by Michael Kurth

It was hot. Lord, was it hot. In Bolgatanga, a city in rural north Ghana, there aren’t many leafy trees to keep you cool. As I travelled along, I could see humans and
animals gathered together under the shade of large tree trunks – every living creature fighting for precious relief from the sun. One afternoon, we met a group of women and youth, seated in the shade weaving beautiful colored baskets. Smiles radiated across their faces, brought about by the joy of participating in creation – in this instance, creating baskets to take to the marketplace and sell. This basket weaving, similar to another outreach program we viewed earlier in the week, was a ministry Episcopal Relief and Development helped provide this group of women… or so we thought.

Ghana DanceI’ll come back to this special group of villagers in a moment. To begin telling this story, it’s important to back up and start at the beginning. This January, I was named as the Seminary Fellow for Episcopal Relief and Development’s bi-annual pilgrimage to Ghana. For eight days, I joined fifteen other pilgrims on a tour of Ghana, exploring firsthand the work of Episcopal Relief and Development across the country.

For those unfamiliar, Episcopal Relief and Development defines its mission as the compassionate response of The Episcopal Church to human suffering in the world, providing relief in times of disaster and promoting sustainable development by identifying and addressing the root causes of suffering.

Episcopal Relief and Development sponsors many ministries across Ghana, such as malaria treatment and microfinance loans, and its most robust work is in the rural north. Their outreach is centered around their Asset Based Community Development approach to mission work. In this paradigm, Episcopal Relief and Development works hand in hand with Ghanaians, in the heart of their local communities, helping people identify and utilize existing gifts and capacities of the community to cultivate change and development.

For example, if a community is based on fertile farmland, Episcopal Relief and Development will help this community focus on this strength, building a strong foundation for growing, harvesting, and selling a crop. This might mean providing a microloan for a donkey to help till the ground, or for a mill to harvest the grain. Above all, the objective is to find the area where local assets meet local needs.

All around us in north Ghana, we saw need. But by many measurements, Ghana is not considered amongst the poorest countries in the world. Accra, the capital city, is crawling with cranes and new construction. There are beach resorts, residential compounds and pockets of wealth. In contrast, the modest villages we visited, accessible via dirt road, had no electricity or running water. But they did have cell phones, evidenced by phone numbers sketched across the dirt walls of their dwellings.

This got me to thinking: what does it mean to be poor? To be destitute? Surely the Ghanaian who lives without running water, electricity, and who has no means of transportation is living in poverty, right?  Well, what about the man on the corner in New Haven or St. Louis – similarly without shelter, food and clean clothes? In my travels to Ghana, I met the poor and destitute. But I was also reminded: we don’t have to travel to Africa to experience third world poverty. Third world poverty is in our own backyard. Americans often lament the poor African women and children for their lack of resources. And rightly so. We should be outraged that we can live so comfortably while others struggle to survive. But what about the African-American sleeping on the corner of Main Street? Where is our cry for him?

Ghana - Michael KurthThe impetus for so many of our country’s woes — the triangular slave trade — intrinsically intertwines America and Ghana. On the final two days of our pilgrimage, our group visited two famous slave forts on Ghana’s Cape Coast. It is estimated that between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, more than 6.3 million Africans departed West Africa and entered into slavery across North America, South America, and Europe. The despair and darkness we experienced touring the forts is hard to put into words. To sit in rooms with no light nor air, where slaves were put in solitary confinement that ended only with their own death; to stand in line where soldiers would select women to sexually abuse; to look through the ‘gate of no return,’ a portal to the shipyard of slave boats destined for the Americas — this was a new pain.  Before this experience, it was unfathomable to me that humans treated each other in this manner. Now I see that the truth: that our education system bleaches these stains to become unrecognizable to young white American eyes. As we laid a wreath at the gate of no return, we prayed for all who died, who survived, who perpetrated such cruel acts, and for our own forgiveness and salvation from harmful deeds.

At some point, it all came together for me: we are all children of God. Those who have, and those who have not. Those who are oppressed, and those who perpetrate the oppression. And thus, we all have an obligation to care and love for our family in Ghana and across the continent. We may live different lives, and may face different obstacles, but in the end, we are God’s children, and we are all made in God’s image. We must see ourselves in the faces across Ghana – in the slave trade of years past, in a family’s relief when a baby is marked free from malaria, to the pain and struggles of daily labor, to the joyous child after a day of school. Though our lives are different, I now know we are one. We are one.

Returning to my story from the beginning – about the women weaving baskets under the tree. While meeting with the women, it became clear after initial confusion – the basket weaving ministry they were carrying out was not the initial mission supported by Episcopal Relief and Development. Rather, the outreach they received support for was a micro-credit loan to buy goats. However, (and here’s the kicker), having goats had become so profitable, both in time and money, that they reinvested their resources into a basket weaving enterprise, completely unbeknownst to Episcopal Relief and Development administrators. They had a side job complete with supporting income! To help women generate income and become an integral part of their family’s financial picture is a truly generation changing ministry. And as a fellow child of God, I could not be happier to be a part of it.

About the Author:

Michael Kurth is a student at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. He is the son of Grace members Chris and Carla Kurth. Michael was baptized and confirmed at Grace Church, sang in our choir and participated in Grace’s youth ministries. He graduated from Kirkwood High School in 2005 and from Indiana University in 2009.

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