Psalmist of praise and protest
STREET children from Africa, South America, India and Europe playing football in a Durban area last March; it’s the Deloitte Street Child World Cup, and it shows off the human potential of children failed by every social and political system. Durban itself has 2,000 street children; the Umthombo organisation, founded five years ago, helps keep them safe and fed.
A teacher training college in Tamil Nadu, South India, for Dalits (formerly known as ‘untouchables’). Only one in four vacancies for primary school teachers are filled in Dalit schools, and lack of education is one reason Dalits are kept poor. Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh recently described untouchability as a ‘blot on humanity’.
Rural health promotion in Nicaragua, helping whole communities work together to halt the spread of disease and save th
e lives of thousands of under-fives who’d otherwise die.
Peacemaking and reconciliation in Palestine-Israel, with educational tours and resource material about the conflict there.
These are just some examples of the work of Amos Trust, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. And unlikely as it seems, it was born – thanks to the vocation of its founder – in music.
Garth Hewitt is an Anglican priest who is the vicar of All Hallows on the Wall in the City of London, and an honorary canon of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem. So far, so establishment: but perhaps he’s still best known as a singer and songwriter. Garth performed at the first Greenbelt festival and has returned ever since, and his music has been the soundtrack to the lives of a generation of Christians.
But alongside the music, there’s been a passion for justice and a desire to change the world – a desire, he says, that was first given shape by Martin Luther King.
‘When I was a teenager I was thinking about Christianity,’ he says. ‘I was uncertain, I was watching, observing.
‘Martin Luther King caught my attention. I saw him kneeling in the street, praying, under attack with water cannon and dogs.’
In 1964 Dr King preached at St Paul’s Cathedral on his way to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, and Garth was there.
‘It made a huge impact on me. The message he preached was so complete, so rounded – I thought, it’s all fitting together.’
It was an impact that would last. Garth was ordained 40 years ago by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, but his musical gifts were evident early on. He was invited to undertake a full-time music ministry by the Church Pastoral Aid Society, and soon found that his horizons were expanding.
‘The opportunities I had as a singer opened up possibilities and responsibilities for me. I was asked to sing in places where there were poverty and human rights issues; I was asked to write songs about them.
‘Increasingly I felt drawn – there was a sense of vocation – to pick up issues of justice. That goes back to that moment in St Paul’s.’
Amos Trust arose from a visit to Poland in Communist times, and the need to support Garth’s increasing international ministry.
‘People there were trying to influence things with music, with culture. I thought, this is the right thing to do, and my church helped me. It was good, I did other trips to certain parts of the world, and I felt I should keep a link with them. We started to build support.’
From the outset, Amos’s strong point has been the connections it makes with its partners, and its concern to avoid a donor/recipient relationship.
‘For example in Nicaragua, we listened to the voices of local people like Gustavo Parajon from First Baptist Church in Managua. We listen and learn; it’s a two-way relationship. We benefit by what we hear.’
This listening has informed the very nature of Amos’s work. Its travel programme allows participants to meet people on the ground, to see the work being done by its partners, and to listen to the stories of people whose lives are very different from their own. The aim is to provide an experience which is more than tourism, and allows a deep encounter with other cultures. A planned 2012 visit to India, for instance, starts in the urban setting of Chennai and its Dalit community. It continues to rural Tamil Nadu and the work with children there, and includes time on the beautiful Kerala coast and an A Rocha elephant project in Bannerghatta National Park.
And there’s an annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land which includes time looking at biblical sites, but also meeting the ‘living stones’ of the land – the people whose forebears lived there at the time of Christ. Each day includes the opportunity to visit places of interest and to meet local peacemakers – Christian, Jewish and Muslim.
Garth himself has learned from his experiences – ‘I’ve seen poverty at a level I’ve found very challenging.’
South America’s liberation theology, for instance, has been a big influence. In the Philippines, ‘I was able to explore theology with real people’ rather than just through a list of authors.
He describes liberation theology as ‘bringing the gospel alive in the context of oppression’. ‘The gospel brings liberty, and that’s very refreshing. We all need liberation. It helps us in terms of where to stand, how to position
our theology and our politics.’
This commitment to liberation – for everyone – has informed Amos Trust’s involvement in Israel/Palestine. Garth is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and Amos is involved in the slow and painful campaign for a just solution to a problem that often seems beyond human competence.
He’s clear that both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, will have to agree to lose things they value in order to gain something greater. As Garth puts it, ‘We have to give up the thing we’re clutching in order to get something better. It’s in relationship with our neighbour – to look him in the eyes, and make a deal.’
