TEAM: Speakers set MDGs in theological context

Shetty, Wangusa, de Gruchy urge active role by church in eradicating poverty
March 8, 2007

Participants in the Towards Effective Anglican Mission (TEAM) conference, meeting in Boksburg, South Africa, heard two speakers on March 9 say the churches of the Anglican Communion are uniquely positioned to work for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS).

Churches are one of the few organizations that get in touch with their constituencies every week, said Salil Shetty, director of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals campaign.

Helen Wangusa, the Anglican Observer at the United Nations, said in her response to Shetty's presentation that Anglicanism's theological emphasis on the incarnation and the importance of embodiment fits well with the MDGs' concern about people's physical well-being.

Later in the day, Steve de Gruchy, who teaches at the School of Religion and Theology at University of KwaZulu-Natal, told the conference that ‘rich companies, rich people, rich nations and, I have to say, rich churches stand in judgment against us" when contrasted with the extreme poverty in the world.

Shetty told the TEAM conference that churches form on-the-ground networks that are in touch with needs at a fundamental level. "You can walk and walk, and at the end of the road, there is a church. You are there," he said.

Yet, Shetty said churches often underestimate their strength and said that the moral force of faith communities must be brought to bear on what he called a "series of interlocking crises."

Those crises include, he said, a "crisis of security" at all levels, not just the search for peace in the world but peace for individuals in their own lives. Then there is the "crisis of intolerance," both of Christians for Muslims and Muslims for Christians, as well as a general "crisis of respect for diversity." The "crisis of representative democracy" has arisen because people have not seen the benefits of such a governing system and thus have become skeptical of government in general.

Finally, there is the "crisis of poverty and inequality," he said, reminding listeners that 50,000 people would die of hunger that day, many of them children, and that 1 billion people live without sanitation, and 120,000 million children have no access to education and many others are poorly educated.

"The greatest weapon of mass destruction is staring us in the face," Shetty said, calling poverty a "fundamental denial of human rights."

Yet, "the world has never seen so much prosperity," he said. Shetty noted that Fortune magazine had announced March 9 that there are now 946 billionaires in the world, more than ever before, who hold $3.6 trillion in wealth.

Shetty said the MDGs are a good framework for dealing with the interlocking crises he described. First, they make a compact between rich and poor nations, and establish expectations for each group. Rich nations must be accountable for not just how much aid they give, but the kind of aid that it is and what they expect in return. Poor nations, he said, must look for resources on their own in addition to receiving aid.

In addition, poor nations must "become more accountable to our own people," Shetty said. Leaders of all nations need to be more accountable, he argued, saying that they are "experts at signing documents at the UN" and then forgetting what they have promised to do; promising during political campaigns to work towards the MDGs and then forgetting their promises.

The MDGs have devices in place to monitor and evaluate progress, he said. They are achievable goals and, he said, some countries have made considerable progress towards their achievement. "The idea that it can't be done is empirically untrue," he said.

Wangusa -- who as former United Nations' MDG campaign coordinator in Africa worked with Shetty -- offered the official response to his presentation. She urged the church to go beyond the MDGs' effort to cut abject poverty in half by the year 2015. If half of the world's people who now live in poverty are able to move beyond that state, "we will still have that half of the body still living in poverty and hunger," she said.

"I don't read any passage or parable in the bible where only half were fed," she said.

Noting that when 5,000 people who had been following Jesus all day needed to be fed, some of the apostles wanted to send them home, Wangusa said it is easy to ignore the problems of the world. She added that in the stories of the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus tells the apostles that they will feed them with what they have. People of faith need to first ask what resources they have to bring to bear before they ask other organizations to help.

"As the Communion, we have the fish and the bread," she said.

Wangusa also urged engagement with the poor. "We catch ourselves speaking on behalf of the poor all the time but I wonder if we really know what we are talking about," she said.

And, when people consider the overwhelming statistics about poverty, Wangusa said, "we lose the human faces in those statistics … It's comfortable to talk about statistics because we don't see the faces in those figures."

