New Vice-President urges Methodists to fight poverty

The newly inaugurated Vice-President of the MethodistConference, Dr Daleep Mukraji, called on the Methodist people to"speak out, take sides," and "stand up for justice" in hisinaugural address to the Methodist Conference this afternoon.

Urging Methodists to become "agents of change", Dr Mukarji toldthe packed Methodist Central Hall in London that the UK had notseen higher levels of poverty and inequality since World War Two.One out of five people in the UK live in relative poverty (13.5million people), including around 3.5 million children who are morelikely to live in a low income household than the population as awhole.

"Working with others, people of faith or no faith, we need towork for justice, inclusion and development that benefits the poorand marginalised here in the UK and across the world," he said."This requires that we be prepared for the education, organisationand equipping of our members so that we build the necessary energyand commitment to see changes in our society."

Dr Daleep Mukarji, who trained as a doctor in India, explainedthat he first saw the horrors of poverty when he was living andworking in rural India. "I was angry and wanted to do somethingabout the injustice and the systems that kept our Dalits (outcastecommunity), women and landless poor in abject poverty," he said."It was shocking for me to see children in India die prematurelyand from preventable diseases; things we could do something about."  

Dr Mukarji reminded people that the Methodist Church is knownfor its commitment to social justice and willingness to transformsociety. The work of the Revd Thomas Stephenson, who founded theNational Children's Home in 1869, is still relevant 140 years lateras Action for Children continues to help the most vulnerable andneglected children in the UK. 

Drawing on a recent report from four Churches: "The lies we tell ourselves:ending comfortable myths about poverty", Dr Mukarji said that theGovernment seemed to be making things worse for the poor bystigmatising them.

"We cannot give up," Dr Mukarji said. "We are people of hope andwe know that God is still in charge. God loves this world and wantsall people to have abundant life, life in all its fullness. In thecontext of so much despair, inequality, injustice, death andshocking treatment of our fellow human beings we must never giveup." 

The full text of the address follows:


Conference members, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour and privilege for me to be your VicePresident. Thank you for the trust and confidence you have shown inme and I ask for your prayers for me and my family. It will be myendeavour to serve the Conference and our Church and I look forwardto the visits, the time in the Districts, meeting our members andattending special events.

My family and I came to the UK fifteen years ago to live andwork here and were warmly welcomed in the local church in MuswellHill (North River Circuit). The community has been a family to usand we have been inspired and helped by our ministers and the localfellowship. Thank you to all of them for their support andfriendship

My Faith and Career Journey

I trained as a doctor in India after which I went to a Church ofSouth India (CSI) Diocese which had its roots in the work of theMethodist Missionary Society. Here I worked and lived in ruralIndia and got first hand experience of the problems and realitiesof my country. This was an eye opener and changed my life when Isaw some of the poverty, oppression and exploitation that was socommon and accepted. I was angry and wanted to do something aboutthe injustice and the systems that kept our dalits (outcastecommunity), women and landless poor in abject poverty.

All my life I have worked for ecumenical organisations in India,Geneva and London and this has enabled me to put my faith intoaction. In all this I have learnt something about the challengesthe churches face throughout the world.  I have beeninfluenced by my Christian faith, my professional training and mypassion for justice and poverty eradication. It was shocking for meto see children in India die prematurely and from preventablediseases; things we could do something about.  Poverty is amajor killer and poor people are often denied basic human rightsand marginalised in their societies. It has been very rewarding tohave spent most of my life working with others on these issues andseeing that we did make a difference.

The World Today: Poverty and Inequality

While we have seen so much progress and there have been realsuccesses in long term development sadly this has not reached allthe people. There is unequal development and the rich seem to havegot richer while the poor have sometimes got worse. Poverty andinequality are real challenges we face all over the world today. Itis a sick world and an unhealthy society with many people andnations suffering from the unjust structures and systems that keeppeople poor and deprived. Millions are denied the basic quality oflife that many of us take for granted.

Today in our world about one billion people will go to bedhungry. 30,000 children will die every day (one every four seconds)from preventable causes and about 65 million children will never goto school. Over 2 million children die every year from hunger,malnutrition and poverty. This is a scandal. About 40% of theIndian people live in severe poverty with levels of malnutrition,disease and neglect amongst the worst in the world. This is nosmall number as we are talking about 500 million people in acountry that is an emerging economic superpower.

Poverty in Britain is a real problem where 1 out of 5 (13.5m) ofour population lives in relative poverty. This includes about 3.5million children who are more likely to live in a low incomehousehold than the population as a whole. Poverty and inequality inthe UK are at the highest levels since WWII.  (There was anexcellent report to Conference 2011,"Of Equal Value: Poverty andInequality in the UK.")

