“The missionary world is largely unrecognised but your work is fantastic”, said Baroness D’Souza, the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords. She was speaking on Tuesday evening in the River Room of the House of Lords at an event to celebrate the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM) and in the presence of a number of Catholic missionary groups such as the Missionaries of Africa and the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. Fr James Cronin, the Director of Missio and Chris Bain, the Director of CAFOD were also present, plus many lay people who have served at least two years overseas with VMM. She recalled researching poverty and malnutrition in South Africa in the 1980s and witnessing the tremendous work at local level of missionary groups. “I was so impressed that you fed people, delivered babies and so much more” she said, “and much of this work was made possible because you lived and worked with the people”.
In the second talk, Bishop John Arnold, auxiliary in Westminster, said it was “good to see people from VMM and CAFOD help people out of poverty through capacity building and sustainable development”. He thanked VMM for training more than 2,000 volunteers over 45 years to work in the global south. “You are changing our world for the better” he said “and your next goal needs to reflect changes in today’s world”. He recalled Pope Francis “who is helping us to understand what it means to be a Christian in today’s world”.
“Faith groups are the unsung heroes of international development” according to Helen Stawski, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s International Development Programme Officer. She reported that in 2011 Andrew Mitchell, then the Secretary of State for International Development, convened a group to examine the impact of local faith communities on development. The resulting report of the British Government’s Department for International Development, ‘Faith Partnership Principles: Working effectively with faith groups to fight global poverty’ acknowledged that faith groups provide significant healthcare to the most marginal communities, mobilise a huge number of volunteers in emergency situations, use buildings to assist the vulnerable, and provide “spiritual capital”. VMM, Missio, CAFOD and Progressio are represented on this group.
Mark Wiggin, who was a volunteer teacher in Uganda in the late 1970s and who chairs VMM’s England and Wales management Committee, said the gathering not only celebrated the work of VMM but the many missionary orders who have supported lay mission over the years. “Our motto is ‘Working Together in a Divided World’ and we truly do that, motivated by our Christian faith”. He felt “the cause of social justice needs people such as the members of VMM”. VMM chief executive, Vincent Kenny, who is based in Ireland, underlined that faith has been “the glue that held people together and held the values which enhanced caring communities”.
VMM was founded by laywoman Edwina Gately in 1969, sending British volunteers first to Uganda. Since VMM grew out of the challenge for lay participation in the development work of the Catholic Church, it tended to work mainly with missionary congregations who are often at the forefront of working with the poor and the marginalised. This has now broadened out to include working with people of all faiths and none, including civil society and local community organisations. VMM has worked in nearly 40 countries and seen 94 groups through training.
There are currently over 40 volunteers working on projects in nine countries in Africa, and one person in the Philippines. These include doctors, teachers, community health providers and IT coordinators – all working towards the elimination of extreme poverty, along the lines of the Millennium Development Goals, and inspired to mission by their Christian faith.