Faith & Reason: The holy fool who gave pounds 150,000 away

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The Independent Culture
I'VE JUST spent two weeks in a field in Somerset in the company of thousands of youngsters. The event, Soul Survivor, combines late nights and loud music with skateboarding, sermons, seminars, and social action, all in the context of youthful, energetic Christian worship. It is always a place for the unexpected, but this year has brought an extraordinary initiative, which could prove to be either sheer folly or magnificent wisdom.

One of the event seminar speakers, a Salvation Army evangelist, brought all the money he possessed, augmented by money he had borrowed, and randomly distributed it. A total of pounds 150,000 was handed over in envelopes containing pounds 10 notes to 15,000 young people. Having been shown a short video of Aids orphans in South Africa they were then given the option to return the money, keep it if their needs were greater, or multiply it tenfold. The aim was to raise a million pounds for "Hope 10/10", a company created to give everything it earns to African children suffering from HIV and Aids. The evangelist, himself a poor man by British standards, completed his assignment in minutes. The money changed hands, the youngsters sang gustily and the evening continued.

It would be easy to make a case that this is sheer folly. Handing over vast quantities of money in a large shed in a County Showground, with no way of checking who receives or who returns it is a high-risk endeavour, whoever the recipients. But when the money is being given out to adolescents, some barely in their teens, and the majority with no business acumen, the sanity of the decision may well be questioned. Far too many careful research studies point to the non-alignment of this generation, to their low attention span, their inability to make or sustain a commitment. Far too many news items focus on the irresponsibility of the young, their self- preoccupation and disregard for others. All this can hardly inspire confidence among seasoned investors.

Not that these failings are seen necessarily as the fault of young people. Adolescents brought up in a predominantly individualistic culture are taught that it is normal to think of their own wants rather than the needs of people they have never met and are never likely to meet. Youngsters raised in a highly consumerist society find it easier and more natural to spend than to raise money to give away to others. Whatever the causes, the conclusions are the same. Trusting a crowd of noisy, surprised teenagers with life-savings and loans from others has to be one of the highest-risk financial operations I've ever seen.

At the same time, we cannot help but be impressed with the idea. It could yet be an act of magnificent wisdom. For if this could be pulled off, and pounds 150,000 multiplied into a million pounds over the next month, the effects would be amazing. Money from the UK goes a long way anywhere in Africa, even more so with the increasing disastrous devaluation of many African currencies.

If such money could be used for orphans in no-hope situations, dying lonely deaths because others fear their disease, it could transform the rest of their short lives. If money could find its way to HIV children needing medical help, safe houses and loving surroundings, it could dignify their existence and bring real hope for the future. The very possibility excites our imagination. We recognise that ordinary people, whatever their age or background, have power to bless others. We also find something in the very idea of a company existing only to give its profits away, that lifts our spirits out of the callous materialism of our own world.

So perhaps this Salvation Army evangelist is not playing such a wild card as some might think. Maybe Phil Wall knows his audience. He has worked with Christian young people before. He has observed what gets their attention. He knows, for example, that they respond to a good story. And the tale of how his thwarted attempts to adopt an African Aids orphan led to his vision for a people movement that will adopt 10 million of them, is a good story.

He also seems to know how to harness their Christian imaginations. Fed and nurtured on Bible stories, his challenge to these youngsters is delightfully resonant of Jesus's parable of the talents. Like the servants in the parable they can waste what they have been entrusted with, or faithfully develop and multiply it; the choice is theirs. This is a good message for these youngsters. For they are the ones in our society who are not yet cynical, not yet complacent. And when idealism of youth meets idealism of age, hope of all kinds is born.

What will determine the success or failure of this challenge is not the attention span, age, experience or business acumen of these young people. It is how they respond to the trust placed in them, and the quality of their faith in God. Long, long ago the prophet Joel foretold that a time would come when God's spirit would be poured out on people everywhere, when sons and daughters would prophesy; young people would see visions and older men dream dreams. It would be exciting indeed if the faith of today's young were able to turn prophetic dreams and visions into seven-figured, compassionate reality.