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Interview: Loretta Minghella, director, Christian Aid

24 April 2012

‘I should be getting used to it by now. But I don’t want to get used to it’

My rediscovery of my faith — when one Sunday, ten years ago, I found my­self in St Barnabas’s, Dulwich — is a big part of what led up to it. Walking into that church one Sunday in 2002 was the most im­portant choice of my life. I just regret not having done so before.

Being CEO of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, and oversee­ing the payment of more than £21 billion to victims of bank and other financial failures, gave me some of the leadership and management experi­ence you need for a job like this.

The unexpected death, at 54, of Anthony Minghella, known to others as the Oscar-winning director of The English Patient, and to me as my big brother, and one of my dearest friends, pulled me up short. It’s four years on now, but it’s one of those things you never quite come to terms with.

I still come across people who knew him, and learn things about him. And things happen: the University of Reading’s new film and television school is to be named after him. All this just confirms the sense of loss, but also how lucky we were to have this absolutely remarkable person.

It brought home to me the irre­placeability of every human being, and also made me want to have a job I could feel passionate about, pour everything into, including a desire to put my faith into action in the strongest possible way. No one could replace him at all, so that means no one can replace anybody, including me. So am I doing all I can? Let me have a go.

I really want to work hard to help Christian Aid implement its bril­liant new strategy, Partnership for Change. We went right back to con­sidering who we are and what we stand for, what mattered to us theologically as our starting point.

We start by being founded on love. All our work is about right relation­ships in the end. That’s why we work in local partnerships, by accompany­ing and supporting local organisa­tions to respond to local situations — “to give people a hand up, not a hand out”. Now we’re trying to bring that to all our relationships, with our sup­porters here.

They are such a precious body of supporters — so inspiring. They lend their voices to our campaigns. We think this has the potential to affect people in poverty so much, so we want to help them develop their engagement and realise their own potential to change things.

People think: “There’s nothing much I can do — just write a cheque and carry on.” But we all have a voice, and if we all raise our voices together, it’s very powerful. I know it’s influen­tial because, when politicians listen to me, it’s because of all the voices behind me. They aren’t listening to me on my own. If there was more sup­port, we’d be to do even more.

I’d like to be remembered for being useful. Sometimes singing in tune.

It’s hard to see the scandal of poverty close up: children too weak with hunger to walk to school, people dying for want of a few pounds for treatment we take for granted, a young woman contemplating trading her virginity to pay for her father’s burial.

But seeing the amazing work that we and our partners together pull off in the field, meeting amazingly gra­cious, generous, and resourceful people who are struggling with the challenges of poverty, and being with dedicated supporters here — all these things keep me going.

We work exclusively through part­ners in the field, as the agency of 41 different sponsoring churches in Britain and Ireland — and with, through, and for people of all faiths and none.

We must acknowledge and attend to the reality of poverty in the here and now. That’s why we’re practically active through partners on the ground, not just advocacy, and also why the advocacy needs to be rooted in the reality of poverty. In financial terms, 18 per cent of our funding was spent on emergencies, 49 per cent was used on long-term development projects, 16 per cent on advocacy and campaigning, and 16 per cent on fundraising.

We’re very pleased that the Govern­ment’s agreed to match every pound with a pound in our door-to-door collection this year, up to £5 million pounds. I can’t say how important it is that it’s a really bumper year this year, in that great act of Christian witness.

People say: “Oh, some people only put pennies in their envelope”; but in this economic climate, we’re not taking a single penny for granted.

We are so grateful to the collectors. It’s really hard work, and some people do it for donkey’s years. But that makes it more Kingdom work than ever.

If Jesus were here today, he’d be with the poor and the marginalised, and therefore so should we.

Through our partners we can, in emergencies, truck water and distribute food aid. For the medium term, we support communities to create secure livelihoods, which build in resilience to natural disasters. For the long term, we need change on the drivers of these conditions; so we need international action on climate change and tax justice, the two issues that are Christian Aid’s current campaigning priorities.

I visited a slum outside Nairobi, and had never seen that kind of poverty before. I sat in a dark hut next to an open sewer with a woman contem­plating prostitution to pay to bury her father. She had some legal train­ing, and when she heard I was a lawyer, held my hand and told me happily: “You see — we are the same.” That was a life-changing moment.

A trip to the Middle East, including Jerusalem, Gaza, Hebron and Beth­lehem, was very sobering. Seeing at first hand the conditions and the poverty that continuing conflict per­petuates was really challenging. I’ve been to Kenya, India, Israel, Palestine, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Sierra Leone.

Brazil’s GDP has passed ours now. On São Paolo’s multilane highways there are so many gleaming new cars, while along the roadside people are pushing carts to pick up rubbish to support themselves. One shocking thing is that 75 per cent of world’s extreme poor live in middle-income countries like Brazil and India. I find that very difficult.

I was a bit worried when they told me I was booked into the best hotel in a remote rural area of Sierra Leone. But there were no sheets, no water, no fuel for the generator. It was called “The Promised Land”. They didn’t serve any food and there isn’t much food in those areas at all. I should be getting used to it by now. But I don’t want to get used to it.

My son, who’s 13, just decided to do the “living below the line” thing, when you only spend £1 on your food and drink for five days. He ended up eating a lot of carbohydrate and not a lot of anything, else because protein is so expensive. For me, it was a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to be a mother knowing that your child isn’t getting enough to eat.

The chance to be with people in pov­erty does nourish my own spiritual life. I hope the stories we bring both of the need, and the possibility of change, energise churches to keep put­ting faith into action for the world’s poorest. We need to be con­scious of the privileges we have, including the privilege of being able to speak freely on behalf of those who have no voice.

Being in my own congregation in Dulwich is crucial to me. And it’s rich too, to worship with other de­nom­inations and in other worship styles both here and abroad.

I have a wonderful husband and two gorgeous children who keep me sane. And I come from a big Italian family, typically noisy and close, whom I love very dearly. I feel at home in Italy, but given how much I travel for my work, I don’t really mind if I’m just at home with my family.

As I child, I wanted to defend the innocent against miscarriages of justice as a criminal barrister.

I remember one of John Donne’s ser­mons which contains the words: “No man is an Island. . .” It captures so well that connectedness which is at the heart of our Christian faith. The Prodigal Son is a favourite Bible passage.

I’m happiest when I’m singing in my church choir (and I’m not ruining it). Preferably a bit of Tallis. I love stand­ing in the middle of a choir and being part of something which re­quires everyone to play their part, not overplay or underplay.

When I turned 40, my husband bought me a piano and I played again. Now I’ve turned 50, perhaps I should have some singing lessons.

I pray for those in extreme poverty and those who tackle it. I pray for people known to me in particular need, and for wise leadership of governments and other major institu­tions that seriously affect the way the world works.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Desmond Tutu, whom I met in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He’s been such a force for good, and I’d love to hear more about his experiences and learn from them.

Loretta Minghella was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Christian Aid week begins on 13 May. www.caweek.org

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