In the US it is 1 out of every 7 who live in poverty (46.2million). There is severe poverty and inequality in sub SaharanAfrica, Latin America and in the other parts of the world.

Poverty and inequality are a global phenomenon. Many of ourchildren throughout the world are neglected; denied basic needs andlive in a society that is failing to ensure that they grow up withadequate food, clothing, education and health care.

But poverty is not about statistics or facts alone. It is aboutpeople, all made in God's image and all children of God. These arepeople with names, faces, hopes and aspirations, disappointmentsand stories and are all members of the human race. They are ourbrothers and sisters, our neighbours and their needs and problemsshould concern us. We are called to love our neighbours, to do goodand to help where we can. We are expected to speak about thekingdom….a new society…where there is justice, inclusion and peoplehave something of the quality of life God intended for all. Thiscommitment to making a difference cannot only be about dealing withthe symptoms - it has to be about justice, about a more equitabledistribution of resources and a willingness to challenge powers andprincipalities that maintain poverty and deprivation. It requiresus to look at the root causes of the problems to enable lastingsolutions. We must hold our leaders, the structures and systemsaccountable so that we see that the weak and vulnerable are given abetter deal. What does the Lord require of us, "to do justice, tolove kindness and to walk humbly with our God."(Micah 6:8) Jesusattacks those who spend time on trivial matters while ignoring moreimportant issues: justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew23:23)

Our Vision of a new world…the Kingdom of God.

Christians throughout the world should get involved in buildinga more just and healthy community in the perspective of the kingdomof God. We have to ask ourselves what kind of society we want forour children and grandchildren. How can we live in a civilised andhumane society when so many are deprived, neglected anddehumanised? Poverty and inequality are not just moral or ethicalissues for us but matters we must deal with in our own enlightenedinterest. Poverty can destroy people and nations because of theinsecurity, uncertainty, civil unrest, ethnic conflicts and senseof alienation that often come with it.

We have a prophetic role to get engaged, to pray, to act in avariety of ways and to give of our time and resources so that wecan contribute to building a better world. We could speak out, takesides, stand up for justice and help the weak and vulnerable.Prophets would address individuals, society and even nationalleaders or whole nations in our biblical traditions. They wouldremind people of their social and religious obligations to do good,to take care of the poor, the weak, strangers, women and children.This tradition of prophesy has inspired Christian activists andsocial reformers to be insolidarity with poor and oppressedpeople. We know of the stories of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King,William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, Dr ThomasBarnado and so many more. All were inspired by their faith and werewilling to take risks to help others. They dealt with the problemsthey faced but were prepared to tackle also the root causes of theinjustice and suffering. They became active in providingassistance, in advocacy, lobbying, campaigning for social justiceand spoke of a better world which was possible for allpeople. 

We have a vision of a new community where people live in harmonyand peace and all are treated with dignity and respect. Christiansand people of faith have been at the forefront of social movementsfor change at local, national and international levels. The worldis in need of healing where healthy relations are to be restoredbetween human beings and God, amongst human being themselves andbetween humans and all of creation. This then is a foretaste of thekingdom of God here and now.

In our Methodist tradition we have a heritage of people who havegot involved and have helped others over the years. One example ofthis is the Methodist minister Rev Thomas Stephenson who with twoMethodist friends did something about the plight of homeless anddeprived children in London. He founded what was to become theNational Children's Home in 1869. Over 140 years later that workcontinues as Action for Children still helping the most vulnerableand neglected children in the UK. I have seen a little of theexcellent work of AfC and this is something we Methodists can beproud of today. Our Methodist church is known for our service, ourcommitment to social justice and our willingness to act totransform society. The debate at the Conference in 2011 on thereport "Of Equal Value: Poverty and Inequality in the UK"reaffirmed the Churches' commitment to support those in greatestmaterial poverty and to work for justice and more equality.

