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Mission Unplugged Episode 6 - April Holmes

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

April Holmes is a team member at The Leprosy Mission Australia, and a former team member at embody and ThankYou. She works with the on-the-ground teams to develop and assess effective programs and initiatives that foster positive and long-term change in communities experiencing poverty and marginalisation. Mitch caught up with April for a chat about where her passion for global social justice, practical aid, and good development practices came from, and how her career in the NGO sector is a powerful expression of the Kingdom of God at work.

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Mitch: Hey, April, welcome to the podcast. Thanks so much for being online with us. 

April: Thank you, good to be here. 

Mitch: It's great to have you. I'm really excited for our chat and to catch up a bit. But for our listeners who might not know you, can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

April: Yeah, okay. I work in international development in program management. I'm particularly interested in evaluation and I'm actually studying that at the moment. But outside work, I am the mother to a small sausage dog named Mango. I'm married. I'm living on Gunaikurnai land in West Gippsland at the moment. And I'm an Enneagram nine, which is a peacemaker. 

Mitch: Let's go back a little bit. And I'd love to know a bit about your formative years and your time growing up. My understanding is you grew up in a local church and you were pretty heavily involved there. What was that like for you?

April: I was extremely involved. Yeah, so I grew up in the outer south east of Melbourne. I had a pretty stable, loving family, pretty good childhood. And I went to a really local church. It was literally at the end of our street. But yeah, I was super involved. I think, as a kid, I was super enthusiastic. I was like part of all of the extracurriculars that I could pack in, and church became part of that as well. So I'm like always rehearsing for some sort of production, Christmas plays, worship team. I was part of kids’ ministry and youth group. I think I found high school... I went to a really big public high school. And I found it quite hard to kind of fit in. And so church probably became my safe space or the place where I felt kind of more known or accepted. I was there multiple nights a week. I think I was very Christian as a kid, like it wasn't just social for me. I think when I was about 12, I decided I had to do quiet times every day. I don't know why they got called that. So I spend time like reading the Bible and praying daily throughout my teens. I think the amount of discipline I had kind of shocks me now, but yeah. I was very Christian, loved church, loved learning about God and having friends. 

Mitch: Yeah. That's awesome, All that good stuff that church can bring. And so while you were there did you have experiences that connected you with mission, that connected you with God's heart for justice, for care for others? What would you say is your first experience of mission?

April: I wouldn't say my church was hugely focused on mission, in their like weekly teaching. I think they did have kind of mission trips pop up every now and then, which I was always really curious about, but never felt like we could afford honestly. But yeah, I think looking back; I probably got my first exposure to what mission was more from the Christian media that I was consuming as a teen rather than church directly. So I had a subscription to Brio magazine, which was a Focus on the Family publication for teen girls. So deeply cool.

They were, I don't know, big into like Christian music, like Bali Girl was always on the cover, lots of articles on dressing modestly and what Christian boys were into. And they also had this focus on mission; I think that was probably, I was really fascinated by it. Like they’d host a mission trip every year, it was based in like Southern America, I think. And they went on a cruise down to South America and would build houses or churches or something. I was so like, wow, what an adventure. And articles about like young women who became doctors and like started clinics in Kenya or Uganda or something. And I was just really entranced by that idea. I think honestly, it probably just sounded to a suburban kid like it was a bit of an adventure. So I didn't think all that critically about that idea of mission until later, but that was definitely very influential to begin with. 

Mitch: How has your understanding of mission changed from that, from the world-traveling adventure to whatever you believe about mission now?

April: Dramatically, it's changed dramatically. So as a teenager it was very much this idea of… like for some reason I correlated mission with being overseas. I didn't really think of it as something that was an integrated part of life. And it was both things that were very practical and tangible, like building someone a house or giving someone healthcare. But it was also, I internalized, very much a means to an end, like you do this good thing for someone to meet their needs, but the ultimate aim of it is then you lead them to Christ and make them a Christian at the end of it. So very evangelical, which is honestly, probably what's dominated mission for a long time. Now in my personal life don't really identify much with the word ‘mission’. Honestly, I think that to me has other connotations like Aboriginal missions, which were a colonial mechanism.

