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Interview: Janette O’Neill, general secretary and CEO of USPG

08 July 2016

‘If it’s God’s work, it’s ours, too’

The Society works with Anglican Churches all around the world to help to build God’s King­dom. That means preparing laity and clergy to be leaders in ways that equip them to meet the challenges of pov­erty and in­­justice, inequitable access to health­care, education, to uncover opportun­ities, and lift the barriers to prosperity.

It means harnessing the strength of the Church to bring the voices from the grassroots to the mahogany tables of governments. It means collecting the local voices to speak on a global stage to contribute to the ending of climate change, slavery, and diseases that cross borders.


Our age and reach — 315 years and 63 countries — alone brings us dis­tinc­tion. Our commitment to being partner-led by responding to specific contexts, aligned with a deep commit­ment to holistic mission, means that for us, alone among the agencies, nothing is off-limits. If it’s God’s work, it’s ours, too. Capacity and resources are the only limiters.


The whole point of the Society is to change the world. So, on one level, change is embraced and expected. But there is also an innate conservatism that neither expects nor embraces it.


Changing the name to Us. in 2012 was the culmination of nearly 50 years of change that began in the 1960s with the end of empire and the declaration at Toronto of mutual respons­ibility and interdependence. Over the decades, we’ve stopped send­­ing missionaries from here in favour of training and equip­ping local leaders. We’ve let them set the agenda for the work. We’re con­necting people, and no longer see our­selves at the centre. We’ve become lean and efficient. Our work is cut­ting-edge in development terms. . . Yet we were left with a name devised in 1701 that did not hint at these changes, and which was positively repel­lent to younger potential sup­porters.


The kindness, patience, and gener­osity of our partners and friends surprises me most. I recently wrote to all partners explaining that a new definition of “Us.” allows us to use USPG as our name again, but with the PG now standing for “Partners in the Gospel”. By return, I received more than 50 positive replies celebrating the new iteration, commending the break with a colonial and paternalistic past, but at the same time enjoying the historic link of the new name. Not a word of criticism for the path we have taken at reaching this point — so different from the corpor­ate world.


I’m responsible for both the day-to-day affairs of the Society, and bring­ing to the trustees a vision and strategies for the future. Emails and a lot of meetings — with a great team here in Southwark. I represent the Society on numerous bodies in the Church; and I travel to partner Churches, sometimes to see the work, but often just as a member of the family to be present on high days.


Working for the Church in Lesotho, I was exasperated by the big inter­national development agencies and government funders who imposed their solutions on communities, leav­ing no space for them to contribute to the agenda or the possible solutions. A few years later, I found myself in the United States and joined the Episcopal Relief and Development, just as it was changing from a granting agency to working purposefully in de­velop­ment. It was the most amazing opportunity to help shape the agency to be the sort of partner that I’d yearned to find when I was in Lesotho.


I spent a decade with them working throughout Africa — so many in­­cred­­ible experiences. The only con­straint was that the terms of reference lay in development only, and we were unable to offer support to the Church as a whole, though the more success­ful the develop­ment work became, it often unbal­anced the Church as a whole.


To join USPG in 2011 was a chance to work holistically on mission and not just development.


I very quickly learned that in a 315-year-old organisation, almost everything has been tried. My bright ideas were usually met with tales of what had happened when. . .


What I have brought in is a team of first-class people to help us recognise and measure the impact of the work. When good people doing good things doesn’t result in good happenings, the disappointments are rarely analysed and understood. To do this means listen­ing to the people of the Church, and not just its institutional leaders. Do the people have the Church they want, need, and can fully par­ticip­ate in? Are they achieving the changes in their lives to which they aspire?


We’re funded by donations from the pews in Great Britain and Ireland, and join these with local resources — money, time, and people harnessing all the assets within their reach.

Fund-raising is a challenge. The aid and development industry in the UK trades on the notion that there is a silver bullet to cure poverty and injus­tice — and it’s your money. “Just give us your money, and we will do the rest.” The reality is so different. There are no silver bullets. Creating sustain­able change means building people up, walking alongside them as they devise their own path towards their dreams of the future. In fund-raising terms, that’s not nearly so appealing as asking for donations for something specific like a well, but so much likely to have the outcomes for which we yearn.


Of course, financial support is es­­sential for our continuing work, but it’s only part of what we need. We look for engagement in our cam­paigns in respect of climate change, migration, injustice generally, that affect how we all live together in this world.


A high point was a gathering of our partners in Delhi in 2013: creating together the agenda for the Society for the next three years, and then work­ing to make it all happen.


Given that I’m only part of how things happen, I’m proudest of being part of the team that pulled together the TEAM conference in South Africa in 2007 — the largest Anglican gathering since Toronto dedicated to Anglican response to the fight against poverty, disease, and injustice. We designed, budgeted, and worked
with partners to implement malaria-prevention programmes in 17 African countries with the Anglican Church.


One of the best times was sitting in a village in Zimbabwe with a woman who was HIV-positive, listening to her story of a difficult and isolated life that had been so changed by her inclusion in a church programme, which helped her be part of a village co-op. She confided that the moment her life began to take a different turn was the moment when she heard in church that Jesus loved even her. That was a perfect affirmation of my holistic mission.


I’m a quilt-maker, too, and over the years I’ve turned out some pieces of work that have been really satisfying. I’m a terrible collector of fabric, and often buy African fabrics to put into my gift quilts. I also knit, but my output is only worn by loving family members — and inside the house.


I was inspired by living in Southern Africa through the dog-days of apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela, and elections for a demo­cratic government. More prosaically, I’m inspired by friends who are just better Christians than me: two friends in particular, Debbie Gill and Susan Lassen, whose instinctive generosity and spirit always nudge me to try harder and reach further.


There was nobody of faith in my family, and a neighbour took me to Sunday school from the age of three. Throughout my childhood, the pres­ence of God was something quite exotic, out of the ordinary, and at times tangible. After leaving home and establishing my own identity, the need for God lessened, but I could never give him up, and always found myself pulled back. Like most people, I’m sustained by glimpses of God.


Each morning, I arrive at Black­friars Station, situated on a bridge over the River Thames. The river snakes silver between St Paul’s on one side and the Shard on the other, with London Bridge and Canary Wharf in the distance. Every day, the light is different but always dazzling. I draw in my breath. Often it feels like the breath of God. I centre myself and stride out to meet the day.


Growing up in a working-class steel town in Wales was all quite sheltered and monochromatic. I was the first member of our family to go to uni­versity. It was quite a revelation: the first time I met someone who voted Conservative. I married an engineer, and we’ve led a peripatetic life. Two boys. There were pros and cons in moving back from the States to take this job, but I’ve been able to spend time with my sister, and my parents, both of whom have died recently.


The most reassuring sound? Glug. . . glug. . . glug.


I always thought I could be the world’s very best estate agent. There is something quite noble about find­ing a home for someone — but it is not actually a very noble profession. When I’m not at work, I’m usually in my attic sewing room. Some days it is a real effort to prise me out.


Standing in Victoria Square in Athens, watching a pimp and two of his sex workers walking through the square surveying the refugees to look for likely recruits was the last thing that made me angry.


A perfect evening would be cooking a meal and sharing a bottle of wine with my sister and my husband.


I pray most for my children.


If I was locked with someone in a church? A chance of an uninter­rupted conversation with one or both of my sons sounds like a dream.


Janette O’Neill was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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