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Jesus Provokes us to Love His LIVING Relatives, the Poor

Kindergarten student John and his mum Flonnie in Katundu one of Project Kindy kindergartens in rural Malawi, Africa

To draw closer to Jesus, get to know and offer support to His living relatives, the poor, who are walking the earth in our time!

Hi, my name is Donna Power and I’m from the Brisbane-based charity, Project Kindy.  We fundraise for kindergarten children in extreme poverty in rural Malawi, Africa, providing them with daily polenta-style lunches and education that prepares them for success at primary school.

John was a child of our kindergarten until a month ago.  He lives in a subsistence farming community in the village called, Katundu, and is among the poorest demographics in the world.  He stopped coming to the kindy last month, because he was feeling shy since the mother could not afford to buy for him new clothes.  Tattered shirts and torn shorts are commonplace in these villages, so his clothes must have been very threadbare to stop him from leaving his home.  At the tender age of 4 he has felt the isolating hand of poverty push him into the distance, away from connections with community.

His mother, Flonnie, is 28 years old and she has another child of 11 months.  The husband and father left the family with no reason.   Flonnie is trying to help her family by selling charcoal but there is no money for clothes, school fees, shoes or even food.

Did you know that Jesus provokes us to love the poor who are living members of His family, walking the face of the earth in our time?  Why does He give the poor such a high status and how can we love Him through His brothers and sisters? Learn more from Project Kindy's Donna Power
John standing next to the bags of coal his mother, Flonnie, makes and sells to get by

When Sr Giovanna, the Canossian Sister we work with at the grassroots level, realised he was not at kindy, she and the teacher searched for him in the village.  They discovered the barrier that poverty had created and provided John with a uniform and warmly invited him back to the kindy to receive daily lunch, pre-school education and most importantly, connection with the rest of his community.

Flonnie is very grateful that some of the burden of poverty has been lifted off her and her children. Her son has food and a uniform, and he is learning to interact with others and to take care of himself.  She says that words don’t seem to express the depth of relief and gratitude she feels for the community who has loved her son in this way. 

Did you know that Jesus provokes us to love the poor who are living members of His family, walking the face of the earth in our time?  Why does He give the poor such a high status and how can we love Him through His brothers and sisters? Learn more from Project Kindy's Donna Power
Agnes, mother of 6, her youngest 2 are currently at our Nsanama kindergarten

Agnes is a mother at another one of our kindergartens, in the villaged called Nsanama.  She was born in the village of Nsanama, and she could go to school only until year 5. Her parents were farmers and they could not afford to send her to school past this point, which is commonplace in Malawi. In spite of this, she always treasured the gift and the importance of education. She told herself that she will do all that is possible to send her children to school.

She says that the promise she made to herself – to educate her children – is still very much alive in her mind and heart now that she is 39 and has 6 children. Her older four children are now in primary school after going to our kindergarten where her youngest two are currently enrolled. She says that she is very happy when they come back from kindy and they can sing in English, count and read and even write their names. She says the school opens their mind and prepares them for the primary school.

Her children don’t have uniform and they go from home each morning without food, but the kindy and school provide a polenta-style lunch for them, so she is at peace.

Agnes said it was very difficult during the lock down, when the kindergarten and school were closed because of Covid 19.  Her children could not get the polenta meal they rely on, and so they were hungry. Also, they spent the whole day playing and she realised they were losing interest in education and even forgetting what they had learned.

She wants them to grow and have a chance in life. Agnes says that faith and education are the two treasures to cling to in this life.  Agnes is a very hardworking woman, still young and full of energy. She thanks the Lord for the gift of life and the family and is happy she had a chance to share her story with us.                                                                            

When our family members suffer, we suffer too in a way.  When someone offers relief to our family member, it means the world to us.  For instance, when one of my child is having a hard time, I feel for her, and carry the burden along with her.  On the other hand, when someone else in the community supports her, I feel filled with relief and gratitude for their kindness because they’ve had a healing or empowering impact on her.

God knows this about us because He wired us for connection.  He loves families and there are many times that He teaches us a great deal about Himself through the frame of family life.

Our families profoundly shape us and reveal crucial information about us and this is also very true of Our Lord.  God’s Living Word, the Scriptures, invite us to learn about Jesus in connection to His family.  These insights are like rain from Heaven, the Bible says, coming down to us to nourish and bear fruit in our lives.  It’s through the Old and New Testaments we can get to know God, the Father of Jesus, who is essential to our understanding of Christ Jesus, who is One with the Father and is the Word of Life for all eternity.  It’s through the Gospels that we can get to know Mary, the Mother of Jesus and Joseph, his earthly ‘step father’, who show us that God’s invites and involves people to love Him and join in His redemptive work, too.  

But, did you know that Jesus calls – no commands and provokes us – to get to know His own living relatives?

