New Vice-President urges Methodists to fight poverty


06 July 2013

  • "We cannot give up," says Dr Daleep Mukarji


The newly inaugurated Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Dr Daleep Mukarji, called on the Methodist people to "speak out, take sides," and "stand up for justice" in his inaugural address to the Methodist Conference this afternoon.

Urging Methodists to become "agents of change", Dr Mukarji told the packed Methodist Central Hall in London that the UK had not seen higher levels of poverty and inequality since World War Two. One out of five people in the UK live in relative poverty (13.5 million people), including around 3.5 million children who are more likely to live in a low income household than the population as a whole.

"Working with others, people of faith or no faith, we need to work for justice, inclusion and development that benefits the poor and marginalised here in the UK and across the world," he said. "This requires that we be prepared for the education, organisation and equipping of our members so that we build the necessary energy and commitment to see changes in our society."

Dr Daleep Mukarji, who trained as a doctor in India, explained that he first saw the horrors of poverty when he was living and working in rural India. "I was angry and wanted to do something about the injustice and the systems that kept our Dalits (outcaste community), women and landless poor in abject poverty," he said. "It was shocking for me to see children in India die prematurely and from preventable diseases; things we could do something about."

Dr Mukarji reminded people that the Methodist Church is known for its commitment to social justice and willingness to transform society. The work of the Revd Thomas Stephenson, who founded the National Children's Home in 1869, is still relevant 140 years later as Action for Children continues to help the most vulnerable and neglected children in the UK.

Drawing on a recent report from four Churches: "The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty", Dr Mukarji said that the Government seemed to be making things worse for the poor by stigmatising them.

"We cannot give up," Dr Mukarji said. "We are people of hope and we know that God is still in charge. God loves this world and wants all people to have abundant life, life in all its fullness. In the context of so much despair, inequality, injustice, death and shocking treatment of our fellow human beings we must never give up."

The full text of the address follows:

Introduction

Conference members, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour and privilege for me to be your Vice President. Thank you for the trust and confidence you have shown in me and I ask for your prayers for me and my family. It will be my endeavour to serve the Conference and our Church and I look forward to the visits, the time in the Districts, meeting our members and attending special events.

My family and I came to the UK fifteen years ago to live and work here and were warmly welcomed in the local church in Muswell Hill (North River Circuit). The community has been a family to us and we have been inspired and helped by our ministers and the local fellowship. Thank you to all of them for their support and friendship

My Faith and Career Journey

I trained as a doctor in India after which I went to a Church of South India (CSI) Diocese which had its roots in the work of the Methodist Missionary Society. Here I worked and lived in rural India and got first hand experience of the problems and realities of my country. This was an eye opener and changed my life when I saw some of the poverty, oppression and exploitation that was so common and accepted. I was angry and wanted to do something about the injustice and the systems that kept our dalits (outcaste community), women and landless poor in abject poverty.

All my life I have worked for ecumenical organisations in India, Geneva and London and this has enabled me to put my faith into action. In all this I have learnt something about the challenges the churches face throughout the world.  I have been influenced by my Christian faith, my professional training and my passion for justice and poverty eradication. It was shocking for me to see children in India die prematurely and from preventable diseases; things we could do something about.  Poverty is a major killer and poor people are often denied basic human rights and marginalised in their societies. It has been very rewarding to have spent most of my life working with others on these issues and seeing that we did make a difference.

The World Today: Poverty and Inequality

While we have seen so much progress and there have been real successes in long term development sadly this has not reached all the people. There is unequal development and the rich seem to have got richer while the poor have sometimes got worse. Poverty and inequality are real challenges we face all over the world today. It is a sick world and an unhealthy society with many people and nations suffering from the unjust structures and systems that keep people poor and deprived. Millions are denied the basic quality of life that many of us take for granted.

Today in our world about one billion people will go to bed hungry. 30,000 children will die every day (one every four seconds) from preventable causes and about 65 million children will never go to school. Over 2 million children die every year from hunger, malnutrition and poverty. This is a scandal. About 40% of the Indian people live in severe poverty with levels of malnutrition, disease and neglect amongst the worst in the world. This is no small number as we are talking about 500 million people in a country that is an emerging economic superpower.

