North Georgia Clergy & Laity Impacted by ZOE Ministry
By Ansley Brackin
When 14 clergy and laity boarded their flight to Kenya in January 2017, they knew they would not be undergoing the typical missionary experience. No hammers and nails, no bed nets or donations. They arrived in Maua, Kenya to meet ZOE.
When they arrived, several excited children ran to meet them. They grabbed them by the hand and led them to a celebration of their arrival. There was excitement and everyone was invited to dance. It was clear that their future was bright, and their minds were filled with optimism.
Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor, or ZOE, was founded in 2004 as a mission of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church (http://www.zoehelps.org/about-2/history-of-zoe/), and was recently awarded the 2017 Best Innovation for Non-Profit Award. They have communities set up in Guatemala, Liberia, Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and India.
“The group was part of our Conference ‘Bridges to Missions,’ focusing on eradicating poverty and ministry with the poor rather than to the poor,” Atlanta College Park District Superintendent, Rev. Bernice Kirkland explains. “We chose to work with ZOE, Inc. because of its innovative paradigm of empowering teenage and young adult orphans toward the fulfillment of their vision for better life. We actually do more by doing less with this model. “
“They don’t start with relief first,” Rev. Scott Parrish, Conference Missions Specialist, says. “They create a family in these working groups.”
The organization is operated by locals who work to provide independence to orphaned children, typically between the ages of 8 and 18. Homeless children are often overlooked on the streets of Kenya, and are sometimes seen as a nuisance; but in three years, ZOE transforms them from children seeking relief to empowered and successful members of their community.
ZOE is set up in a village style, allowing for teachers to tend to almost 100 children at a time. The villages consist of children in various levels of the program, allowing each child to learn from those who are more experienced. Together, they raise animals, farm, and maintain physical and mental health.
Teach a man to fish …
“Each ZOE program is scaled to the individual and to the economy,” Parrish explains.
Just as it says on the front page of its website, ZOE helps “children never need charity again.” The program does not provide donations of food or clothing, but instead teaches each students a profitable skill in order to provide for themselves. Additionally, the children learn the rights to their land left to them by their parents, because it is common for an older relative to overtake it.
Rev. Tonya Lawrence, Associate Director of Church Vitality for Connectional Ministries, recalls the drastic differences between the first, second and third year students.
They first met with third year students and were astounded, she says. Teenagers and even young children were cutting hair, tailoring clothes, and providing other valuable services to their communities, some even managed and employed other children, working together and empowering each other. They had business plans, advanced skills, and contacts for job opportunities and legal advice.
Lisa Anderson, a member of Impact Church was moved by leadership skills already evident in the younger classes:
“[The photo] shows Stanley, chairman of a second year working group inside his butchery. He was the only butcher we met among the groups this week. That with his leadership and sense of pride and self confidence make him stand apart from the crowd. He has the keys to success and this is just the beginning of his ride!”
While hope was on the rise within the second year students, it was the first year students who truly represented, not only the incredible transformation that ZOE cultivates, but also the heartbreaking reality of the poor conditions that the orphaned children face in Kenya.
Here, Lawrence said, is where the need for such a program revealed itself. She was most amazed by the first year students’ willingness to keep returning to the program.
“We talked to them about the way Jesus can provide for them, while they sat and listened with no promise of food, clothing, or shelter. It was a painful thing to witness,” she remembers, “but they listened, they believed us.”
LaTonya ONeal, member of Impact Church shares that her favorite memory of Kenya came from Tumili (or Hope), a first year group:
“We'd been told that this group had likely only gotten as far as securing food for themselves and their families, and therefore might not be as open or willing to talk as the prior group. Surprisingly, they welcomed us with songs, and then shared water, bread, milk, porridge, soft drinks and bananas - items they greatly needed to feed themselves and/or sell for money! They told us that because their banana crops had not done well, they went to the market and bought good bananas FOR US.”
“In spite of their many struggles,” she quotes from Proverbs 11:24-25, “they celebrated their triumphs, gave God the glory, and embodied the belief that the generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.”
From district to local church level, everyone is inspired
The trip to Kenya was a conference-wide invitation, but the eight clergy and six laity who attended were mostly from the Atlanta-College Park District, some from the Newnan district.
Impact UMC’s lead pastor, Rev Olu Brown, visited ZOE two years ago. When he shared what he saw with the congregation, many were eager to experience it for themselves. So many, in fact, that only half could take part in the most recent trip and the other half hope to visit in 2019.
Serene Coleman, Outreach Director of Impact, attended and organized the trip for Impact.
“It was transformational, indescribable,” she recalls. “There was a level of community that I have never seen before.”
Coleman felt that ZOE provides a “unique opportunity to experience someone else’s struggle”.
By the end of the trip, Darryl Kirkland, Mark O’Riley, and Gloria Parker, all laity from Impact UMC, committed to working together to sponsor a class by providing $8,000 a year for three years. They will return to ZOE in 2019 so they can celebrate the graduation of the class that they are funding.
Impact member, Carl Semien, recalls from his personal experience:
“I first thought I would be working in the fields with gloves, helping the orphans. I later found out ZOE is about empowering not enabling. They first teach the kids how to have good hygiene and to avoid certain diseases. Then they teach them food security. This model of sustainability blew me away.”
Bringing ZOE to Georgia
“We’ve seen an explosion in our outreach,” Coleman says of their return to their church in the Atlanta College Park District.
Many of Impact’s participants wrote reflections to share their experience, and several told their stories the Sunday following their return. The result was “outreach overflow.” Congregants are on a waiting list to serve on Impact Give Back Events.
“The take away for me,” Coleman reflects, “is that I’ve never seen such a healthy group of people. I think in some ways we are the poor ones. We are poor in community and in trusting God.”
Impact Church member, Erin Jones says she returned to the U.S. with “a new outlook on what it means to help people in need.”
“This trip to Kenya in conjunction with Zoe has taught me that there is a difference between empowerment and relief,” she explains, “when we empower children they are able to build a sustainable lifestyle as a head of their household. My heart is full to see Zoe's impact on the community and it was my true pleasure to share the love of God & empowerment with the Kenyan orphans.”
Lawrence sees potential inspiration for youth groups.
“We’re not giving our young people enough credit,” Lawrence explains.
The western world tends to delay giving responsibilities to young people for fear that they are not ready, but ZOE shows that youth and young adults are strong and capable of great things. If a youth pastor was to witness ZOE first hand, his or her experience could travel back with them to the states to transfer that empowerment within the Kenyan villages to the local youth.
Parrish believes churches have the potential to apply the ZOE model to local outreach ministries.
“We can find our biggest, boldest community need, and apply it there,” says Parrish.
ZOE invites groups of all sizes to participate in the experience (learn how to plan a trip here). Organizing a trip to Kenya can take about 9-12 months, according to Coleman, but the experience is worth it.
Use UMCOR Advance #982023 to give to ZOE. More Info Here: http://www.umcor.org/Search-for-Projects/Projects/982023
“Zoe is a transformative experience for both orphans and missionaries,” says Kirkland, after returning from Kenya. “Zoe works.”