The strength of community life
Given on Sunday 6th June 2010 at The Abbey by Captain Philip Johanson
The tragic events in West Cumbria last Wednesday, leaving twelve people dead and several seriously injured, have brought home to us yet again the fragility of human life. Derrick Bird who was described as ‘a quiet unassuming man’ did what to his friends and the people in the community was s the un-thinkable. He took the most valuable thing that people have – human life itself. A small friendly and peaceful community of around 24,000 people going about its daily business has been left devastated. West Cumbria; still coming to terms with the school bus crash two weeks ago, which left two young people dead, is once again plunged into a state of shock and dis-belief.
Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been bereaved, and those still recovering at home and in hospital. We give thanks for the dedication and skill of the emergency services and the medical profession.
It is strange that on this Sunday, following that tragic event, our Gospel reading should be about the death of the only son of the widow of Nain [Luke 7: 11-17]. Here are two communities separated by two and a half thousand miles and two-thousand years. What do they have to teach us today?
1. We see a community united in grief
We know very little about Nain. It is only mentioned once in the New Testament – here in Luke’s Gospel. It was about six miles south east of Nazareth. It is referred to as a town or a city depending on which Bible translation you read. The Nain of today, which some scholars think is the same place, numbers about 1,500 people. What we do know is that it would have been a fairly close knit community. Whitehaven in West Cumbria is a similar kind of place: a reasonably small, tight-knit community. In such communities all residents are affected by such tragedies in one way or another.
This poor woman in Nain would have been devastated. She was already a widow and now her only son had died. She was now left all alone in the world without a man to protect her and to provide for her. In that part of the world and at that time there would have been very few opportunities for a woman to work. She would have experienced a sense of loneliness and sorrow. Luke tells us that Jesus saw the funeral procession coming out of the town gate. There was a ‘large crowd’: the local community had come out to support and to be with her, a community united in grief.
Later today in Whitehaven another community will gather together for worship in the open air to remember and to support one another. A community united in grief.
My first visit to Uganda, to be with Church Army in that country, was immediately after Idi Amin had been overthrown by Milton Obote. Obote himself was in a precarious position with Museveni, the soon to be President, and his men fast approaching Kampala from the south west. The community, indeed the country, was united in grief.
Every person you came into contact with had lost at least one family member or a friend through the reign of terror carried out by Idi Amin. Indeed entire communities had been wiped out. HIV/Aids was also spreading fast through the country. It was estimated at that time that there was at least 1 million orphans in Uganda.
During the course of my visit I was taken to a school in Kampala with which Church Army was involved. Rose the Headmistress gathered the school together to greet me. We stood outside the school building, which by the way had virtually no resources, facing 500 children between the ages of 5 and 11. Rose said that they wanted to welcome us by singing the school anthem. They began with words which are familiar to us: ‘O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come; our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.’ As they sang, Rose turned to me and said ‘Well over half these children are orphans and are being looked after by members of the local community’. Church Army was involved in such projects and still is today. Caring in Christ’s name for those in need whatever that need might be – The Gospel in action: the Gospel being lived out in community.
We see a community united in grief – In Nain, in Whitehaven, and at that time in Uganda.
2. We see a community united in hope
Hope was not the first word on the lips of those with the widow on Nain as they joined her to bury her only son. However that was to change. When Jesus saw her we are told that his heart went out to her. He said to her ‘don’t cry’, not an obvious thing to say to a person mourning. He said it because he knew what was about to happen. We are told that Jesus touched the coffin and told the young man to get up. The dead man got up and began to talk. This is one of three occasions when Jesus restored life to dead people. The other two people restored to life were Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus. All three of course would eventually die again.
What we can learn from this incident is that Jesus can bring hope into the most hopeless situation. He may not say or do what we expect but he can help us through whatever the situation might be. Likewise in West Cumbria, the community will need time to grieve and, as the local Member of Parliament said, it is a resilient community and they will come through it. Nain or West Cumbria – we see a community united in hope.
Come with me again to East Africa, on this occasion to Kenya and to the edge of Nairobi to a place called Kibera. At one time it was a community united in hopelessness – today it is becoming a community united in hope. Kibera is one of the largest informal settlements in Africa, and some say the world. As far as anyone can tell it is home to over 1 million people. It covers an area of 1.5 square miles – about ¾ the size of Central Park in New York.
