In the face of fear, choose joy

This Christmas greeting to MCC’s supporters, constituents and friends was prepared by Don Peters, executive director of MCC Canada. 

During this season of Advent, we wait expectantly for the coming of Christ. We long for God’s justice, peace and mercy to be fully revealed on earth.

Today, it is easy to be consumed by fear. Fear is all pervasive. Fear of terrorism. Fear for the economy. Fear of people who are different from us. Fear can entangle and paralyze us.

Christmas Iraq

The grounds of Mar Elia Church in Ankawa, Iraq, are a makeshift home to many people who fled violence elsewhere in Iraq. Last Christmas, this life-size nativity was set up in a canvas tent that housed displaced Iraqi families before the sturdier tents in the background were constructed. “Jesus’ tent” is written in Arabic on the tent flap. Placing the nativity in the tent was a powerful symbol linking families’ suffering with the suffering of Christ. (MCC photo)

But our faith encourages us to embrace an impassioned, joyful and trusting response to life. Isaiah 12:2 says: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” And in the first two chapters of Luke, there are four references to fear and three references to joy, often only a verse or two apart. Fear and joy are not incompatible ideas. From my work with MCC, I see daily that this is true. 

Despite the fear of terrorism, we’ve witnessed your deep desire to welcome refugees. The MCC offices have been inundated with calls from churches, families, neighbourhood associations and community groups who want to bring refugees to safety and welcome them to a new life in Canada. In her poem “Home,” Warsan Shire writes:

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

We are thankful for all of you who have heard the call to walk with refugees on their journey and welcome them warmly into your congregations, homes and communities.

Despite fears of scarcity and a bad economy, we’ve seen you give generously to help those in need. Thanks to your support, we’re able to provide relief to people affected by violence or disaster around the world. Our partners are distributing winter supplies to families in countries from Syria to Nepal. With your help, we’re providing education in places like Lebanon, South Sudan and here in Canada. And because of your generosity, we support courageous peacebuilders in places like Afghanistan and Honduras. We are thankful to all of you who have chosen generosity in the face of scarcity.

When faced with fear of the other, we’ve seen you choose friendship. In the media, it’s easy to see prejudice and fear of people who are different from ourselves. But time and time again, we’ve seen you choose friendship. Christian churches have partnered with Muslim groups to sponsor refugees. Churches have spoken out in support of reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous peoples. And volunteers have helped people reintegrate in their community after serving time in prison. When presented with the choice to fear the unknown, we’ve seen you build bridges and love your neighbour, no matter who that neighbour might be.

In this season of Advent, we bring our fears to God. We long to be released from the power of fear over our lives. As you’ve shown us repeatedly, fear cannot stop us from reaching out with compassion to help those in need. Thank you for the many ways you have helped us share relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.

Sincerely,

Don Peters
Executive Director, MCC Canada

Complexities in Nigeria’s democracy and development

This week’s writer is Cora Siebert, advocacy research intern at the Ottawa Office.

Nigeria’s presidential election in March 2015 was heralded in the media as a monumental turning point in the country’s political history. Local and international media alike deemed the election to be free and fair, resulting in Goodluck Jonathon willingly and peacefully transferring power to a new leader, Muhammadu Buhari. This is in a country with a long history — since independence from Britain in 1960 — of rigged elections and military coups.  It was also one of the first times in contemporary African politics that an incumbent was defeated and peacefully conceded power without any violent uprising or taking the results to court.

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This woman and her son were among many people displaced by violence in northeastern Nigeria in 2014. She makes bowls to sell and earn some income. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

An electoral victory and peaceful transfer of power can be used as a simple measurement by the international community to say, look, it’s here, free and fair democracy is working. Yet the appearance of democratic institutions can be seriously undermined when an underlying factor such as corruption affects all areas of life, disempowering citizens. Corruption in Nigeria occurs usually through bribes or government funds being pocketed by officials. Transparency International ranked Nigeria 136th out of 173 nations in terms of corruption in 2014.  When surveyed, Nigerian citizens indicated they perceived all institutions from political parties, to police to the media to be corrupt.

Buhari came into his presidential role with a campaign to end the corruption.  So far he has made significant changes to national security in replacing military chiefs accused of misusing government funds. Despite his positive intentions, it is difficult to separate corruption from politics when corruption has plagued the political system for so long. Even the head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency was recently fired after denying that $5 billion had gone missing from the agency.

Being able to cast a vote for a President does not speak very loudly when individuals are disempowered and marginalized on a daily basis due to systematic corruption. For example, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), has been accused of ignoring government subsidies for household necessities like kerosene, which is commonly used for cooking. The NNPC charged consumers 98 cents a litre for kerosene, when the price was actually supposed to be 26 cents a litre because of a government subsidy. This extra charge was pocketed by the NNPC. Yet many people who use kerosene to cook for their families were completely unaware there was a government subsidy. This shows how corruption can work not only to deny those in poverty access to financial benefits, but also to deny them the knowledge and power to improve their living situation.

