Last month I was in Nepal, encouraging World Vision’s extraordinary staff and providing media coverage for our emergency appeal, following the devastating earthquake that hit the country on April 25.
Australians have responded with characteristic generosity and compassion, and many of our church partners, including The Bible Society, have been in the forefront.
In one church on Melbourne’s suburban outskirts, there’s a weekly soup kitchen where a few hundred people gather each Monday. The meal stretches the budget, but for many the fact of being with others, and feeling not alone in the face of life’s hardships is just as important.
These are people who have faced huge challenges – poverty, addiction, family violence, mental health issues, and more.
When the church pastor spoke about Nepal, people decided to act. Despite their very limited resources, they put together several hundred dollars, much of it in coins, for World Vision’s emergency appeal.
Some might say the burden of helping shouldn’t fall on people who are themselves struggling. But empathy and compassion are no less strong among people who have little. Indeed those who have known hardship themselves often become more generous and open in their response to others. As Jesus taught about the widow’s mites, the giving of the poor can be an even greater and more meaningful sacrifice, and deserves respect.
Compassion moves ordinary people to respond both emotionally and practically to a clear need. But as well as our immediate, compassionate response, we need to ask questions about justice.
When disaster strikes, we need to ask whether destruction and suffering are exacerbated by the poverty and injustice that frames the lives of poor communities.
Many parts of the world are vulnerable to disaster because of climate or geology. Yet the impact can be immeasurably greater for poor people.
After a disaster poor people usually find themselves without reserves of food, money or tradable goods. Low building standards create immediate danger, and also long-term homelessness and dislocation. Subsistence farmers can’t survive if they lose even one crop, apart from losing tools and seeds, or the damage and contamination of their land.
Poor countries like Nepal lack the infrastructure to enable relief, let alone recovery and rebuilding. Their healthcare budgets are minimal. Poor countries are usually profoundly unequal societies, with wealth concentrated in very few hands.
Our short term priority is to save lives and bring healing to the injured, the bereaved and the dispossessed. But let’s also keep an eye on the urgency of building resilience by reducing the poverty and injustice that makes disasters like Nepal’s earthquake so much more devastating.