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A Trip That Opens Minds and Hearts

November 20, 2019
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Zoe was founded in 2004 as a Christian response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the thousands of orphans it left in its wake. While the ministry started in Zimbabwe, and was therefore named Zimbabwe Orphan Endeavor, it expanded its relief work to Zambia. Thanks to additional funding and connections provided by Epiphani Mujawimana, the group eventually began serving in Rwanda.

Epiphani and her team designed a model of support that walked side by side with orphans as they learned  to care for themselves. Children were grouped into mutually-supportive peer working groups, and given training and resources needed to grow food, start businesses, take vocational classes, and explore any other avenues to provide a safe income for them and their siblings. In addition, they learned about God and community, and who they are in the eyes of both. The three-year empowerment program allows orphans to become entrepreneurs who are socially, economically, and spiritually strong.

Currently, the program, which has changed its name to Zoe Empowers, has grown to a current enrollment of more than 40,000 orphans and vulnerable children across seven countries and three continents. FirstChurch connected with the organization in 2018, and has since sent two mission teams to experience Zoe firsthand. Most recently, Karen Kendall, Nan Mulvaney and Kathy Bolton traveled to Rwanda to see the remarkable difference the Zoe empowerment model is making.

Karen, Holly and Dottie during the first Zoe trip to Rwanda in 2018.

Nan became interested in ZOE at First Friends in 2018, and was especially intrigued by the stories Rev. Holly Bandel, Dottie Dunham and Karen Kendall told about their first mission trip. Seeing that the organization was reporting a 100 percent success rate in Rwanda, Nan thought it too good to be true – she needed to see it for herself.

In fact, seeing ZOE in Rwanda was a life changing experience for me,” Nan said. “ It was all about relationships. Relationships between the participants and staff members, like the ZOE employees who spend three years working with a group. Relationships between the churches who traveled with us and the support groups that they pray for daily.  Relationships between the groups that evolve into familial bonds. They celebrate good times together, and they also come forward to build houses or plant crops and gardens whenever there is a need.”

Honore’ and his team make bread for their daily deliveries.

On this trip, Nan was particularly inspired by Honore’, a young entrepreneur in ZOE who decided to sell bread to earn money to support his siblings. When he couldn’t find dependable vendors to offer a consistent bread supply,  Honore’ asked ZOE to help him learn to make bread.

“Honore’ hired two boys from his neighborhood, Pascal and Damascene, to help with product distribution and delivery, and that’s part of the ZOE model – hiring others from the community who also need to make a living,” Nan said. “Like his peers, Honore’ saves money every week, pays taxes for his insurance and pays for schooling for his siblings.  Honore’ is real for me at COMMUNION, when we talk about the Bread of Life. Who knows what the future holds for Honore’ and others like him?”

Feeling called to do so, Karen Kendall returned for a second visit to Zoe, and continued to be in awe of the organization’s work and the spirit of reconciliation they engendered with each new class.

“Sometimes with missions we ask ‘who is my neighbor?’” Karen said. “I believe the people next door are our neighbors as well as the people on the other side of the globe.    The people of Rwanda are trying to help themselves and through ZOE we can help empower them to create a better world.”

Nan, Karen and Kathy with Zoe student leaders Angelique and Valens.

Kathy Bolton encouraged anyone who is interested to learn more about Zoe, and potentially make the trip, as she believes it’s a true exemplar of “Christ’s love through empowerment of the human spirit.

“This trip is not for everyone perhaps, but if you want to visit holy ground, I recommend you go,” Karen said. “You will be educated. You will be unsure of yourself.  You will be inspired.  You will be changed.”


 Come learn more about Zoe and all the other outstanding ministries we support at First Gifts on Dec. 8. Each booth included in the FirstGifts Christmas Market supports a mission. Fair-trade gifts, stocking stuffers, holiday treats, and gift cards supporting the agencies are available for purchase and the proceeds contribute to the agencies’ missions. Give the gift of support this Christmas!

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