The Poverty Initiative, based at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, has a mission “to raise up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor.” Recently, at Camp Virgil Tate outside Charleston, West Virginia, they presented a week-long Leadership School with leaders from more than 20 organizations, including NY Faith & Justice, Domestic Workers United, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Jesus People Against Pollution, as well as international participants such as the Shackdwellers Movement from South Africa, the Church of Scotland, and Justicia Global from the Dominican Republic.

090904-leadership-schoolHere, Union alumna and Poverty Initiative member Kym McNair interviews Donna Barrowcliffe, the development manager from the Community Church of Ruchazie in Glasglow, where she works with the Church of Scotland Priority Areas Project (a project focusing on the poorest areas of Scotland). Donna was born and raised in a priority area.

Tell me about the work you’ve done in Africa.

There are 60 suburbs within Glasglow that are really poor.  These are called “priority areas.”  As one of the poorest areas, we were partnered up with the poorest area of Malawi.  The program is called Together for a Change.  Baula is the area in Malawi where we visited.  They don’t have running water or electricity, and it’s a five-hour drive to the nearest town.  It’s quite an isolated village.  They set us up to have a partnership to see if we could help one another.  Not financially, but through discussions.  We were set up by the church, but the people who attended the trip were not church people.  I was primarily a community person.  I was volunteering at the church. We exchanged a lot of different ideas.

The young people we took from Scotland gained a lot from realizing how lucky we really are.  We don’t have to fetch water, and we have free education. These are things our young folk took for granted.  We gained a lot of spiritual wealth.  The young people that we took with us are now really focused.  Before the trip, they had no idea of what they were going to do with their lives.   We learned that by believing that if we want something done, we have to do it ourselves. When they came to Scotland for the exchange, they learned how to make manure.  They learned much more about hygiene, how to work with children, and women’s rights.  They learned how to be better to their women.  We also taught them how to have AA/NA meetings.

You’re doing this great work for the church, but when did you decide to join the church?

Well, my partner died about two or three months before we left for Malawi.  I felt sad about that, but we had been planning to go on this trip.  My minister strongly encouraged me to go on the trip.  I had a spiritual awakening while I was on the trip.  I was depressed and in a bad space.

When I got there people greeted us with such warmth.  We were the first white folks who had come to their village and stayed there.  They were amazed by that. No matter what they did, whether they were cleaning the fields or working, they were happy.  They didn’t have the worries that we did.  They didn’t have the day-to-day stress that we do.   Since we’ve established this relationship, their church community has grown.

My minister realized that I had a gift around people.  I have a way of relating to people.  They couldn’t understand anybody else in the group but they could understand me.   Nobody else in the group was a great talker.  They saw my minister as too high up to approach.  When they danced, I danced.  I did everything they did.

My minister realized that I could help the church.  He asked me for suggestions on bringing people back to the church.  I suggested alternative therapies.  I realized that people weren’t spiritually well.  We need to make people chill out.  We need to reach them in some other way.  How about a café, a base for people to meet up?  If we had these things we’d be able to access the colleges better.  We’d have more people coming and less isolation.

Everybody I knew was tough.  I just needed to meet good people.  I was brought up in a healthy home.  I just needed to know more people like my family.  I wanted to meet people who were spiritually well.  I’ve been aware of God my entire life.

What will you take back with you to your community?

A new strength, you know? This has fired me up — the strength in working with other people, the empowerment. I feel empowered and more able to do the job. I have an understanding of how it works. I really feel fortunate that we had the opportunity to sit with commissioners and policy makers. We sat with people and we are changing things. We just appreciate the opportunity that we have. The people in charge of decision-making don’t come to these things. I realize how lucky we are in Glasgow to have the decision-makers around the table with us, and not be afraid to talk with them, to grab that opportunity.  I’ve learned loads and loads from being here. I’ve learned how to use a blog, and I have learned the benefits of using the Internet.  Not just for the Poverty Commission but for my church base as well.  I think it’s great if we do make this an international movement.  I think it would be great to make this stronger.

Meeting all of you preachers, you all are really effective.  You have a strong word.  You don’t look like a preacher, but if you came to my church, people would sit up and listen to you.

portrait-kymberly-mcnairKymberly E. McNair is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary (M.Div. 2008 and S.T.M. 2009). She leads the Social Action Ministry at her home church, Antioch Baptist in Bedford Hills. She is currently working with the Poverty Initiative on outreach to faith-based organizations. Click these links for more information about  The Poverty Initiative, The Leadership School, and the Church of Scotland Priority Areas Project.

Note: This interview first appeared on The Leadership School Blog, Sojourners God’s Politics & was submitted by Onleiove Alston