Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Honour and Respect - a light that shines

Philip Clarke shared these thoughts with us during our Harvest Service on Sunday, 26th September. The Congregational Federation has entered into a partnership through Christian Aid with Oné Respé, a project working in the Dominican Republic. Philip Clarke, from Southam Congregational Church, joine a small group of people from CF churches who visited the Dominican Republic and the Oné Resé project last November.

Picture the scene:-

· Sitting in a service on a November evening – dark outside
· Service taking place in a large room beside the school – about 50 people there
· Service being led by members of the local community, all of whom live close to the school
· Worship involves hymns, Bible reading (Zaccheus), prayers (including Lords Prayer and open prayers from the congregation giving thanks to God for their many blessings), an address
· Music group accompanying the singing
· Refreshments (tea and cake) afterwards

So far so normal. Probably been to service similar to that – maybe many times.
But let me fill in a little more of the colour:-

· Maybe dark on this November evening – but still over 30˚c
· Room has wooden strips on walls with gaps to let some welcome cool air come through building – also, no glass in windows. Tin roof.
· 50 people seeing by light of one (energy efficient!) light bulb and three small candles floating in a bowl
· Music group were a Caribbean rhythm section – no guitars or keyboards!
· All in Spanish
· Me and my small group of friends are the only white people in the room
· Refreshments afterwards are delicious – but unlike any tea and cake I have ever had at home

I am, of course, along way from home - in Dominican Republic as part of group from the CF and Christian Aid visiting the project that we in the CF have been supporting over the last 2½ years.

At the heart of the service was a paradox, and the paradox was this. There were elements of the service that we found quite alien to our experience (heat, language, lack of light, the music). These would have been totally normal and everyday to our hosts. Paradoxically, however, those things which we found familiar (the fact they were holding a service at all, the leadership from local people) were the most unusual and striking and exciting to the local people.

The story behind the service, and the reason we could all gather on that hot November evening, is really the story of One Respe. Service gives us a snapshot, a microcosm, of what OR has been doing in the Dominican Republic and why we are now supporting it.

The story of OR is the story of a divided country.

· Country of great beauty and natural diversity (holiday destination) but also squalor and ugliness
· Some live in wealth but 44% live below the poverty line – 2nd poorest country in the Caribbean.
· Some benefit from access to education, housing and health facilities, but many do not
· IMPORTANTLY, a country whose people are rightly understood as happy and welcoming, but through whom runs a deep vein of racism.

As you know, the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with a smaller and much poorer country – Haiti. Events of last few months following earthquake on 12/1/10 are well known. What is less well understood over here is that tensions between the relatively poor DR and desperately poor Haiti go back centuries.

Relationships difficult between two countries ever since colonial era – 200 years ago, but they have become even stronger over last century as the DR has tried to lift itself out of poverty through agriculture and tourism, whilst Haiti has continued to wallow as one of the poorest countries in the world.

Economic migration into the DR is well established. Initially welcomed by Gov’t – Haitians doing agricultural hobs that Dominicans didn’t want to do. Many lived on plantations in bateyes.

Urban migration more recent. Bought two nations face to face. Competing for work. Has led to major hostility between the two peoples; mistrust & prejudice. Seen in institutional racism: difficult for Haitians and those of mixed descent to access health, education and other services.

Result = communities marginalised – socially, politically, economically and physically.
· Often the most poor
· Often live at the margins of society – squatter settlements on land nobody else wants – for good reason.
· Can’t access health facilities or basic education
· Nobody to bring them together as a community / represent them / give them a community voice.

We tend to think of poverty in absolute terms – basics of life: food, water, shelter. But poverty, real poverty, is about more than this. Imagine what it would be like for us to be at the margins of society like this. Who would give us the tools and the confidence to lift ourselves out of poverty? Who would speak up for us?

Introduce Catuxo Badillo. Late 60’s. Born in Santiago. Travelled in Europe. Saw ideals of student movements in 1960s. What could he do in his own community? His response was One Respe. Over years, OR has worked alongside these marginalised Haitian and Dominico-Haitian communities to:-

· Bring communities together. Give them a place to meet and a voice
· Educate the children - have set up “little schools” – basic education up to age 13.
· Train and encourage local people to become community leaders.
· Train “health promoters” to work alongside local people to help people access medical care (often provided by other charities), and to provide support to people with long term illnesses
· Educate people in basic healthcare issues, such as HIV/Aids.
· Social skills training – “new masculinity” project.

Christian Aid has partnered OR since 1990, and the CF is partnering Christian Aid between 2008 and 2011 to support the work of OR in both Santiago and in Haina near Santo Domingo.

Today is Harvest Sunday when we give thanks for all the good things we enjoy (and maybe take for granted) and we remember those who can’t share the rich abundance that we enjoy. Also, a chance to think about our harvest. What would we offer to each other and to God as our harvest offering?

Just as we do when we think of poverty, we tend to focus on material things when we think of our harvest. We think of food, water, warmth and shelter. But surely, our harvest offering can and should be viewed as our total offering to God. What we do with our talents, resources and time to see God’s kingdom in our world.

In the work of OR, we saw the fruits of an abundant harvest:-

· People coming together as a community and having the confidence to grow
· People supporting each other in times of need.
· People filling the gaps where wider society has let them down – educating children
· Financial, emotional and prayer support from CA and directly from us within the CF supporting and enabling this work.

Why did I choose the story of Zacchaeus? Used at OR but also for another reason. Story of Zacchaeus is story of someone who, in this case through his own actions, became marginalised from his own community. We aren’t told why he went up that tree to see Jesus but we know he wanted to, and we know something of the immediate impact that meeting Jesus had on his life. I would love to know what happened to Zacchaeus after this story, but I would like to imagine that his life changed permanently and for the better. I would hope that his meeting with Jesus really was a turning point in his life and the catalyst to him re-engaging with his community and ceasing to be marginalised from it. Jesus helped him to re-connect with people round him, and in so doing change his life for good.

We should be careful before trying to draw too many parallels between Zacchaeus and the marginalised communities in the DR. Zacchaeus was rich, and he (we assume) brought his problems on himself. Neither is the case for marginalised communities within the DR. But maybe OR is fulfilling the role that Jesus filled in Zacchaeus’s life – showing him the way, and giving him the confidence, to find his place in his community and in wider society.

In closing, I would like to return to that hot schoolroom in Santiago and to the service. Haven’t yet mentioned the most surprising aspect of the service.

· OR suggested that the people should hold a service
· Supported – but could you provide a priest to lead the worship?
· No said OR – lead it yourselves.

Most remarkable feature of the service was that it was led by the people themselves, and particularly by the women. What a wonderful mark of their growing maturity and confidence as a community that they can do this, and praise God in their own way and very much in their own voices. This has been possible directly because of the support from OR. Can I just ask that today, for the rest of this partnership with Christian Aid, and into the future, we all continue to uphold these people, and the work they do, in out thoughts and prayers.

Can I leave you with a quotation from somebody we met in Santiago. Her name is Milagros Frias, and she is a teacher at the One Respe school in Los Perez in Santiago that we visited. She said:-

“Onè Respé is like a light. To imagine these communities without Onè Respé would be like they have lost a guiding light.”


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