Daniel and the Papaya Trees

January 8, 2017

Last week I planted a papaya tree on the shamba (small farmstead, about 6 acres) of an amazing man called Daniel. Having been invited out by the Diocese of the Rift Valley to talk to them about environmental issues, I’ve been in Kilimatinde – a village in the Singida region of Tanzania, the poorest area in the country. Yesterday we walked from Kilimatinde down into the Great Rift Valley, to where Daniel lives with his wife, Theresea, and his four year-old daughter, Daniella.

Daniel has lived on and worked his shamba for all his adult life but just took ownership of it a few months ago. It is already producing a variety of crops: as he walked us round I saw sweet potatoes; chillies; cashew, mango, papaya, moringa and boabab trees, and he rears pigs. But he has big plans to develop the land – in particular to increase his papaya production so he can sell them in the city.

In many ways it felt idyllic as we spent a special seven hours together, sitting in the shade of a large mango tree, drinking soda and having lunch, cooking cashew nuts and discussing politics and theology. Before (literally) climbing back up the escarpment, Daniel brought out his guitar and we sat together and sang songs (including a Matt Redman worship song!), and listened as he sang his wife a love song that he had written for her. At the end of our day together, I planted a papaya tree, to help Daniel with his 160 new trees.

But as we walked around his land and listened to him talk, one question loomed over us frighteningly: when will it rain?

His land is dying. The fruit on the papaya and mango trees are not growing properly. The cashew nuts aren’t swelling as they should do. His piglets are skinny. And his field of chilli plants have all withered and died. The rains are late, and with each passing day the situation gets worse.

Daniel is amazingly enterprising and hard working. He has been building a well that will help with the water problem. Literally building it. By himself. One shovel at a time. He cut the big rocks himself, carried them by hand to the well and put them into the sides. He has been working on it for years and it still is not ready. But he needs it now because without it his crops will die and his family will have nothing to eat and live on.

The whole area is in trouble. Partly this is because people have cut down the trees. They cut down the trees to make room to grow the food they need to survive, and to make charcoal to cook the food. As any basic knowledge of precipitation tells you, where there are trees there is rain. Cut down the trees and the land becomes desert. This is local climate change.

But it is also in trouble because of global climate change. Our CO2-producing actions have changed the weather patterns of our world, and people like Daniel are suffering as a result. Having talked about climate change for years, I have seen what it looks like to a family who are being directly impacted by it, and it made me see again how climate change is the single biggest issue facing us today.

We can all do something to help, and I would urge you to do so. Let’s plant some trees ourselves, and financially support schemes that plant trees in areas like the Great Rift Valley. Let’s make conscious changes in our lives so that we use less energy, and support projects that are helping communities move away from charcoal to using alternatives such as solar cookers.

At the end of our time together – as the sun reached a point where it was cool enough to make the two hour return climb – Daniel gave me two gifts. The first was a few seeds of a tree that he simply called ‘the timber tree’ and he gave them to me so I could plant new trees at home. The second was a small pebble. He had nothing else he could give.

The seeds I will plant in pots at home, and I look forward to seeing them grow into trees. The pebble, though, I’m not so sure about. At one level it is worthless and I could just throw it away in the garden without a second thought. But on another level it is invaluable: a reminder of a world in trouble; of people suffering and struggling because of all our actions. It is a reminder of the processes of millennia that have shaped that pebble and of how I am a part of the same community of creation. And it is a call to each of us to do as much as we can – however big or small – to create a different and better future.



In Conversation with the Communita di Sant’Egidio

November 16, 2016

I’ve just returned from a wonderful time in Rome, where I was invited to participate in an ecumenical dialogue facilitated by the Communita di Sant’Egidio: a Catholic lay community that started nearly fifty years ago in Rome and is now in 74 countries.

Fourteen of us spent twelve hours in conversation; a mixture of Catholic bishops, university professors, leaders from the World Evangelical Alliance, World Vision and Samaritans Purse. And me.

Our aim was to look together at issues around the nature of church, the role of prayer and the place of the Gospel amongst those at the peripheries of our societies. I can’t hope to do justice to such a rich day, but there are three things that I am taking away with me particularly.

Firstly, the Community itself

I am returning home humbled and inspired by the little I have learnt of Sant’Egidio. As a community they are dedicated to Prayer, Peace and the Poor and my day with them gave me just a glimpse of the many ways by which they live out those emphases. We had lunch across the piazza from their main building, at the Trattoria de Gli Amici (the Restaurant of the Friends): a restaurant that they run cooperatively with people with disabilities. We heard of their soup kitchens that feed 800 people, of the individuals who they have befriended, and of their friendship with the Pope and of how they facilitated the end of the Mozambique civil war in the very room where we had our meeting.

We joined in their daily evening prayers, which they hold along the street in one of the oldest churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The large church was packed, with hundreds of people. The twelfth century mosaic was stunning to look at while the singing took place around me.

I have so much to learn from their way of life and their commitment.

Secondly, the place of the poor

We had a long and challenging conversation around poverty and spirituality. Echoes of Liberation Theology were reverberating around the walls loudly as we discussed God’s preferential option for the poor. I was constantly reminded that this was not a theoretical discussion: many people around the table spend much of their lives in the company of those who were poor and it is their lived experience that they see God’s face in the faces of the poor more than they see him anywhere else.