The Anglican church can bring humanity to the debates about security and continually remind the world of the "scandal of so much wealth within so much abject poverty," she said. Wangusa also called on Anglicans to develop a sound theological basis for their involvement in the MDG campaign so that it cannot be said that "we joined the campaign because it was popular."

The moral and ethical force of the church can be brought to bear in many ways, she said, including challenging governments to "go beyond what they are comfortable with," especially when they announce significant progress towards achieving any of the MDGs. For instance, while MDG #2 calls for access to primary education, Wangusa said the real question to be asked is not how many children are enrolled in school but how many remain until they complete the primary 7 grade, and how many of those children are girls.

De Gruchy, who is an ordained minister in the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, said that if the church has the Gospel to preach to the world at this time "it must be the Good News about how we get out of this mess."

The "mess," he said, is created by an economic system that, in contrast to God's economy, sees everything and everyone on earth as a commodity to be exploited for profit. The world cannot expect to eradicate poverty through that system which, he said, is destroying the earth and making it so that the planet cannot sustain the prospect of raising the poor of the South to the level of the rich North.

"Without the earth, there cannot be a heaven because the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven," de Gruchy said.

The church cannot simply be the "local delivery agent" for current economic development schemes, he said. "We have to be the midwives of hope to the billions of people living in poverty."

De Gruchy outlined four areas where the church can focus on birthing hope. The first is health because, as he explained, Jesus' healing ministry was the way he connected with the poor and gave them hope. "The work of health and healing is the work of hope and resistance," de Gruchy said.

Universal primary education comes close after health in terms of having a "big impact on the lived experience of the poor." Primary education, especially for females, "is one of the most important indicators for a whole range of social goods," including infant mortality and HIV/AIDS infection rates, de Gruchy said.

On a larger scale, people with education develop a "constructive impatience" and they have the ability to interact more with leaders and decision-makers, and thus become "more effective agents in determining the course of history."

The church has always played a role in education but, de Gruchy said, it has taken on an elite status in some parts of the world and has become concerned with the status quo rather than with change and empowerment.

Asset management is a form of hope, he said, in part because it influences people's sense of their own abilities. "You cannot build a community on what people don't have," but so many development programs begin with needs-assessment surveys that emphasize what people lack rather than what resources they do have, he said.

The church needs to realize that when poor people are asked about their assets, the local congregation is one of the things they list. The church has a "powerful role to play in unlocking assets.

Lastly, de Gruchy said, efforts at improving "food sovereignty" are a sign of hope. "Access to adequate food could be considered a development touchstone," he said.

Noting that there is a food surplus in the world that is unequally distributed, de Gruchy said that "more food does not mean less hunger." In addition to large-scale inequalities in distribution, there are issues about how "women and girl children continually get less access to food in certain households." Thus, food sovereignty has to do with who controls food and who profits from that control.

Those who pray to God to "give us this day our daily bread" are recognizing the importance of food for the living out of daily faith, de Gruchy said, and they are proclaiming God's view on the need for adequate food since it was Jesus who taught this prayer to his followers.

Also on March 9, conference participants began a pattern of Eucharist before breakfast and Bible study after, which will last until the last day of the conference when Morning Prayer will begin the day and Eucharist will come just before lunch. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will preach at that Eucharist.

Conference participants spent part of the morning March 9 reflecting on the previous day's speakers. In the afternoon before de Gruchy's address, participants met in series of workshops on the MDGs.

More than 400 people from 30 of the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces are attending the March 7-14 TEAM conference to review the Communion's response to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and how the church can do more as one of the world's largest grassroots development networks. The TEAM conference is in part a follow up to the first-ever pan-Anglican conference on HIV/AIDS, which was hosted by Cape Town Archbishop and Primate Njongonkulu Ndungane in Boksburg in 2001. Ndungane is hosting the TEAM conference.

The conference is also meant to "encourage a prophetic articulation for an Anglican theology which supports witness and action for social justice."

More information about TEAM is available at the conference website. Continuing ENS coverage is available here.