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EFICOR's Relief Manager, Harshan, in Delhi, India

Leading, Listening and Learning Through Crisis

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CEO Matthew Maury shares an update on how Tearfund is navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 season, and responds to some of the common questions he has been asked over the past few months.

How do you describe the impacts of COVID-19 on the global poor?

Superlatives and extreme headlines have been so ubiquitous this year that I fear they start to almost become meaningless: “unprecedented challenges”, “once in a millennia economic crisis”, “famines of biblical proportions”, “trillions of dollars spent”, “billions of people impacted”, “extinction-level crisis”... and you can easily add to the list by reading this morning’s paper. We are dealing with a crisis so big that it actually exhausts our lexicon of superlatives.

Perhaps the most significant “headline” for Tearfund is the fact that COVID-19 has created a situation in which there will be an increase in the number of people facing extreme poverty for the first time in decades. This is not a theoretical issue for economists – it is the reality for the poorest of the poor. We are hearing stories from Afghanistan to South Sudan… and in fact across every geography, about the dire challenges for communities. With TEAR’s commitment to be “salt and light” in places facing the greatest need we are seeing the incredible importance of the work of our partners as they have been pivoting their project focus towards providing lifesaving support – health care, food, and helping meet basic needs.

How do we make sense of the scale of the impact?

It is overwhelming for any of us to get our heads around the massive impacts of COVID-19, and the superlatives I have mentioned don’t help! In these situations of enormous need, it is a common coping mechanism for us to shut down our emotional investment and thus our motivation to respond. It all feels just too big and too complicated. Researchers have called this “compassion fade” – the inverse relationship between our level of compassion and the number of people impacted by a crisis. Mother Teresa famously explained it another way by saying, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

Of course we know that Jesus modelled a compassion that responded to both the crowds and the individual – whether he was feeding 5000 or healing a single woman in the crowd or dying for all – his love and action was not limited. As his followers, we understand his call to love our neighbour is a mandate to “go into all the world”.

I think one of the best antidotes to “compassion fade” is hearing stories and listening to the voices of people impacted by COVID-19 – and it is one of the reasons that over the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis we shared short interviews from our partners on Facebook for people to hear first hand what COVID-19 means to those living on the margins. I encourage people to go back and listen to those, read the stories on our website, and find other intentional ways to keep listening to the voices of people impacted.

Leading listening learning matthew maury
Matthew interviewing partners on the impacts of COVID-19 on their communities.

Matthew interviewing partners on the impacts of COVID-19 on their communities.

These behind-the-scenes discussions capture a glimpse of how vulnerable communities are being impacted by COVID-19, and how Tearfund's partners are providing vital local responses.

Watch the interviews

Give us a brief update on how COVID-19 has impacted the Tearfund Australia team.

It feels like COVID-19 has impacted Tearfund in just about every way possible! Like most Australians, our team has had to adjust quickly to new ways of working and all of the related challenges. In order to be better able to respond to the pace of change, which was a reality even before COVID-19, Tearfund has spent the last couple of years focusing on getting better at working in more agile and adaptive ways. In hindsight that work has been a huge blessing since it has facilitated a pretty smooth transition. We are also thankful for the investment we have been making in our digital strategies, since technology – Zoom, email, messaging apps – has been such an important tool for our engagement with both supporters and our international partners, particularly since we may not be able to travel again until next year.

When people ask how Tearfund and our partners are navigating through this season, I have often used imagery of “navigating through a dense fog in the middle of the night”. We really have no idea what the next week may hold. It has been a stark reminder that we are not “in control” and the importance of prayer and faith.

What has encouraged you through this hard season?

Much has been written over the past couple of months about the role of Christians in a pandemic…and we can see across history that plagues have often been a defining moment for followers of Jesus. As we all grapple with the question “where is God in the midst of this suffering?”, I have seen God’s presence embodied in the hands and feet of our partners. Rather than hunkering down, they are running towards the crisis. This is not to suggest there is a mandate for a careless approach to managing public health – of course using appropriate personal protection and good health practices are an essential part of their work. But in their actions I am pointed to a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. I see people motivated by their faith who are willing to put themselves at risk (and in many cases our partners have contracted COVID-19) in order to care for others. Their work is a very tangible expression of the love of God and the work of the kingdom. I think when history looks back on this it will be another defining moment for what it means to be Christians.

EFICOR's Relief Manager, Harshan, in Delhi, India
EFICOR's Relief Manager, Harshan, in Delhi, India

Our partner EFICOR's Relief Manager, Harshan, overseaes the distribution of food and supplies to families in need around Delhi.

How will the work of Tearfund be different post COVID-19?

Who knows!? I think we all wish we could see clearly into the future. That said, we have been involved in a lot of strategic discussions about what “the new normal” will mean for an organisation like Tearfund. Clearly travel will be impacted for the foreseeable future – which means how we do partnership internationally with local Christian partners will need new ways of working. As will the ways we engage with churches in Australia. We are also actively working with our sister Tearfund agencies around the world to consider how we can collaborate more effectively as we work to tackle big global problems like COVID-19 – but also systemic justice issues like climate justice, consumerism, food systems…among others. The Tearfund family has also been thinking theologically about the role of the church as we “reboot” the economy in more sustainable and just ways.

How can people support the work of Tearfund through this time?

There is a lot people can do. As I have mentioned earlier, prayer is incredibly important. Please pray for Tearfund and our partners to have wisdom in the midst of great uncertainty. Pray that we may be good stewards of the resources we have – and that we will be effective in our work to bring healing, hope and recovery. Pray for our partners – that they will be living expressions of the good news. Please continue to give generously: with unprecedented impacts of COVID-19 on the global poor we have large and immediate financial needs. Finally, please speak up and sign on to the End COVID For All campaign pledge – calling on our government to be generous and just in its use of the Aid program so that more can be done to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable.

Matthew Maury is Tearfund Australia's CEO.