When I was in youth group in high school, we went to Mexico and built a house for a family who once had nothing but tarps to call home. It wasn’t a church partnership. It was just a one-off. I don’t wish to devalue the home we built for them as I can still remember playing soccer with the young boys, the tears the mother had in her eyes as we finished, and the heart stone we placed in the cement as a memento. What I can’t remember are any of their names. I have no idea if we changed their lives or if we only walked away feeling like we had done the ‘Christian’ thing and served the less fortunate. Did we offer any lasting transformation or were we only able to really say we fed our need to feel good?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. But now that I’ve spent enough time at Food for the Hungry (FH), I know there is a better way to do missions.
I recently caught up with Greg Wilson who is a leader at Cornerstone Community Church in Powell Wyoming. Cornerstone has been partnering with FH to serve the community of Sierra Prieta in The Dominican Republic for almost 10 years. A team of people from Cornerstone recently got back from their annual trip to visit their community and I wanted to hear what their community partnership experience has been like.
Why did you originally want to explore church partnerships with FH?
We were a fairly new church plant and as the church started to mature, we wanted to have mission involvement. But we didn’t just want to draw names out of a hat and partner with someone who was probably doing good work. Wanted it to be more personal and to view missions as a core to the vision of our church, not just a small part of it. We were attracted to FH’s concept of going to the hard places.
What was the community like when you first visited?
The health of the community is the most noticeable thing. Before, there was no organized system for potable water. Families just collected rainwater and most considered clean water unnecessary. Diarrhea and other diseases were just a normal part of life. Kids were just skin and bones. I remember on our first trip there was a kid who was like 4 and there were others who were teasing him for being fat. He was by no means fat. He was healthy and normal looking to me, but he was the exception for sure.
The education of the community wasn’t great either. There were only three classrooms and all the students had to share. This meant that only k-5th grade was able to use them for a half day.
How are things different in the community 10 years later?
Now they have a well in the community and they’ve installed a charcoal and sand filter system. The community manages and maintains it themselves. They have a committee and chairman that helps them stay organized, make sure everyone pays their small fee, and that everyone is taken care of.
The community has used the cascade group. I can see that has been a huge help in improving the nutrition of the children. Mothers teach their neighbors about feeding their children a balanced diet and the importance of protein and vegetables.
Their whole concept of Hope has changed.
The education has greatly improved also. Children can’t go past 6th grade unless they have a birth certificate. Many didn’t have them and were having trouble getting them since their parents and grandparents never had one either. FH staff worked tirelessly to help everyone get the right paperwork and documents. Before, parents would just shrug their shoulders and send their kids off to work in the fields. Now they’ve placed a higher value on education. There also are more classrooms and full-day classes for k-9th grade.
Is there one story that stands out to you?
When we first visited the community, we met this little girl named Ella. Her mother was single with four other children. Within the first two years we were working in the community, we helped her mother repair their house. This house was infested and didn’t have any security at all. The walls were just sheets of metal stacked together and the door was rotted. This last trip, we saw Ella again and she’s about ready to graduate high school in September. This young girl is talking about going to a university if Santo Domingo. The growth and ownership and vision of the community is amazing to see.
She would never have dreamed she could do that and now she’s making a plan.
We were able to sit down with the community leaders and look back on the plans we made with them 10 years ago and say, “we accomplished all of these things.” It was an ah-ha moment for them to see that they can set a goal, create a vision, and make it happen.
How have you seen your church transform as well?
We’ve really seen people who were somewhat on the fringe in the church when we started, expand their involvement in the church in a personal and practical way.
Now, their perspective on the mission of the church has changed dramatically.
One family went from new believer to heavily involved in church leadership. It’s helped to develop the sense of the body of Christ. The reality of understanding poverty changes the way you try to solve problems as a church. Throwing money at something isn’t going to solve it. Instead of showing up to do a VBS or a puppet show, we’re in a long-term relationship with this community whom we know deeply.
What would you tell church leaders who are considering a partnership with FH?
Through this relationship, FH understands how to use short-term trips to create healthy outcomes. Everyone we work with at FH is a professional. Sometimes when trying to do missions work, you get the feeling that you’re just stuck with whoever was assigned to this for the week. But with FH, people are responding to a calling from God. That means that a ton of things you normally have to worry about as a church are just taken care of.
Church partnerships could be a great way for your church congregation to engage the vulnerable. Click here to read more about church partnerships with FH.