Mitch: Break that down for us, because I understand that, I feel the same way. And it's always a wrestle among the embody team when we talk about, when we use the word mission, because it has a long and complicated history, and a lot of it is not good.

April: And it's still, I mean you still need a word to know what we're all talking about, but yeah, to me, like I wouldn't use it usually in day-to-day life. You have these kind of real strong links between mission as it has been done for honestly several hundred years and colonialism. So Aboriginal missions, which were means of forcing people off of their lands. Mission as a colonial project. So like British or white missionaries going into countries that were being colonized and kind of converting them as a way of making them more white. So mission has been wrapped up with the colonial project for a long time. So I think as I've gotten older and gotten more aware of how the effects of colonialism is still so evident and painful, I haven't really been able to separate that word from those connotations anymore.

But I did see Jarrod McKenna recently was talking about replacing the word mission with ‘witness’, which I find really intriguing. So the word witness is more passive in a way. It's more about listening, about paying attention to injustice and maybe witnessing where God's spirit is at work, cause it's always already at work and then how we can kind of flow in with that. I think that's an interesting idea and I believe that God is our source and God's always calling us back to how we were intended to live in love and community and justice. And that God is calling us always to pay witness, to bear witness to the injustice in the world and to call God's goodness forth into that. I don't know, like the Old Testament prophets, God always seem to raise them when injustice was prevailing and their job was just to pay attention and to call it out. So maybe there's something to that in what mission, in inverted commas, would be today.

Mitch: Mission or witness. 

April: Like at the moment I think it's interesting to look at the movement for Black lives as a moment of witness. Like just paying attention to how much injustice is still ramping up against Black people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here. And that's what so many of those people are saying, like just pay attention, just listen for a little a while and then let the action flow out of that and let solidarity flow out of that. But if you start from a place of witness, I think it de-centers us, it just kind of, yeah, helps us reorient to what's more important. 

Mitch: That's a pretty radically different take than, you know, suburban teenager, suburban young adults magazines from the States.

April: A bit of a shift happened in there, somewhere. 

Mitch: What happened in your life that started to broaden that perspective?

April: Yeah, I don't think honestly… I was part of my church until I was in my early twenties. I'm not sure much of that perspective shift happened there, but it definitely did at school and Uni. So when I was in Year 10, I took an international studies class that really impacted me. I think because I was getting to explore these big ideas and issues of injustice, like poverty and war, that had felt so nebulous. And for the first time I was beginning to understand like why they existed. Poverty doesn't just exist. It exists because the world is fundamentally unequal. So that class really ignited something in me and probably set me on the past for the career I have. And I tried to bring a little bit of that perspective back to church. 

I remember holding a prayer night on Sunday night church where we had this like nice cozy time of worship. And then I made people break into groups and read about like the war in Darfur, which is probably too much social studies classroom for Sunday night.  But that was me trying to start to integrate what felt at that point like two pretty separate parts of me, my faith and my anger at injustice in the world. But when I got a bit older and joined some different Christian communities, including embody, I learned about how those two things are actually super integrated.

Mitch: The prayer night story is hilarious, I love it. Doesn't need to go on the podcast, but should, maybe just be noted. I find it Incredibly funny and incredibly relatable. 

April: I had this creative arts Pastor, because I was on that worship team, who I always felt like I was striving for her approval and she was super like perfectionistic. And then I held that prayer night and then afterwards she was like, that was incredible. I was like you've got the lowest bar for this for some reason.

Mitch: I have a theory that applies to life. But it particularly came through in, I studied creative writing. My theory is if you go dark, no one will be able to tell you that it wasn't good. If you do a prayer night on a really heavy topic, no one's going to turn around and go, Hmm, I think you probably could have run that differently. Or maybe we could have done this, that, and the other thing. They're going to be, You are so brave.

April: Oh wow. It was like prayer stations too. Like some people were Darfur, some people were like famine in Ethiopia, like it was… yeah. 

Mitch: It's incredibly my jam. So when you were in school, when you were a teenager, what did you want to do with your life? And when you were out of school, what did you do?

