Church fight against poverty overlooked

  • May 13, 2007
TORONTO - The success of churches and faith-based organizations in providing disaster relief and fighting world poverty is one of “the greatest overlooked stories of our time,” said veteran journalist Brian Stewart.
Speaking to the Canadian Church Press (CCP) and Association of Roman Catholic Communicators of Canada (ARCCC) conference in Toronto May 3, Stewart praised the “courageous” work of churches and faith-based NGOs, calling them “uniquely efficient engines of human development.”

These organizations have had a “profound impact” on human rights, peace, health care, clean water and education around the globe, said Stewart, who has covered 10 wars over his 43-year career.

Intractable world poverty is the “greatest problem of our time with the exception of global warming,” said the CBC broadcaster, yet the successes churches and NGOs have had are “almost always overlooked by the mainstream media.” This success story began during the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. One million people died in “the worst hell on earth,” Stewart said. But the disaster birthed the modern NGO movement and left lasting positive results. Today he said these NGOs represent “the fastest growing sector of the world economy.”

In  Ethiopia and other trouble spots, the aid and development organizations stayed behind long after the cameras and the reporters left. In Africa alone, churches and NGOs have left a legacy that includes 40 million more children in school and tens of thousands who “made it from famine camps to college.”

Concentration on Africa’s failures contributes to a sense of defeatism and ignores the improvement in the lives of millions through the efforts of small-scale, often faith-based projects, he said.

The story of those successes parallels Stewart’s personal transformation that eventually led to his becoming a faithful Presbyterian. The role of faith in those successes is not taken seriously enough, even provoking “titters” among mainstream journalists, he said.

In the 1960s, Stewart’s generation declared organized religion was on its death bed. It underestimated the strength of spiritual hunger and the “human drive to serve and to help others.” Since then, he has witnessed the “galvanic force of faith in action,” a faith he described as “hard, institutionalized, organized and clear-sighted.”

Since the Cold War, aid has shifted from “big aid battalions” and “five-year plans” he said, to smaller, independent NGOs who “partner” with local people and have “refused to give up their sense of mission,” he said.

He said he regretted the fact that the words “muscular Christianity” had passed out of fashion, because that is what he has observed on the frontlines of famine, war and catastrophe, where he and his crew were almost always greeted by Christian workers who had arrived first.

“A lot of good things start up quietly in humble church halls,” he said, pointing to the 1787 meeting of 12 evangelicals in a church basement that launched the movement to abolish slavery.

He noted the rise of the Solidarity trade union in Poland. With the support of the Catholic Church, Solidarity helped bring down the Iron Curtain.

Stewart emphasized the important work the CCP and the ARCCC was doing in getting the word out about these successes. The CCP marked its 50th anniversary at the conference, while the ARCCC marked its 25th. The CCP represents religious newspapers and magazines from a range of Christian denominations. The ARCCC represents Catholic communicators.

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