Pope Francis

I am not Catholic, nor do I have any great affection for the Church as a powerful institution. And yet, I, like many others, find myself fascinated by the new pope. Elected just over one year ago, Pope Francis has been making headlines as a radical and progressive figure.

From day one, it was clear that Francis’ papacy would be different. Choosing to be named after Francis of Assisi, the new pope clearly wanted to show a new face of the Church – a face of the poor. Francis of Assisi, who gave up his wealth for poverty, is a striking example of simple living and the acceptance of all.

Pope Francis takes this simplicity to heart, ditching the papal Mercedes in favour of a 1984 Renault 4. He also dresses more simply than his predecessors and lives in a guesthouse instead of the more luxurious papal apartments.

The pope also made news by, for the first time, including women in a Holy Thursday ceremony. The ceremony’s location – a prison – was also a first. There, he washed the feet of 12 men and women, two of whom were Muslim. In a different visit to Muslim migrants who had illegally landed in Italy, Pope Francis showed his compassion, saying, “We are a society that has forgotten how to cry.”

His inclusiveness, his humility, and his unrelenting championing of the poor have given him universal appeal, from Catholic to non-Catholic and from believer to non-believer. But it is perhaps Francis’ input into economics where he will have his biggest impact.

He is an outspoken critic of unchecked capitalism, calling it a tyranny that results in the cult of money. It is not that money is wrong; money is, after all, inherently neutral. But it is the idolatry of money that is wrong – something brought about in capitalist economies. Furthermore, Francis recognizes how unchecked capitalism results in huge disparities of wealth. Critics, such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, have pounced, calling Francis’ concern over income inequality “Marxist.” If you’re upsetting the likes of Rush Limbaugh, you’re probably doing something right.

Pope Francis has made the rich uncomfortable, calling into question the morality of living so lavishly while others cannot afford to eat. And yet he, unlike anyone else, might be best able to enact political change. In Washington, conservative leaders have taken Francis’ words seriously. Newt Gingrich said that the pope “may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation.” While the Church has been a traditional ally of conservatives, Francis’ downplaying of divisive social issues and prioritizing of social justice may play an important role in making the GOP more tolerant.

While Vatican talk of humility and service to the poor has often been met with accusations of hypocrisy, one cannot help but feel a sense of sincerity emanating from Pope Francis. Despite the power and wealth of the Holy See, here is a pope who reportedly sneaks out at night to minister to Rome’s homeless community. He does not want to change the Church into something it is not; Francis is simply re-orienting it more closely to Christ-centred teaching. Gay marriage should not be the world’s top priority, but the economic needs of all people should be.

When you really stop to think about it, Francis’ appeal is simple: he is acting in the likeness of Jesus. It is infectious, and should be a model for every Christian. At the end of the day, Francis is only human. But better than any pope before him, Pope Francis is giving the world an insight into the heart of Jesus. Which leaves me with a very basic conclusion: if you like Pope Francis, you’ll really love Jesus.

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Discovering Rural India

Originally posted January 6, 2013 in Red Letter Christians.

recently wrote about my experience in starting a non-profit organization dedicated to poverty alleviation. That blog post described the why and a bit of the how of thisvillage, but what I’d really like to do is describe the specifics of what we’ll be doing.

thisvillage focuses on one village at a time. We collaborate with that particular village in order to establish effective and long-term poverty reduction tools, such as clean water and literacy training. We feel that poverty alleviation can only be effective if we have a relationship with the people and if they take ownership of the projects.

In September, myself and the three other founders of thisvillage traveled to Andhra Pradesh, India to meet with our partner organization and to find a village that desired to work with us. What we discovered was much more than that. We discovered a country and a people awash in poverty, but also hope. Simplicity, but also joy. Need, but also satisfaction.

When we arrived in each village, we were welcomed with great joy by the people there. This was with us coming as mere visitors, not as an NGO offering any assistance. Everyone was just happy to meet us, to show us their homes and to have us take their picture.

We met one woman named Raman who, at age 25, has already been married for a decade. A few years ago, Raman’s husband was electrocuted and left unable to work. With no money coming in and with debt from the medical treatment, Raman, her husband and their two kids struggled to survive.

Unlike Western countries, there is no safety net for people like Raman who live in rural India. Poverty is ultimately about a lack of choices, and Raman was left with none. Miraculously, our partner organization in Andhra Pradesh was able to provide Raman with a microcredit loan that she used to purchase a buffalo, which is now a source of income. Raman was very proud to show us her one-room home and her children who are doing quite well in school. Raman could still benefit from greater assistance, but her story exemplifies how just a little help – especially for women – can go a long way in rural India.

