July 2014


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I am coming up for one year in my new position as Project Coordinator for Corporate Social Responsibility for the Taylor’s Education Group, a large educational provider that owns a university, two colleges and five schools in Kuala Lumpur. I have been working in one program, the Canadian Pre-University Program, at one of those colleges for six of the last seven years. A year ago I stepped into this position hoping to do some good in a larger context than just one program in just one college.

To say that this has been a stretching experience is accurate, provided you envision a medieval rack along the lines of the one used in The Princess Bride. Don’t let the fancy title fool you. I spent the first four months in this role at the end of a crowded bench normally reserved for student interns only slightly older than my grandchildren. Not to worry. Asian workers are nothing if not mobile, and of the four of us sitting on that bench, only I lasted longer than six months. There were plenty of offices available shortly as well. I simply moved into one of them, squatter-like, and dared them to evict me. The jury is still out on whether I will ever get my name on the door.

I spent those first four months largely on the move myself, leveraging my impressive title into meetings with the high and lowly, connecting social entrepreneurs with CSR-inclined businesses, finding out which staff were helping the community and which ones to avoid. After this initial phase and after a few meetings with the CEO to get his take on the whole matter, I began to formulate a website in my head. In my thoughts I saw a place where all those lowly staff, toiling away in the forgotten bowels of the enormous company could meet with each other across the internet. I would compose pages of the projects they were involved in and write up profiles of the staff and students involved. I would provide links to the community partners and post upcoming events they could participate in. It would celebrate community service and affirm those who cared about the larger community.

By now I had an office where I could meet and begin to compile and compose all of the information I needed. I called together some of the team in Marketing and gathered their advice and ensured their commitment. I pulled in the ICT department and enlisted their aid for what was going to become a detailed and complex website. I began to learn the software, a steep learning curve whose intricacies had been facilitated by our own blogsite which you are presently reading. I gathered more information more widely from other colleges and schools. As the database of all this information grew I began to transfer it to the pages I was developing, learning compositional tricks as I progressed. By the time I left for our break in May, the site had begun to take shape.

Impact1When I got back at the beginning of June I had managed to convince my CEO to hire an assistant. Amelia knew some things about graphics from previous positions and has been very helpful in the last push to get the site complete enough to publish. I worked with some graphic designers to get the whole CSR package branded, and after a dozen prototypes arrived at IMPACT!; a name that seems to have met with widespread approval. I secured permission for its inclusion on the staff and student portals and on 19 July 2014 it got a ‘soft’ launch with a letter of introduction from the CEO to all staff. You can see a screenshot of the result above, but only staff and students can login to view the site.

This journey is not over. On Friday I met with the ICT team once again, this time to find a vendor to retool the content beyond the limits of its Sharepoint template, to something more approaching the kind of look and feel that you would expect from an institution of this clout. Next week the team and I will meet with three vendors to outline the specifics of the projected revamped CSR site and allow them to work out some proposals. This process is expected to take three months, by which time Amelia and I have to finish all the content for the site so it can be migrated to the revamped format.

My days are long. I get here at 7 in the morning to get in a full day by 3 so I can get to my ‘other’ job over at Taylor’s College so I can keep my work visa which says ‘lecturer.’ On busy days at the College I get home after 6. Aside from our time in Canada, I haven’t taken a day off since I began this job a year ago, although I did take a couple of half-days when Liz and Greg and Matt and Kate were here. Outside of the people I work with on a daily basis, not ten people out there know what I am doing or why I think it is important. But some day, maybe before Christmas if all goes well, this site will go public, and then this institution will become identified by the sacrificial staff and students who are doing all they can to help those who need their help in the communities around us. And then I will have done some good.

One year ago our family was greatly blessed by the birth of Liz and Greg’s first little boy who has been such a joy, even in the midst of unthinkable sadness. We love his happy little smile and boundless energy and excitement with life. He has grown up so much in just one year.

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His first birthday party was a pirate theme and we bought him a great pirate ship water table which he got a sneak preview of when we were home last month.
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Pirate

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According to United Nations, 54% or 3.9 billion of the world’s population, lives in urban settings and by 2050 it is estimated that that number will rise to 66%, a further 2.5 billion people. Given that the area of emphasis we have chosen for our Master’s is International Development and Urban Studies, we have taken several courses dealing with poverty, organizing in urban centers and understanding the unique needs for ministry in urban settings. These courses have also included some useful tools for assessing needs, engaging with communities, planning and implementing programs.

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Steve is currently taking a course called “Encountering the City” which requires him to complete an ethnographic study of a neighbourhood. So today we set out for a four hour visit to Brickfields, Little India to do an exegesis of the area. This involves close observation and reflection, which is something we had learned how to do in a prvious course in Seattle. The word exegesis means a critical interpretation and is commonly what we do when we read the Bible, we exegete the text with a view to discerning its truth for our lives.If we are committed to serving in an area that God has called us to, then we need to be able to see what is going on in our areas, what the people view as most important, what they hope for, fear and believe. We also need to understand the narrative of their lives and their communities in order to see what God is doing so that we can seek and to partner with Him in the work.

