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Systemic poverty in Cameroon, Peru illustrates the complex barrier poor people face

Matthew 25 students learn from textbook examples shared by two men working to effect change

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

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LOUISVILLE — The 85 or so Presbyterians studying the underpinnings of systemic poverty zoomed out to take in a more global perspective Monday, thanks to presentations by Valéry Nodem and the Rev. Jed Koball.

Nodem, who’s from Cameroon, is the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s Associate for International Hunger Concerns. Serving in Lima, Peru, Koball is a mission co-worker serving with the Peru Joining Hands Network.

Nodem spoke about colonization and globalization. He said that although Cameroon gained its independence from Great Britain and France 60 years ago, it’s as if colonizers are still present. In part that’s because Cameroon’s natural resources — including oil, timber and coffee — are exported. Value is added in other countries, and the money made by selling those products remains outside Cameroon’s coffers.

He identified three drivers of colonization in Cameroon: gold, God and glory. The first two are fairly well-known: colonizers had a financial interest in extracting natural resources and were also interested in converting people to Christianity. The “glory” part “was about showing your influence,” Nodem said. “What resources did you find there? It was about showing power.”

As a result of the 19th century “Scramble of Africa,” countries were sliced up arbitrarily, he said. “They weren’t thinking about the consequences” of the warfare those practices would help bring about.

Valéry Nodem is Presbyterian Hunger Program’s international associate for hunger concerns. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Colonization makes people feel powerless in their own country,” he said. “The system is still strongly governed by foreign powers who robbed countries of a lot of resources. It’s ripped up regions that used to live in peace.”

As a college student in Cameroon, Nodem “was always going to pretty much any demonstration,” he said. “My parents were always upset. They said, ‘Stay out of trouble and don’t do anything.’” Later they told him it’s because they feared for his life.

Koball spoke about “The Story of Empire in Peru,” which included this famous 1514 decree from Spain’s King Ferdinand to the Conquistadors: “Get gold — humanely, if possible, but at all costs get gold.”

Koball identified three driving forces for doing just that: extractivism, or taking what generates wealth; the caste/class system, which he called “the seeds of white supremacy”; and spiritual suppression, which included the Spanish practice of placing religious structures directly on top of Inca places of worship.

Peru remains the world’s sixth-leading producer of gold and ranks high among other precious metal producers, including silver, copper and zinc.

“Peru has been the darling of development with consistent economic growth over the last two decades, due primarily to mining,” Koball said. “But at what cost?”

A few years ago, indigenous people blocking a main highway to the jungle were fired on by police, killing dozens. The road was quickly reopened, as was free trade.

Mission co-worker the Rev. Jed Koball is pictured in the Alpaca-raising farmlands of Huancavelica, Peru. (Photo provided)

“We have seen how free trade agreements can undermine democracy and human rights,” Koball said, famously in the mining city of La Oroya, one of the most polluted cities in the world. The lead smelter there, which was owned by a U.S. company, declared bankruptcy in 2009, claiming, as Koball said, “its rights as a foreign investor had been violated.” The case is still pending in court, with no remediation so far to La Oroya’s soil and water.

During the last seven months of the global pandemic, Peru has suffered the highest per capita mortality rate of any nation on Earth. “Nothing has been invested in health or education,” Koball said. Instead, the government has rolled back environmental protections and fast-tracked approval of new mining projects, Koball said.

And what about the church? Are we to be complicit, or collaborators in a new creation?

Now in its 20th year, Joining Hands “has been going beyond quick fixes,” Nodem said. “We are listening, and we can be part of the change.”

Joining Hands is present in seven countries. In addition to Cameroon and Peru, they are the Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Haiti, India and Sri Lanka.

“We are hoping to get to the place of life in fulness that the Bible promises,” Nodem said. “In every place we have worked, communities have become equipped. They now understand their rights better and they are ready to defend them.”

The Rev. Nicholas Johnson is pastor of Raritan Valley Baptist Church in Edison, New Jersey. (Contributed photo)

As he did during the previous two weeks, the Rev. Nicholas Johnson, the pastor of Raritan Valley Baptist Church in Edison, New Jersey, continued his Bible study, “Jesus and Economic Justice in the Gospel of Luke.”

On Monday he focused on Luke 18:18-30, the account of the man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and then becomes sad when Jesus tells him he must sell everything and distribute the money to the poor.

Johnson pointed out the commandments that this certain young ruler says he has lived up to have to do with human interactions, including marital fidelity, truth-telling, and not stealing or murdering. But the first set of commandments in Exodus 20 open with instructions on how to worship “the invisible immortal God,” Johnson said.

“Jesus asks him to do something more radical than individual piety,” he said. “The discipleship he calls for troubles our modern sensibilities.”

“This is a bold request Jesus makes of this man,” Johnson said. In one account of the interaction, it’s Peter who asks Jesus afterward, “Then who can be saved?”

“This person turns away, but others can enter the kingdom of God,” Johnson said. “We should not ascribe high moral worth because of someone’s wealth. The work we do is to challenge a world order that privileges possessions over people.”

Discipleship goes beyond personal piety, he said. “It demands a public witness, that we speak against unjust systems and pay attention to economic injustice … In God’s reign, our worth is not tied to how much we have or what we’ve given up.”

As participants divided into small groups, Johnson asked them to discuss two questions:

  • If you or your church community were to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, how far would those resources go?
  • How willing would you and your church community be to do this?

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