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It’s Long Work: Glimpses into the History of the CRCNA’s Engagement with Charity and Advocacy with Susan VanLopik

You don’t have to be a history geek to appreciate the vintage vibes in this episode! Susan VanLopik, Director of Program Excellence with World Renew joins Chris Orme to look at the broad overview of how (and how long) the CRCNA has been involved in working toward justice throughout its history. Chris and Susan talk about words from a 1973 report to Synod that still pack a punch today and Susan shares the powerful stories that inspire her (and all of us) to keep working toward justice for the long haul. (Sadly, we never get the details about Susan’s finger tattoos. Maybe next time.)

The following is a transcript of Season 4 Episode 1 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well, hello friends and welcome to another episode of Do Justice. My name is Chris Orme. I'm your host, and today, I'm super excited to have the one and only Susan VanLopik with us. Susan is with World Renew. She's my colleague from World Renew. She is the Director of Program Excellence. And there are some other biographical interesting little tidbits that I'll let Susan share. I do want to get to the tattoos, Susan if that's okay. But let's just take a minute and just welcome Susan. Welcome, thanks for joining us. 

Susan: Yeah, thank you. Thanks so much for the invitation. It’s wonderful to be here with you.

Chris: Yeah, we're excited to have you tell us a little bit about yourself a little bit about what you do I mentioned program excellence, you're the director, and I did, I did give a shout out to the ink as well but yeah tell us a little bit about yourself before we dive in here.

Susan: Okay yeah well. Oh, I am part of World Renew, which is an international ministry with roots in the Christian Reformed Church, and that ministry focuses on transformative change to renew hope.We work to shine light for justice through amplifying the voices and power of people, local people in their communities. We do that through bearing witness, which is an important part of our ministry. We also believe in accountability, that's very important to World Renew and so we are accountable for the commitments that we have made to local communities and people as well.

And we do that through programs of excellence, both in disaster response and long term community development. And that's where our team program excellence gets its name.  I work with 10 very talented people, all of whom support the success of our worldwide programs across all of our programs and countries. Personally, I have been with World Renew over 30 years.

And I have a specific call in the area of supporting our programs and communities through the area of justice. Justice is an integral part of everything that we do. And yet it has been a struggle for us, sometimes to actually live into that work throughout our programs worldwide.

But it's an important call for me, it’s an important call for World Renew, it's an important call for the churches and the partners with whom we work in the communities as well. And when we work with this, it really requires transformative courage. And that's what I'd like to kind of talk about today too. 

Chris: Yeah, yeah, I, I love it, I, so I've been a fan of yours, since I first met you.

And that was about three and a half years ago. It was at the AGM—for those of you who don't know, AGM stands for annual general meeting—I had just started with World Renew. I was in my first week. And, World Renew—our colors are green and purple. I like to say “I believe green and purple.” But when I first started, it was like trying to take a sip from a fire hydrant. There was so much information coming at me.

And I went to this workshop, this breakout session at our AGM that you were co-facilitating on on gender justice and and ever since then, I've just been a huge fan of yours. I appreciate the work that you do. I appreciate your voice. And I consider you to be someone who's really formative in my integration into the World Renew world so I thank you for that. I want to start and go back to the beginning. How did you get involved in this work? Because it's a big world, and it's big work, how did you get into it?

Susan: Well I think initially, perhaps it goes right back to the fact that I'm the youngest child in my family. And so I was significantly younger than my brother and sister. And so I was always fighting for air time and fighting for my own personal justice and space, maybe just the beginnings of that somehow have gone through the rest of my career.

Before I joined World Renew I worked with people with disabilities. And I guess I've always thought of myself as a people developer within the system of understanding that there are a lot of things that are working against people. My husband and I started in Central America, with CRWRC at the time. And that, of course, was a transformative experience. We worked in El Salvador during the war.And I tell you that was certainly a baptism of fire for the work of justice, to understand exactly what is, what happens in societies, and how evil can be so pervasive and keep people oppressed. And when we were leaving our work there, and we're moving back to North America, my husband went on for his PhD, the partners there, gave us a call and particularly me a call and asked me to go back and serve as their missionary to North Americans, that we had come as missionaries from North America, Central America, and that we should go back and as missionaries to the church to let people know about the injustice they were experiencing and to work with the church to respond to that. And I took that very seriously. And then when I joined the home office work first as a church educator, again, with CRWRC at the time that has been a mantle that I accepted, and one that I've been working on now for all these years.

