masters of their destinies, confident enough to guide the rebuild themselves.”
In all of this, Reuben points out, it was most often the local church leaders who acted as the peacemakers in the entire process. ”They are the ones who retained trust throughout Liberia’s troubles when others had lost it.”
He concedes that this approach ”took longer to get end results” but points to the fact that Tearfund projects have flourished and are enduring.
Simultaneously, he says, people saw this care and attention for their welfare coming through their churches, and they warmed to this, so faith was renewed as a result. In addition to the willingness to help others demonstrated through Reuben’s anecdote, he adds that it also led to such things as a recognition of the importance of forgiveness, especially after a period of conflict.
The Tearfund formula has, most recently, been mapped onto the African nation of Malawi, where the battle is less of a traditional battlefield conflict and more the war against HIV/AIDS.
”They call it the slim disease,” Reuben explains of the virus that has ravaged the country since the 1980s.
In this, Reuben is keen to stress that the toll has not merely been in physical terms (which cannot be minimised) but societal also, presenting Tearfund with a serious challenge in the early days on the ground.
”Sufferers routinely found themselves isolated from family and community, and even their church, and persecuted and stigmatised for their condition,” he explains, relating the tale of one woman, whose family, on learning of her condition, set fire to her home to drive her out. ”It’s not the disease that kills,” the same woman told him, ”but the loneliness.”
Again, it was through local churches that Tearfund formulated its response.
”Meeting with church leaders, the charity tapped into a text common to all for its message,” Reuben says, ”the Bible.
”We used the example of leprosy from the time of Jesus by way of reminding pastors and ministers that Jesus, the man whose example they followed, moved among such outcast people, befriended them, lived with them. This served as a real eye-opener.”
(Reuben explains that from tales of house burning to drive sufferers away, today some 82 per cent of Malawians say they are willing to accept someone with HIV living in their family.)
Such valuable lessons, coupled with education on the nature of HIV/AIDS has also meant a plummeting of rates of the disease. In this, Reuben cites the story of the Rev. Harold, a church leader in Chitera, in the rural south.
”He told me the community was exhausted from attending the funerals of AIDS victims,” Reuben says, ”and people were existing in a constant state of grief. Today, the same community has had one burial for an AIDS victim in the last six months.”
Behind this dramatic turnaround, Reuben says, are various elements which feed into the church network already cultivated by Tearfund.
Part of this is the new availability of affordable retroviral drugs for patients — which alone is not a solution given the difficulty of transporting the necessary medication from urban Malawi to patients dispersed widely in far-flung rural regions.
Here, the church network has been invaluable. Tearfund’s training of local volunteers, together with education courses for sufferers in terms of nutrition and offsetting a fear of the drugs’ side-effects, all presented through local churches, has been immensely successful.
Such success has not gone unnoticed. Tearfund has lately secured funding from the Irish Government towards reducing the incidence of HIV transmission from mother to child, a significant initiative in a country with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
”We have received 73pc of that overall cost from the Government, now we are fundraising for the remaining 27pc,” Reuben reveals.
Towards this, Tearfund is currently preparing its Lenten packs for those over 150 churches already involved with its Connected Church initiative, a project which sees Irish faith communities ‘twinned’ with those in Malawi towards focused fundraising and awareness drives.
Meanwhile, as the Lenten work continues, Reuben is preparing to return to Malawi in February to meet local volunteers and to view the latest progress, all no doubt in the light of a favourite Psalm (27:13) in Tearfund’s literature: ”I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
To donate to Tearfund or to learn more about its work, visit www.tearfund.ie