Entertaining Angels

Entertaining Angels

This post is an excerpt from a sermon I gave at First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond in December 2015.

I saw a sign recently on a bathroom. It was claiming the public restroom space as a safe space for everyone. It was a co-ed bathroom. Anyone could use it – male, female, transgender, everyone across the spectrum. “Assume I belong,” the sign said. No matter what I look like, if I’m using this restroom, assume I belong.

Establishing categories helps us make order of a complex world. It simplifies things to think of two genders – male and female – as fixed, obvious things. When I assume that anyone belongs in my “my” bathroom, I acknowledge that everything is not as simple as that.

King Jordan was the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, a deaf school. Before 1988 the school had only had hearing presidents, not one of their own from the deaf community. I think there are some assumptions behind this: ‘It’ll just be easier to have a hearing president; they’ll have been better trained; they’ll be able to talk to the media and donors easier.’ King Jordan concluded the interview by saying, “deaf people can do everything except hear.” Assume I can do it, he was saying. Assume I am capable. Assume the students want someone like themselves to lead them.

Entrepreneur in Nairobi

Sarah Owendi, Nairobi, Kenya: “I used to wash clothing. I was living day by day. When I receive the Spirit in Action grant, I invested in cereals. Now I pay the rent, feed kids, clothe myself. I lived only on handouts before from Josephine. Now I stand on my own 2 feet. Rent is 1500 shillings per month. I did used to earn 200 shillings. Now I can earn 1000 shillings a week.”

A Smart Risk: Assume Best Intentions

This brings me to my work giving grants and supporting families and communities in Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda. What assumptions do we have about Africans? First of all, that they are all alike, rather than assuming that Africa is a continent with 54 different countries and many more different cultures. We have assumptions about poverty, desperation, and violence as a normal, everyday occurrence.

Some charities rely on the old assumptions. The pictures of crying children asking for money assume that the child doesn’t want anything more than you to come in and save them. It assumes they are helpless to improve their own future.

With Spirit in Action, I want to challenge these assumptions and instill new ones. “Assume that I can be an entrepreneur,” people like Mestina in Malawi are saying. (Read Mestina’s story here.)

Mestina with Tanya. Showing off the family’s new kitchenware. (Malawi)

People sometimes ask me how we know that people are using the money that we give them well. Part of it is that we have on-the-ground local coordinators who help ensure that people are using the grants for the intended purposes. Another part of it is that we trust them.

In a way, we assume that they will use the grant wisely. Why assume that? Well, because for many poor families who want to provide a better future for their children, this $150 is their great chance to take a step forward in life. I assume they don’t want to mess it up. I assume they want to use the money to start that business they’ve been dreaming of.

Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” It’s only unawares if we assume that it takes a certain kind of person to be an angel, and if we assume that the person in front of us doesn’t fit the mold.

What if we assume that an angel can be, could be anyone? Then our call is to entertain those around us, letting go of old assumptions and embracing a new lens.

Elizabeth Nyambura, Nairobi, Kenya: “I used to work in a hotel. A hotel is what we call the roadside restaurant. I made 100 shillings ($1) a day. With the first grant I started selling shoes. I go to small markets to sell shoes. I can pay for rent now, and for school fees. My extended family members are benefiting from the work that I do.”

Meet Austin, Manyamula’s Carpenter

Meet Austin, Manyamula’s Carpenter

Austin used the SBF grant to buy wood. He already had a chisel, plane, and saw.

On our first day of site visits in Manyamula, Malawi, we met Austin Panday, a carpenter and a recipient of one of the most recent Small Business Fund (SBF) $150 grants. Our big group moved out of the sun and squeezed into the cool shade of Austin’s workshop, wood shavings underneath our feet. With me were three SIA team members from North America, seven SBF Coordinators from Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, and two interpreters and COMSIP members from Manyamula. (English is taught in school and it is one of the official languages, so many Malawians know English. The local language in Manyamula is Tumbuka.)

Austin’s shop is right near the central market in Manyamula. He is renting space until he had enough to build his own shop. 

Austin told us his story, now a familiar narrative in this town that until recently had very little economic opportunity. “I went to South Africa to seek employment. I was there for four years. When I was deported back to Manyamula, I had nothing to do.”

Austin, with his carpentry skills and his certificate from the nearby Mzuzu Technical School, was a good candidate for a Small Business Fund grant. He had great potential and a grant would give him the start-up capital to buy wood for constructing bed frames, cabinets, and shelves. There has been high demand for his furniture.

Austin continued his story: “Canaan Gondwe saw something of potential in me. Now, I’ve been doing my new business for three months. I say ‘thank you’ a lot. I got out of drug use. My life has changed tremendously for me and my family.

“I bought six bags of cement and now I am doing plastering on my house. I bought one goat. Our basic needs are met.”