In the Matthew 25:34-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, Jesus says:

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’

Other versions say, as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, or followers or simply ‘these’.  But I have been drawn back to that interesting phrase in the NRSV, ‘who are members of my family’.  It’s  another way of saying my brothers and sisters, but it encourages me to think in a different way about how serious He takes all of this.  Fascinatingly, He says they ‘are’ not ‘were’ His family, even though He says the actions took place in the past. 

Jesus is inviting us to understand that He is connected to the suffering of the disadvantaged and heavily burdened people who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, imprisoned.  He feels when they are made to suffer more.  He feels when their chains are lifted.  Why?  Because they are His brothers, His sisters, His family.  He is very close to them. 

Why would Jesus give the poor such a high status as members of His family?  This is a direct challenge to the popular human tendency to give the highest status to those people who have money, power, privilege and positioning.  If we all honoured and loved the poor, what sort of society would we have?  Wouldn’t it be different?  We are called to do that at the level of the individual but also to challenge and heal systemic injustice that creates the disadvantage. 

He is plainly saying that if we don’t empower, heal, visit, provide for and lift the burden of those who suffer, we won’t be spending eternity with Him.  That is a very serious statement and one that we must hear as core to our Christian life.  It’s not an optional extra, or a political left vs right argument.  Jesus says, come and get to know my family, who are the least of your society, and you will understand my redemptive love more fully and you will relieve my own pain when you dress their wounds.  And you will be close to me forever.

The stories I shared at the beginning are examples of how these two mothers in Malawi felt relief and hope when the community helped their children with kindergarten, ensuring hope for their future and daily food when there was none at home.  It is a privilege to hear their stories, which they were happy to share with us. For me, Project Kindy has provided a formational experience where Jesus continues to shape my worldview and values as He calls me to listen to the poor in our world.  Really listening means asking deeper questions about the shadows in our world and envisioning how to shine our lights more brightly.  Listening to the poor provokes the comfortable part of me, the one that forgets the element of luck in life, to join in the work for Jesus’ family as well as my own.

Who is the poor that you could sit at the feet of and learn about Our Lord from?  Who is suffering in your family, neighbourhood, church, school, work, state, nation, world?  We can start by really listening to the poor and offering relief in one way or another.  Let’s all do our bit to relieve the suffering of the least of these, who are members of Jesus’ family, and in doing so, draw close to Jesus Himself now and for all eternity.

I hope you have been inspired by the stories of John and his mum, Flonnie and Agnes and her 6 children, to love the poor because when you do, you’re loving Our Lord, too.

Project Kindy's Girls Night Out event fundraising for the poor in rural kindergartens in Malawi. Held at The Loft, in West End, Brisbane, and run by Donna Power
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How the 4 Main Principles of Catholic Social Teaching are Demonstrated by Project Kindy

This article can be used as a teaching resource over 4 lessons.

Project Kindy is my small, grassroots charity which raises funds in Australia to provide for kindergartens in rural Malawi, Africa.  Please see www.projectkindy.com to get acquainted with our work.  The kindergartens are initiated and run by the local communities and overseen and managed by the Canossian Daughters of Charity.  The partnership between the local village communities, the Canossian Sisters and Project Kindy demonstrates the Catholic Social Teaching principles of Human Dignity, the Common Good, Solidarity and Subsidiarity.

Human Dignity

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27

Genesis 1:27 proclaims a very powerful message, that humans are made in the image and likeness of God.  This is powerful because it bestows immeasurable value onto every single person no matter who they are, where they are, what they have got or what they have done.[1]  It affirms that each person is created for relationship with God and with other people, just as the Trinity models unity of one God in three persons.  

The human person flourishes when he/she loves and is loved by God and other people because he/she is created for relationship with God and other people and one relationship fulfils and strengthens the other.  In every area of society we are called to create environments where each person’s inherent dignity is protected and upheld and each person is able to flourish into who God intended him/her to become.[2] 

The children’s dignity is honoured in several ways through Project Kindy.  Firstly, the provision of access to early years education empowers them to develop as a whole person with a special focus on literacy, numeracy, life skills and social skills.  There is much research that confirms kindergarten experience improves the child’s school readiness which is a key indicator for improved and sustained success through primary, secondary and tertiary school and as an employee, leader and active adult citizenship in society.  This research also indicates that not only does the individual have an improved chance to flourish, but so does the local community and the country at large.

