The Cathedral had the pleasure of hosting Christian Aid's International Director Paul Valentin last Sunday.
Read his sermon below - a thoughtful reflection on the Word and an update on the valuable work of Christian Aid in different corners of the world.
Thank you for having me here in Sheffield today at the start of Christian Aid Week.
My day job is international director for Christian Aid. I was born and raised in Holland but have lived in this country for over 20 years and I have spent my entire career in the field of international development and relief.
My training is in tropical agriculture, which often comes in handy when visiting some of our programmes across the world, but on a day like this - I must confess - that it did not quite prepare me for theological reflections. However, what gives me the confidence that I can make a sincere effort, comes from my experience of having regular encounters with the people we seek to support. They have helped me reconnect with my faith through their lives and testimonies. They have taught me to read the bible afresh, through their eyes, and I will do my best to convey some of that here today.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us an insight into what it must have been like in the days, weeks and months following Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection. 120 people gathered in one place; the entire Christian church in the world huddled together. No doubt, they were anxious and fearful. How to continue the work started by Jesus? Only 11 of the 12 chosen disciples remain and Peter sets out the task: “we urgently need to fill the vacancy left by Judas who had betrayed the cause. We need someone who can witness to the life, the works, the death and resurrection of Jesus.” Two men were put forward based on their ability to do just that; they had been present from the time of John’s baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, all the way to Jesus’s death in Jerusalem.
Like in a senior recruitment or a job advert: “we are looking for an exceptional individual with first-hand experience of the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth!”
In the end Matthias was chosen through the drawing of lots.
The ability to witness as a key qualification: “I saw it with my own eyes!”, “I walked with Jesus of Nazareth”, “I witnessed the miracles he performed”, “I know that his crucifixion is not the end of the story”.
St John’s gospel reading links beautifully to this snapshot of the early church. A few weeks earlier Jesus was preparing himself and his followers for his imminent arrest, his suffering and death, and he prays to the Father;
“I have made you known to those you gave me”, “I gave them the message that you gave me, and they received it; they know it is true that I came from you, and they believe that you sent me”. “They are witnesses of your love and I pray for them because the world will not welcome them. “I sent them into the world, just as you sent me into the world”.
The key qualifications haven’t changed in 2000 years: as Christians we are expected to bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and through that we bear witness to God’s love in and for the world. The world hasn’t become a friendlier or more welcome place in all those years; “the world will not welcome them”.
In 1945 the churches in Britain and Ireland came together to interpret that call to witness in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 and Christian Aid has come out of that initiative; an appeal to Christians to bear witness to the transforming power of the love of God in places where human life and dignity are assaulted; where hope is in short supply. That witnessing started in Germany, right after the war, attending to the needs of refugees and displaced people and this was done amidst considerable criticism and resistance; why help the defeated enemy?
73 years later, we are still at it, witnessing through practical support;
In Bangladesh attending to the needs of 70,000 Rohingya refugees in one of the camps where Christian Aid was asked by the UN and the Bangladesh government to take charge of management.
In Kasai, in the Congo, a largely forgotten crisis where an estimated 1.3 million people have been displaced by armed conflict and rights’ violations, where we are supporting internally displaced people with basic food supplies.
In Brazil, working for the rights of black and indigenous communities that have no share in the wealth generated in their country.
This Christian Aid Week we particularly highlight – witness - our work with people affected by displacement, grinding poverty and natural disasters in Haiti and I would like to share a particularly inspiring story. It is the story of a young woman by the name of Vilia.
Vilia and her family lived in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010. Her home was destroyed, and her mother was killed. In the utter desolation of the aftermath of the earthquake Vilia decided to go back to her hometown on the southwest coast of Haiti with her husband and seven children. But life was a struggle, and they had nowhere safe to stay because what originally had been their family home was a mere ruin.
Christian Aid’s local partner KORAL realised how dire the situation was for families like Vilia’s and reached out to help. They approached us and with KORAL we built new homes for the most vulnerable families spread out over a number of communities, Vilia’s family got their home; one safe and strong enough to stand up to natural disasters.
On that terrifying night in 2016 when hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, Vilia’s house was the only one in her community sturdy enough to survive. One by one, her neighbours fled to her house and she welcomed them in. Fifty-four people sheltered safely from the hurricane in Vilia’s house – she potentially saved fifty-four lives that night. She says: “I formed a chain of solidarity so that we could eat together, share with each other and sleep together, until they went back to their own homes, or found a shelter.”
I can’t help but see something of the early church reflected in that situation: “they shared everything they had”.
Vilia is incredibly grateful for the help she’s received, and she’s used her new home to help others. Faced with incredibly difficult challenges, Vilia finds her strength in God; she witnesses: “I stay connected with God: I pray every time something like this happens. You have to put your knees on the ground, pray and call out to God. Only God can do anything in these situations. There’s nothing that our God cannot do.”
Christian Aid Week is an act of Christian Witness. This Christian Aid Week we witness the transforming power of love in Vilia’s life. This transformation was made possible by ordinary people like you who joined together to put faith into action. You did what Jesus prayed for his followers to do. And the beauty of this testimony is that it did not end there; not only is Vilia happy and safe in her new home; the good news is that Vilia knew what she was called to do, and she shared what she had. She welcomed 54 people into her 2-room house thereby saving their lives.
With the funds we hope to collect this Christian Aid Week, we intend to help more families like Vilia’s and build hurricane and earthquake resistant houses for them. The needs are still very high and KORAL has already identified many other vulnerable families like Vilia’s.
Christian Aid Week funds will also underwrite our capacity to work in other places such as the Congo and South Sudan; to be there when crises hit; to be there when the world-at-large turns its back on these places.
And for your continued support and prayers we are immensely grateful.
My witnessing would not be complete if I did not tell you about the generosity that the poor manage to exhibit. Vilia is not an isolated case. In January I visited Bangladesh, still a poor country by any standard, and saw how a poor country found it possible to welcome close to a million refugees within its borders. Of the over 60 million refugees and internally displaced in the world today, a large percentage are sheltered not by the UN or rich countries but by poor countries and poor communities.
Like Matthias we are called to bear witness to this and to the needs in the world. The role profile or job description hasn’t changed in the past 2000 years; witness to the love of God through Jesus.
Christian Aid has no monopoly on that, nor does it imply that we should only care about people far away. In everything we do, in the choices we make, in the way we respect or simply show kindness to others, our lives and actions need to speak for us.
I pray that we’ll all have the courage to stand up in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are in need. It might feel a bit difficult to speak out for people suffering in other countries when there is still so much need closer to home. But we are called by God to love our neighbours near and far, whoever they – and we can make a difference for poor communities like Vilia’s around the world this week. Pray that when ordinary people like us take small acts of courage, compassion and love, then change will happen.
Thank you for your continuing support, may God bless you.
Paul Valentin 13/05/2018