April: Yeah, I really wanted to help people. I really wanted to do something that felt like it was, I don't know, fulfilling God's calling on my life. When I was a teenager as well, I'd had one of my youth leaders like give me a prophecy that I was gonna end up travelling, so that like I put a lot of stock in that when I was younger and definitely thought that that was, you know, God had this idea that I was gonna work overseas. But actually I was talking about that with my husband the other night because he grew up in a church that seemed to have much more fleshed out and maybe more progressive ideas about mission. And he definitely internalizing the message that mission definitely wasn't only overseas. It was something much more integrated. I was wondering how I would attend that if I had gotten that message too. Like I could have been a perfectly good social worker, you know? But did you go to that church too? Did you get that kind of idea? 

Mitch: Yeah. I can't pretend that that particular church community has not been incredibly formative in what I consider to be a really positive way on my life and theology around mission. The people and the leaders there. And the things that we talked about and the way that mission and life was talked about. Like any church community—far from perfect, but it doesn't need to be perfect to still be really good and beneficial. 

April: At least you're having those conversations. Like yeah. I think I probably, just because of the lack of talking about it, I did go to other sources like, yeah, more media and stuff. But it just wasn't a dialogue. Like I didn't get to talk about ideas of this stuff or work through it. 

Mitch: When you're reading a magazine—and he says, prepared to make the point that he's about to make on a podcast—it is much more one way. And you don't get to talk back to the person who's giving you this perspective. You just kind of have to, I don't know, you take it as gospel a lot of the time, and it isn't, necessarily.

April: As a teenager, I thought about becoming a doctor for a hot second. But then I found VCA biology so stressful that I abandoned both the class and the idea. I thought about doing human rights law, and I at first got into a law degree. But I ended up doing a global arts degree, which is essentially an Arts degree with an international studies major. So it's quite broad and in and of itself probably wouldn't have been enough, quite enough to get me into the development sector. But I started volunteering with a startup social enterprise called Thankyou in my first year of Uni. And I ended up working there for three years while I studied. So that was great experience. At first I was working the phones, but they knew what I was studying and what I was interested in. And they offered me a job in their impact team, which was the team responsible for kind of working with NGOs to fund, at that point, safe water projects. So that was a great experience. I was such a baby and I did some truly embarrassing things as we probably all do in our first real jobs, but yeah, it was a great experience and it definitely gave me the confidence to apply for proper NGO roles once I finished Uni. 

Mitch: So from there, what kind of roles did you do and what did it look like to work in the development sector?

April: So I've had one real job since Uni. A total of one. I worked for the Leprosy Mission as a projects officer. I recently gave up this job for a role, another role in Cambodia, but then ‘the plague’ [COVID-19] happened. So now I'm just in limbo until we can travel again. But the Leprosy Mission works with people affected by leprosy, which still exists. And people with disabilities in a number of low and middle income countries. They do community health projects. They do a lot of work building up local organizations of people with disabilities where they have community with each other and they advocate for their rights and build small businesses as well. And they also do a little bit of top-down work where they like partner with governments that are under-resourced to deliver their public health programs.

So yeah, as far as my role in those teams, I don't feel like it's a super significant one. The day to day work of running projects is done by in-country teams. Like if it's in Nepal, there'll be a team of people who are living and working in the districts of Nepal that your project is in. And we're just over in Melbourne kind of concerned with the high level stuff; like how we're funding the project, is it meeting its goals, who do we need to report to when it's over, who's doing the evaluation, how can we do the next project even better? So those are the sorts of questions that I'm asking. And also because you're a little bit of an outsider to the project, you can kind of be a sounding board. So we would talk with local teams about how they can include people who aren't being included, like women and girls or people with mental illnesses. And then we'd also, a lot of my job in practicality was making sure that the project had all the necessary policies and procedures in place to make sure no one gets hurt and it's child safe. And those are the kinds of things development projects need these days to get funding from governments and people.

Mitch: I was going to say it sounds like a lot of paper work.

April: It is a very administrative role. I don't think I really realized that. Like if you don't want an admin role in development, then you need to live and work in the countries where those projects are happening, which I'd like to do still. And I think it is important that if you're working in the sector, you get some of that experience. But yeah, definitely as a donor country, because that's the role that kind of Australia usually takes, is raising the money. A lot of it is admin.