“Canaan Gondwe saw something of potential in me. Now, I’ve been doing my new business for three months. I say ‘thank you’ a lot.”

Sharing the Gift

It’s not only Austin’s family that is benefiting from the business. In addition to all the people who are enjoying his beautiful creations, he is also training a 19-year-old boy to help in the shop. “I’m sharing the gift,” Austin told us, even before we asked. He was proud to be paying-it-forward already. (Read more about Sharing the Gift.) In this way, each Spirit in Action grant ripples to benefit a whole community.

After hearing Austin’s story and admiring the shelves he was building, we left to move onto the next SBF group in the area. As we left, we encouraged him to continue the good work, Chito iweme. Good job, Austin!”

A tour around the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training Centre

A tour around the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training Centre

One of the highlights of my visit to Manyamula Village last May was the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremonies for the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training Centre. This centre was the great dream of Canaan Gondwe and the Manyamula COMSIP membership and I was so proud to see it realized and open for business! The Training Centre is so much more than just an office for the savings and loan cooperative. It’s already generating income for the cooperative and building a stronger community. Let me show you around! (Click on the photo for a larger version)

On the day of the opening ceremonies, May 24, 2017, Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members, local officials, and SIA Small Business Fund members gather around the central gazebo of the new Training Center. Behind the gazebo (from left to right) is the new dormitory, the administrative offices and the kitchen/meeting hall.

This is the room where I stayed at the Manyamula COMSIP Training Center dormitory. The electricity had just been connected the day before we arrived! The plastic chairs were bought with a grant from SIA. Some of the guest rooms are rented out to teachers at the nearby technical college.

The meeting hall is used for educational and training events. It is also being rented to church groups on the weekends. Pictured are Tanya Cothran (back to camera, wearing a skirt made from COMSIP fabric), Canaan Gondwe (in suit) who was master of ceremonies that day. SIA Team members Dana Belmonte and Boyd Cothran observe.

The Cooperative employs attendants and watchmen who fetch and heat water for guests to use for bathing. In the background is the goat house. This is here for demonstration purposes to educate local farmers on good care of goats. The house is elevated so that the goats hoofs will be out of the muck throughout the night. This also allows easy access to goat manure for farming. The goats go out to graze during the day.

In the shell of the under-construction warehouse at the Manyamula Training Center, women cooked over open flames to provide three meals a day for us. We ate eggs and potatoes, nsima (made from corn/maize), vegetables and chicken. The warehouse will help farmers to safely store their harvest, especially corn/maize and groundnuts (peanuts), until they can sell it collectively for a good price. The national COMSIP organization is investing to finish this construction. The COMSIP grant came after they saw the good work that the cooperative is doing to help farmers and community members. Manyamula has a population of about 25,000.

During the open ceremonies, Canaan said, “We built this centre with local materials, especially local bricks. The building of this center is a source of pride, duty and community. Now we are distinguished in the world. The hall is used for church services and youth empowerment programs. We hope it will soon be a place for indoor sports, and as a recreation center, to watch soccer on TV, and as an internet café so that youth can learn computer skills.”

What We Learned: SIA Team Members Visit Kenya & Malawi

What We Learned: SIA Team Members Visit Kenya & Malawi

*Today’s post is a reflection from SIA Team Members and Advisory Board Members, Michael Hegeman and Dana Belmonte, who traveled with me to Kenya and Malawi last year. I appreciate their insights on the SIA program and the success of the trip.

Africa Trip 2017: Team Member Report
By Michael Hegeman and Dana Belmonte

It is with an overflowing sense of gratitude that we begin this report. Over the last eight to ten years, we have heard about and supported the mission of Spirit in Action (SIA) and have enjoyed spreading the news about SIA’s work to others in our various friend circles. Our appreciation and love for the relationship building, business training, mindset preparation, and grant giving has only grown and deepened.

Tanya Cothran, Dana Belmonte (left) and Mike Hegeman (right) with two local teachers who rent a room at the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative training center. These two women teach tailoring skills at the technical school. They made the shirts that Dana and Mike are wearing, having produced them in 24 hours from the COMPSIP cloth and from the pattern of shirts given them by Dana and Mike.

Upon our return home, it seemed many wanted us to compare and contrast the countries we visited with our own. We found ourselves searching for words simply because there is no comparison. Suffice it to say, life is very different in Malawi and Kenya and immediately upon arrival in Malawi we were reminded that one must take the new culture and tradition being experienced on its own terms. The time spent simply soaking in the atmosphere, listening, and quietly figuring out the rhyme, reason, and rhythm of our surroundings was very important and an education in itself.

Concepts around time are fluid. “Hakuna matata,” roughly translating to “no worries,” is a mentality that rules the day. Seldom did we have to be concerned about plans not working out, but flexibility around timing and expectations of arrival/departure/meeting is required. That being said, our hosts were very aware that we come from a more clock-oriented society and they strove to keep us on schedule. “Going with the flow” was key to any success we had.

