Rwanda ministry teaches independence

February 27, 2014

by Sherrie Norris - UMNS -

A team from Boone United Methodist Church left Feb. 3 for Butare, Rwanda, and returned nearly two weeks later with a new appreciation for the word "empowerment." 

Jason Byassee, senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church, and church members J.J. Brown, Cameron St. Clair and Price St. Clair considered it an honor -- and a blessing -- to have made the trip through ZOE ministry. 

ZOE is an orphan empowerment program founded by North Carolina Methodists, based in Garner and supported by several local churches. 

"When asked about what we did for orphans in Africa," said Byassee, "we reply, 'It's more about what the orphans have done for us.' We saw how empowerment actually works."

Byassee referred to ZOE's mission, which works to break the cycle of poverty and give hope to children in Third World countries.

The ministry's three-year empowerment program joins vulnerable children with their peers, and helps them to become independent through such opportunities as learning essential life skills, living in their own communities, starting small businesses, growing their own food, returning to school, growing in their faith and having access to the resources they need to make their dreams possible.

"Our congregation, along with Bethelview UMC and Tabernacle Baptist Church in the Green Valley area, have promised $22,500 over three years to this ministry," Byasse said. "As pilgrims, we went with curiosity over how the empowerment model works. We now want to encourage our church, and others, to give to missions in sustainable, empowering ways across the board."

Before the ministry was begun, Bayasse said its founders wanted to help orphans, but weren't sure how to do it. 

"Western countries have dumped some $1 trillion in aid on Africa in the last two generations and have succeeded only in making its economies and politics worse (so says the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo in her book 'Dead Aid')," Byassee said. "Churches are often little more effective than governments. Our short-term mission teams descend on some Third World location, we paint or build, preach and sing, give away clothes or cash or medicine or mosquito nets and leave. And what have we done? Undercut local markets that build or paint or sell clothes or medicine or nets and reduced our partners to beggars."

Sound harsh?  "Don't take my word for it," he said. "Listen to the remarkable Epiphanie Mujawimana, a sort of Mother Teresa figure in Rwanda, and the author of ZOE's model of empowerment. Epiphanie worked previously for several very successful Christian aid programs before ZOE and noticed that when the aid stopped flowing, its former recipients were worse off than they had been. How could she receive Western largesse in a way that ennobles rather than turning people into beggars?"

Byassee explains: "ZOE begins by asking village elders or town officials to identify the most needy and most vulnerable children in a given area.

"It then places 80 to 120 kids together in working groups, assigning them a social worker and teaching them basic skills in faith, health and business skills. The working group together chooses a venture capital sort of project."

The group Boone Methodist sponsors just harvested corn and is preparing to plant cassava (a starchy tuberous tropical root used as food), he said. 

"Other groups plant bananas, eggplant, sorghum, tomatoes, rice and coffee. ZOE provides seeds and tools and with the largesse of the Rwandan government, land," he said. 

ZOE does provide some aid, Byasse said, and the working group decides who needs it most and for what -- "leaky roofs, windows or doors for new houses, pigs or cows for meat or milk or income, health care."

The program allows orphans to emerge from the first year with skills, confidence and, more importantly, dreams, he said. 

"ZOE encourages them, perhaps for the first time, to imagine what they want most. The homes we saw had dream pictures proudly displayed on their walls," he said. 

"In short," Byasse said, "church breaks out, replacing strangers and aloneness with friendship and support."

In years two and three, orphans move out into a venture project of their own with a second grant to learn a business they love, such as sewing, auto repair, hair care, woodcarving and, yes, even donut making, he said.

"A year after that, the orphans are ready to graduate bravely out of aid and into self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship," he said. "The proverb is a cliche: 'Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach that one to fish and he eats for a lifetime.' ZOE shows that some cliches are true." 

Byassee said he and his team members also went with their own parental issues. 

"None of us is an orphan, but each has faced challenges with our family of origin, and each is trying to parent better than we were parented," he said. "What we saw didn't disappoint."

They met first with orphans who were in their third year of the program. "They're starting out on their own," he said. "One small group is producing a sorghum-based soft drink that Americans can't stand, but Rwandans line up for. These orphans thanked us for our support with gifts, songs, hugs, dancing. We didn't feed them. We helped them feed themselves. Then they fed us -- a lavish spread of corn, eggplant, eggs, cassava."

They had gone from beggars for food to those with largesse they can give away, he said. 

"Their backs were up straight, heads held high, their hands were out -- not seeking handouts, but handshakes," he said. "They're models in a community that once either pitied or loathed them."

Newer orphans in the program had the "hangdog look of the down and out," Byassee said. "Some slept in abandoned buildings or under bridges. Some have children of their own; most are caring for younger siblings or other family whom they've taken in. Some abuse victims have HIV. One had a daughter with an eye injury in need of urgent medical care she couldn't provide. They may eat two or three times a week." 

The Boone team was not allowed to give them food or money. 

"That would torpedo ZOE's model,"Byassee said. "They've been hungry a long time. In a few months, they'll eat food they've grown with their own hands and sweat. They'll stand up straight, too. But, they never will if we just give them stuff. So we didn't."

That was the hard part, Byassee said. 

"But we'd seen their peers in their third year of the program. We knew it could work and had to trust that these more needy orphans could wait to feed themselves, rather than feeding them ourselves immediately," he said.

Part of the local interest in ZOE is its similarity to the Circles program recently launched in Watauga County, Byassee said. 

"This is also an empowerment program intending to give local poor what the middle class has in spades -- social capital and relationships with those who can help them be more themselves," he said.

On behalf of his team, Bayassee said, "We also saw our own families enlarged. The orphans gave us gifts, like those Rwandans traditionally give their mother and father: a seed box, milk jugs, a taste of the first fruits. As we ate that corn (not the tastiest by American standards) and danced those dances, we had a glimpse of a kingdom where all are fed, all ennobled and where the line between guest and host is thin, indeed."

"I know that I speak for Jason, Price and Cameron on how humbled we are to represent our church, our community on this mission trip,"  Brown said. "We were able to see the face of God in each of these children. I know with all my heart his love and grace are ways in which he serves as an advocate for all his children every day. I am proud of what our church community has been doing to pray and support our group, New Hope, but also all of the 8,000-plus orphans involved in ZOE across Rwanda."

"We're so grateful for the opportunity to represent BUMC and the body of Christ to these orphans," Cameron St. Clair said. "In our interactions with them and in seeing their lives transformed, we've seen God's face."

For more information about how you can help, visit or call Byassee at (828) 264-6090.