Mitch: The teams on the ground, in the countries. What does work, what does life look like for them?

April: Yeah. Depends on the project, but yeah, let's take an example. I spent some time in Timor-Leste, East Timor, last year with the Leprosy Mission team there and they have lots of projects. But one thing they do fairly often is visit communities and screen people for leprosy. You can usually tell if someone has the early stages of leprosy, because they have like a patch on their skin that might be a bit abnormal and has maybe lost sensation. So we had a day out with that project, which looked like getting in a four wheel drive very early in the morning, doing some of the most intense four wheel driving that I've ever done for a few hours. I always find it funny, I live at the moment in an area that has loads of four drive trucks around, and as soon as the first quarantine ended it was just like a flood of people from Melbourne coming out to drive. I find it so funny how it's such a hobby here and it's just like normal life in Timor. It's really not that fun

But yeah, so we would drive out, we were in the district next to their capitol city, so not that far. But yeah, we stopped in a couple of villages and we ran some awareness sessions about leprosy, but also about other preventable diseases and generally how to promote good health. At every session the team would ask people if they thought they had signs of leprosy and then if they did, they would check them and people also, because we had doctors with us, people would also bring up other health issues that they had.

There was one older lady who’d had issues with her feet, I think, and the doctors just showed her some simple physio exercises to do. So a lot of really basic stuff like that. We also checked in on one man who we knew had leprosy and we screened his family and neighbors because leprosy most often affects people who are really close to the patient. At one point that day we got told that someone's brother might have signs of it. So we went and visited him and he definitely didn't. He did have symptoms of a mental illness and the team just kind of sat with him in his home for a long time and listened to his story. And yeah, I think he just needed a listening ear. They worked out that he was a really committed Catholic and at the end they asked him to pray with them as a team.

And it was really beautiful watching this man who was quite stigmatized by his community, be treated with real dignity. But yeah, sadly there's not a whole lot of mental health access in rural Timor. So it was difficult to refer him on to someone. 

And in fact, like health access generally is pretty hard there. We passed one, like we were at one house that was literally across the road from a health post, but the doctor who managed that post had been away for some reason for a month and the government just didn't have any other doctors to play his part. So you just have no doctor. But yeah, and to get back to the question, I think on the ground, a lot of the time development looks like that. A lot of driving, a lot of visiting communities, in the Leprosy Mission’s case, doing training and awareness sessions and health screenings. On other days they would work with government health workers and train them. There are a lot of meetings. But really at the heart of it is kind of getting to know people. I've visited loads of project participants houses with local teams and the local teams are always treated like family, welcome to like family, like they really know the people who they're working with.

Mitch: And it's that relationship that kind of enables the practical work to happen, isn't it? I know we've, I'd like to think we've got past the point where we are sitting in an office in Australia and we're like, oh, people in Timor or people in Zimbabwe need water. Let's just, oh, here, I've got a map of Zimbabwe. Let's put a borehole here and that'll solve the problem. The work happens through consultation and through conversation and, as you say, relationship.

April: Absolutely. One of the most fundamental, now, principles of community development is participation. So it's having people, the people who you're trying to serve through development involved in every stage of it and particularly involved in like designing and speaking about what they actually want a project to achieve. And you can't do that meaningfully without having strong relationships with those people. So yeah, I think that relationship just kind of forms the center of it all.

Mitch: So organizations like Leprosy Mission, also, you know, a bit of a self-plug, Global Mission Partners, World Vision, all these non-government organizations, these NGOs, what role do they have to play in the Kingdom of God?

April: [Laughs] That's a huge question. Look, I think when development work is at its best, there's a lot of congruence with the heart of God. Like when it works well, it brings communities together. It invites and calls people in. People who are excluded are seen and their voices are listened to. Like in the projects I've been part of that's people affected by leprosy and people with disabilities. And basically the most stigmatized people in a community are really centered. People's basic needs are met. I mean, that's what Jesus tells us to do. An injustice is, like, maybe not overthrown, I mean, that's a really big project. 

Mitch: Would like it to be… but, realistic goals.