We also had the privilege of meeting with a group of about 50 widows. In India, widows are considered bad luck and are ostracized from their respective communities. And, unfortunately, widows are all too common in the part of Andhra Pradesh that we visited. In fact, the area we were in is the farmer suicide capital of India. This is due to the fact that farmers were encouraged by companies to use pesticides in order to increase crop yields. Crops eventually became dependent on the pesticides and companies started raising their price. Farmers borrowed money in order to pay for the pesticides, and there was no real hope of ever paying those debts off. Farmers then turned to suicide in light of crushing debt and no options.

Not all of their husbands died of suicide, but all widows we met had to deal with ostracism of some variety. They weren’t even allowed to attend their own daughters’ weddings. And, if being rejected by most of their community wasn’t a difficult enough obstacle in finding work, most widows are also illiterate.

thisvillage will work to address the root of the suicide problem by introducing farmers to organic farming. More than this, however, we will work with the widows to ensure that they can grow in confidence, education and practical skills. There is nowhere for these widows to turn if not for the work done by a handful of NGOs. By meeting as a group and talking about their struggles, the women are able to grow in confidence. And by being given some education and loans, the women are able to make money, ensuring that their kids go to school and that the cycle of poverty does not continue into the next generation.

In meeting with a group of orphans, we encountered a similar theme. Despite being left with no one to take care of them, the joy and hope of these kids was difficult to fully comprehend. From a Western perspective that values money, career and possessions, it didn’t quite make sense how someone lacking in all three could possibly be so full of life. And yet, this only motivated me more to help a people who have been wronged. To provide some semblance of justice in a place teeming with injustice. To give people with no money, no food and no jobs some necessities and some opportunity.

It is heart-wrenching to see people sleeping on the side of the road, sifting through garbage and being sold into modern-day slavery. But more than that, it is motivation to heed the call of Jesus. By no choice of our own, myself and most people reading this post were born into a country of wealth and opportunity. We were able to acquire everything needed for survival and more. We have thus been provided with an opportunity to do as Jesus wanted and help the poor and broken. India is a country that desperately needs the love and care of Jesus. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.

“The poor you will always have with you”

In trying to explain to other Christians why I believe that helping the poor is extremely important, I have occasionally been (somehow) debated and disagreed with. The one verse that is thrown at me is Matthew 26:11/Mark 14:7/John 12:8.

“For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11, ESV).

Supposedly, this is an argument in favour of not doing anything to help the poor. A crude interpretation of Jesus’ sentence here leads some people to believe that there will always be poor people; therefore, helping them is ultimately fruitless. Since there will always be people in poverty, what’s the point of trying to do anything? Apparently we can never eradicate this problem.

First of all, it’s a weak moral argument. Since we can’t eliminate all homicides, should we not have any laws and enforcement that reduces homicides? Secondly, and most importantly, this isn’t what Jesus is trying to convey here. The verse needs to be understood in context.

The verse occurs two days before Jesus’ crucifixion. He was at a party when a woman (Mary in the John version) takes perfume and “poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3). (In the Matthew and Mark accounts, the perfume is poured on Jesus’ head.) Some people called this a waste, saying that the perfume could be sold and the money used to help the poor.

First, the person getting indignant (Judas Iscariot in the John version) “did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief” (John 12:6). Second, the perfume was already intended to be used on the day of Jesus’ burial (John 12:7). Third, and more to the point, Jesus was simply saying here that there will be time after his death to serve him by serving the poor. But he would only physically be there for two more days, so it is understandable to want to serve him that way while there is still time.

The end of the verse is quite important. People will often just refer to the part that says “The poor you will always have with you,” but we need to remember that that’s not the end of the sentence. Jesus continues, “…but you will not always have me.” In other words, you can serve me forever by helping the least among you, but for now it is okay that this woman chose to do something for me, the person. And it is this kind of compassion and kindness that is necessary if we’re going to tackle poverty. So instead of being an argument in favour of not helping the poor (which is an absurd argument by any Christian who claims to follow Jesus), it is actually just another argument in helping the poor. Serve me after my death, Jesus says, by helping the poor.

Working With the Poor, One Village at a Time

Originally posted November 4, 2012 in Red Letter Christians.

At a certain point in my life, I came to realize that being a Christian was more complicated than showing up to church on Sunday and changing the channel during the love scenes on Friends. It actually involves doing stuff.

If I actually believe what Jesus said and if I actually commit to following him, it seems to me that I should want to live differently than people who don’t share this conviction. As James reminds us, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

So partly through a rebellion at the church establishment that I saw (and still do) as selfish and misguided, and partly through some actual good intentions, I slowly decided that my efforts should be focused on assisting the global poor.

