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From Relief to Empowerment: ZOE Ministries

October 17, 2018
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by Rev. Holly Bandel

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” Such is the difference between relief and empowerment – relief provides help for the immediate, empowerment provides sustenance for the long haul.

Yet, empowerment is messy. It is much easier to provide the band-aid of relief, perhaps even taking control of the situation and dictating the when, how and how much. Especially in a place like Rwanda, relief is simpler. We want to give stuff to a people recovering from a history of genocide that has decimated a country and people. Sometimes, it feels better just to ensure children’s bellies get full for a day, a week or even a month – it’s still helping, but it’s less involvement.

Enter Epiphany, literally and spiritually. She is a Rwandan teacher and social worker who saw the bigger picture and began to ask the tougher questions. As she partnered with one of the many nonprofits who entered Rwanda after the genocide, and worked with vulnerable children, she saw that relief wasn’t enough. How would all of these children orphaned by genocide sustain themselves for a lifetime, not just a day or a month?

The relief made families dependent and created even deeper cycles of hunger and unemployment – so she tried a different model, getting groups of children together to train them, encourage them and share their dreams. Then, she gave seed money for their health insurance, schooling and entrepreneurial ideas. The result: almost 100 percent of the children never need relief again. The ZOE Empowerment model was born  –  more than 15,000 children in Rwanda have been a part of this three-year cycle of educational and entrepreneurial support.

When our mission team landed in Rwanda, the first thing we noticed was the beautiful landscape, which we later learned is called “the land of a thousand hills”. Yet, the progress of the ZOE empowerment model is also literally changing the landscape of the nation. Our team was witness to many children who are actively participating in the ZOE process or have graduated. The children become teachers, shop and restaurant owners, artists and government leaders. One young woman that stands out is Immaculate. Two years ago, members of our team heard her tragic story and feared for her as she was just beginning her journey in the ZOE program. We saw her in September on our trip, and she not only had her own sewing shop making bags, but had hired two other young women to work with her. She sends her siblings to school and provides her entire family healthcare.

This is the story of empowerment. It is messy and hard but it works. I believe there are innumerable ways that we can not only empower the children of Rwanda but also those in our own community when we trust others enough to let them follow their dreams. By the grace of God, when we are open-handed with our own resources and give up power and control of our way, the dreams of children are resurrected.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give  you hope and a future.” -Jeremiah 29:11

To learn more about the ideas of Relief to Empowerment, join the upcoming class beginning Monday, Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m. here at FirstChurch. For more information about ZOE, check out wearezoe.org. Look for the ZOE table at First Gifts on Dec. 2 to help support our group of Rwandan children.

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