April: But on a micro scale, it kind of is. I mean, the simple act of seeing and bringing visibility to people who are kind of in a lot of communities hidden away. Like I remember one woman in southern India who had a disability where she had to walk using her hands and for most of her adult life, she'd just been living in her home and she didn't have any reason to leave. And her family kind of felt ashamed of her. And the Leprosy Mission local worker came to know about her and her story. And he would just, anytime he was in town, come to a house and speak to her parents and talk through like what their kind of, why they didn't think that she could or should live a normal life out in the community. And they ended up doing some more practical things, like they got her a motorized tricycle that she could like use to leave the house on her own. So it brought her this whole new level of independence, but she wouldn't have been able to do that had he not basically like sensitised her family to the fact that people with disabilities can and should have lives that reflect independence and agency.

And like she ended up working as a storekeeper. So this project was kind of coordinating farmers who were dairy farmers. And she ended up being the person who all of hers neighbors and community members came to to buy their milk every day. So she became like, went from being this person who was kind of hidden away, whose family was ashamed of her to being able to leave her house by herself and run this business on her own and be seen by local community as an essential worker. And I think that that stuff is, I mean, I think God cares about that stuff. I think the other part of it on the bigger scale of like overthrowing injustice, is that I think being involved with development, seeing up close what poverty looks like and how people… I don't know, my thoughts, aren't coming together… [laughs] something about how when you get involved with development and you get to see poverty and inequality up close, you just become more fired up about its causes. And so you do work to address that inequality in your own life and you can advocate about it more broadly. So yeah, I think when NGOs work really well they help to connect to people to that personal face of what inequality looks like, and it becomes, it goes from being this huge kind of nebulous issue to something that you feel like you know something of, and you want to do something about.

Mitch: And what about faith? What role can faith play or should faith play in the formal development sector, but also just the actual, the work or the life of mission or witness or aid?

April: There's a lot of development that's not faith-based. And I don't think that that work is lesser for it. I think its essential work. I think faith-based development has a really unique and needed place in the sector. And I think there's been a real recognition of that over the last few years. So, for example, a couple of years ago, the main development conference, the theme was ‘faith in development’. And so I don't know, seeing secular NGOs really embrace like the role that faith has to play is really interesting. Because most people in low-income countries are people of faith. They might not be Christians, but they have a faith. And I think it was Tim Costello who said something about how it's easier for maybe two people of a different faith to connect because there's a shared trust almost in the idea of like; I believe in a God, you believe in a God. And it can almost be a bit throwing if one party doesn't. But when you're trying to do community-based work, it's really important. Like, something we talk about is getting local stakeholders or local duty bearers on board with your work. So they're the people in the community who have influence. So if they're on board with your work and joining them with it, they have a lot of sway. And usually faith leaders are among that group, because people trust their local Pastor or faith leader. So if you don't know how to engage faith leaders and you don't understand how important faith and community is to people, then I think community development like loses a really important angle. 

At the leprosy mission we often try and get local pastors to talk about leprosy when they're preaching on the New Testament stories about it, like throw in, Oh, and leprosy still exists today, and it's totally curable and not something we should stigmatise at all because Jesus doesn't. So that was really important. It was speaking to, and through like one of the most important things to people, which is their faith.

The other role of faith in development, at least faith-based development, is your whole motivation and heart to the thing. And the people who I have worked with: first of all, there's a lot of people who aren't Christian who work for local Christian NGOs because they really believe in the mission of it. But yeah, the people who do have a faith I think are really led by it. There's something about the example of Jesus that really calls people to meet the needs of their neighbors, to love their neighbors well. That's really powerful. And I think you see it echoed in secular culture as well, like the inherent dignity of people. But there is something to the Christian idea that we are made in the image of God, that every person you meet is, you know, made in divinity and is so holy and special and deserving of love. And yeah, that's really, when that can be kind of echoed in the way that we treat people, in the way that development kind of helps people to recognize their own worth and to know that they are deserving of far more than often they have, that's really powerful. 

