This piece was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
We gathered in a living room of earthen walls painted mint green with a dirt floor covered by tarp. Our hostess sat aside from the group on a bench lining one of the walls so that we could all have a seat in a circle of sunk-in couches and ottomans. Alemaz Bola is a mother of five and an entrepreneur. She wore a head wrap striped with the green, yellow, and red of the Ethiopian flag and sat meekly aside as if to stay out of the way, despite the fact that we came to hear her story.
“You ready?” Anna asked Ayele, our guide and translator, and he answered in the affirmative. “Well, you know what we’re going to ask,” she laughed. “Could she tell us about her story? Where she came from?”
In January of this year, a small group of us traveled from the States to the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, to ask questions like these. To document the stories of local families who partner with the nonprofits TrueLight Childcare Project (TLC) and its Jackson-based parent organization Indigenous Outreach International (IOI).
After conversing with Alemaz in the Ethiopian language of Amharic, Ayele told us she was born in the southern part of Ethiopia before being brought to Addis at age two where she grew up with relatives.
“She had a very hard life as a child,” Ayele said. “She was like a housemaid for that family. So she was set free from that bondage when she got married.”
That was twenty-eight years ago. Her husband is gone now, working as a guard, and for years Alemaz struggled to provide for her family. She traveled hours a day to collect firewood that she would carry back to sell in the street. She eventually found work at a plastics company that collected and reprocessed old shoes, but her health began to suffer from adverse side effects caused by the chemicals she was exposed to, so she had to leave. But five years ago she received an Income Generating Activity (IGA) loan from TLC and was able to begin her own business. She opened a general store out of her home. A window from an exterior wall opens to the street where people can come to purchase household needs such as eggs, spice, flour, tea, soda, or injera, an Ethiopian sourdough flatbread.
“She sells about twenty injera per day,” Ayele told us.
Before Alemaz received her IGA loan, she said it was very hard to feed her family. Her children would sometimes go hungry to school where meals aren’t provided.
“So lots of times she cried for them,” Ayele said, “but after she started this business, she can buy food for them, and now they can eat three times per day.”
With a daughter nearing university-age, Alemaz’s income from her store, as well as a room she was able to build and lease, will allow her to assist in financing her daughter’s continued education. She also hopes to expand her business and go on to help more children.
After we finished our interview, Alemaz and her daughter served us coffee and popcorn, a pairing that we would enjoy several times over the course of our trip. As the talk got smaller and we started laughing more, children could be heard laughing and playing outside. The call to prayer played in the distance, blanketing the city on the eve of the Ethiopian Orthodox holiday Timket.
As we left the threshold of her home, Alemaz took our hands in hers, and we leaned in, pressing our cheeks to hers, parting with the Amharic valedictions Selam nesh, Selam neh (Peace to you), and Ameseginalehu (Thank you).
I think of Patrick Beard as a dreamer. “I’m a builder; I’m a visionary,” he told me. He’s imaginative and thinks forward. When he has a vision, he can’t seem to release it until he’s put the work in to make it happen. But in 1998, his dream of being a missionary seemed to crumble as he and his family boarded a flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia back to Jackson, Tennessee. The Beard family had been stationed in Addis Ababa where Patrick worked as the media center manager for the International Mission Board (IMB). When his wife, expecting twins, faced complications with her pregnancy, they returned to the States for medical attention without knowing if they’d have an opportunity to return to the field Patrick felt called to.
Back in Jackson, Patrick struggled to find work. “I had managed medical clinics,” he said. “I had a degree from Union University, I owned my own newspaper, I had worked in radio and TV, I could speak Spanish at the time, . . . and I couldn’t get anyone to hire me because I couldn’t commit to being here long-term.”
Despite losing his income, insurance, and housing when returning to the States, Patrick could not stop thinking about the people he had met and seen in Ethiopia where the average income was just over one U.S. dollar per day.
“When we left Ethiopia after living there for a year, we knew a lot of ministers who were not eating every day because they didn’t have the resources,” he said. “And they would never beg. They offered it up as a fast, you know: ‘God must not want me to eat today because I don’t have food.’ So I was reading in 1 John 3—if you see your brother in need and you don’t have compassion on him then you don’t love God. And having lived in Ethiopia, we saw all these brothers and sisters who were in great need. And what we have in America is resources. So if I really love God, I’m going to extend myself on behalf of a poor brother. And who’s more poor than our brothers and sisters in [developing nations]?”