Chris: Yeah. So quite the journey. In preparation for our time together, our crack team of researchers dug into the archives. And we found this really powerful quote, in a report to Synod.

It says “in many other ministry efforts both overseas and at home, it became clear that if our ministry to the poor and hungry was to have integrity, if we really believed what we said we believed we would have to go deeper, and deal with ethical, moral, and systemic issues underlying much of the poverty and hunger, the misery and pain in God's world.”

The report goes on to mention World Renew’s work in Sierra Leone. Can you tell us some of the stories around how people came to understand  advocacy as necessary support for the development work of World Renew?

Susan: Okay, well, first and foremost, maybe it starts with the 1978 World Hunger report.

And that report—if you ever get a chance to go back into the history books and read that report—you will see how strongly it comes out in the fact that to make a real difference in the world, in the areas that Christians are called to, it really requires to be looking at unjust systems and structures, and to advocate for justice for people. And so that report is just filled with quotes, one after another, about the importance of paying attention to structures and systems. Then, if you want to specifically look at what happened in Sierra Leone, as a result of the 1978 World Hunger report, part of that was a declaration that we would choose one country in the world where we would put significant resources—and at that time it was combined resources with what was called World Missions, which is now Resonate and CRWRC which is World Renew—and we would concentrate on one country. And so we chose Sierra Leone—This was before my time so I'm requoting history here—But anyway, we chose Sierra Leone and we made lots of investment in that country: human resources, financial resources, tons of work went into our work there, both from North America and then of course from local people, Christians, working there in

Sierra Leone, in their own communities. And then a war came, of civil disturbance, I guess. Because it was some— I’m not sure how to call it. It wasn't exactly a “war” war, as in a civil war, but it was an economic war in the country. It was basically a terrorism kind of thing. But anyway, what happened is that everything that was part of—because that was part of the blood diamonds thing so the unit got into this whole world economic structure and greed, all wrapped up into all of this—and all of our investments were just crashed in terms of our assets were destroyed people. All the things related to the programming were destroyed. The communities were scattered. Just the stories that came out of the terror that people experienced during that time was terrible. And so that was an excellent example, I would say, of how you can make a lot of financial commitment into something, but if you are not looking at the fuller picture, you will not be able to really make the sustained difference that we're really looking for.

Rwanda is another example of that, really,  just before the genocide in Rwanda hit the news throughout the world. The reports coming out of Rwanda, to all of the government at the UN etc was that “everything is great here. People are learning how to read, agricultural outputs are great, everything is great.” But  the thing is is that we're looking at a small section of achievement within that program.Those things they were not paying attention to the larger societal things that were happening, and the things that were being said, and the fomenting of this hate that was starting to bubble up. And then all sudden, the world wakes up, and there's a genocide, and people are like, “Well how did that happen?” Well, it happens, because sometimes we narrow our look at the world, and don't take into account the big picture and wherever it is that we need to be paying attention.

And I would say that that report in 1978, as well as the subsequent report in 1993, coming out of the Christian Reformed Church Synod, really calls us to be paying attention to those really big picture things. If we really are going to do the work that we've been called to for justice as Christian people, then we really have to be looking at those big pictures of systemic structural things that are part of systemic evil.

Chris: When we think of Sierra Leone, we think of Rwanda, there wasn't a lot of—and this might be an oversimplification so please correct me if I'm wrong here—but it seemed like everyone was sort of like, “okay, we're in agreement we need to do something.” There was movement. And so when it came to advocacy, there were sort of clear on ramps and onboarding for people to get involved. And the issues seemed kind of clear. So at that time, we were able to come together. We were able to come in agreement that Christian should engage in politics, that Christians should engage in advocacy. It's part of loving our neighbor.

Since this time, we've seem to have gotten more polarized and some people would even say “hey we shouldn't be so focused on justice. We should only focus on the gospel.”

