The church occupies a unique place in the humanitarian and development sector. At its best, it is able to bring a combination of benefits to humanitarian and development work that is found nowhere else.
It is integral in communities, inspirational for their congregations, and influential through its networks at all levels. Using these three concepts as a framework, here are seven good reasons why the global local church is at the heart of Tearfund’s work.
1. Churches being integral allows access
When other organisations don’t or can’t go to the most remote areas where the poorest communities are often found, the church can be found ‘filling the gaps’. For example, when international actors in South Sudan during the conflict had to leave one state because of a security threat, a local church leader explained, ‘INGOs cannot travel to that area, but the priests have no problem because they can stay with the people…’
2. Churches being integral allows immediacy
When a disaster strikes, response times can make all the difference in saving people’s lives, and churches are often there as some of the first responders in a crisis. For instance, when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the church was ready and able to distribute aid in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, where the greatest areas of devastation were only reached by foreign aid workers several weeks later.
3. Churches being integral allows sustainability
Solutions must be locally-owned to maintain achievements after the organisations involved have moved on. Local churches act as an enduring hub in many communities, where even the most committed relief agencies will eventually leave. As a regional district councillor in Uganda said in relation to community advocacy work: ‘We trust the church. We have so many organisations and individuals who come but, at the end, they disappear. But the church is there permanently. Even when there are changes in leadership, the church remains.’
4. Churches are inspirational through a whole-person approach
This means addressing the mental and spiritual needs of those living in poverty or caught up in disasters, alongside their immediate physical problems. The church is uniquely positioned to help Christians and also those of other faiths in these situations because it understands that ‘faith is intricately linked with people’s identity and sense of purpose [and] ... recognises that poverty has a spiritual dimension, that poverty lowers self-esteem, robs people of their dignity’.
5. Churches are inspirational through the biblical mandate to help those in need that they preach
This means the church often provides ready volunteers for development and disaster work, delivering a response that is value for money. Moreover, in countries where faith remains at the centre of most people’s lives and secular motivations are harder to comprehend, the church provides a religious explanation for caring for others to people of all faiths. An Irish Aid evaluation of HIV and AIDS work in Ethiopia and Malawi found that there was almost universal knowledge of church-based HIV and AIDS activities, demonstrating the far-reaching response of the church.
6. Churches are inspirational through the influence of church leaders
Because the church is deeply embedded in society, with roots in the histories of communities, it holds the trust and respect of the people. This allows church leaders to speak into traditions and values by interpreting development messages for their local context. This has the potential to bring change to long-held attitudes. For example, during the Ebola response faith leaders played a pivotal influencing role, using religious texts to promote changes in practices in affected communities, such as safe burials. A UN staff member in Sierra Leone commented that ‘the participation of religious leaders was a game changer’.
7. Churches are influential in their reach at all levels, from local communities to international organisations
The church is one of the largest civil society networks in the world, and one of the few movements that is both local and global in its reach and influence, meaning it can play a significant role in advocating for the vulnerable and oppressed. Indeed, ‘the established relationships held by the church at national and international level, as well as its knowledge of the community context at local level, means it occupies a rare position of influence and trust’.
To read the full paper this blog post is based on, and for references for all quotations, please see: Integral, Inspirational and Influential: The Role of Local Churches in Humanitarian and Development Responses.