The power of volunteering

Columban Lay missionary Junghae Roberta Kim volunteering in the community garden. Photo: Junghae Roberta KimColumban Lay missionary Junghae Roberta Kim volunteering in the community garden. Photo: Junghae Roberta Kim

Foggy and grey. These are the words that come to mind when I think of London, as depicted in the films and books I came across in my childhood. They showed me a London of dark and gloomy, foggy streets under gaslights.

However, when I actually saw London for the first time, I was surprised to find blue skies and clear air. I had forgotten the earlier image I had until I recently watched Mary Poppins, a film released in 1965 but set in 1910. I enjoyed the songs and imagined what it would be like to fly in the sky with my umbrella. I thought how much it must have inspired children’s imagination and given them joy. I was delighted to hear the familiar song ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and see images of foggy London where chimney sweeps, covered with soot, sang and danced, jumping from roof to roof, roofs that belched dark smoke. London was experiencing dark smog (merging words of fog and smoke). And I began questioning what happened here in Britain that brought about this big difference.

Air pollution became an issue as early as the 13th century and it reached a crisis in the 19th century as the result of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of London. The five days of the Great Smog (1952), caused by air pollution and weather, resulted in over 10,000 deaths. In the beginning, Winston Churchill denied that it was caused by coal and said it was only fog. In 1956, four years after the loss of many precious lives, the government passed the Clean Air Act and restricted the burning of coal for domestic and industrial use.

Although the Clean Air Act helped improve air pollution, another smog crisis occurred in 1962, and I still hear about people suffering from air pollution in the UK on the news. Several years ago, Kissi-Debrah, who lost her little girl from asthma, sued the Mayor of London for illegal pollution levels. After a long fight, she won, having proved that 9-year-old Ella’s death followed several years of suffering caused by the severe air pollution. I have heard that Kissi-Debrah launched a charity in her daughter’s name to support the lives of children suffering from asthma.

During COVID lockdowns people went for walks to find nature, listen to birds, see new buds, colourful flowers and busy bees … and many people realized how far we have withdrawn from nature. They want to go back to nature to be healed and feel sorry that humans have broken their relationship with Mother Nature.

I have been volunteering in community gardens since the end of 2020, when the COVID-19 restrictions were eased. I have seen more and more people visiting and participating in volunteer work in gardens for a better life connecting with nature. I see the increase in young volunteers from difficult situations who have been healed and empowered in the gardens. I also recognise that more and more people are coming out from their own space and holding occasional meetings to discuss with one another and seek a more sustainable society. They are unpaid, voluntarily doing those activities. I see it is a time when ordinary people are being empowered by each other’s stories to make a difference to the present and future.

There are many people like Kissi-Debrah and Ella in our society, and they are the ones who bring a brighter future. It’s one of my joys to see the young and the elderly working side by side to support each other, exchanging their ideas and experiences while working to take care of nature. One of my elderly volunteer friends in a community garden told me that she was blessed with a sustainable lifestyle rather than just sitting back and carrying on as before. I see her on many environmental occasions with her joyful and cheerful smile. Without people’s awareness and voluntary action, we won’t see the end of the crisis facing Earth and its ecosystems.

While not a supporter of the monarchy, I was delighted to learn that the late Queen Elizabeth awarded organisations for their volunteering work every year. Enlightened volunteers, who are humbly serving with their hearts, souls and minds, bring about change and are the source of sustainable communities.

I am happy to see myself working on recovering humanity’s relationship with other creatures and nature, and I find myself living in cooperation with the whole of creation. I see that the more I know nature, the more I see that we are all interconnected, and it helps me to see myself more clearly in the Creator, our God. I hope I can celebrate God’s creation through my small steps in volunteering work, making myself a connection between human beings and nature.

Columban lay missionary Junghae Roberta Kim lives and works in Britain.

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