From Down Under to Durham

An exchange is a place you go to to give the person sitting behind the bullet-proof glass pieces of paper of some value that you possess in exchange for new and different pieces of paper of value that will be more useful to you in the time to come.

You might be confused as to what I’m rambling on about, but I feel that this is a good analogy for my exchange over the past 6.5 weeks. I have flown here to the beautiful Kingdom to offer what I have, and in return, have received so much more (I think I got the better end of this deal).

Over the past 6.5 weeks, I have been putting my 2 cents in to several different departments at Durham University, on a number of different and interesting projects. I created surveys for Experience Durham to help evaluate the staff volunteering and post-graduate volunteering programs, and compiled a report on the findings of the barriers people were experiencing with these volunteering programs. I also worked with the Careers Centre, researching and writing spotlight articles on the top inclusive employers in the UK, helping to create a disability guide for the centre, and heartlessly listing out areas of improvement for the centre’s diversity and equity website.  In addition, I have also hiked down to St John’s College to conduct an accessibility audit of the college, as well as to deliver an interactive workshop to increase the understanding of disability amongst the 25 staff members and students who succumbed to the bribery of a free lunch.

In return, I have received way more than2 cents back from Durham. I have learnt quite a bit about the UK and its culture through my work and research, and through the 3-hour office chats with my fellow colleagues. I have gained much valuable work experience, grown my work skills and built my confidence in them. I’ve also been taught the love of cheese and crackers, and now always appreciate a cup of tea with good English biscuits.  Not only that, I’ve also learnt so many interesting things about countries all over the world through all the whacky people I’ve met at Ustinov college. It has been amazing being able to meet and talk to people from places I would never have imagined being able to meet. And lastly, I have collected so many unforgettable experiences through my weekend gallivants around the Kingdom and Ireland.

Sadly, there seems to be a rule dictating that all good things must come to an end. I become attached to places and people quite easily; and the friendliness of everyone I’ve worked with and met here, the (unusually) sunny fields and fairy-tale-like woodlands that surround these cobblestone streets and old stone buildings, and the amazing accents make it absolutely heart-breaking to have to leave. Though I will be soon gone, I promise that there will always be part of me here in beautiful Durham.

A Different End to the Academic Year

At the end of each academic year, after the joys of John’s Day but whilst most of John’s are still enjoying Brewfest and competing to bring home the John’s/Chad’s cup, the majority of Cranmer Hall students disappear. Most final year Cranmer students move out of Durham whilst a lot of the continuing students start what we call a ‘Mission Study Block’. Usually these last two weeks and the aim is for us to have an experience that broadens our understanding, challenges us and helps us in some way in future Christian Ministry. In the past students have spent a fortnight engaging with communities in rural areas or in urban areas with significant economic deprivation. Some students have spent time with religious orders alongside nuns and monks and some have studied multimedia & digital communication with the Durham based CODEC team. Each year there has also been one trip abroad – to visit churches and Christian organisations in Belgium.

This year there was a new opportunity, another one involving overseas travel. For the first time 24 of us had the opportunity to go to Israel and Palestine on an eight day trip.

We flew out to Tel Aviv from Manchester. On arrival we journeyed north to a hotel on the edge of Lake Galilee. We stayed there for the first half of the week and then headed south to Jerusalem for the second half. It was a week that I hope I’ll never forget. The views were breathtaking, the political situation was deeply troubling, the people were inspiring, the animosity between faiths was painful, the food was delicious. As a Christian training to be a church leader it was amazing to visit places that I have read about so many times in the Bible, it was helpful (and often moving) to see them in 3D and experience them with all my senses. My understanding of the Bible deepend and as a result my faith grew.

Although all the destinations on our daily schedule were significant, the journeying itself was also really valuable. It was great to travel with a group of friends, to share the rollercoaster of emotions and to have plenty of fun. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have this experience, one that far exceeded all my expectations.

Forget Food Waste – What about Food Security? (Pt. I)

By Matt Williams, Resident Tutor

One constant challenge at St John’s is how to make sure we produce enough food without producing too much. It’s humanly impossible to get it absolutely right, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is the classic ‘1st world problem’. A frightening number of people can’t take it for granted that there will be enough in the house for them to eat. Whilst this is the case for some in our own country, the number is relatively small due to the strength of our economy and social systems. For poorer countries, especially those at the receiving end of empire building and violent scrambling for resources, the problem is far greater. The situation is nerve-wracking in a particular way for those who rely directly on the right climatic conditions for their food to grow. We know well in Britain how hard it is to predict rain, but it is only in the last few weeks when it has begun to occur to most of us that the stakes are higher than a few hours delay at Wimbledon or a drawn test match. Constant pressure from this is the lot of a subsistence farmer: you get the right rain, you get fed. You don’t, you get hungry.

Despite this reality, ‘food security’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ can sound like grand ideals and interesting concepts that remain a little bit abstract. Just as nappies and babies’ sleeping patterns suddenly become crucial matters when you become a parent, so it is often not until we actually know some of the people involved that issues around subsistence farming appear to be really serious. Although I was already concerned about poverty in general, that is what happened to me when I lived in Central Africa (2011-15). I was never a farmer and was actually there to teach in the theological faculty, but you can’t be in rural Malawi for more than 30 seconds without being forced to engage with chronic hunger and the conditions that lead to it as it quite literally knocks on your door in the form of a suffering human being.

A former student from my elementary Hebrew class (believe it or not) called Maere has set up a project in his home village with the aim of improving the dire food situation there. For various political and cultural reasons, most Malawians have a diet of mainly maize and employ a method of farming that relies heavily on chemical fertiliser. This is a nightmare. It’s not only expensive but risky, since the little pellets can get washed away by a badly timed downpour; worse still, this fertiliser actually destroys the capacity of the soil to produce nutrients. It’s a bit like wearing powerful glasses if your eyes are ok: pretty soon, you’ll be blind without them. For people who have no formal employment – that’s 85% of the population – forking out each year for fertiliser puts them in a vicious circle that is financially crippling and environmentally destructive. That’s why Maere is promoting a method of agriculture that is organic, sustainable and more predictable because of its use of irrigation rather than being fully reliant on rain. He uses mechanical pumps that bring up water from the river by being peddled like bikes.

I’ve helped co-ordinate and fund the venture, called ‘Chilida Farming Project’, since it started in 2016 and, thanks in part to a student bursary from John’s, I’m on my way in August to visit it for the first time. I’ll be having some meetings and sorting out some issues, as well as seeing a number of the folk that I knew from my 4 years there.

So what does this have to do with a PhD in New Testament studies, which is the reason why I’m in Durham in the first place? And how can Maere get away with rocking that red suit in the photo? All this will be revealed in pt. II of this blog post in September, along with news from the project and some ways in which others can get involved.

Until then, “khalani makora mose!” (stay well everyone!)

Matt Williams food waste Maere

Maere speaking at a gathering in his home village. Most of the locals turn out to these events.

International Society visits John’s

By Geoff Moore – Professor of Business Ethics

The International Society for MacIntyrean Inquiry – a scholarly body which follows and promotes the work of the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre – held its annual conference in St John’s at the beginning of July.

Sixty delegates from around the world enjoyed the hospitality the College provided, and basked in both academically rigorous debate and the sunshine. One highlight was the keynote lecture delivered by the celebrated American theologian Professor Stanley Hauerwas.