01 September 2010
Christians are making a difference on important issues that affect society. Hazel Southam speaks with four campaigners who explain why they take action...
On 10 October , some 100 million Christians are expected to pray a global prayer for the end of world poverty. Around 10 million of them will be making promises to stand with the poor - anything from buying Fair Trade food to banking ethically. Micah Challenge, the event's organiser, hopes that a thousand politicians around the world will be impacted by the campaign.
This is the face of modern-day campaigning: bringing together action, lifestyle and prayer.
The old face of campaigning simply as a tub-thumping rally has changed. Today, you don't have to take to the streets and march if you don't want to. You can email your MP during lunchtime, run an event in your village or town, or simply decide to alter your shopping habits.
But along with making a difference to your cause, taking action can affect your life. Four campaigners tell me their stories.
Zoe Uffindell, age 18, is studying geography at Oxford University. She chose the course as a direct result of a school trip to Botswana and Zambia two years ago, where the students helped build two homes for women whose families had been ravaged by Aids.
"It felt really amazing," she recalls. "At the beginning there were two twigs and a piece of string. And at the end there was a house. It was very moving because this woman had her own house to live in and didn't have to depend on anyone else."
For Zoe, it was a vivid demonstration of how practical actions can help change a life. "That made me want to pursue international development and study geography, which I am doing," she says. And she has also continued to campaign. First, she demonstrated at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009 with Christian development agency Tearfund. More recently, she gave a talk on poverty to her Christian Union, after which the members clubbed together to sponsor a child.
Attending the Copenhagen summit was an eye-opener for Zoe. "It was the first march I'd ever been on," she says. "It was amazing to see all the flags and see where everyone was from. Afterwards we felt despondent, but we met up with the 24/7 prayer team and sat around and prayed about the decisions that were being made. That was the best thing that we could have done.
"I have never seen abject poverty, but I've heard about it. In a world where some people have so much, it seems wrong that others can have so little and nothing seems to be done about it."
On the other side of the world, Katie Ahmad has been holding birthday parties at her church in Melbourne to raise awareness of child mortality. Katie wanted to let her congregation know that some 8.8 million children will die before their 5th birthday this year, so she held several parties complete with birthday cakes.
"As a representation of the many children in the world who will not enjoy birthday number 5, two 5-year-olds came onto the stage to blow out the candles as we sang Happy Birthday to them," she says.
"Currently, within the Australian government's overseas aid budget, one in every six dollars goes to healthcare. Our congregation wrote messages in around 600 birthday cards requesting that the government increase this figure to one in every four dollars in the 2011-2012 budget. The following week a delegation of us met with Mark Dreyfus, our local MP. We delivered the cards to him personally, so that he could then pass them on to Stephen Smith, our current Minister for Foreign Affairs."
Katie had been nervous about even emailing Dreyfus, but in person found him sympathetic to the cause. "Another encouraging thing for me was to witness the pleasure of those who came along in the group who had not met an MP in this manner before," she says. "One young person commented on how encouraging and empowering she found the whole experience."
Retired university lecturer Dr Tony McCaffry, age 68, has helped run a trade justice group in his home village of Ashtead since the 1990s, with around a dozen people meeting each month. But the group has a wider impact through lobbying local MP Chris Grayling on issues of concern.
Conscious that others have little time to campaign but want to be involved, the Ashtead group is set to launch an email update for hundreds of local people in September. It will highlight three campaigns each month, enabling people who are busy with families and work to get involved.
Recently, they took up the issue of illegal logging, which was then passing through the European Parliament and had been highlighted in a campaign by Christian development agency Progressio. As a result, the European Parliament passed a law banning the sale of illegally logged timber, going some way to protecting the world's remaining forests - people, flora and fauna.
"I bump into Chris Grayling regularly in the village," Tony says. "It's about building up relationships and thanking people [MPs and MEPs] for their response." Over the years, the group has grown in confidence and is definitely "more persistent now" according to Tony.
"With a Christian-faith understanding, campaigning doesn't feel like an optional extra," he says. "Campaigning isn't a minority interest; it's a real mainstream thing now. I'm learning who my neighbour is all the time - that's an important aspect for me. People shouldn't be dying of starvation and little kids dying of malaria.
As a Christian, we believe that God's view is loving, so we should have a loving view of the world."
A risky campaign
Sending emails, writing letters, even going on a march can be enjoyable for many of us. But some campaigners find themselves faced with prison sentences because they stood up for a cause that was dear to their heart.
This was the situation confronting Patricia Pulham, now 72. Back in the early 1980s, this mother of seven, who was also a foster parent, was deeply concerned about the world in which her children were growing up. The threat of nuclear war worried her and so she joined Christian CND.
"I tried so hard to give the children a good life," she recalls, "but at that time people really felt that they were in danger of obliteration. There was a real, real anxiety. That took me to protest. It was as if I was protecting my children."
Her first experience was protesting at Greenham Common, an American air base in Berkshire where cruise missiles were stored. It was the centre of anti-nuclear protests for many years.
A committed Christian, Patricia says that this felt like a calling. "My faith was very important to me. I really felt called at that time to do something very definite for what I believed the Gospel said about peace," she says. "My motives were very religious. I was convinced it was right."
With the backing of her husband and family, she chose direct action - in this case, sitting in the road - and was arrested by the police. A series of arrests led to fines that Patricia refused to pay. This led to prison, and she served a total of seven or eight months over many short sentences.
"I was praying as I took action," she says, "but the sentences also felt sacramental. I was very, very frightened the first time. I was frightened of the other prisoners. But I met people who had had a raw deal and I found kindness and support in the other women." But there was violence too, resulting in Patricia being attacked for trying to protect another inmate from a beating.
Today, Patricia is still active but restricts her campaigning to meetings with MPs, bishops and embassies. "It's still important to my faith," she says. "It's the way that I respond to the Gospel. When you think of God's creation and anything that damages that creation, well, that must be an act of blasphemy."
"This year Micah Challenge wants to change the world through millions of tiny promises," says Micah's Andy Clasper. "We believe that the poor of our world are being forgotten, so we are asking people to commit to remember them." And with the big day on 10 October fast approaching, people are already signing up, pledging their support in different ways.
"I promise to consider more what the impact of every purchase I make will be on those most in need," says John Robertson from Biggleswade.
"I promise to live with more an awareness to the issues surrounding poverty, to pray with more passion and empathy for those suffering in poverty and to believe that, no matter what, we can make a difference," says Rebecca Walton from Christchurch.
"I promise to care for the poor by acting justly, showing mercy, walking humbly before God and encouraging others to do the same," says Trevor Miles of St Albans, echoing the core theme of Micah 6.8.
- Make your promise to the poor at: whatsyourpromise.org.uk