by Allan Bussard
Allan and his wife, Caulene, (Canada) have served in Slovakia for the past 30 years. They founded and lead the Integra Foundation for humanitarian relief and poverty alleviation.1
When an expert in the law asked, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Lk. 10:29), Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We learn that our neighbour may not be the person we expect. They could be someone we meet by chance or a person from far away who speaks another language and has different customs. Helping a neighbour may be inconvenient or even risky. When we come across a person in need, we are challenged to ask if our response reflects the compassion of the Good Samaritan.
When we moved to Slovakia 30 years ago, right after the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia, we were familiar with the atheistic and secular context, having ministered in communist Eastern Europe since 1975. One question was foremost, how does one reveal the gospel as good news in this place? Most people in Slovakia do not regard the gospel as good; most feel that religion causes conflict and bloodshed, and is best avoided. The church was complicit in the transport of Jews to Auschwitz, and Protestants and Catholics fought the Hundred Years War. Nor is the gospel seen as news in a place with 800-year-old church buildings. We realised that for people here to believe the gospel they need to see it at work. Proclamation needs to be accompanied by affirmation for the gospel to be understood.
One of the clear purposes for which the Father sent the Son into the world is to bring good news to everyone, including the poor. In his first chapter, Isaiah makes a shocking statement: ‘Stop bringing meaningless offerings!’ The leaders of Jerusalem had been faithfully observing the God-given rules of sacrifice and worship, but God complained that He was tired of their worship. Not because it was idolatrous, but because they neglected widows, orphans and the oppressed. The conclusion is inescapable: worship without justice becomes merely entertainment, which God said, ‘I cannot bear’ (Isa. 1:13).
We live in a global world and want a global vision. As citizens of a rich country, Slovaks needed to look outward. In 1995, working with Slovak colleagues, we took inspiration from the parable of the Good Samaritan and began to experiment with holistic poverty alleviation in an effort to live out the gospel in a way that could be seen, understood and embraced. Over the years we have engaged several thousand Slovak partners and sponsors, believers and unbelievers alike, in responding to the needs of women at risk in Eastern Europe, slum children in Kenya, displaced mothers in Sudan, persecuted Yazidis in Iraq, malnourished children in Yemen and impoverished farmers in Ethiopia.
Coffee & Nuts, Ethiopia
Two years ago we became aware of a looming crisis in southern Ethiopia. Due to changes in the climate, as much as 60% of coffee production in Ethiopia may disappear by 2040. Growing coffee sustains 18 million Ethiopian farmers and their families, and these livelihoods are under threat.
For the past 15 years we have successfully grown macadamia and cashew nut trees in Kenya. We were contacted by the Ethiopian government and the local church for help in introducing the same scheme in Ethiopia. The idea is to provide an alternative cash crop for farmers when their coffee begins to decline. An additional advantage is that when these trees are planted among the coffee bushes, they provide shade, which extends the productive life of the plants by as much as 20 years, buying precious time. So, in 2018 we began to import 200,000 seedlings from Kenya into Ethiopia, where they are beginning to thrive. It turns out that macadamia trees do well wherever coffee grows and they are more resilient to climate change. In four years these trees will produce income for farmers and, as they are productive for up to 80 years, for their children and grandchildren as well.
We had a meeting with coffee farmers in one region of south central Ethiopia where they entrusted us with 200 hectares of prime coffee-growing land to be used to plant 40,000 macadamia nut trees. One of the Muslim elders said, ‘I believe that God has sent you to help rescue our children from poverty.’
Integra is developing this project in partnership with an Ethiopian local church that we have cooperated with for the last 15 years. Our partners have strong local knowledge and connections, which is critical. This project also gives the Ethiopian believers a way to participate in mission within their own country, reaching out with the gospel and with compassion across tribal and traditional barriers.
One of the Muslim elders said, ‘I believe that God has sent you to help rescue our children from poverty.’
Loving Our Neighbour
The issue of poverty is complex but we can make a difference in the life of a person and by demonstrating the love of Christ in a tangible way, we can overcome despair, rekindle hope and offer love. As people come to know Christ, they gain a new ability to love, forgive, show mercy and seek justice. They become able to develop relationships of grace, which become the foundation for communities that work for the weak, as well as the strong.
How does considering who my neighbour is work on a global scale? Much of what kills people in the developing world is preventable. Every 19 seconds a child dies as a result of drinking dirty water, 800 women die each day giving birth and 1.2 million die each year from malaria, of whom 90% are children under the age of five. Most of these deaths are avoidable with access to things like clean water, sanitary toilets and mosquito nets. Such widespread preventable suffering is not only a poverty issue, it is a justice issue. It is relational failure on a global scale. We know how to fix it and the Church needs to be front and centre in providing solutions.
That is where the gospel begins to look relevant to a doubting generation. I have seen that as Slovaks get drawn into issues of global justice, they are drawn to the gospel. Recently, I was talking with a Slovak believer who grew up under communism and is a leader in our local church in Bratislava. He commented on how healthy it is for the youth growing up in our church to be able to hear about and become involved in the needs of the world. He said, ‘My generation was entrusted with the challenge of keeping the faith alive under communism. Today’s generation of Slovak Christian leaders is entrusted with the challenge of taking the gospel to the most needy parts of God’s world. Integra gives a practical way for them to get involved.’
The last 25 years have taught us that Slovaks come to understand, believe and embrace the gospel as we engage them to help solve global issues of justice and mercy. Proclamation and explanation of the gospel is critical but ‘telling’ is not sufficient, if the message gets stuck on the scepticism, prejudice and preconceptions that have built up over years and generations. Explaining the gospel as the reason for the transformation that they see often brings an ‘Aha’ moment that reveals true understanding.
When someone shows love to the ‘other’, they are also being drawn to God because He is the source of love. It turns out that as sceptical and secular Slovaks engage in global issues of poverty and justice, they begin to taste and see that the Lord is good. Pray that, as they look for answers to the world’s troubles, their hearts will be drawn to God.