Emma Kennedy, author of Christian Aid’s Justice and the Heart of God (9781854248565, Lion Hudson, £5.99), tells us how she became involved with Christian Aid and what inspired her to write the book…
Sierra Leone. Red soil, dark green leaves releasing the faint scent of cocoa, sweltering humidity.
Cooking oil, just enough for one meal, sold in plastic bags, bumper harvests of limes, hanging around the airport for hours on end.
Great friendships, trying to eat krain-krain while keeping a smile on my face (a local dish that consists of, well, I’m still not sure) and trying to get my head around the frightening and unforgiving relentlessness of what poverty means to people who don’t have the option of escaping.
It’s a total cliché, I know, but visiting Sierra Leone with Christian Aid a few years ago was a privilege. Three short weeks gave me hundreds of memories, of which these above are just a few. Those three short weeks also acted a bit like wiping the cuff of a sleeve on a really grubby pane of glass, giving me and my colleagues a smidgen of insight into what life is like for those who really know the meaning of marginalisation and hardship.
Now, while I can never really understand what it’s like to struggle to get clean water and medicine, enough food or political recognition those three weeks visiting Sierra Leone did help to bring some of my thoughts and views into focus. And, they threw up a whole host of questions that are still casting around for the answer. Questions like ‘the poor will always be with you’ and ‘there should be no poor among you’.
The privilege came not only in seeing such a beautiful country – so lush and green – and getting a rough guide to a new culture but also in finding a new language. I guess what I mean is, I was introduced to words like ‘social justice’, ‘climate refugees’, ‘economic disempowerment’ and I got a new appreciation for words like ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.
I had already been leaning in this direction, there was a bit of a yearning festering I suppose, after having spent a couple of years back in Northern Ireland once I graduated. In those two years I felt the tension between vague purposelessness and urgency – my mum described me as a rudderless ship.
Pottering around on the internet one day I came upon Christian Aid‘s ‘gap year’ scheme. My stomach lurched and I coveted a place immediately. I sweated over the application and knew I’d be one of the oldest at the interview day, just limboing beneath the upper age limit of 25. It turned out they wanted to send me to Lewes. The only Lewes I’d heard of was the Isle of Lewis – I had to Google it to find out where it was.
One of the things that drew me to Christian Aid is the belief that the people best placed to work on a community’s needs are local people. They usually have a better idea how to tackle their community’s issues than someone who doesn’t live there, never has lived there and probably won’t ever visit. Now, that’s not to say that people from outside the community, can’t have a significant part to play – indeed people from all over the world have helped to mould the UK into what it is today, both good and bad. But it is to say that it’s not the greatest idea in the world to wade in, survey the scene with one hand on hip and the other shadowing ones eyes and pronounce where the well/school/housing development should go, whilst pondering where the corporate branding should be positioned. The way Christian Aid, and the grassroots organisations it partners with, faces life sucking poverty head on has helped me work out how to frame my questions, and where I might start scratching around for answers.
So many books have been written on social justice from a Christian perspective (and mine is just a wee addition to that catalogue) so I was really touched that Christian Aid asked me to write the study guide. I am certainly not an expert and I couldn’t possibly claim to have answers – but maybe it’s more important for us to have questions, and to keep asking them.