Poverty in Britain is a real problem where 1 out of 5 (13.5m) of our population lives in relative poverty. This includes about 3.5 million children who are more likely to live in a low income household than the population as a whole. Poverty and inequality in the UK are at the highest levels since WWII.  (There was an excellent report to Conference 2011,"Of Equal Value: Poverty and Inequality in the UK.")

In the US it is 1 out of every 7 who live in poverty (46.2 million). There is severe poverty and inequality in sub Saharan Africa, Latin America and in the other parts of the world.

Poverty and inequality are a global phenomenon. Many of our children throughout the world are neglected; denied basic needs and live in a society that is failing to ensure that they grow up with adequate food, clothing, education and health care.

But poverty is not about statistics or facts alone. It is about people, all made in God's image and all children of God. These are people with names, faces, hopes and aspirations, disappointments and stories and are all members of the human race. They are our brothers and sisters, our neighbours and their needs and problems should concern us. We are called to love our neighbours, to do good and to help where we can. We are expected to speak about the kingdom….a new society…where there is justice, inclusion and people have something of the quality of life God intended for all. This commitment to making a difference cannot only be about dealing with the symptoms - it has to be about justice, about a more equitable distribution of resources and a willingness to challenge powers and principalities that maintain poverty and deprivation. It requires us to look at the root causes of the problems to enable lasting solutions. We must hold our leaders, the structures and systems accountable so that we see that the weak and vulnerable are given a better deal. What does the Lord require of us, "to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God."(Micah 6:8) Jesus attacks those who spend time on trivial matters while ignoring more important issues: justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)

Our Vision of a new world…the Kingdom of God.

Christians throughout the world should get involved in building a more just and healthy community in the perspective of the kingdom of God. We have to ask ourselves what kind of society we want for our children and grandchildren. How can we live in a civilised and humane society when so many are deprived, neglected and dehumanised? Poverty and inequality are not just moral or ethical issues for us but matters we must deal with in our own enlightened interest. Poverty can destroy people and nations because of the insecurity, uncertainty, civil unrest, ethnic conflicts and sense of alienation that often come with it.

We have a prophetic role to get engaged, to pray, to act in a variety of ways and to give of our time and resources so that we can contribute to building a better world. We could speak out, take sides, stand up for justice and help the weak and vulnerable. Prophets would address individuals, society and even national leaders or whole nations in our biblical traditions. They would remind people of their social and religious obligations to do good, to take care of the poor, the weak, strangers, women and children. This tradition of prophesy has inspired Christian activists and social reformers to be in solidarity with poor and oppressed people. We know of the stories of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, Dr Thomas Barnado and so many more. All were inspired by their faith and were willing to take risks to help others. They dealt with the problems they faced but were prepared to tackle also the root causes of the injustice and suffering. They became active in providing assistance, in advocacy, lobbying, campaigning for social justice and spoke of a better world which was possible for all people.

We have a vision of a new community where people live in harmony and peace and all are treated with dignity and respect. Christians and people of faith have been at the forefront of social movements for change at local, national and international levels. The world is in need of healing where healthy relations are to be restored between human beings and God, amongst human being themselves and between humans and all of creation. This then is a foretaste of the kingdom of God here and now.

In our Methodist tradition we have a heritage of people who have got involved and have helped others over the years. One example of this is the Methodist minister Rev Thomas Stephenson who with two Methodist friends did something about the plight of homeless and deprived children in London. He founded what was to become the National Children's Home in 1869. Over 140 years later that work continues as Action for Children still helping the most vulnerable and neglected children in the UK. I have seen a little of the excellent work of AfC and this is something we Methodists can be proud of today. Our Methodist church is known for our service, our commitment to social justice and our willingness to act to transform society. The debate at the Conference in 2011 on the report "Of Equal Value: Poverty and Inequality in the UK" reaffirmed the Churches' commitment to support those in greatest material poverty and to work for justice and more equality.