And it’s crucial that each side genuinely hears the stories of the other, and acknowledges its pain.
‘In South Africa they had a Truth and Reconciliation Committee,’ he says. ‘In Palestine, one day there needs to be a Truth and Recognition Committee. Hamas [the militant Palestinian movement regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and Western powers] will have to recognise the pain of Jewish suffering through the centuries.’ And
Israel, he says, will have to acknowledge Palestinian feelings too. For Hamas, ‘our country has been taken, without us having any say in it’.
So, ‘Truth is good – who did what to whom? To hear each other’s stories, and to acknowledge their validity, is very important.’
At the same time, it’s not just about how people feel: it’s about real changes in political and social conditions.
‘To me, it’s looking for equality of basic rights. There needs to be an acceptance of international law. It’s about allowing democracy to happen.
‘At the end of the day, Palestinians have had [a deal based on the 1967 borders] on the table since 2002. If Israel agreed to withdraw to the 1967 borders, Hamas would offer a truce.
‘So there needs to be recognition, the drawing of borders, and then to allow each other to have security, democracy and the rights that we would take for granted.’
But, he says, because of the encroachment of Jewish settlers on Palestinian territory, ‘It is possibly too late for a two-state solution. If so, Israel has to face up to the one-state implications – that there will be no Jewish majority. They can’t have it both ways.’
These are the issues which have faced every leader in the region since 1967. President Obama convened talks recently amid a blaze of publicity and hopeful press stories; that these have been thrown into crisis by Israel’s refusal to continue its moratorium on settlement-building illustrates how long and hard the road to peace might still be.
Nevertheless, Garth is still hopeful. ‘There is a pathway. There is a tiredness with conflict. Most people would like to live in peace with their neighbour; but it needs a strong political process.’
Like other peace groups, he says, ‘We can contribute grassroots support. Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups have signed up – they recognise the values we have in common.’
And progress is essential. ‘If either side keeps suggesting others are of less value, they are doomed to repeat their problems. If they think violence can solve anything, they’re doomed.
‘If there’s hope, it’s in the people. I’m very struck by the incredible moral strength of Jewish Israelis who are standing up on this issue, people like Jeff Halper [founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions] who says, “No, we can do better than this. “They come under tremendous attack from their own communities.’
I ask him whether, in his experience of marginalised and oppressed communities around the world, there are similarities in how they respond to their situations. ‘A common thread is the value of the individual. At the beginning of the Bible, we understand that people are made in the image of God. In Jesus we see the outworking of the prophetic, deeply meaningful calls for the dignity of human beings.’
He speaks of ‘Bethlehem theology’, based on the birth of Jesus among the poor, rather than the powerful.
‘Jesus is with the Dalit, with the street child, the refugee… Bethlehem theology unites what we’re doing.’
But different contexts do shape responses. For Dalits in India, for instance, ‘There’s a hammering down of people all the time. It’s hard – how do you shake off the shackles? Ambedkar [the Dalit political hero] became a Buddhist, not a Christian, because he saw the caste system still in the churches. Beating the subtlety of the caste system is very hard.
‘For Palestinians, there’s a lot of dignity. They will often say, “We’re still here.”
‘It’s harder for street children, who’ve been hammered so hard. How do you get to the point where you feel you’re valuable, when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from?’
I wonder, too, how he copes emotionally and spiritually with the kind of things he sees, and sustaining a long-term ministry while avoiding burnout. He’s candid.
‘I sometimes won’t look too much. I didn’t feel I could take on more poverty, more pain.’
After the Israeli attack on Gaza, he says, ‘I realised it was beginning to overwhelm me. I was forced to stop, because I had cancer.’
But the convalescence gave him a chance to pause, and to think and pray – a necessity, Garth says. ‘Activists can’t go on and on; if they keep burning, they’ll burn out. You need to pause and take strength. ‘My spirituality gives me hope, it gives me a place to stand.’
And the music which began the work of Amos Trust is still part of him. As he was convalescing from his treatment, he worked on a new album, Moonrise. ‘Music feeds me. Rehearsing hurt physically, but it was
energising.’ He describes it as containing ‘an awful lot ofhappiness’. It draws on his reading of the mystic Thomas Merton, and on journeys to Nicaragua, Mozambique and the Holy Land; and, he says, ‘I think this is part of the gift, role or ministry of music: to lift spirits, to bring joy even in the midst of struggles.’