“Giving children a good start through kindergarten not only counters the worst effects of poverty, but may also be the most effective means of halting cross-generational poverty. When equity in access to early education and learning is improved, greater economic benefits accrue to individuals themselves and collectively to society.”     United Nations Children’s Fund:  New York, Updated in April 2012

Another way we honour the dignity of the children and the village communities is in the way we present them to donors and supporters on our Project Kindy website, in our emails, social media and public speaking presentations.  The photos and videos we use of the children, teachers, village leaders and mothers are natural, strengths-focused and elicit a feeling of equality and respect.  The stories we tell emphasise their noble efforts to work, learn and flourish amongst such difficult circumstances of pervasive poverty and that only luck of birth separates us from them.  We invite people to stand in their shoes and imagine that if we were born there, we might hope to be the same leaders, teachers and mothers trying to improve the standard of living for our children.

Our support is offered to each of the children in each of the kindergartens regardless of their family background, religion, family finances or location.  They each have immeasurable worth in our eyes due to being children of God. Some are Christian, some are Muslim and some are not religiously affiliated. Some are orphans living with extended family and some are children still living with one or two of their parents.  We love them all.

Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is the idea that every person is created by a loving God with inherent dignity is sometimes so challenging to accept?
  2. If it is true that every person has God-given worth and love, what are the consequences for society?
  3. Are there times in my life when I struggle to see the image of God in other people? When? How could I reframe how I see those people and improve my response to challenging situations?

Common Good

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12

The common good is the goal of creating social conditions where people are able to develop more fully and flourish more easily.  The right to the common use of the earth’s resources is fundamental to this goal.  God gives the earth and her resources to all of humankind and He does not exclude or favour any person.  It is imperative that societies with more resources share them with societies that are in need.  The single-minded materialistic pursuit of collecting goods while our neighbours suffer stifles the flourishing of both the poor and the wealthy.  We were made to be in relationship with each other and our destinies are entwined so that we are liberated only when we are ALL liberated.[3]

The national annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of Australia is around $50 000 whereas it is less than $500 in Malawi.  By luck of birth, we Australians have access to a great deal of resources and according to Catholic Social Teaching we must work to share these resources with other countries that are struggling to flourish.  Project Kindy strives for the common good and aims to contribute to the common access to the earth’s resources mainly through helping to provide short term help in the form of food security as well as long term empowerment through early years education.  Our donors share their resources with the kindergarten communities and in doing so they contribute to sharing the excesses of the Australian society with the poverty-stricken rural communities in Malawi.

In Malawi, people live a subsistence lifestyle, where they are reliant on the land and the weather for the small amount of food they grow for themselves and struggle to make an income. In 2016, the United Nations World Food Programme declared Malawi, Africa, a “Level 3” which is their highest level of emergency, identifying that 6.5 million (just over a third of the population of 18 million) Malawians needed immediate food aid.  The families Project Kindy supports only harvest their food once each year, roughly from April to July. For two thirds of the year, they cannot harvest anymore crops or access new food for their family. If their one harvest is bad, they are in very real danger of food crisis. 

Project Kindy funds daily lunch of ‘nsima’ (ground up corn or rice kernels cooked in water over a campfire) for the 700 children, Monday to Friday, for the 9 months of the year that they attend kindergarten.  In Malawi, the people eat ‘nsima’ for breakfast, lunch and dinner (or less frequently if they are running low in supplies).  The Sisters purchase 400 x 50kg bags of rice and corn kernels and store them in sheds for the year.  They mill the kernels each Monday morning and give representatives from each of the 11 kindergartens their week’s ration of flour.  This provides a much-needed safety net for these children and protects them from hunger and famine. 

Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  1. What have you observed about the relationship between poor people and rich people across the world?
  2. How does working for the Common Good differ from working for material gain alone?
  3. What would the world look like if each society was built upon the idea of the Common Good?

Solidarity

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:40

Solidarity is an attitude of brotherly and sisterly love for our global family, believing that God is our common Creator and so we are inextricably linked through His love.  It is the right way to see our relationships as we receive, the love from our common Heavenly Father and reflect and channel it to each other which then further strengthens our relationship with God and so on.  Whenever we reach out to love, support or empower another person we are expressing our desire to work toward our common good and build unifying, right relationships with each other.  Those of us who are in well-resourced societies are called to share material support within the context of a kind of Christian sibling love with those of us who are in under-resourced societies.[4]  The most fulfilling life is found through empowering, serving and loving others, not just accumulation of material goods.[5]

When the Sisters talk to the leaders, teachers, mothers and village communities on behalf of Project Kindy, they tell them that we are not a big NGO, but a small number of their brothers and sisters in God across the seas.  Some of the village communities are Christian, some of them are Muslim and some are of no religion.  We extend our love and material support to all 11 village groups no matter what religion and culture they are.  When I was there in 2017 it was profoundly beautiful for me to see the children contentedly eating their lunches, playing their games, singing their songs, playing together and smiling away.  Not one of them is excluded from our love because we are all one family in God’s house.