The Methodist Church in Mission

At our Conference in 2000 we approved the statement "Our Calling" where we set out to "respond to the gospel of God's love in Christ and to live out our discipleship in worship and mission." In this we stated clearly, "The Church exists to be a good neighbour to people in need and to challenge injustice." More recently we have begun to describe ourselves as a "discipleship movement shaped for mission." We have in our priorities at Conference 2004 amongst other key areas agreed "to support community development and actions for justice…especially for the most deprived in Britain and worldwide." At Conference 2012 we approved the Future Mission Together report where we accepted that "participation in God's mission and the proclaiming of God's kingdom are at the heart of Jesus' message…… Every Methodist is called to share in God's mission wherever they are. Mission is the lifeblood of every church and every member….. Therefore every member needs to be resourced and empowered to share in God's mission locally and globally." (FMT report 2012 para 4:1)

If we are to be a movement shaped for mission then we need to invest in empowering our members to be agents of change: agents of the values and vision of the kingdom. Working with others, people of faith or no faith, we need to work for justice, inclusion and development that benefits the poor and marginalised here in the UK and across the world. This requires that we be prepared for the education, organisation and equipping of our members so that we build the necessary energy and commitment to see changes in our society. Over the years we have done it in the labour movement, the fight for human rights for women, refugees, and children and for global development and peace. More recently we have been involved in the movements to ban land mines, stop the arms trade, promote fair trade and trade justice, tackling global warming and climate change, demanded the cancellation of third world debt (J2000), asked for increase in the aid budget, supported a movement for making poverty history and so many more causes. We are making a difference and having an impact here and overseas. Who would have thought this government would keep an independent Department For International Development (DFID), protect the aid budget and even commit to increasing this to 0.7% of Gross National Income. With others we achieved this.

Yet it is this same government that seems to be making things worse for the poor people who are being stigmatised for just being poor in our country. Our Joint Public Issues Team (Methodists with the URC, Baptists and the Church of Scotland) came out with a report recently "The Lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty". This exposed some of the truths and lies about poverty in Britain today. It was a chance for the churches to speak out and challenge society. The report states "the truth is that poverty is an injustice crying out for correction….responding with charity can help break down the barriers in society and is a partial solution, but we all have a moral responsibility to build a more just and more understanding society." (JPIT Report April 2013) In May (2013) a Church Action on Poverty report estimated that over half a million people are now reliant on food aid in Britain. They use food banks regularly and many of these are run by the churches. The numbers are likely to increase due to rising levels of unemployment, underemployment, falling income and increases in food and fuel prices. It is shocking that in the seventh richest nation in the world we still have such poverty and deprivation.

Ordinary people have power and need to be comfortable to use this if we are to transform the way the world is organised for the benefit of poor and excluded people. People can use their democratic and political power to influence elected leaders and hold them accountable. They can use their commercial and economic power to challenge supermarkets, multinational corporations and the international trading systems. And we can use our moral and ethical power to do what is right and to be in solidarity with marginalised people throughout the world.

We cannot give up. We are people of hope and we know that God is still in charge. God loves this world and wants all people to have abundant life, life in all its fullness. In the context of so much despair, inequality, injustice, death and shocking treatment of our fellow human beings we must never give up. We need to believe things can and will change…a belief in the present and coming reality of the kingdom which can provide meaning and purpose to our lives. Hope is about our vision and acting on it so that we work for the transformation of our world.

Many Methodists in our local churches and circuits have outstanding programmes that serve people in need. At this time when poverty, deprivation and neglect seem to have got worse we should do more. As a church we have a vision of a world transformed by God's love may I suggest that we strengthen the actions and witness of our members that seeks to make a difference here in Britain and throughout the world.

Mission is not optional for the Christian….it means reaching out, getting involved, sharing our faith, transforming individual lives and society and working for justice and the end of severe poverty. Let us not worry too much about our dwindling numbers, our declining influence in society or of our limited resources. We will never have enough. Jesus said to his first disciples "As the father has sent me so I send you" (John 20:21) and so he sends out this motley group of disciples to spread the gospel of good news to the poor, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim liberty to the captives. They were empowered people and given the task to radically change individuals and society in taking forward God's mission. Such mission cannot be apolitical if it concerns people, love, justice and a desire to build a fairer and more sustainable society in the perspective of the reign of God.

There are huge challenges and opportunities in our world today, not very different from the world into which the disciples were sent.  We know another kind of world is possible and we must speak of it and promote it as our present model of growth and development is neither sustainable nor just. Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom where righteousness, love and inclusion are central to his message of good news. Our vision of a different society must have a spiritual, economic, social, moral, political and ethical dimensions as it offers people an alternative that is just and more equal. This is a new world order and is our reality of the Kingdom of God here and in the future.

Let our prayers be answered: Your Kingdom Come, Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.