Offering more than prayers

2010-09-15 00:00

WE are a religious city. More than 70% of Pietermaritzburg residents go to church, if the South African average is anything to go by. More than 80% have some religious affiliation. The city hosts transformation prayer meetings regularly. Politicians have frequently invited church leaders to form a religious leaders’ body, and most public meetings begin and end with prayer. We have at least five Christian-based NGOs, and over 70 NGOs altogether, many of which are staffed by people motivated by their Christian faith, including the organisation I work for. But, apart from our stated commitments, our frequent public prayers, the valuable work we do in alleviating poverty, and our occasional comments in the media, what difference do we really make to the causes of poverty and inequality?

While publicists call Pietermaritzburg the City of Choice, more than 50% of residents are living on under $1 a day. Many have never been formally employed and have very little hope of ever finding decent work. Rumours abound about the causes of the council’s dysfunctional leadership and bankruptcy, and the impact on service delivery in the city. Given the links between poverty and other social vulnerabilities, it is not surprising that Pietermaritzburg has the highest incidence of HIV infection in South Africa and South African Police Force sexual offences statistics indicate that our city is one of the most dangerous for women and children.

What does our faith require of us? Where is the church today?

A number of churches do have outreach projects, which collect food parcels, teach sewing or carpentry, or host soup kitchens for orphans. These are necessary and good, and are consistent with the biblical injunction to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. However, while such acts of charity will enable poor people to survive, they will not flourish. The Christian writer, Henri Nouwen, goes so far as to say that giving money or food to beggars may just be a way to avoid having to see them as people, listen to their stories and feel their pain. Helder Camara challenges us further: “When I give to the poor they call me a saint; if I ask why the poor are poor, they call me a communist.” If we do not demand an answer to that question, the transformative promises of the Gospel will remain in the pulpit.

I am one of those Christians who believe that when Jesus told us (Matthew 25: 31-45) that when we feed the hungry, we feed him and when we refuse, we turn him away, He also called us to be outraged when the hungry are turned away. This means that we should follow his example and speak up. The religious leaders of his day were outraged that he should dine with sinners. And his open criticism of the economic and political systems of his day that were based on corruption and exploitation of the poor were surely the last straw that led him to the cross.

We at the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) believe that poverty is a structural sin. It is caused by an economic system that enriches the rich by exploiting the poor. A number of churches are doing great work to alleviate suffering among poor people. But take for example HIV. HIV does not exist in a vacuum. While the church often associates HIV with sexual immorality, it may have more to do with the structural sin of economic inequality. Poor people have fewer choices to earn a livelihood, they are generally less healthy due to malnutrition, and, particularly poor women, have the least power in society to refuse sexual behaviours that make them vulnerable to infection. In turn, a poor family which has a member with Aids spends large parts of its meagre income on transport to medical care and improved nutrition for that person, and the breadwinner (if there is one) may have to stop work to care for him or her. Offering meals to such a family barely touches their realities, and does nothing to break the cycle of grinding intergenerational poverty. The 2008-9 global economic crisis has exposed the need for policy change locally and globally that will deliver a lasting prosperity to our society as a whole, including those who are poor.

And if we believe that Jesus identifies closely with the hungry and the marginalised, then it is the hungry and the marginalised to whom we are called to listen — to risk feeling their pain and desperation. We are called to open up spaces for their voices to be heard. If we don’t do this, we will see more violent protests and loss of life. But much worse, we will have to answer to the God of justice, love and compassion, who told the Israelites generations ago : “Your religious festivals have become a burden to me … even though you make many prayers, I will not listen ... Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1: 11-17).”

Pacsa is hosting the second annual Peter Kerchhoff Forum this week. The city renamed Chapel Street to honour his leadership in challenging the churches to act against apartheid, and his courage to go to sites of conflict and mediate between warring factions — all in the name of Christ. He was vilified and imprisoned in solitary confinement. But he was driven by the God of love and justice: “Since love and justice are inseparable, we believe we have to strive for justice in order to obey Christ’s commandments”.

The new struggle in the 21st century is to end endemic poverty and socioeconomic inequality. What does this mean for people of faith in Pietermaritzburg today? Pacsa invites all to be part of this conversation, on Thursday from 5 pm to 8.30 pm at the AGS Church in Peter Kerchhoff Street. It promises to challenge us to meaningful action.

• Daniela Gennrich is director of Pacsa.

 

What is Pacsa?

PACSA (Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness) is a faith-based NGO that has worked to end injustice and inequality in greater Pietermaritzburg since 1979, and was active in apartheid struggles as well as peace mediation in KwaZulu- Natal. It accompanies local community-based organisations (CBOs) and churches as they work for community-driven development and undertakes evidence-based research and campaigns with community partners to advocate for social and economic transformation. Its programmes focus on participatory democracy, economic justice, gender and HIV/Aids, youth leadership and empowerment, providing organisational development support to CBOs, and advocacy and public policy engagement.

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