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MCC supports the development of peace clubs in schools, such as this one in Plateau State. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

Despite Nigeria’s economic growth, poverty is also on the increase. Nigeria’s GDP was 568.51 USD in 2013, the highest of all African countries, yet over 60% of Nigerians live on less than $1.25 a day. Lack of transparency for government funding means significant lost money earmarked for educational and healthcare facilities. Economic growth in Nigeria is not usually distributed equally throughout society due to these structures, and those in poverty have little power to improve their situation.

So where does Canada fit in with this?

Canada operates in the Nigerian context through trade deals and development projects. The oil and gas industry has long been a priority for Canada in Nigeria. In 2012 Nigeria was number 7 in Canada’s worldwide oil and gas trade, with almost $2 billion in trade. Any Canadian efforts to stimulate economic growth or development happen within a structure where transactions involve bribes to those with power, and government money often goes missing – to those responsible for distributing it.

The Canadian government has paid little attention to bridging the inequalities within Nigeria that have been exacerbated through corruption on every level of governance and industry. Instead of recognizing the underlying problem of corruption, Canada focuses on increasing overall wealth within Nigeria through trade and building industry.

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Margaret Ahmed, director of Homemakers Income Generation for Women, speaks to a group about its work at grassroots empowerment. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

While Buhari is working to tackle corruption from within government structure, another approach is to empower individuals at a grassroots level. MCC works with partners in Nigeria on projects that help to do this, including the Homemakers Income Generation for Women. This project provides women with microloans and offers them training in money management, techniques for developing marketable products, training in conflict mitigation and advice in small scale agriculture. Women participate in cooperative groups and meet on a regular basis. All of these things help to build the capacity and confidence of women, making them more economically empowered and less susceptible to the corruption which they normally encounter when making a living and buying goods on a daily basis.

The Canadian government has, since 2010, shown some support for empowering individuals in the democratic process through providing technical assistance to Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission. The Commission has been a positive force in supervising democratic processes and extending voter and civic education to Nigerians.

But Canada needs to do more, especially if, under the new Liberal government, it continues to invest in trade and industry as it has in he past.  Trade levels should be matched with grassroots efforts to empower Nigerian citizens personally and economically so that they are eventually able to stand up to systematic corruption.

The type of corruption that is seen in Nigeria will not be quickly or easily eliminated. However all international actors operating in the country — including Canada — must recognize corruption as a major problem and act in ways that can help diminish it from a grassroots level.

Advent of change?

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office.  Monica’s reflection is based on the Lectionary readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6 and Philippians 4:4-7.

There has been much talk about change in the last few months with, first, a federal election, and then a new cabinet being sworn in, and the new government setting its agenda. Many may ask, though, whether this change will be lasting or whether it is all just talk that we have heard before.

I recently came across the poem “We are Preparing for Christmas” by Peter Ediger which speaks of the darkness of cynicism, oppression, fear, and guilt. I realized that even though I am generally a positive, optimistic person there are times when it is easy to be overcome by the “darkness of cynicism.” Perhaps living in Ottawa and working in the area of advocacy makes one more susceptible to this particular “darkness” and its message that nothing really changes.

cropped-img_6353a.jpgThe face of government may change and there are many new MPs with great ideas, but can the system really be changed? Question Period seems civil now, but it won’t last long. The Make Poverty History Campaign was launched 10 years ago, but there’s still poverty. Isn’t it naïve to think the new Sustainable Development Goals will be more effective in bringing about change than the Millennium Development Goals? Wars continue and there seem to be more refugees and displaced people than ever. Terrorists keep popping up everywhere and it feels as if no one will ever be truly safe ever again. As Peter Ediger so aptly laments, “The darkness of cynicism envelops the soul and the darkness of cynicism makes heavy the heart.

Fortunately we are in Advent, a time for good news. As I study the Lectionary readings for this third Sunday, I am struck by the many images of good news contained in these passages. Zephaniah 3:14-20 overflows with images which could clearly be defined as good news, including the removal of judgments and disasters,  the lame being saved, the shame of the outcast being turned into praise, a returning home and restoration of fortunes. Who wouldn’t rejoice on hearing these words? Isaiah 12:2-6 offers a glimpse of something a little more abstract when it speaks of the Lord becoming our salvation, while the writer of Philippians 4:4-7 focuses on the theme of rejoicing in the good news that the Lord is near and there is no reason for fear or worry. All this does indeed sound like good news and — as Ediger puts it — “softly lightens the heart.”

Then we come to Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s ministry, with John calling the crowd “a brood of vipers” who should flee from “the wrath to come.” These words don’t sound like good news and may even have been the result in part of “the darkness of cynicism” as well. Then again, maybe there is good news even in judgment. Soldiers and tax collectors were part of those crowds and were obviously affected because they asked what they should do to, in John’s words, to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Tax collectors in particular would have been perceived as the epitome of sinners at that time, profiting while being the agents of Roman oppression. John’s language was strong and forceful, but his message was good news for those oppressed by the Roman Empire because it meant the dominance of evil would come to an end. There would be justice as evil-doers changed their minds, turned around and did something good. What a powerful message of good news.