While in Ethiopia, Patrick had bonded with one of his employees at the IMB, an Ethiopian named Negash Gemeda. Both Patrick and Negash had grown anxious working office jobs, preferring hands-on ministry. So after work, Negash took Patrick under his wing and began taking him around the city to visit homes and pray with people.
“When I was with Negash, it was like walking around in the Book of Acts. ‘Cause he’s still doing the stuff that the apostles were doing,” Patrick recalled.
So Patrick began to develop a plan for a ministry that would support native Ethiopian ministers while they continued their work in ministry, and Negash would be the director (although he humbly refused the title and is to this day officially called the coordinator).
After consulting with his pastor, Patrick formulated a six-month plan: secure five U.S. sponsors, find five missionaries who need support, and return to Ethiopia to get things rolling. With that plan in place, Indigenous Outreach International was founded on the first of January 1999 in Jackson, Tennessee.
Though your beginning was small
“He is very intentional and passionate in the way that he ministers,” said Stateside Director for TrueLight Childcare Anna Worley of TLC Director Ayele Kidan. “He sacrifices a lot for these families and these children on a personal level.”
And indeed TLC was born of self-sacrifice when Ayele began to sponsor six children out of his own pocket. He worked for Compassion International at the time, and seeing up close how deeply poverty ran in his country, he began to pay for school fees, some medical expenses, and occasionally food for the families of these children.
“Then I got to know Patrick and was able to explain my mission to him,” said Ayele. “The children increased from six to ten. Patrick’s sister promised to get more sponsors, and she kept that promise. And now we have more than 200 children.”
With the support of IOI, TLC was able to grow into a ministry of its own. During our trip to Ethiopia, Ayele and his protégée Nati Mekonnen took us into the homes of families whose children are enrolled in the program. TLC sponsorship gives these children access to education, basic health care, and food supplements that they would otherwise go without. Ayele and his team work out of a four-room building where the children come after school to learn about health, nutrition, physiological wellness, and the Gospel. Furthermore, parents of children enrolled in the program have the opportunity to apply for IGA loans to help them start businesses and increase their household income.
“In general, our goal is to offer hope, not just help,” said Anna. “So we’re really trying to change the trajectory of these kids’ and their families’ lives. That kind of work takes time. It’s about more than feeding a kid for a week or making sure they can go to school for a year. We’re trying to think long term.”
Recently TLC has had five children no longer qualify for assitance because, with the help of IGAs, their parents have been able to improve their economic status to the point that they are able to provide for their families on their own.
Ayele and Nati took us into homes where we met parents who had previously gone without income substantial enough to provide adequate nutrition or education for their children—but not for the lack of trying. I was struck by how everyone we met worked harder than I’ve ever worked for less than I’ve ever had but, due to seemingly insurmountable obstacles and lack of resources, continue to struggle. We met women who were abandoned by their husbands and left to provide for their children themselves. We met men whose lives were threatened by their own families after converting to Christianity and being chased from their homes with nothing. In a country that has suffered from famine, lacks sufficient work opportunities, and operates without an infrastructure to help the needy, the people we met work hard when given the opportunity. Some of the people we met walk hours a day to acquire goods and resources they need for their businesses.
Anna said of our trip, her third, “Being there and seeing and meeting the ladies and meeting the families who received IGAs and seeing hope in their eyes, seeing things that can’t really be expressed in words when you meet them. That speaks volumes that it’s so much about empowering them. . . . When you meet them and see that they’ve gone from feeling dejected and worthless because they struggled to provide and then seeing them be able to offer their children security and not having to worry—it’s about more than putting food on their table. It’s about empowering their parents in a way that’s good for them psychologically, too.”
Ayele said he did not expect this much growth for TLC when it began. At the time he was focused on caring for the six children that had come into his life. But seeing the growth firsthand and watching the number of children TLC has been able to sponsor multiply has given him a vision for the future. Ayele told us about his biggest moment of encouragement from one of the first children he sponsored.
“He is now in university,” he said. “He was the first child to go to university. I remember the first year he came here he gave me a verse from the Bible: ‘Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.’ . . . He wasn’t a believer, but maybe God spoke to me through him. I believe that. . . . When I started TLC I was working part time because I have to feed my family. But after I got that verse, I decided to quit those jobs and just do TLC.”
Your latter days will be very great
“Negash calls it a fishes and loaves ministry,” says Patrick of IOI and TLC’s growth. Patrick says that IOI still spends less than the average church budget a year. “The average church is 150 folks, and we’ve got far more living off of that.”
Since IOI began seventeen years ago, they’ve gone from sponsoring five indigenous missionaries in Ethiopia to seventy, and their support has since expanded to Brazil, Germany, and Togo.
