Simon Says

img_0101Last week I caught up with Simon Halle, a friend from Ethiopia. Simon is head of the Urban Community Development ministry in the Kale Heywet (The Word is Life) denomination in Ethiopia which has over 7 million members. We were able to chat together about what Northern Irish churches can learn from Ethiopian churches who are flourishing despite challenging economic circumstances.

Kale Heywet Church in Ethiopia, through the department which Simon leads, has supported over 200 congregations to bring help and hope to more than 70,000 people living in poor communities. What they have achieved with support from Tearfund is inspirational. In his own characteristically humble way Simon plays down his role in seeing these changes come about.

Simon says that one of the key features in encouraging the development of a successful ministry to the people in their communities is the involvement of every church member. A key part of their strategy in working with local churches is to engage the whole congregation and not just the leaders in the initiative. It is only as everyone in the church identifies with the ministry and gets involved that the project moves forward. It’s necessary to inspire pastors and elders to start with, but they must pass on the vision to everyone else. That’s a challenge that many Irish church leaders recognise.

I remember some years ago trying to persuade some parents in their 30s and 40s to help out as leaders in our junior youth club on a Saturday night. Their response was not the one I expected. They offered to increase their financial contribution to the congregation so that the church could  hire someone to do the job of youth club leader if I didn’t ask them to forfeit some of their precious Saturday evenings to volunteer themselves. It was easier and more comfortable for them to give more money than to be involved personally.

The challenge of motivating people for hands-on work and ministry is a considerable one, but in a society like Ethiopia where people have no cash to give they are more willing to give of their own time and energy. That’s a lesson we can learn from our African brothers and sisters. Our cash-rich society, relative to Ethiopia, deprives people of the joy and blessing of actually being involved in practical Christian ministry.

Simon also says that since the church has no cash resources to start such ministries, they are dependent on self-help groups and projects to make the difference. Kale Heywet Church, like many Christian groups in developing countries, has made great use of micro-financing schemes among poor people so that they can help each other to improve their situation. By providing small group facilitators, people save small amounts of money, normally no more than the cost of one cup of coffee a day. But by pooling their resources, they can begin to help one another through small loans.

We saw this working in practice when a women in one self-help group in Addis Ababa was able to borrow enough money to buy two griddles so that she could produce injeera bread which she sold to local restaurants and at her own road-side stall. With the income she was able to provide for her own family.

Simon says that the amazing thing is that poor people see these efforts being made to help them in the name of Jesus Christ, they respond positively and hearts are opened to the message of the gospel. Many of them come to believe in Christ and join the local church. Simon says that a church that fails to display the gospel in both word and deed fails to be salt and light in its local community.

tf_web20rgbWe need to believe in what church communities locally and globally can achieve together. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has supported a succession of Kale Heywet Development projects and has recently funded relief programmes for families affected by the drought in East Africa.

Simon says, “The transformation we have seen happen in Ethiopia has astounded us all over the years, but we shall never own it as unique. These community initiatives often start very small, but it’s when we come together and share our insights that we can really see exciting change.”

I am proud to be associated with men like Simon and to see the difference which they are making in the name of Jesus Christ. And we thank God for agencies like Tearfund which enable us to partner with our African brothers and sisters. Tearfund’s ten year vision is to lift 50 million people out of material and spiritual poverty through a worldwide network of 100,000 local churches.