When I explained to the staff team of Church Mission Society (CMS) that our messaging focus for early 2020 was going to be on lament, there were a few raised eyebrows.
“Sounds cheerful,” someone joked.
His comment conveyed an assumption that exists within certain faith-based charity circles, which is that we are fundamentally meant to be purveyors of hope not gloom. Yes there is suffering, but what about the silver lining?
I’m not saying that this supposition is exclusive to faith-based charities; what I do know is that in certain situations and before certain audiences I’ve felt pressured to present a positive pose.
And yet as 2019 drew to a close, we sensed a weariness in our world. We knew there was much to grieve: violence, rising nationalism, racism, inequality, poverty, climate crisis – all things that as people of faith we believe our Creator sees and mourns. (Of course in retrospect 2019 feels like a sharing plate appetiser compared the main course that awaited us in 2020.)
My fundraising and communications colleagues and I contended that to get to hope, sometimes lament is essential. We felt in our collective gut that we wanted to help people give space to their grief, whether that was about personal circumstances or global issues. But to do so could very well prove risky to our reputation.
It must be said that Westerners, particularly Western Christians, aren’t very good at letting ourselves lament, individually, corporately or publicly. So we intentionally turned to friends and colleagues and sources from the majority world for guidance. We were particularly inspired by African voices, especially Catholic Ugandan theologian, Emmanuel Katongole, whose latest book is entitled Born from Lament: the Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa. Katongole claims that the African church is a unique gift to world Christianity as a laboratory of hope which “provides a living witness of what hope looks like in the context of violence and war.”
We were also struck by the words of Christophe Munzihirwa, Archbishop of Bukavu, who said: “There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried.” If we took to the time to pay attention to our pain, what could it teach us? What if we too could become a laboratory of hope by letting people lament? What good things would this generate?
So in a rather ridiculously short amount of time towards the end of December 2019, we created a free print resource for individuals to use during Lent; we called it Lament for Lent. We admittedly cringed a bit when we found out that our patron the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book was going to be the rather more upbeat Say Yes to Life and Tearfund’s Lent resource was titled Alive!; there was even one Lent book produced by a charity that was based on Mary Poppins Returns – and here we were preparing to tell people to embrace sadness. Yet we pushed on, convinced that at least some people might be looking for a different approach.
The Lament for Lent booklet invited readers to explore such themes as courageous complaint, lament as resistance, lament leads to innovation, lament and justice, lament and love, and from lament to hope. We included illustrative examples from CMS people working in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the UK. We printed a modest number, in case the idea imploded.
Through our existing channels, including social media, we offered Lament for Lent as a premium first to anyone who gave a gift to our Lent appeal before Ash Wednesday. The appeal used the framework of lament to invite people to give to help those who are being oppressed for ascribing to a minority religious belief in specific contexts.
This is the part that felt really risky. Traditional wisdom dictates that of all the emotions that motivate giving, sadness and despondency don’t rank very high.
Yet within a short time of sending our Lent appeal, we had to do a fast reprint to keep up with demand for Lament for Lent. People told us how timely, welcome and refreshing this concept was. Many of our supporters told their friends about it and so it was decided to utilise Lament for Lent not just to incentivise giving but as an acquisition resource.
We received more than twice as much in giving for our Lent appeal this year compared to last year and we saw five times as many new or reactivated donors in comparison to 2019. We added hundreds of new contacts to our postal and email contact lists. It turns out, grief is popular and relatable.
And then coronavirus crashed in.
Given how many people had gravitated to the idea of lament already, in the first week of UK lockdown, we decided to create an interactive space on our website where people could add their own laments about the current crisis, anonymously if they wished, kind of like PostSecret. We called this area of our site Lamentspace. Participation in this project exceeded our expectations both in terms of numbers, website traffic figures and the depth of thoughts shared. People told us that during lockdown it was good for their mental health and wellbeing to have an outlet like this especially since it showed them they weren’t alone in trying to process pain. We also shared audience-generated lament content to our Instagram.
I won’t sugar-coat the fact that sometimes being privy to people’s grief felt like a rather big burden to bear, yet it also felt like we’d elevated our goals from messaging to a kind of ministry and that was a powerful motivator for us in a critical time.
In the end, sure, we raised money, yet beyond that we also produced something that seemed genuinely meaningful and surprisingly timely. Messaging-wise we didn’t have to “pivot” much in response to Covid-19 because we had already been on this journey with people. In this case, our leap of faith into eyebrow-raising territory proved prescient.
Naomi Rose Steinberg is head of communications at Church Mission Society