03 July 2018

Finding hope that
‘All Things are Possible’
through the Beatitudes

Towers and turrets, bells and chimney pots … the High Leigh Conference Centre in the summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle, and the USPG Conference in High Leigh was marked today [3 July 2018] with a number of reminders of the mission of Saint Thomas.

At our opening Eucharist this morning, we heard the story in Saint John’s Gospel of Saint Thomas falling to his knows before the Risen and Christ and proclaiming, ‘My Lord and God’ (John 20: 28).

Our main speaker this morning was Jessica Richard from Tamil Nadu, who spoke of her work as Co-ordinator of Campaign and Advocacy in the Church of South India.

The conference theme is ‘All Things are Possible,’ and we are looking at the place in mission of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Jessica spoke on the theme of ‘People’ and looked at a number of issues she confronts in South India, where the girl child’s right to live is still not a given and infanticide is still a fact of life.

Other issues include gender equality, the marginalisation of people with disabilities, bonded labour, pastoral management, and teaching children about the environment and pollution.

A former USPG trustee and council member, Archdeacon John Perumbalath, is being consecrated today in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, as Bishop of Bradwell in the Diocese of Chelmsford.

Bishop John has been Archdeacon of Barking in the Diocese of Chelmsford since 2013. He was born and brought up in the ancient Syrian Christian community in Kerala, South India, and was ordained in the Church of North India in 1994. He has been a Lecturer in New Testament at Serampore College in India, and since moving to England he has been a hearty supporter of USPG.

Our Bible study this morning was led by the Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills, who brought us through the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-12) with reflections on her own experiences in international peace work and interfaith dialogue.

‘When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek … those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers … those who are persecuted for righteousness … you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account …’

She described the Beatitudes as blessings that do not lay down a legalistic code, rather they are the antithesis, picking out the people the world sees and losers and lifting them up. She illustrated the Beatitudes with photographs and stories from her own experiences.

She spoke of people she met in Srebrenica whose families had been murdered and dismembered. She read from Elie Wiesel’s description in Night of his experiences after being liberated from Buchenwald.

She recalled asking three teenage girls who are at school together in Jerusalem – an Israeli Jew, Israeli Muslim and a Palestinian Christian – what hopes they have for the future, and what they fear the most. None of them could say had any hope for the future, and all three for different reasons feared the army or conscription.

She told of two neighbours from Rwanda who had shown mercy to each other after horrific experiences as perpetrators and victims of the recent genocide.

Bonnie spoke movingly of meeting an eight-year-old girl in a refugee camp in southern Iraq whose family had fled Isis in Nineveh. ‘I don’t know whether I was Jesus holding her little hand, or she was Jesus holding mine.’ But she reminded us that we are in the presence of Jesus every day when we are present with those who are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

Ruth Scott, who has worked with women have suffered violence from Northern Ireland to Africa, points to our potential to be both the victim and perpetrator, and that no peace is possible without the consent and engagement of the people who create violence. It is a paradox that the perpetrator of violence becomes the peacemaker and is blessed.

She spoke too of Coptic Christians from Egypt who have been beheaded by Isis on the beaches of Libya but maintained their faith to the end, and Iranians seeking refuge in England, including a couple who have been waiting 15 years, not able to work, unable to find a home, and seeing no end to their plight.

As Canon Chris Chivers, the outgoing chair of USPG trustees, said, it was challenging to process. But as Jessica Richard reminded us in her presentation, ‘The Journey continues.’

The conference continues this afternoon when Dr James Corah, Head of Ethical and Responsible Investment at CCLA Investment Management Ltd, speaks on ‘The Planet’ and the Revd Dr Pervaiz Sultan, Principal of Saint Thomas’s Theological College, Karachi, speaks on ‘Peace’ … another link with Saint Thomas on Saint Thomas’s Day.

Summer sunshine at the High Leigh Conference Centre during a break at the USPG conference this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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