The Methodist Church in Mission

At our Conference in 2000 we approved the statement "OurCalling" where we set out to "respond to the gospel of God's lovein Christ and to live out our discipleship in worship and mission."In this we stated clearly, "The Church exists to be a goodneighbour to people in need and to challenge injustice." Morerecently we have begun to describe ourselves as a "discipleshipmovement shaped for mission." We have in our priorities atConference 2004 amongst other key areas agreed "to supportcommunity development and actions for justice…especially for themost deprived in Britain and worldwide." At Conference 2012 weapproved the Future Mission Together report where we accepted that"participation in God's mission and the proclaiming of God'skingdom are at the heart of Jesus' message…… Every Methodist iscalled to share in God's mission wherever they are. Mission is thelifeblood of every church and every member….. Therefore everymember needs to be resourced and empowered to share in God'smission locally and globally." (FMT report 2012 para 4:1)

If we are to be a movement shaped for mission then we need toinvest in empowering our members to be agents of change: agents ofthe values and vision of the kingdom. Working with others, peopleof faith or no faith, we need to work for justice, inclusion anddevelopment that benefits the poor and marginalised here in the UKand across the world. This requires that we be prepared for theeducation, organisation and equipping of our members so that webuild the necessary energy and commitment to see changes in oursociety. Over the years we have done it in the labour movement, thefight for human rights for women, refugees, and children and forglobal development and peace. More recently we have been involvedin the movements to ban land mines, stop the arms trade, promotefair trade and trade justice, tackling global warming and climatechange, demanded the cancellation of third world debt (J2000),asked for increase in the aid budget, supported a movement formaking poverty history and so many more causes. We are making adifference and having an impact here and overseas. Who would havethought this government would keep an independent Department ForInternational Development (DFID), protect the aid budget and evencommit to increasing this to 0.7% of Gross National Income. Withothers we achieved this.

Yet it is this same government that seems to be making thingsworse for the poor people who are being stigmatised for just beingpoor in our country. Our Joint Public Issues Team (Methodists withthe URC, Baptists and the Church of Scotland) came out with areport recently "The Lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortablemyths about poverty". This exposed some of the truths and liesabout poverty in Britain today. It was a chance for the churches tospeak out and challenge society. The report states "the truth isthat poverty is an injustice crying out for correction….respondingwith charity can help break down the barriers in society and is apartial solution, but we all have a moral responsibility to build amore just and more understanding society." (JPIT Report April 2013)In May (2013) a Church Action on Poverty report estimated that overhalf a million people are now reliant on food aid in Britain. Theyuse food banks regularly and many of these are run by the churches.The numbers are likely to increase due to rising levels ofunemployment, underemployment, falling income and increases in foodand fuel prices. It is shocking that in the seventh richest nationin the world we still have such poverty and deprivation.

Ordinary people have power and need to be comfortable to usethis if we are to transform the way the world is organised for thebenefit of poor and excluded people. People can use theirdemocratic and political power to influence elected leaders andhold them accountable. They can use their commercial and economicpower to challenge supermarkets, multinational corporations and theinternational trading systems. And we can use our moral and ethicalpower to do what is right and to be in solidarity with marginalisedpeople throughout the world. 

We cannot give up. We are people of hope and we know that God isstill in charge. God loves this world and wants all people to haveabundant life, life in all its fullness. In the context of so muchdespair, inequality, injustice, death and shocking treatment of ourfellow human beings we must never give up. We need to believethings can and will change…a belief in the present and comingreality of the kingdom which can provide meaning and purpose to ourlives. Hope is about our vision and acting on it so that we workfor the transformation of our world.

Many Methodists in our local churches and circuits haveoutstanding programmes that serve people in need. At this time whenpoverty, deprivation and neglect seem to have got worse we shoulddo more. As a church we have a vision of a world transformed byGod's love may I suggest that we strengthen the actions and witnessof our members that seeks to make a difference here in Britain andthroughout the world. 

Mission is not optional for the Christian….it means reachingout, getting involved, sharing our faith, transforming individuallives and society and working for justice and the end of severepoverty. Let us not worry too much about our dwindling numbers, ourdeclining influence in society or of our limited resources. We willnever have enough. Jesus said to his first disciples "As the fatherhas sent me so I send you" (John 20:21) and so he sends out thismotley group of disciples to spread the gospel of good news to thepoor, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim liberty to thecaptives. They were empowered people and given the task toradically change individuals and society in taking forward God'smission. Such mission cannot be apolitical if it concerns people,love, justice and a desire to build a fairer and more sustainablesociety in the perspective of the reign of God.

There are huge challenges and opportunities in our world today,not very different from the world into which the disciples weresent.  We know another kind of world is possible and we mustspeak of it and promote it as our present model of growth anddevelopment is neither sustainable nor just. Jesus came to proclaimthe Kingdom where righteousness, love and inclusion are central tohis message of good news. Our vision of a different society musthave a spiritual, economic, social, moral, political and ethicaldimensions as it offers people an alternative that is just and moreequal. This is a new world order and is our reality of the Kingdomof God here and in the future.

Let our prayers be answered: Your Kingdom Come, Your will bedone on Earth as it is in Heaven.