What is Transformational is Rarely Measurable – by Kathryn Robertson
Theological Reflection – Sunday July 21, 2013
Kathryn worked with the ECEJ (Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice) from 1997 – 1999 and then with CAWG (Canada-Asia Working Group) from 1999 – 2001. In 2001, 6 months before Independence, she moved to work in Timor-Leste. Kathryn has been working with Trócaire since 2005. She has lived in Timor-Leste for 8 years and in Indonesia for 4.5 years.
For the past eight years, I have been working with Trócaire, the development agency of the Catholic Church of Ireland. It’s been a good “home” for me as Trócaire’s mandate and vision is another manifestation of the vision which led to the establishment of coalitions in Canada, and then eventually to KAIROS. I have been proud to represent an organisation which has an enduring mandate for justice. From the Bishops’ letter in 1973 which created Trócaire:
The aim of Trócaire will be two-fold. Abroad, it will give whatever help lies within its resources to the areas of greatest need among the developing counties. At home, it will try to make us all more aware of the needs of these countries and of our duties towards them. These duties are no longer a matter of charity but of simple justice….We pray above all that [God] will never let us grow accustomed to the injustice and inequality that exist in this world or grow weary in the work of setting it right.
People often wonder how I, as a Canadian Protestant, came to be representing an Irish Catholic organisation on the other side of the world. It actually makes a lot of sense; justice and solidarity have no boundaries. I came to work at Trócaire because of my work in Canada with KAIROS and before that with two of its predecessor coalitions. There was a strong connection between the orientation to justice and partnership, and many of the relationships I developed in my days at CAWG have continued into my work with Trócaire. Pathways of solidarity brought me to where I am now 15 years later in Timor-Leste
“Trócaire” has deep meaning in the Irish language, an expression of Independence and culture from a people that experienced oppression for considerable time. I’ve enjoyed telling people that the name means something, that it is not an acronym. For its 40th anniversary one of Trócaire’s processes was to do theological reflection on the name…
The word “Trócaire” comes from deep in our Irish culture and our Christian faith. It can mean “mercy” or “compassion” but goes beyond that. It also expresses solidarity, embracing Jesus’ mission, his suffering with humanity and his active ministry to the poor and excluded. It is expressed in the work of peace, development and justice. And, most importantly, it is a call to action.
I write this as my work with Trócaire comes to an end. After 34 years of support to Timor-Leste, Trócaire is closing its operations in Timor-Leste, one of the ripples from the financial crisis in Europe and a need to concentrate the work in fewer countries. An increasing focus on trying to become a development organisation which can show results and attract donor interest has also taken its toll. Organizations working in countries like Timor-Leste have struggled to show “results.” But, as our Director reflected when he spoke at the event to mark the closing of Trócaire in Timor-Leste, “what is transformational is rarely measurable.” It seems to me that for organisations like Trócaire and KAIROS, the tensions between solidarity, history, and the current reality of development assistance and donor agendas (to a large extent what makes our work unique and strong) are worth more reflection.
The events and interactions we have had over these past months, as we have reflected on the work and celebrated the many accomplishments have been wonderful and affirming. But they have also been tinged with sadness that there is so much more to be done. Countries like Timor-Leste that have endured so much hardship need generations to overcome their challenges – and it is increasingly difficult to sustain decades’ long work.
When I gave my reflections at our Closing Event this past week, I used words and images attributed to Archbishop Romero. My sadness at having to close our office here is lessened by thinking that there is a bigger picture, a bigger vision, and that everything we do has a larger impact than we can know:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
I was so aware of planting these seeds when I went last week to visit a community in the mountains which is part of the Kdadalak Sulimutuk Institute (KSI) – a coffee growing cooperative in Timor-Leste. People in this community are growing coffee and reclaiming land which was taken from their ancestors for plantations during Portuguese and Indonesian rule. With KSI, the community is working to pool resources to enable better access to markets for coffee growers; find new markets for vegetable growers; build houses for vulnerable families; and advocate for land reform. They talked about “liberation.” Now, after working for these changes in these communities, our partner KSI is considering how to work in other communities.
You don’t hear talk of “liberation” much anymore in the world of donors and international NGOs in Timor-Leste. KSI started their work in 2000 with a small contribution of GBP 3,000 from church agencies (CAFOD and Trócaire) that had a sense of faith and vision. They worked in solidarity with Timorese people who also had a sense of faith and vision. While it felt sad to make our parting statements, we were also encouraged by the vision, spirit and continuation of good work –their calls of “VIVA Timor-Leste” will stay with me… “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision”.