It’s not that I’m a stranger to stories of extreme need. As the Northern Ireland director Tearfund, it’s part of my daily life to mobilise Christians to “follow Jesus where the need is greatest” around the world.
But on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo a few weeks ago, I was stopped in my tracks. A couple of days before I arrived, a brutal massacre, which left at least 64 dead, took place just miles from where I was due to stay.
Kavira Wasikundi, who is a farmer, was at home with her eight children on 13 August, the night of the massacre. The attack happened at dinner time. She remembers men with machetes cutting people to pieces – 40 people in her village, to be exact.
“I don’t know why,” she told me a few days later as we sat down together, trying to make sense of what had happened. Having found shelter with a host family in a nearby village, she said: “We ran away with only the clothes on our bodies”.
What struck me most was the fact that the people I met had nothing: no clothes, no pots, nothing. Being in such a dangerous situation worried me, but I had excellent supports in place to manage the significant risks. These people had no supports at all.
As hundreds of refugees like Kavira made their way away from Rwangoma, the Tearfund partners I was visiting sprang into action. They quickly put together a plan to provide families with shelters, giving them some protection from the elements, and some sense of stability in the midst of the insanity and insecurity that was all around them.
Tearfund is present in some of the most remote areas. We work together with government, local partners and other agencies to help survivors recover from trauma, rebuild secure livelihoods and ensure access to safe water and sanitation.
The collaborative way we choose to work means that the most significant help comes from people on the ground. A man called Kalongo, whose own village had been attacked by a neighbouring tribe – leaving 270 dead, including his wife – was at the centre of the help I saw in action. Inspired by his Christian faith, he is director of Tearfund’s partner on the ground in Congo. Scores of people from the tribe that killed his family now benefit from the skills training programmes and farming support that he has set up. Kalongo gives like Jesus.
In the aftermath of the August massacre, Kalongo suggested that 570 households, equivalent to more than 3,400 people, were in urgent need of shelter. I got in touch with the team in Belfast who quickly raised £10,000 from supporters: people who chose to give like Jesus. The money went directly to the provision of waterproof roofs, and led to a further grant of over £82,000 for more response in the area.
I’ve been back home for a couple of weeks now, and I suspect the stories of people I met will stay with me forever. They shock me: how such violence and unimaginable pain can live in our world, often unreported and unnoticed. They hearten me: stories of people receiving help and rebuilding their lives, of waterproof roofs changing live, of people giving like Jesus. And these stories challenge me: how can I give like Jesus and like the people I met? What does it mean for me to follow Jesus where the need is greatest?
We sometimes talk of ‘following’ as ‘going with’, or ‘chasing after’. But as I follow the path of Jesus of Nazareth, I realise that where the need is greatest, he already is.
“Come, follow me.”