Planting a tree of memory and hope

The following reflections are from John Nightingale, long-time chair of our Birmingham local group. We’re incredibly grateful for all the work our local campaigners in Birmingham have done to raise the profile of debt justice over the last several decades.

My memories, like those of many people, begin by going with some 15 others from my church by train into Birmingham to join the Human Chain in May 1998. We enjoyed meeting lots of smiling happy people. At 3pm we linked hands and made a great deal of noise and then went home. The following year my wife and I did the same in Cologne, Germany.

The origins of the Human Chain date from a few years earlier. Right from 1987 a Debt Crisis Network had been set up to do something about the rising tide of international debt of poor countries but they found it hard to break through into public awareness. In 1990, quite independently, Martin Dent, a politics lecturer at Keele University thought of the idea of Jubilee 2000, when in celebrating two thousand years since Jesus, the Biblical Jubilee year of debt remission he proclaimed could be proclaimed again. Quite independently again, Isabel Carter who worked in Christian rural ministry in Africa had an experience of being spiritually challenged about debt and was able to help with further contacts and valuable initial finance.

In 1996 the Jubilee 2000 charity was set up bringing together a variety of development, faith and trades union groups. The Human Chain was planned for May 1998 when the leaders of the G8 were to be at the ICC in Birmingham. In the event they took fright and decamped, but later that day Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were shamed to come back and talk with a small group representing those in the chain. That started the process by which eventually some $130 billion of debt was cancelled – very valuable but unfortunately less than the $350 which had been judged necessary. It was helped by a world-wide petition for debt cancellation which was signed by 24.3 million people from 160 countries and got into the Guiness Book of Records.

And then something poignant and personal for me. My wife Janet, who was having treatment for lymphoma, decided to walk the Camino to Santiago. In 1999 she walked the 550 miles from Le Puy-en-Verlay over the Pyrenees to Pamplona, sponsored for Jubilee 2000. She was unable to complete the walk the following year because of further treatment and then she died. My son, daughter and I completed the last 450 miles for her. Together our sponsorship with hers must have raised some two thousand pounds.

I became involved in Jubilee Debt Birmingham after I retired and became chair at the end of 2008. By that time there was a slight feeling of satisfaction. Living standards in Africa, in particular, had gone up in the last decade. Most of the debt cancellation had gone through and many people in the development world no longer looked on debt as a major problem. Also the coalition of organisations which had come together for a one-off effort at the Millenium had dispersed, and a new organisation, Jubilee Debt Campaign, had been set up for those who wanted to continue with the campaigning work. Members in Birmingham, numerous because of the work that the human chain had called for and the enthusiasm it had generated, were among JDC’s foremost supporters.

Debt Justice Birmingham group at the planting of the commemorative tree in City Centre Gardens, 24 Jamuary 2024

Campaigners realised that, of course, the problems of debt could never be solved at a single stroke; even the Biblical Jubilee had to be repeated every 50 years, and indeed debt amnesties took place repeatedly in the ancient world. The Birmingham group made a strenuous effort to engage schoolchildren, students and research academics in the topic. During the time that I chaired the Birmingham group we tried to participate in all the different aspects of the national campaigns, at times contacting MPs, lobbying party conferences and setting up stunts. We have also tried to educate and enthuse our members and to raise money for the national movement, in which we were greatly helped by the Jubilee congregation at Selly Oak Methodist Church. One of the strengths of Jubilee 2000 in Birmingham had been the way that the city’s varied faith communities had supported the human chain, which led to the formation of a Multifaith Project based in Birmingham which went on for five years and established relationships of lasting value.

The challenges we have tried to respond to have been twofold. The first has been to involve younger people. At times we have been successful with particular events for schoolchildren and students but we have found that we usually lose them when they move away or find their time taken up by their new work or family life. The other challenge is that most of the decisions for which we are campaigning are made in London, whether in Parliament, government departments or the headquarters of the banks. That has mean that there has been an absence of local changes to be campaigned for. This is in contrast with environmental campaigning where in addition to national targets for reduction in carbon emissions there can also be local and personal targets as well.

The exception has been household debt. We have run a couple of sessions on the issues but this is foreign territory for most of our group and those in Birmingham with this responsibility for debt advice are a rather specialised group. However, It is splendid that a play on household debt issues was written and then produced out of the experience of a member of a drama group attending a workshop we had put on.

Consequently the most illuminating sessions recently have been the Debt Justice zoom conferences and workshops. Meanwhile some of our members are now active in the multifaith “Footsteps: Faiths for a Low Carbon Future” which deals with issues personal, local and national to do with a just transition to a green economy and in this the work of Debt Justice continues to be helpful. In most faith traditions there is a history of support for debt relief and occasional cancellation, and also an understanding of debt as not just a financial but a moral reality. Those rich nations which have trashed the planet buy their historic carbon emissions owe the poor nations, which are largely the ones suffering from climate change, sums of money for restitution and reparation which are overall far larger than the total of the outstanding loans which they are supposed to be liable to repay.

This moral understanding of human financial relations which can be found in teachings of people of all faiths and none is of continuing importance. We are delighted that a tree is being planted in such a central location, with the encouragement of the City Council, as a sign of Memory and Hope.

John Nightingale                                                                                20 January 2024

Want to hear more?

Read about the significance of the tree in an article from the Birmingham Post

Listen to Human Chain organiser Rachel Stephens and Debt Justice Director Heidi Chow on this excellent podcast, produced by Adrian Goldberg: Chained By Debt – BYLINE TIMES PODCAST | Podfollow

Read the speech given by councillor John Cotton at the tree planting ceremony: Debt Justice Tree

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