Given the stories that we've heard, given the experiences that you've had, how would you respond to that?

Susan: Well, first I'll take a quote out of the 1978 report that says “it is precisely our allegiance to Jesus Christ that moves us to show compassion to the hungry and to promote justice through effective social structures.” And systemic evil calls for systemic reformation: that comes directly out of that report. But what I'd like to also say is that if—at least in the time that I've worked with the denomination in the churches—if you look through the years of statements of Synod, and World Renew board etc—you see an ebb and flow, there's always been a call to do justice, and then there's been a bit of a sinking back. And then a reminder to do justice. And the 1993 report, the one that was called Freedom to Serve or the second World Hunger report, that one actually said the reason they were called into being again in 1993 was because of the sense that things had ebbed away, and that there was a loss of interest in world hunger. And it says, “gradually implementation of the 1978 task force’s recommendations began to flounder, and our churches’ interests of the issues of world hunger, the needs of the poor and the causes of poverty diminished.And this became manifest”—and this is an interesting question that I think we should explore, so this is what they said in 1993—“This became manifest through declining study and discussion of hunger and poverty issues, less direct involvement with the poor, increasingly consumptive lifestyles and a lower level of giving.” 

But I think we could ask ourselves this question today. Because I feel that it's ebbed again. What is it that we see today? How does that perhaps look differently? So in 1993 they said there was declining study and discussion, and  all these other symptoms.

And I wonder, “but what does that symptom look like today?”

Again, in 1993 they were called to—the calling of the report in 1993 was to call the church to be re-energized and re-committed and re-motivated at re-captivated.

And so to me—I think this is the interesting thing—if we see that the work of justice is this thing that comes and goes and comes: what should our call be to the church today? And then what would we call out in terms of symptoms like they did in 1993?

Chris: Yeah. So great, I want to riff off of what you were just sharing and I wonder at times how we as a Church—and I love the Church. Man, I love the Church. Like so much good comes from the Church. But I also get hung up on the fact that sometimes we gather together and we'll read words like from Matthew's Gospel, Matthew 25, where we read these words “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink I was a stranger and you invited me in I needed clothes and you clothed me I was sick and you look after me I was in prison and you came to visit me,  and they folks answer they say Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? and he says “when you did that for the least of these, when you did that for the stranger you did it for me.”

You did it for me. Where do you think the disconnect comes from? Is it a distraction thing?

Is it an energy thing? I don't know. Like where do you think it comes from?

Susan: Well I think it comes from—It's hard work. And it's long work. And it's not easy work. And sometimes it's fuzzy work. And we are people in general that like results quickly, and we put our energy to something and we want to get it done [snaps fingers] and see it. And yet this work—also back to the Sierra Leone example—is one that could be a winning work, and then revert back to maybe even worse than things were before. And then a rebuilding. And so, one has to sort of understand that it's hard work. And part of the calling is to love others so deeply that we are willing to engage that long walk, and that long work, and also that we're willing to engage the nature of evil and injustice and oppression.

And  sometimes we feel “I'm not equipped.” I have heard people say so many times the church is not equipped. And I am thinking, “How is that possible?'' The God of all things, is with the church. How can the church not be equipped to be brave in this space?

Chris: Oh, I love that: how can the church not be equipped to be brave in this space? Right? Because we walk with God. So powerful. So, let's end on the good news. Let's end on something tangible. Can you tell us about a time…give us a story where you saw the fruit of doing development work along with systemic work, and it just clicked. The transformation was clear. What's that good news story that keeps you coming back? You know 30 years is a significant amount of time to be doing this work. And yet you inspire so many people and you lead so well into this arena. So there's got to be a nugget or a story there that's just sort of your anchor point. Can you share that with us?

Susan: I've had lots of experiences, over the years and working with communities and people all over the world. There is however, one. I did an evaluation of a program in India. And this is in the southern part of India. And that was so fantastic but first let me tell you that the story is 10 years long. So again, the arc here of what we're talking about is long term, the things that require change, take a very long time.