Colombia Christmas

This photo is from the Day of the Little Candles (Dia de las Velitas), in Bogotá, Colombia. It’s the official start of Christmas, where families light candles at night for each member of the family and to welcome and guide Mary on her journey to Bethlehem. (MCC photo/Anna Vogt)

Even better is that the good news doesn’t end there. In all four passages of scripture, there are references to the presence of the Lord. The Lord is coming, is near, or in our midst. No one listening to John likely imagined that the Messiah’s arrival was so close at hand or would happen in such a humble setting, but it did. God is present with us.  Change is not only possible, but it is happening in unexpected ways. Individual hearts and minds can experience positive change which means the world also can be changed.

Over fifteen years ago more than 120 countries came together in Ottawa to sign the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (often known informally as the Land Mine Treaty), which no one thought possible just a year earlier. As a result, millions of landmines have been cleared and destroyed, saving lives and returning land to productive use. Out of that work emerged the effort to ban cluster munitions. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission with its many recommendations appears to be starting a process of healing.  And the announcement of an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women is another hopeful sign.

May the words of the Lord break through our cynicism and let us rejoice in the good news that every effort (advocacy related or otherwise) toward a just and peaceful world is bringing change.

A war against women?

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

This Sunday will mark the 26th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre and the annual National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women.

December 6, 1989 is the day Marc Lepine walked into an engineering class at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal, sent the men out of the room and shot the women. Lepine went on to kill 14 women and injure 14 other people (a few men were caught in the crossfire). Survivors recounted that Lepine said he needed to kill women because they were all feminists and he hated feminists. Lepine was enraged that women were studying engineering!

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The anniversary reminds me of a flight I took from Winnipeg to Toronto less than a week after the massacre. I was sitting in the window seat of the aircraft. The seat next to me was empty, and a youngish man sat in the aisle seat. Much of the flight he flipped through a newspaper, looking over at me from time to time. After a while he tore a small piece out of the newspaper, slapped it down on the tabletop between us, jabbed at it repeatedly to get my attention, and then said, “That’s what I was looking for.”  I read the paper – it was an advertisement for a gun. I recall looking up at the man, puzzled. With a hideous grin on his face, he said to me, “Because I hate feminists.”

I can still feel the chill that went through my body at that moment. I sank into my airplane seat, pressed my face to the window and did not move until most everyone had gotten off the plane. Today – much older and angrier – I would probably have reported the man. At the time, I was too terrified to do anything.

Violence against women. Or, if you prefer, gender-based violence. It is a global epidemic that casts fear and terror into the lives of women and girls around the world.

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Young people In Champong Cham province of Cambodia complete a training course on the rights of women and children.(MCC Photo/Amanda Talstra)

While sensational events like the Montreal Massacre galvanize public attention for a time – the event led to tougher gun control laws in Canada – much of the gender-based violence happens behind closed doors in homes and workplaces, with the perpetrator known to the victim. Indeed, violence perpetrated by an intimate partner is the most common form of gender-based violence. However, violence against women and girls is also endemic in areas affected by war and political unrest.

Consider this information from the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which took place on November 25:

  • 35% of women and girls globally experience some form of physical and or sexual violence in their lifetime; in some countries up to seven in ten women face this kind of abuse;
  • Indigenous women in Canada are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence;
  • In Colombia, one woman is reportedly killed by her partner or former partner every six days;
  • It is estimated that, worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime;
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo approximately 1,100 rapes are being reported each month, with an average of 36 women and girls raped every day. It is believed that over 200,000 women have suffered from sexual violence in that country since armed conflict began;
  • Women worldwide aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria, according to World Bank data.

Besides the statistics are the stories. In my community of Winnipeg, there are the regular media stories of women – often Indigenous – killed or beaten or sexually assaulted or simply disappeared. There are the stories of women harassed or abused by employers, colleagues and even clergy, and stories of young women drugged and raped by their dates.  And there are the personal stories of violence in the home, perhaps whispered only to a friend.

Purple ribbon

During the month of November, MCC Manitoba encouraged people to wear a purple ribbon to raise awareness about domestic violence.  (MCC photo/Alison Ralph)

Most of the people who work to end violence against women understand that this violence is rooted in gender inequity and in the attitudes, practices and structures of male superiority and domination. Critical to ending the violence, they say, is ending the patriarchal systems that perpetuate it. Patriarchy certainly motivated Marc Lepine.

I am grateful to the many women and men who work tirelessly to bring comfort to the victims of gender-based violence, to educate their communities about it, and who seek to dismantle the inequities that foster it.  At the same time, my heart weeps that the violence goes on and on, year after year.

Given the statistics, the stories and the systems, one could easily argue that a war is raging – a war against women. Indeed, some thoughtful people have used war terminology to describe what is happening.

If we called it a war, would that make a difference?

MCC has been involved in addressing gender-based violence for decades.  Learn about the work being done in Canada and around the world.