Thought for the Week

Rutherglen Reformer - - News From The Pews -

Thirty years on Band Aid is back, and Bob Geldof has not changed his tune (or largely his lyrics).

It’s a great tune but, un­for­tu­nately, Africa is still pre­sented as “a world of dread and fear” re­quir­ing sal­va­tion from the West to de­liver it from mis­ery, and be­stow the gift of Christ­mas. The in­ten­tion is good, the cash will help tackle Ebola, but the un­der­tone, as sev­eral African artists have noted, is very pa­tro­n­is­ing.

I vis­ited Ethiopia in Jan­uary not to see what Western aid was do­ing, but to see what Ethiopi­ans, em­pow­ered by self- help groups, were achiev­ing them­selves.

I went with thirty-year old Band Aid images of African mis­ery im­pressed on my mind, but came back with a very dif­fer­ent vi­sion of that beau­ti­ful coun­try.

Band Aid sing “There is no peace and joy in Africa this Christ­mas. The only hope they’ll have is be­ing alive”, but that’s not what I saw. Among those who live in poverty there was amaz­ing hope and grat­i­tude for life. The peo­ple were en­tre­pre­neur­ial and up­beat, com­pared with us blame-some­one-else-prob­a­blythe-gov­ern­ment Scots.

Ma­te­rial poverty does not equate to despair, some­times quite the re­verse.

In­deed, far from go­ing to poor Africa with the no­tion that “we can spread a smile of joy”, I found that the joy was al­ready there. It was the un­for­get­table smiles of their chil­dren that caused me to re­flect on our wide­spread sad­ness and dis­con­tent.

Scot­land has so much wealth, and yet smiles so lit­tle. We grum­ble, groan and com­plain, where in Ethiopia I saw neigh­bour car­ing for neigh­bour, ed­u­ca­tion ap­pre­ci­ated, fam­ily cel­e­brated, work op­por­tu­nity val­ued, and even in des­ti­tu­tion the abil­ity to find real peace and joy.

A re­la­tion­ship with Africa (in­deed with the poor any­where) needs to be two way. They have riches to be­stow on us, lessons to teach us, ques­tions to ask us, and hope to bring us.

Dur­ing my brief trip Africans en­cour­aged me, per­haps far more than I en­cour­aged them.

The ques­tion “Do they know it’s Christ­mas time?” says it all. Given 500 mil­lion Africans are Chris­tians, churches are boom­ing, and faith, tested by ad­ver­sity, is deep, the an­swer is a re­sound­ing “yes, of course, they do!”

Again, the song fool­ishly mis­takes ma­te­rial poverty for spir­i­tual de­pri­va­tion. And the im­age of drunken of­fice party-go­ers in Scot­land singing out this rhetor­i­cal ques­tion karaokestyle in­volves ironies too ob­vi­ous to list.

Africa knows the mean­ing of the mea­gre sta­ble, poor shep­herds, and Christ-mas hope, with a depth that few af­flu­ent western­ers will ever grasp.

God bless Africa, and let Africa bless us.

As e cel­e­brate Christ­mas at Stonelaw, our col­lec­tions will be sup­port­ing Ethiopian self-help groups. But we must not just give, but also lis­ten to African voices.

Those voices can speak hope into our cul­ture, chal­lenge our self­ish­ness, in­di­vid­u­al­ism, and ma­te­ri­al­ism, and per­haps even teach us the mean­ing of Christ­mas once again. Let Africa teach us to re­joice.

With warm­est Christ­mas greet­ings. Alis­tair May, Stonelaw Parish Church.

Into Africa

Rev Alis­tair May on his visit to Ethiopia ear­lier this year

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