By Betty Tonsing
My guess is that those who read Quaker Life are driven by personal missions in their lives. I have always referred to mine as “a call to action.” Central to my life has been my faith — not necessarily as a Catholic, but as a deep belief in God, in that Jesus’ message on earth was about love and that the gospels demand service and action. Yes, demand. We cannot go through life with a pass card.
My life was transformed when, as a high school exchange student I went to France, an exotic country at the time. For a 17-year-old whose background was narrow and buried deep in the comfort zone of a Midwestern town, it was transforming. I returned realizing that I was a citizen of the world, not just of a country. From that moment on, I have done all that I could to make certain that my personal and professional life is full of global initiatives. I was also impacted by the period of my formative years that included the Vatican II Council. My staid and static church was going through a reformation of sorts, and it was very exciting to me. Indeed, the excitement of that particular Council has never left me. Through all the ensuing changes, I heard the demand that my own personal life be committed to social action and to economic and social justice.
I have been fortunate in that I have had opportunities to live out that commitment through my work with the United Nations, USAID, Catholic Relief Services and Global Visits, and as a Fulbright Scholar, serving always in developing countries. Now I am with Right Sharing of World Resources and closer than ever to what is really on the ground.
How is it different? While living overseas, my husband and I were always able to avoid living in American compounds that often separated American expatriates from local residents. We nonetheless, still worked largely with professionals and academics and did not often get a chance to work directly with those who were the majority population: the very poor.
Few of us are shocked that 14% of the world population makes less than a dollar a day. We can visualize that. It is why we contribute as generously as we can to good international relief causes, but how many of us realize that 43% of the world makes less than two dollars a day? That is almost half the world’s population! How deeply in our pockets can we go to change that? A statistic like that makes even the Occupy movement seem trivial.
What does that level of income look like? In Africa, where as much as 99% of the population is living on less than two dollars a day, children must have uniforms in order to attend school. In the U.S. the school office would find spare uniforms for families in desperate need, but in Africa, almost everyone fits that definition. I met a woman who told me about a village mother who could afford one uniform for her three children. The children took turns wearing that one uniform, which meant that each child could go to school only every third day. Is that how we would like to see our own children educated?
I visited Right Sharing projects in Kenya last November and during those site visits I spent more time literally on the ground, seeing at the local level how the women we serve — and their families — live every day, than I had during the 11 years I had previously lived in Africa. I saw their struggles and their challenges. There were no office or government officials attending to their stories and their needs. The women who benefit from a Right Sharing grant get a small loan between $100 and $200 — pocket money to most of us. Almost all of the women are making less than a dollar a day. I was shocked after my first reading of proposals that, even with a grant to develop a small-scale business and get out of abject poverty, most of the women will likely make no more than two or three dollars a day. I thought, “That’s it?” Yes, that is it. From their point of view, they will have doubled or tripled their income. And they are thrilled. It is very humbling.
Is this economic and social justice? There is plenty of research documenting that the imbalance of wealth in the world contributes to global poverty. Is this fair?
I can give everything up, everything I own, and live in my own poverty, and that will not change this injustice. You probably know that Catholics are big on sin. To me, the sin is not in having. If what you have done in life has been financially rewarding and you have prospered, that is not a sin. The Catholic Church would tell us also that it is not our money, but a blessing and an opportunity. If you wake up one morning with the “aha” awareness of the gross inequity in life and that you have power and the ability to do something about it and yet choose to ignore this and do nothing, that is the sin — the most grievous sin.
When I first came to Right Sharing, I saw it as a continuation of my life’s commitment to economic and social justice and an opportunity to experience the simple joy of working within global initiatives. It has become more than that. While in Kenya, I was traveling with Samson Ababu, our field representative. We went to Turkana, a very hard-pressed, arid section of Kenya bordering war-weary Sudan. It takes 12 hours to travel over impossible roads to reach small, impoverished towns and villages that hum, all the same, with life and hope. We met with a women’s group that was very anxious to hear more about Right Sharing and hopefully benefit from a grant. They filled the church where we met, their children playing about the dusty floor. Samson talked about the partnership Right Sharing has with the women we serve, and he was right, but he said something else that seared my heart, telling me what was most special about working with Right Sharing. He called the work we do the “gospel of service, the gospel of peace.” Yes, I got it. This was the living gospel. He later talked about how poverty is linked to violence and how, for each of these women, even making two to three dollars a day lifts them out of their poverty and helps overall to reduce the violence, first in their homes, then in their villages and then in their wider communities. We are peacemakers. I am a peacemaker.
Betty Tonsing is General Secretary for Right Sharing of World Resources. Betty lives in metro-Indianapolis, attends the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, and has two grown children, Eva and Joey. Betty’s husband, George Carter, a Quaker, died last year.