But our program there was specifically aimed at Dalit people, the Dalit people are also sometimes known as—or in the past known as—untouchable people. And we did timelines and during our evaluation, with the communities there, we would separate the women, the men and the children, basically asked them to do a map of their history, and it was a lot of fun. We were on the floor with markers and crayons, drawing pictures. It was so interesting to me to hear the story of people say, “in the beginning our mothers and babies were dying because there were no trained birth attendants.”

So the primary issue they were facing, in the beginning, was the death of mothers and children. And so our program with the partner there began. And that was the entry point right there: trained birth attendants.

So that was the beginning. It was a very specific health related kind of intervention. But as we were working with the communities we started to see. Oh, there was a whole lot of other things going on in those communities. There was no water and the communities, and the way that the communities there were organized was, there would be an or a community of caste people, and then they would have a part of the community. And then the Dalit people would be on the outskirts, the Dalit people were not allowed to go and touch the water spigot or anything related to anything of the caste people. And so in order, even to get water, they had to ask someone to help them. And it wasn't always true that somebody would actually help them. They had no land. They were living in very, very humble homes, their children were not allowed to go to school. They were regularly experiencing violence, because there was no consequence if somebody injured a Dalit person, even though the law protected them. But the local law was not actually active. And throughout the 10 years of the work that we were doing there with our partner.

They engage the communities in these conversations about life everyday life.

And the realization of rights, for example, one of the important things that was shared with the community is well, what are your rights? And you have the right to go to the police. And you can quote this law, and they would give people the actual words of the law to quote to the police.

They organize organized people into what now would be called savings groups. And at that time, —and I think it's probably still true in India—if you were an organized group, you could access government funding to boost your savings in your group. And so suddenly people started having a way to make some more money. And then they could buy a little piece of land, and then from that their housing was improved. And then the community organized some more, and they put in their own water system, and they continue to advocate for themselves. And they got to the point where they could send their children to school. Again, I must say that this is a 10 year thing; we're trying to make it short. But what was really one of the cool, very cool things that happened out of that story, were—first remember in the past, a Dalit person could not touch anything related to a caste person. And after that, we were doing this evaluation after 10 years, a woman stood up and said—and she's a Dalit woman—she said “this year, I was elected to the school board.”

And you know what it meant to be on the school board? You made the lunch for all of the children.

Now, that may seem like a big deal, but that is a huge deal to move from a point in life where your very presence was seen as a contamination to other people, to the part where you are fully integrated into the life of a small school.

Then there was another gathering, also, again—you wanted to ask about what things, opened my eyes up—So we were meeting with the community leaders, And  they didn't really know who I was too much, and they also had never heard of the United States, or of America. And so they just knew I was from someplace else. And, um, I remember one of the community leaders saying to me. “So, we have this issue here. We have all this prejudice, and this racism against us.

Do you have anything like that in your country?”

And I said, well, yes. As a matter of fact, we do. And so I gave a few words about that, and then he looked at me and he said, “what are you doing about it?” So you know, you think “oh I'm the outsider coming in,” “the savior” of things, whatever it is, in development work, and “here we are, the missionaries coming to you.” The word comes back to us.

Chris: Wow. I'm just letting that hang there for a minute Susan, so powerful. That's the gospel, right? To nitpick at the beginning, when we were going at the start of our conversation and,  someone had asked “well don't we need to preach the gospel first?” That's the gospel. I mean that's good news. That was such good news. Susan. I'm so thankful that you took the time to be with us today. Where can people keep up with the work that you're doing? How can people get in connection with you and learn more about who you are and what you do?

Susan: Ah, well, they can contact me through World Renew. And I believe that my email is a public email: And it's not like I have any other program!

Chris: Well, we're so thankful that you joined us. We’ll be sure to put the World Renew websites, both the Canadian and the US websites in the description of this episode and will also make sure to share the links to those reports that you referenced. Susan, we ran out of time today but you'll have to come back and give us the story of those tattoos.

Susan: haha, right!

Chris: Thanks so much for joining us. Again folks listening along with us, our guest today has been Susan VanLopik, Director of Program Excellence with World Renew. Thanks so much, Susan. Awesome to be together today.

Susan: Thank you Chris.


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