“That little seed, how it grows I can’t explain to you,” says Negash. “. . . It is a ministry of heart, mind and soul and love. Everything we do, we just do it by faith. None of us expected that we could really grow that fast, but after three or four years [I received] the conviction fully that the Spirit of the Lord was going to do amazing things. And the countryside, just to know in a very short time we see all these churches coming up like mushrooms. You see a mushroom, it rains, and in just a week’s time the whole field is covered. It’s just like that.”
TLC has not only seen growth in its child sponsorship but also in its IGA program. Patrick said, “The average IGA is $300. . . . But that family pays that back over a set period of time, and that same $300 goes to help another family. So I don’t know how much money we’ve actually put in as seed money to the IGA project, but to everyone who’s given $300, that doesn’t just help one family. That helps three or four or five families.”
Patrick attributes the growth and success of IOI to the relational structure of the organization. “I had a relationship with Negash; Negash had relationships with five missionaries we started supporting; two of those missionaries had relationships with two more missionaries; so now everybody we support, it’s like the six degrees of separation, it’s because of the relationships we had with the missionaries we were supporting. Those are key elements of the success of the ministry: local leadership based on relationships.”
“Our relationship is not based on money,” said Negash. “If it had been, no one would be together. Honest. It is not money that holds us together; it is love.”
On the last full day of our trip to Ethiopia, we visited the home of one of the children Anna sponsors. Her parents used their IGA to buy a loom, and they weave beautiful scarves and blankets. Because of their TLC sponsorship and IGA, their daughter is receiving an education, they have a bed to sleep on instead of the floor, and their home now has access to clean water. Despite this, we learned, after one of their daughters had run down the street to buy a loaf of bread to share with us, that they are still struggling provide enough food to eat more than
once per day.
As we drove away from their home, Anna began to weep in the car. We drove in silence, and I reached behind me from the passenger seat to hold her hand. I thought of how love like that multiplies—has multiplied across this city and into the countryside. Of how much the people involved in these organizations are invested in the lives of the people they encounter.
“We are looking for advocates,” Anna says. “And not just to give. To advocate for these children that no one else is advocating for and to recognize that they’re part of a much bigger story and to bring people along in this story.”
As I interviewed these people, it strikes me how ordinary their lives are. I met Patrick for a burger and fries. I talked with Anna over the phone as she shopped for a sleeping bag for her kids. We interviewed Ayele between his work at TLC and his night classes where he is studying to get a masters degree in community development. Negash and I met in a Jackson coffee shop while he was in the U.S. visiting family. I think of how it’s in daily life, in the errands, the work, and the meals that love is spread.
“You know the problem here,” Negash said to me leaning across the coffee shop table. “I’m really telling you this straight forward. You live here, but you don’t know the next door who’s living. You may know him, but there’s no connection at all. Your house is locked, your heart is locked, everything is locked. Maybe you see people at church or a place like this, does that sound right? There is something wrong. Your house needs to be open, of course not to everybody, but to fellow men. Even to some lost people. Let them come. Share what you have, above all not the food, not the clothing, not the money, but the Word of God you need to share.”
And isn’t this how any good thing is shared? Whether it be resources, your faith, meals, a sense of security and companionship. New seeds are planted in our day-to-day interactions with each other. Multiplied each time we take another’s hands in our own, passing the peace, Selam, cheek to cheek.
According to the World Food Programme, Ethiopia’s humanitarian needs “have tripled since early 2015,” and an estimated 10.2 million people are in need of “urgent humanitarian assistance.” Many of the families sponsored by the TrueLight Childcare Project earn their wages as day laborers, employed on a day-to-day basis, earning $1 per day when work can be found. In a market where the price of food is already inflated due to drought and famine, it is even more difficult for struggling families to put food on their tables due to ongoing political unrest and violence that is inhibiting employment opportunities.
Many families are only able to eat once a day. As little as $25 can provide enough grain to supplement an Ethiopian family’s diet for a month. Please consider assisting our Ethiopian brothers and sisters in this time of escalated need. If led to do so, you can give to TLC’s emergency food fund here. For additional information about these organizations or how your gift will be used, please feel free to contact Anna Worley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Indigenous Outreach International or TrueLight Childcare Project, visit www.ioiusa.org and www.tlcproject.org. Minister sponsorship via IOI is $70 per month; child sponsorship via TLC is $35 per month. As of the time this article was written, one-quarter of TLC’s children are sponsored by Jackson families, and TLC is supporting eight children in need of sponsors.
Josh Garcia is a commercial photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ
Photography by Josh Garcia.