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Cambodian families 2

The hard work of empathy: a program officer's journal

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Our challenge as Christians is to “take the path that continues to return to love” in the midst of an often confronting world, writes Tearfund’s Mike Penberthy.

Mike Penberthy

Mike has served as a program officer with Tearfund for 14 years. Here he reflects on the journey he’s been on, and the questions it has raised.

In the past 14 years, as I have visited Tearfund’s partners to support their work and strengthen our partnerships, I’ve had the privilege of travelling to many places that most Australians don’t get to travel to. Without a doubt, visiting the work of our partners has been the most stimulating and inspiring aspect of my job, and something I’ve really missed over the past two years as COVID-19 restrictions have curtailed travel. Our world is an amazing place, and our partners do inspirational work in very difficult circumstances.

But visiting Tearfund partners and the communities they work with has been the most confronting and challenging part of my job too. Even after so many years, I still find it sobering and unsettling to meet with people who struggle with poverty and hardships that most Australians would find hard to imagine, let alone understand or empathise with. To imaginatively and emotionally put ourselves in the situations of people whose lives and experiences are so different to ours is hard, confronting, worldview-shattering work.

People like the three children I met in Uganda, all under the age of 12, who lost their parents to AIDS and were living alone in a small wattle-and-daub house and working their family farm as a child-headed household.

Myanmar families

People like the families I met under a newly-built cyclone shelter on the low-lying mud islands of the Ayeyarwady River delta in Myanmar – families who had left a life of poverty and struggle in other parts of Myanmar to build a new life farming and fishing in the river delta, only to lose children, husbands, wives and everything they owned when 2008’s deadly Cyclone Nargis struck, killing 70 per cent of the people in the village.

Cambodian families

People like the Cambodian families who welcomed me into their small, crowded homes built from scrap wood, tin and tarp over a black, filthy swamp where the rubbish and waste of Phnom Penh accumulates in the wet season – and even there they were vulnerable to forced eviction as the wealthy and powerful did deals with the government to develop the city.

Where is the Good News?

It is encounters such as these that have caused me to ponder the multi-layered ways in which the Gospel is Good News to the poor. Yes, the Gospel is Good News to the poor because it tells the poor of God’s love. And yes, the Gospel is Good News as it may encourage poor and troubled communities to collectively address the challenges they face in a spirit of Christ-inspired love, forgiveness and unity (and I have seen that happen!). But surely one very significant way in which the Gospel is Good News to the poor is that it calls those of us who are wealthy and influential by world standards to change our hearts and to change our behaviour.

Poverty exists and suffering occurs for many reasons. The world is a complex place. A major reason, though, that millions of people remain trapped in poverty is that those of us with resources and power gain and maintain what we have at the expense of the poor. And what’s worse, we are often either unable, or unwilling, to empathise with those who lose out in the world’s interconnected but unequal economy, and we do very little to change this systemic inequality. We fail to properly understand the circumstances that conspire to keep people in poverty and disadvantage, and how poverty, disadvantage and discrimination prevent so many people from living the full and abundant lives that God desires for us all.

Our challenge, indeed our discipleship invitation, is to take the narrow path that continues to return to love in the midst of a broken and oftentimes overly confronting world. To return to hope and love when the news of the world appears too grim and too dark. To return to love when we can’t see a way forward or are held back by uncertainty and fear.

The Gospel ... calls those of us who are wealthy and influential by world standards to change our hearts and to change our behaviour.

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Pray with us

I invite you to pray this prayer written by American writer and peace activist Dorothy Day:

Dear God,
Please enlarge our hearts to love each other,
To love our neighbour, to love our enemy as our friend.
Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up.
If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens.
If we love enough, we are going to light a fire in the hearts of others.
And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us.
It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other.

Inequality: a complex mix of challenges

Today, wherever people live, they don’t have to look far to confront inequalities. Inequality in its various forms is an issue that will define our time. Confronting inequalities has moved to the forefront of many global policy debates as a consensus has emerged that all should enjoy equal access to opportunity. “Leave no one behind” serves as the rallying cry of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Overall, since the 1990s total global inequality (inequality across all individuals in the world) declined for the first time since the 1820s. Reinforcing this trend, we have mostly seen income inequality between countries decline. Yet income inequality within countries has risen, this is the form of inequality people feel on a daily basis.

Inequalities are not only driven and measured by income, but are determined by other factors – gender, age, origin, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, class, and religion. These factors determine inequalities of opportunity which continue to persist, within and between countries. In some parts of the world, these divides are becoming more pronounced. Meanwhile, gaps in newer areas, such as access to online and mobile technologies, are emerging. The result is a complex mix of internal and external challenges that will continue to grow over the next twenty-five years.


Mike Penberthy is Tearfund’s Team Leader – South East Asia and Pacific Island Nations.