Most of these people live in shacks 12 feet by 12 feet, with an average of 10 people living in each shack. There are no toilets and a hole in the ground is used by the people from around 50 shacks. There are two mains water pipes recently installed. Prior to that, water had to be carried from Nairobi. In that situation Church Army Africa has started an adult literacy class for a group of women and a ‘Home Work’ type Club for children. We are running sessions to teach young people basic work skills to enable them to find employment or to start up their own income generating activities.
We are running education classes for young people covering such topics as sex education, building stable relationships and teaching life skills. We are also providing small amounts of money to enable people start some of these small income generating projects. Evidence suggests that if you give money to a woman, she will start up a business and eventually repay the money so that it can be used elsewhere. If you give it to a man – who knows what happens to it!
From Nairobi let us return briefly to Uganda, to Mbale which is 120 miles North East of Kampala. Outside the town you will find the Bunghoko Rural Development Centre. The centre is on land given to Church Army by a Ugandan couple around 15 years ago. The centre provides vocational training for young people, who then return to their own villages where they may be only bread winner in the family. The Centre provides training in carpentry, tailoring, masonry and farming on a small farm which is part of the centre. Over the past couple of years the Centre has been able to dig 12 wells in various communities. Eighteen months ago it provided refuge for over 100 families who had to flee Kenya for safety following the elections in that country.
Two communities in East Africa united in hope – believing that there has to be a better future; discovering the practical outworking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and discovering faith in Jesus Christ. Church Army has planted two churches in Kibera both of which are growing very fast.
In Nain, West Cumbria and in Africa we see a community united in grief and we see a community united in hope.
- We see a community united in support
Luke tells us that ‘A large crowd from the town was with her’ – that is the widow. They had come to be with her and to support her in her time of grief. So it is today in West Cumbria and so it is so often in communities as people support one another in times of grief and tragedy.
In times of crisis and in times of need people often want to visit a church, attend a service or seek out a local Christian. At such times the Church of England is in a unique position. It is often at those times that a caring act or a reassuring word is all that in required. Very often we never know what fruit such actions might bear.
Twenty-one years ago I had the privilege of being in Nairobi to take part in the Commissioning Service of Church Army students from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania who had recently completed their training at the Church Army training college. One of those students was Given Gaula from Tanzania who later married a college friend also from Tanzania, Susan. For several years we remained in contact through the occasional letter, however in recent years we lost contact.
It was a great joy to meet Given and his wife once again during my recent visit to New Zealand. He is working on his PhD at St John’s College Auckland, and had heard that I was in the country and made contact. He shared with me the story of his first appointment, an amazing experience.
On returning to Tanzania after his training, his bishop sent him to live and work in a Muslim community where there was no Christian presence. He had no salary and nowhere to live – a truly missionary situation. For two years Given worked without seeing any apparent fruits of his labours. During this time he met David Pearce from Church Army New Zealand, who was working in the same area. One day they came across a Muslim lady who needed surgery and for this she required blood. David offered to donate blood for the lady and her husband could not understand why. He said; ‘Why would a white person donate blood to a black person? Why would a man donate blood to a woman? Why would a Christian give blood to a Muslim?’ He concluded that David and Given must be working for Allah. They were quick to point out that they were working for Jesus.
The news of this act of service soon spread throughout the community. Given told me that over the next three years he and David were able to plant thirty-seven Christian Churches in that area with many Muslims coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Given and David were united in their support for this woman. This was an act of kindness in itself. It led to people coming to faith in Christ. The initial growth of the church was not primarily through preaching but through an act of service. A community united in support can achieve great things.
Your support for Church Army International throughout Lent resulting in this fantastic gift of £1,500 means that new work can developed in Africa and in particular in Malawi. You are part of a new pioneering venture, training local people for effective outreach in local communities in that country.
Effective communities are the bedrock of our Society. There is great strength to be had in community life. In this way communities can unite in grief, in hope and in support. The events of last week in West Cumbria and the events in Nain together with those in Africa serve to remind us that we all have a part to play in God’s mission. We are to be ready to serve him, to live for him and to be ready when he calls us to himself.