I was particularly challenged by the question: if we are not with people who are poor, does that mean we won’t see Jesus so clearly?

I was also struck by a reflection on the story of the rich man and Lazarus and how Jesus named the poor man Lazarus but did not name the rich man, in contrast to our societies which name rich people, but keep poor people anonymous. We must never let ‘the poor’, ‘refugees’ etc become social categories: they are people with names.

Thirdly, the strength of prayer

We had a beautiful discussion around prayer, its place in the work of poverty relief, and our own personal experiences. Here are some of the things that people said:

  • ‘Prayer is getting out from oneself in order to meet the Father who is waiting for his child to return’
  • ‘In prayer we say no to the ego and yes to “we”. No one prays alone: we’re in community with angels and saints, both on earth and in heaven’
  • ‘Prayer is a barrier to evil and is one of the engines of history’
  • Prayer is one thing God gives us to do that keeps us sane’ (in the context of finding ourselves hopeless in the midst of the world’s problems)
  • ‘Prayer prepares us. It broadens the walls of our heart to make us more receptive to God’.

Cara mici – dear friends – I’m sorry you couldn’t be round the table with me, but I hope this gives you a flavour of a special and memorable day.

(image: the ceiling of one of our meeting rooms in the community’s base, originally a closed Carmelite convent)


Get Thee to a Nunnery: Can the Monastic Tradition Help Us Live Christianly Today?

September 4, 2016

Monasticism, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, practices of silence and meditation are all things being discovered by many of us. Perhaps that is no surprise given the challenges of living Christianly today. Can these older life wisdoms provide us with a more secure anchor?

I believe they can, but I also think they carry within them some inherent challenges that we should be aware of.

In a new article, published by the William Temple Foundation, I begin to explore the potential of the monastic tradition to provide us with an alternative path to that which is offered by society, but also highlight the potential dangers.

To read the full article click here.

Environment, Green living

Ten Simple Steps to Save Our Hedgehogs

August 26, 2016

I care intensely about hedgehogs and am deeply troubled that they may be extinct in the UK within ten years. How can we live with ourselves if we allow this tragedy to happen?

But there are simple things we can all do to help, which really will make a difference. So please, take this seriously and do something:

  1. Make sure there is access in and out of your garden. If you are fenced all around, put in one or two holes underneath.
  1. Plant a native hedgerow to border your garden rather than a fence. This provides both freedom of access and food.
  1. Leave areas of your garden messy (it’s a good excuse!). Leave piles of leaves and logs in a corner for a hedgehog to make into a home.
  1. Ask your neighbours to do the same. Hedgehogs need larger areas than most of us can provide with just one garden.
  1. If you have a bonfire, check to make sure there is no hedgehog inside.
  1. Don’t use slug pellets. If they are poisonous to slugs, they’ll be poisonous to hedgehogs too.
  1. Garden organically so you don’t kill all the natural things that hedgehogs eat.
  1. If you have a pond, make sure it has sloping sides and ways that a hedgehog can get out if it falls in.
  1. In cold periods, leave out a shallow dish of fresh water and some food (you can buy special hedgehog food or give them meat-based pet food or mealworms).
  1. Drive slowly at night, keeping a look-out for any hedgehogs wandering on the road.

Finally, remember: any action you take on climate change is positive action for hedgehogs since it appears that our changing climate is disrupting both hibernation and birthing patterns.


‘The time that He has granted us’

June 26, 2016

These words brought me up short when I heard them, and caused me to stop in my tracks and think.

I was at Hilfield Friary earlier this week, assessing them for an Eco Church award, and I joined in their Mid Day Prayer service. During the Intercessions, one of the friars prayed that we would do something, ‘with the time that He has granted us’. I can’t actually remember what he prayed we would do, but that phrase jumped out at me.

It has made me reflect on how I view life.

Sometimes, if I’m brutally honest, life feels like something that has to be gotten through and endured as best I can. There is so much pain in people’s lives; so many things that people are living with.

But no! This little phrase opens a different window to look through. Life is a gift. A gift from God. How incredible it is to be granted some years to live on this earth; yes, not ignoring the pain, but also relishing the beauty and love that is such an amazing feature of our humanity.

Each one of us might not have existed: but we do! We have been given the privilege of existence… of life.

And so I want to make the most of this time that has been granted me; not frittering it away selfishly, but living it to the best of my ability, making the most of the opportunities I’m given to serve God and make a difference, however small that might be.

What about you – will you join me?


Stand and Stare

June 5, 2016

These flowers stopped me in my tracks today as I walked along the road. They were just in the bushes by the pavement and are nothing rare or special (they’re the very common guelder rose). But, their beauty caught my eye and made me stop and look at them more closely.

They are perfect. They look like confectionary flowers you might find on a cake. Perfect little white five-leaved flowers. Wow.

This month the Wildlife Trusts are encouraging us to do something wild every day for thirty days. That might mean taking the time to go out and do something big and whacky, but often it’s simply about noticing what is there around us and making room for nature in our lives.

It’s about stopping and being aware.

Go on, do something today. Sign up to 30 Days Wild with all their ideas, or just simply have a moment when you stand and stare at something beautiful.

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

(W.H. Davies)

PS If you’d like to tell me what you do, I’d love to hear.