The route that these efforts have taken has been seemingly directionless – internships with NGOs, work stints with the Canadian government, a Master’s degree and bouts of unemployment. The economy has not cooperated, and I found that getting into development work at this time is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish.

Since no one wanted to hire us, a flood of optimism and naivety led myself and three friends to start our own organization called thisvillage. We started thisvillage at a time when non-profit funding was hard to come by and when other well-intentioned organizations were struggling with their finances. However, I felt as though I had the ability to actually make a difference and that it was time to stop talking and waiting for future opportunities. At 26 years old I still felt as though I was always working towards something, always waiting for the future. Jesus was not much older when he was crucified.

The aim of thisvillage is to reduce poverty in one village at a time. First, we establish a relationship with a village and ensure that they desire to work with us. Together with the village, we then establish what it is that the people need in order to move out of poverty. Each village’s specific needs will be different, but typical projects might include water sanitation, building toilets, children’s education and women’s literacy. In order to make projects such as toilets sustainable in the long-term, we require some financial input from the villagers and we provide training so that everything built can be operated and maintained well into the future. It is only once both we and the village feel as though the necessary poverty reduction tools are in place that we will move to work in the next village.

Living out one’s faith and heeding the call of Jesus will look differently for all of us. Not everyone should start a non-profit organization. But all of us, if we’re serious about being disciples of Jesus, must agree on the importance of helping the poor and the broken. My particular journey has led me to found thisvillage, which I hope others will support so that it can become a truly effective means of addressing poverty around the world.

The Rhetoric of “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice” (Guest Post)

Once upon a time, I was an undergraduate student. My last time in a university classroom was in spring of 2009. That being said, I stumbled upon an interesting file the other day–a copy of my final paper for my Engendered History class. It was one of those “you can write about whatever you want as long as it makes sense” papers, and, for a somewhat ambiguous reason, I thought it best/most interesting to write about the pro-life/pro-choice movements.

When I was in high school, I remember being tearfully upset about a similar topic; fleeing my sparsely-populated English classroom because someone failed to understand how significant the topic of abortion was for me: a Christian, adopted woman. In a previous year, I had emerged the ethical, victorious ninth-grader in a “yay or nay abortion” debate. In all these developing teenage years of mine, I was most adamantly and certainly pro-life.

Now this isn’t going to be about how I had some life-altering circumstances or conversations, and now–lo and behold!–I’m pro-choice. Let’s make that abundantly clear. When I wrote that paper in undergrad, with the sole intention of writing about how things changed post-Roe v. Wade from a historical/cultural perspective, somewhere along the way, in the midst of the infinite books I was reading from dusk until dawn, I realized things didn’t make sense. I realized that, if both sides of this big ol’ argument care about women, and about babies, that being divisive was the least helpful thing in the universe. That the rhetoric of saying one is “pro-life” or “pro-choice” is far too messy to solve any problems.

The annual March for Life was a few weeks ago. I heard it (including the annoyingly-looped emotional music) from my office window. And, as much as I am one hundred percent for democracy, and the right to express one’s opinion, I don’t think the March for Life will solve any problems. In fact, I think events like the March for Life create problems. I realize by saying this I will likely have a lot of pro-life Christians beating down my electronic door, but hear me out on this one.

If being pro-life (and, in the case I’m talking about, also being a Christian) fundamentally boils down to loving people because they’re created in God’s image, how does a protest of abortion help? Because our society is abundantly aware of the issue of abortion–in fact, abortion is a very well-known “issue” in politics–it doesn’t need more awareness. And because if I’m a woman and I’m thinking about having an abortion, seeing thousands of people protesting that choice isn’t going to change my not wanting a baby. It’s certainly going to make me feel guilty, and shamed, but seeing that many people don’t support abortion doesn’t make keeping a baby or giving a baby up for adoption any easier, or more logical for that matter.

In a perfect world, there would be absolutely no abortion. This is something I dream of. In the mean time, however, let’s be real: women still have abortions. People are still adamantly “pro-life” or “pro-choice” or screaming their opinion into a megaphone. But here’s what I propose: what if everyone (meaning everyone, on both of sides of the divide) focused their energy into something positive. And I don’t mean in the “every pregnant woman keeping their baby” sort of way, or in the “abortion liberates me as a woman” sort of way. These aren’t positive. If everyone focused their energy into teaching women about healthy relationships, and providing job support and stability, and making health care (and thus contraceptives) accessible and affordable, and generally loving on everyone who may or may not end up having a baby or an abortion… I think that things would be a lot better.