Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bless the needy

Published in the Fiji Times "Off the wall with Padre JAMES BHAGWAN" Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This week I would like to share with you two stories from the Ecumenical News International which inspired me and can serve to inspire those rebuilding their lives after the flooding in the Western Division as well as challenge our churches, civil society groups and communities to support those who take the initiative to start a small business or project but struggle for even a few dollars to get up and running.
First is the story of the Japanese environmentalist who said a biblical psalm inspired his campaign linking forest and ocean received on February 9, one of the United Nations' inaugural Forest Hero awards.
Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, an oyster fisherman who saw his livelihood destroyed when the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit the northeast coastal city of Kesennuma, was named the Forest Hero winner for Asia and awarded the prize at UN headquarters in New York.
Hatakeyama, a member of Japan's Baptist Union, has said that the Bible's Psalm 42 was the source of his campaign's name: "The Forest is Longing for the Sea, the Sea is Longing for the Forest." According to the UN citation, he has planted trees in the forest surrounding Kesennuma Bay. "He is known as 'Grandpa Oyster,' after spending more than 20 years developing the forest environment that keeps the Okawa River clean and his oysters healthy," said the UN.
The psalm compares a deer's thirst for water to the soul's desire for God. The name "is rooted in the 'longing for' (in Psalm 42)," said Hatakeyama, who is 68 and a professor of field studies and practical learning at Kyoto University.
In a December speech to a congregation in Tokyo, Hatakeyama said his 22-year-old campaign's concepts are demonstrated by the sea's recovery after the disaster.
His campaign organisation and a group of scientists have recently studied the marine ecosystem of Kesennuma Bay and are surveying the forest-sea linkage. Hatakeyama explained that iron being supplied from the forest through the river into the sea is playing a key role in the recovery of sea life.
Now how can we apply this story to the protection of our local environment and recovery of our agricultural sector following the floods of last and this month? How do we protect the created order that many of us believe we have been given stewardship, not ownership of?
In the northern Philippine town of La Trinidad, it is harvest time for strawberries, so strawberry farmer Alice Rivera will start repaying a loan extended by a Geneva-based ecumenical church loan fund. "This is what we appreciate ... we can start repaying our loans only immediately after the harvest season starts," said Rivera, who is 45. She is just one of 7000 clients being served by the Ecumenical Church Loan Fund-Philippines (Eclof-Philippines), whose initial seed fund was provided by Eclof International, a non-profit micro-finance organisation.
Rivera, a widow and mother of a nine-year-old son, has started harvesting strawberries from a 500-square-metre lot that she leases from the farm of Benguet State University, an agricultural school.
Starting this January up to May, she expects to harvest an average of 20 kilograms every three days. As of 25 January, Rivera said she had retailed her 20-kilogram produce at one hundred pesos, about US$2.35, (F$4.10) per kilogram.
"Although retail prices fluctuate ... I can still earn something, enough to send my kid to school and set aside some amount to repay my loan," she said in an interview in late January when ENInews went with four Eclof staff to visit their clients.
Given eight months by Eclof to pay her 20,000 peso, US$467, (F$816.43) "agricultural loan," Rivera said she was confident she could pay off her loan before May.
Eclof-Philippines follows what Eclof local branch manager Valentina Tangib describes as a "flexible policy" for agricultural loans. "Before, our policy for small business and agricultural loan repayment was uniform in which we collect loan payments monthly," Tangib said.
Tangib and her staff found that farmers had difficulty repaying their loans since they could only start earning three months after harveast.
Since five years ago, they have made it a policy that agricultural loan clients are given eight months to repay their loans.
Meling Telcagan, 60, a cut-flower farmer specializing in growing "Malaysian mums" (a species of chrysanthemum), has also been taking out Eclof's small loans since 2005. Most flower growers like Telcagan time their first harvest during February because flowers are more in demand then.
Besides Valentine's Day, when a dozen mums are priced at as much as two hundred fifty pesos, US$5.84, (F$10.21) to three hundred pesos, US$7, ($12.24). February is also a flower festival season for neighboring Baguio City during which mums are popular items.
Other flower plots in Telcagan's greenhouse will be harvested in March and April, the season of school graduation, while other plots are planned for June, a wedding month.
"I thank God for giving my family a net income of eighty thousand pesos, US$1,869 (F$3,267.48) during only a month of harvest last year," she said. Telcagan says she plans to repay her 30,000-peso, US$817 (F$1428.32) Eclof loan by March. Today marks the beginning of the season of Lent for many Christians.
Many, as a sign of penitence, or in response to Christ's sacrificial life, take the next six weeks until Easter as a time to sacrifice or go without some of life's pleasures or luxuries such as abstaining from yaqona or meat or chocolate, or soft-drinks. Some fast, perhaps not as conscientiously as our Muslim brothers and sisters do during Ramadan.
What do we do with the money we save through our spiritual sacrificing? Do we merely save it for the Easter long weekend? Do we spend it on other things?
Perhaps our Lenten offerings this year, our savings from our spiritually inspired sacrifices can be a blessing for someone in need.
Contribute to a poverty alleviating project, provide an interest free loan to someone needing seed funding for a small business or the tools to earn a living, anonymously pay the fees for someone who otherwise may not have an opportunity at tertiary education.
Both these stories are about planting seeds that will grow.
Plant yours today.
nReverend James Bhagwan is a student of the Methodist Theological University's International Graduate School of Theology in Seoul, South Korea. Email: padrejames@gmail.com or visit http://thejournalofaspiritualwonderer.blogspot.com.

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