We do not see the children, teachers and mothers as lower in status to us.  Instead we see them as equal partners in a mutually beneficial project, working together to achieve a common goal.  We benefit in many ways from being connected to them and working together towards their liberty which is tied up with ours.  We are wired for this connection and it simply feels good to be serving a noble purpose bigger than ourselves.  The direct relationship we enjoy with the communities through the Sisters is truly a source of wholesome nourishment for our own souls.  The gift of knowing we are making a real and tangible difference in partnership with the locals is a very special antidote to the frustration many donors have expressed to me as they search for deeper relevance in their day to day lives.

Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  1. Who is left behind in the world?
  2. Who is left behind in our own communities?
  3. How can we show solidarity with them?

Subsidiarity

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. ” 1 Corinthians 12:12

Subsidiarity refers to the rights and responsibilities of different levels of society and how they should relate to each other for the common good.  The smaller, more local groups should be empowered to participate fully, have their voices heard and cooperate in the creation of that which affects their lives.  Higher structures such as managing bodies and governments must do for the smaller groups what they are unable to do for themselves and to respond to injustices appropriately.[6]

The smallest, most local group in our network is the teachers, parents and committee of each of the kindergartens.  They are in charge of running the lessons, cooking the lunches and solving the everyday problems of the kindies.  The Canossian Sisters sit above them as the overall managers and they educate, mentor and provide support for the local teachers, parents and children. Project Kindy is further removed from the project and so we listen carefully to and respect the advice from the Sisters as to the best course of action for how our funds are to be spent.  Above Project Kindy is the Australian Government who impose strict standards on the charity and the Canossian Sisters and local staff in Malawi to ensure their standards are met.

Each kindergarten is managed by a Parents and Community Committee with the approval from the village chief and each has a representative that meets with the Sisters and the other representatives regularly.  It is an empowering model of partnership and participation where the local people are truly active agents of change in their own communities.  It was clear during my visit that the local volunteers are very energized by this opportunity to work and provide early years education for the little children in their communities.  I cannot overstate the passion with which they spoke as they addressed the villages gathered for our visit.  I observed their great enthusiasm as they taught the children songs, literacy and numeracy.  This energy is very impressive given the oppressive nature of poverty in all aspects of life.

At times there are matters that are inappropriate for the local teachers, mothers, parents and community committee and village chiefs to decide upon.  In these cases, the Sisters manage the situation.  This is clearly seen in the problem of how to give incentives and thank the volunteer teachers.  At first, it was agreed upon between the Sister and myself that Project Kindy funds would be used to provide a small wage to the teachers as this is in line with the principle of the dignity of work.  Later, another Sister corrected this and pointed out that providing monetary wages would create a social injustice in the community.  She said the village volunteers are not equipped to deal with such an influx of money and it would cause conflict.  The Sisters resolved the matter with their solution to provide each volunteer teacher with bags of grain instead of wages.  In this instance, the Sisters had a superior view of the social dynamics of the 11 villages and how introducing wages would cause unnecessary difficulties.  Their decision-making enabled the smaller groups, the teachers, to continue to do their work unhindered and with appropriate reimbursement for their time and energy.

Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is it important that the local people participate in the decision-making and running of the kindergartens?
  2. Why is it important that the Sisters make decisions from their perspective?
  3. How do small community groups in your own area strengthen your society?

For extra research into the lifestyles of families in Malawi and how they compare to Western lifestyles in America, visit the real photos of people and their homes at https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix?countries=Malawi,United%20States

The Catholic Social Justice principles of Human Dignity, Common Good, Solidarity and Subsidiarity underpin the work of the local teachers and representatives, the Canossian Daughters of Charity and Project Kindy, whether the individual people involved are aware of that or not.  It is a mutually beneficial project which proves the point that true fulfillment comes when we empower others to flourish and in doing so, we too develop more fully.  Ultimately, we are blessed to be in relationship with our siblings in a faraway land and we will continue to strive for our common good.

Bibliography

Massaro, Thomas. Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action. The Classroom, Edition. Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Pope Paul VI.  Populorum Progressio. Vatican: 1967.

http://w2.vatican.va/content/paulvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_pvi_enc_26031967_populorum.html, visited 18 August 2019.

 Benedict XVI.  Caritas in Veritate. Vatican: 2009

http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate.html,   visited 18 August 2019.

1. Thomas Massaro, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action. The Classroom Edition,  (Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 83.

2. Benedict XVI.  Caritas in Veritate. (Vatican: 2009

http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate.html),   visited 18 August 2019. #45 & #53

3. Pope Paul VI,  Populorum Progressio, (Vatican: 1967,  http://w2.vatican.va/content/paulvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_pvi_enc_26031967_populorum.html) visited 18 August 2019, #19, 22 & 23.

4. Pope Paul VI,  Populorum Progressio, #49.

5. Benedict XVI.  Caritas in Veritate. #5 & 7.

6. Thomas Massaro, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action, 93.