Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)
Growing up in post war Britain I didn’t feel especially poor or blessed but in truth we were both. The economic deprivation caused by the Second World War was devastating and affected everyone. There was, however, a tremendous sense of solidarity as we faced into the desperate situation together. My own parents grew vegetables and raised rabbits and chickens to supplement what little food was available in the stores. My mother was also a creative seamstress and able to make and adapt clothes for my sister and me. But it was a blessed relief to put that season behind us --- I know from personal experience that there is nothing romantic about poverty. And yet Jesus declares that the poor will be blessed!
During our seminary days we had to budget very carefully. Angela and I were blessed with a very supportive home church but funds were tight. We felt wealthy, however, compared to other students – especially Fibi from the Sudan who was at VTS with her husband, now Bishop, Eluzai Mundu. They knew what it was to be poor. Angela had agreed to drive Fibi to her ESL class and one morning arrived not having had time for breakfast. A husband with early classes, three children in school and a very active preschooler made life a little hectic. Without knowing that Angela was famished, Fibi invited her to share a boiled egg with her – it didn’t seem much until Angela realized that it was the only food that Fibi had, but she shared it willingly. Angela never forgot that act of radical hospitality.
Many years later, when we were at Truro Church, Angela befriended Gladys Chiwanga, wife of Bishop Simon Chiwanga, of the Diocese of Mpwapwa in Tanzania, who had come to study at Virginia Seminary in nearby Alexandria. Realizing that she was totally unprepared for a Northern Virginia winter, Angela took Gladys shopping for a winter coat, which in turn led to a ‘thank you’ dinner party for both of them at our home when Bishop Simon came to visit. During the after-dinner conversation we talked about the upcoming Lambeth Conference (the once every ten-year meeting of all Anglican Bishops hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury) of which Bishop Simon was the Chairman, and we also asked him about life in his own diocese. Very quietly he talked about the pressing problem of starvation for many of his clergy families … there had been repeated droughts and failed harvests and now there was simply no food available. Most children were malnourished and many were dying. As their bishop, Simon felt helpless and both he and Gladys looked heartsick. We took time to pray that God would open up the windows of heaven for these desperately poor people – our Anglican sisters and brothers – and then said a quiet goodnight.
But we couldn’t get that conversation and their faces out of our minds. Diane Knippers was one of the other dinner guests. She was part of a Washington advocacy group on Religion and Democracy and began asking for suggestions. She learned about the work of the Grameen Bank among the poor of Bangladesh and the concept of microfinance – where small loans are given to impoverished entrepreneurs and they are able to grow small businesses and so break the cycle of poverty and eventually empower the community. It seemed like an ideal fit and so we began to explore how this concept might work in the Anglican Communion. We even gave it a name “Five Talents” from the parable of the talents and became convinced that it could work and so made plans to establish a non-profit and share the vision.
Later that year, during the Lambeth Conference, we served as a staff support team to many of the bishops and their wives, our friends, from the Global South. For most of them it was a massive culture shock – some had never left their own country before this event and for many of them English was not their first language. We were there to help them to engage fully in the complex world of resolutions and amendments all being conducted in an increasingly alien culture. One evening we invited the Bishops and their wives to a reception to hear the ‘Five Talents’ story and we were overwhelmed by the response. It was standing room only and everyone was enthusiastic about the vision – including Bishop Eluzai Mundu and his wife Fibi – who were in tears when they saw us again! “You must make this happen!” they implored and so we returned home with our first contribution of £1000 from Archbishop George Carey and a mandate to make it happen.
More than twenty years later, Five Talents International continues to equip those living in extreme poverty with skills and tools to start their own businesses. We have become a global Anglican ministry include national organizations in the UK and Kenya and together we now support international partners in over twenty countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. We estimate that we have helped transform the lives of over 200,000 households (approximately a million individuals) around the world. We have also been blessed by the countless testimonies of women and men who are now Five Talents entrepreneurs. It all started with the gift of a winter coat (!) but it has become an astonishing example of the parable of the talents. I encourage you to take a look at the website (www.fivetalents.org) and read some of the stories of transformed lives.
In each of the churches that we have served, Angela and I have always insisted that there be an intentional ministry focus among the poor – and we have always received far more blessing than we have ever given. We have also been taught a great deal about true riches and have come to understand something of what Jesus meant when he said, “The poor you will always have with you.” (Matthew 26:11) It was not a fatalistic shrug about the inevitability of poverty but a reminder that we will always have the opportunity to reach out and be blessed. The passage from Deuteronomy from which Jesus quoted, “There will always be poor in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) makes that clear.
Perhaps this paraphrase describes what we know to be true …
“Bless the poor and you will see the Kingdom of God!”
Your brother in Christ, +Martyn