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In order to learn about the community we looked at the types of housing, the streetscapes, the transportation corridors, government services, community centers, charities, places of worship, stores, cafes, local hangouts, health care facilities, schools, graffiti and industries. Steve had prepared some survey questions which gave us opportunity to chat with the residents. Occasionally we invited respondents to join us for lunch. As we walked, sampled the street food and chatted we were able to get a sense of the places that represented life and hope and beauty for the community but also those that showed evidence of poverty, neglect and despair.

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The Indians love their bright colours, music, flowers, food and family and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this community a bit better, practicing new skills and doing research for a current project. Our lives may seem a little strange to those of you who have much better things to do on a Saturday, but for us it was a fun and fascinating day filled with discovery and blessing.

Many communities in developing countries are trapped in a mindset of short term relief, feeling helpless or simply unaware of how they can improve their environments. They have grown dependent on outsiders coming in with short term, quick fix solutions for long term problems. Sustained, long term improvements will not happen until the community members themselves own the problems and the solutions.
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Last week in Cambodia I had the joy of seeing our pilot project take some definitive steps toward local ownership and direction. Although my colleague and I, both outsiders, were there our TWR Cambodia staff are very capable trainers and it was great to see them facilitate the process even though I didn’t understand a word.
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They led a group of commune leaders, village council members and local volunteers through an exercise designed to enable them to discuss what constitutes good health for their villages and families. However it was even better to see the community leaders come together to decide on their own criteria for defining a “healthy home”, create their own teaching booklet and take the initiative to arrange and pay for the printing of the booklets.

Practice

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After the second day of training, we accompanied the young volunteer trainers to a village where they could practice teaching the lesson in a couple of the homes. These young ladies then taught the lesson to several of the other volunteers who had been absent for our lessons, and then observed as these young men taught the lesson themselves. This is multiplication.

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As the day wrapped up, we sat under a village home snacking on enormous pomelos that were growing on a tree in the center of the community. Trapped by a monsoon downpour, we enjoyed watching village life as children returned from school and families from the fields carrying wood and leading their cows home for the night. Within minutes a small lake had formed beside the house and the village boys were romping in the mud.

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Not to waste a perfectly good opportunity to share with others, Kimsong spontaneously shared with the villagers the story of the rainbow.

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Matt and Kate Thompson, friends from our church, West London Alliance in London, came to visit with us in Kuala Lumpur over the last few days. To say that we were excited to have them here doesn’t do justice to the occasion. Pam and I were like puppies who had been adopted. Really? You want to visit with us in KL? Really?

We laid out the royal carpet and got out the fine china. Well, okay, we have no fine china and carpets don’t make any sense at all in this climate. But metaphorically speaking, we did our best to make our guests feel welcome. For their part Matt and Kate were happy to be shown around town and game to jump through all the typical tourist hoops of seeing the Twin Towers and shopping in Chinatown. Rather unusually, Matt chose not to stock up on Rolex watches and Kate seemed to have no appetite for cut-rate Gucci handbags. But they did just come from Cambodia whose prices make Malaysia’s seem positively outrageous, so their reticence was perhaps understandable.

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We climbed all 300 steps to the Batu Caves, and since the cable car was down for repairs, drove all the way to the top of Genting Highlands, Pam’s terror greatly modified by the fact that she couldn’t see anything of the road ahead through Matt’s head. Once at the top we had a lovely buffet meal which we didn’t rush through, and even took the time for a brief look at the Sunway Mall, all lit up in honour of Ramadan. They all got way too much sun lounging around the pool (while I ran around in panic mode at work) and slept comfortably in the guest bedroom (to which you, gentle reader, are also invited), having exhausted themselves in the service of the Lord at English camp in Cambodia.

All of this is pretty standard fare when you go to visit a foreign country which you are unlikely to see again. What was not standard fare, and very much appreciated, was the lovely long conversations about ministry and missionary service. This is all we have been doing for the last seven years, and we get very little chance to share what the Lord has been teaching us, where He has called us to minister, with the church He has called us to fellowship with. It is a strange disconnect, and one that cannot easily be overcome. They also brought with them the gift of cards and notes from the congregation; a gift of immeasurable value. We intend to open only one a day and pray for each one who was kind enough to write and encourage us.