I'm thinking of like advocacy projects that we've been a part of where a lot of the time we talk about the idea of self-stigma, of this idea that people, especially people who are affected by leprosy or disability, who've been treated in a stigmatising way, their whole lives,  end up turning that inwards and seeing themselves as not deserving of love or of acceptance or of community. And when you kind of break that down there's a whole heap of change that can happen and you see people… Like, true empowerment, I think that's what that is. And people are their own best advocates, ultimately. When you can show someone that they are worthy of, you know, having their human rights recognised and they stand up for it themselves, that's a much more powerful story than some white NGO calling for their human rights. 

Mitch: Absolutely. I think one of the things I've learned, both theologically in the development sector, but also in just church life and just life everywhere, is people are able to understand and articulate and advocate for the things that are good for them. And part of our job is making sure that everyone has the capacity, has the space, and is allowed to do that. That's part of what goes into community development, asset-based development, you know, people being able to have control and input over what's going on in their communities. But then I also think about, people in churches who sometimes don't get the same kind of space to speak or space to be heard—I think in particular, children always come to mind—they are able to articulate these things and they are able to express God at work and express things that are going to be helpful and good for them. 

April: Absolutely. One of my least favorite tropes is the idea of being a voice to the voiceless. Like no one is voiceless.

Mitch: If someone doesn't have a voice it's because someone's taken it away from them. 

April: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, you can help to amplify that voice or help use the platform that you have as an individual or as an organization to share their voice. But like the real focus should be on capturing what it is they actually want to say rather than saying it for them.

Mitch: Amen to that. So looking forward with a bit of imagination, what are the next few years hold, do you reckon, for the development sector, but also for you personally?

April: For me, hopefully getting to live and work in Cambodia or another country eventually. For the sector, I think development is going to play an even greater role in helping people through crises. So immediately COVID, which will take a long time to recover from in many countries, although it is worth noting a lot of low and middle income countries have handled this thing a whole lot better than a lot of bigger countries. Vietnam has done incredibly well, I think Rwanda has as well. But also the climate crisis. I mean, all programs are basically going to have to in some way prepare people for or mitigate the effects of climate change. And low-income countries, small island nations, they're the ones who are feeling the effects of climate change already. So the sector is already having to do work on it now, like it's not preparing for 2050 or whatever. I think that's going to play an even bigger role. 

Mitch: Do you have anything that you would want to say to young people who might be listening to this podcast and might be interested or considering a career in international aid and development?

April: Oh man. There's actually a lot of advice out there, if you look for it, a lot of opinions on how to get a job in this sector. Ironically I think in Australia, because of the amount of faith-based NGOs there are, being a Christian is a little bit of an advantage. Like there's not loads of jobs, but it does broaden your options, or it did for me. But good advice generally, is to get some experience in the field. Probably not like visiting an orphanage or building a house for someone, but like experience with a trusted local NGO organization is always going to be good.

And I think it's easiest to get into development if you have a technical background, which I don't, but something like nursing or teaching or engineering, so you can be involved in those kinds of projects. But if you don't, then you got to get good at project management or some sort of specialty like gender inclusion, or writing grants, or finance, but you've got to have something to bring to the table. And don't automatically think that you have to get a Master's. I think, especially if you're young, at least this is what I'm telling myself right now and possibly avoid having to do a Master’s. Yeah. I mean like some, if you want to work for the UN, you have to have one, but otherwise I think the priority should always be real life work experience.

Mitch: As we come to the end of our time together. Thanks so much for being on the podcast and having a chat with me April. It's been amazing. It's been great. 

April: It's been a pleasure, thanks Mitch.

Mitch: If people want to find out more about the stuff that you've been involved in, or if they want to connect more with you, where can they find you?

April: I mean, [sarcastic] subscribe to my YouTube, my blog is in this show notes… No, I'm not a very active internet person. Do you have an Instagram, @AprilAdelaide. You're welcome to contact me through there and check out the work of the Leprosy Mission if you're interested in what I've talked about.

Mitch: Thanks so much for being with us today.

April: No worries, thank you.

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Find out more about the work of the Leprosy Mission at https://www.leprosymission.org.au
And connect with April on Instagram at http://instagram.com/apriladelaide

This interview is a transcript of an episode of Mission Unplugged. You can listen to the interview on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcription by MissTranscript

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