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We see in Matt and Kate a couple much like us; hearing God’s call to serve in what for many seems like an unusual way, not sure what it means for them professionally or personally, but willing to walk the road the Lord has marked out for them to journey along. We know from personal experience that this road is often lined with loneliness, loss and misunderstanding. But it is also a road of great wonder and joy as you watch God blaze a trail through an unknown difficulties with grace and kindness. Some of that grace and kindness came to us this week in the form of Matt and Kate, messengers of God’s love to us, and a reminder that His people have not forgotten us. We are humbled and blessed, and very, very grateful.

After our foray into the slums, we went back to our hotel to freshen up for a trip into the downtown for a meeting with a group of very bright, young education consultants who are partners of both Taylor’s and the American schools. There we had a glimpse of the other side of Mumbai.

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In stark contrast to the slums of Dharavi, Mumbai is also home to the world’s most expensive condonium, entirely owned by one man, which cost more than $1 billion to construct. Living with his family of four, this  twenty-seven story, 400,000-square foot skyscraper residence, has six underground levels of parking, three helicopter pads, a ‘health’ level, and apparently requires about 600 staff to run it.

Following the meeting, we were treated to a lovely dinner at a restaurant in the heart of the old city, hosted by our friends from Parthenon. The conversation with Indians, Americans and Canadians all sharing their perspectives of how to best help urban communities was lively and interesting. The Old Fort area looked beautiful all lit up and we were looking forward to having the following day off to finally explore the sights and sounds of Mumbai. I have to admit it was not nearly as exotic looking in the light of day.

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Much of Mumbai is built on reclaimed land created when seven islands on the shore of the Arabian Sea were joined to form a single city. The waterfront is beautiful but quite undeveloped and polluted by the run-off from the masses of people and industries that empty directly into the sea.

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The Gateway of India which is designed to be the first thing that visitors see when approaching by boat, was constructed to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the city.

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We took a break mid day to have tea, which is about all that we could afford, at the stunning old Taj Palace Hotel while we watched the multiple vendors of everything from lemonade to balloons sell their wares along the waterfront.

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After a long walk we found a public beach, but then after getting down to the water’s edge and contemplating the consequences, decided not to go for a wade after all.

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We both wanted to see the house where Gandhi lived while he was in Bombay. He never owned this house, but the owner allowed him to stay and study here. It was here that Gandhi relearned the traditional arts of weaving that became part of the drive for India’s economic independence. That simple spinning wheel can still be seen on India’s flag.

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Gandhi was a learned man, and practised law in South Africa before returning to India. His library is still in use by those who study the issues to which Gandhi devoted his life. To walk among these remembrances is to be humbled by the man’s gentle greatness.

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On our second day in Mumbai, we met up with the American students for a visit to Dharavi which is one of the largest slums in the world, renowned for its prominence in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.  Situated on just over 500 acres of land, it is a multi-ethnic settlement that is home to upwards of a million people (2000 per acre) most of whom are rural poor from all over India who have migrated to the city to find work. We made our way through incredibly small passageways, some too low to even stand up in, past the tiny, stacked homes of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist and Christians who work and raise their families together in this slum.

dharavi4As this area, which is located on a tract of land that runs between two suburban railway lines, has been in existence since the late 1800s, it is considered a “legal slum” so the government provides electricity and a source of water. However with an inadequate supply of clean drinking water and only one toilet for every 700 people, a creek which runs through the district is widely used by local residents for toilet functions, leading to the spread of contagious diseases. There is a very active market place, community organizations and numerous mosques, temples and churches to serve people of the community. Inside the houses appear very clean, and some families try to make their, often single room homes, pleasant with curtains and flowers and plants.

 

 

The amazing thing about Dharavi is that it has an active informal economy of household businesses that employ many of the local residents that is estimated to have an annual turnover of more than $650 million US dollars and exports goods around the world. The district has an estimated 5000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories. We saw many people hard at work in industries recycling plastics and aluminum, creating leather products, textiles, baking and pottery but could not begin to figure out how they managed to organize it all. Somehow through these crowded rabbit warrens masses of raw materials are brought in, processed, packaged and carried back out to markets and someone keeps track of all of this. The income for workers here ranges from $200 to $500 US per year.

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We saw the finished projects and these hides leave the slums as beautiful purses, briefcases and belts ready for the name brand companies to add their special logo.

Mumbai is a city where house prices and rents are among the highest in the world and Dharavi provides a cheap and affordable option to those who move to Mumbai to earn their living. We were told that the poor in Mumbai are not those who can afford to live in the slums but the “pavement dwellers” living under a tarp or cardboard on the sidewalks. The message clearly was that Dharavi provides a safe, affordable home, an income and a sense of community for the residents and is not the filthy, dangerous place that it appears to outsiders.

I am afraid that I was not convinced. It may provide all of those things for people but ultimately I do not believe that anyone who bears the image of the Creator ever deserves to work that hard just to survive nor should they be subjected to the indignity of living in these circumstances. It is a shame on those of us who have plenty and the wherewithal to meet needs and transform lives.

 

 

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