Mottos on the dashboard.

Our trip included the following valuable connections:

Training new Small Business Fund (SBF) Coordinators and reviewing the impact and efficiency of SIA’s program. The Coordinators conference was an education for us. Sitting with the coordinators and hearing about the day-to-day issues they face as they employ SIA’s business training model as well as review the SIA Coordinator’s Manual was an important look at the “nuts and bolts” of SIA.

The SIA SBF Coordinators are a strong part of our worldwide network! Pictured left to right, local SBF Coordinators with Tanya:: Dana Belmonte, Hastings Phiri, Thomas Nkhonde, Naomi Ayot, Dorcas Okoti, Canaan Gondwe, Tanya Cothran, Braswell Nkhonjera, Mike Hegeman, Dennis Kiprop, Boyd Cothran.

Meeting with and encouraging Small Business Fund entrepreneurs in Kenya and Malawi. It was inspiring to see the on-the-ground reality of how SIA is reducing poverty. Program grantees were eager to show us their successful shops and other business models, as well as tell us about these life-changing benefits: Ability to pay school fees, access to medicine, improved housing, better diet, and essential home furnishings.

Witnessing the impact of SIA Community Grants and developing closer working relationships with grassroots partners. Meeting partners face-to-face strengthened our relationship and facilitated better understanding in future communications. Listening to beneficiaries helped us confirm that the program is working.

In the afternoon of June 11, 2017 the SIA team met with the gathered women and a few men of CIFORD at the training center. The women shared their stories of empowerment, business success and how they encourage others to join in the education and empowerment of young women.

Ensuring that funds are being spent as proposed and reviewing potential future projects. In-person visits are one way to do due diligence and verify that grants are reaching those they are intended to help. Visiting potential partners allowed us to evaluate and discern how we may be able to work with them in the future. The amount of people benefiting from SIA grants is amazing. We saw so many examples of sustainable business and through which lives have been changed.

A few months out from the trip, we find ourselves coming back to some key points:

SIA’s model is working! It is a model that is balanced, positive, and welcoming to everyone. SIA’s work is based on the belief that a small grant and sincere encouragement can enable people to tap into their own potential. This is the most important element leading to better food and nutrition, education, housing, etc. The grantees, and not the SIA board and team members, are the true experts and we learn from them.

SIA approaches business training from an abundance mindset and NOT a scarcity mindset. A business serves the community. “When others are doing well, I’m doing well” is an encouraging way to look at business.

Failure is OK. While we saw a lot of success stories, there were some accounts of failure or things that did not work or did not go as planned. It is important to learn from these experiences and be open to the possibility that mindset preparation may need to be revisited rather than simply abandoning the cause.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael G. Hegeman
Dana A. Belmonte

Mike reading with one of the students at Maruge School in Kenya. Children here are reading quite well, decoding the words easily. Reading comprehension was sometimes affected by the subject matter. One boy was reading a book about weather conditions that included snow, sleet and fog. He could pronounce these words, but did not know what these were.

“Hope is our Greatest Weapon”

“Hope is our Greatest Weapon”

I was so encouraged by this letter from SIA partner, Samson Turinawe. Samson is the Director of Universal Love Ministries, which works to promote an inclusive and diverse society in Uganda, free from gender- and sexuality-based violence. May we follow his call to stay hopeful in our work for justice. 

2017 is coming to a close and it is a good time to take measure of what we’ve accomplished together this past year. I want to recognize your good efforts on behalf of Universal Love Ministries and acknowledge the relationship that we’ve developed as a consequence of those efforts. Your goodwill and the commitment that you’ve demonstrated made a real and substantial difference in the lives of marginalized people whom ULM supports. 

I don’t know how the year went for you, but surely each of us faces challenges. We must own up to the errors we’ve made in addressing those challenges. We must come to terms with personal weakness that perhaps exacerbated the situation. Yet each of us has strength and wisdom too, which sometimes allows us to transcend circumstances and make things better.

There is more to life than regrets over the past. Never allow challenges to keep you down for long. You are strong and you can do better.

Samson surrounded by Inclusivity Club members.

Everybody Can Serve

If you are a teacher, kids in your class look up to you; their parents trust that you are teaching their kids well even if they don’t say that to you directly. If you are an activist, there is more to stand for; more good change that is needed. If you are a researcher, the future is waiting for your work, discoveries that can help people and make their lives better. If you are a doctor, remember that the society needs you, sick people to restore their health. If you are a writer, don’t forget that we expand our minds through what we read, what we see and feel.

This is what makes our society complete. Nobody is a lesser person. Our individual contribution is what makes us greater as a people.

Sharon Kukunda, Associate Director of ULM, presenting at the Inclusivity Club conference. The theme was “The Role of Youth in Celebrating Diversity.”

Hope is our greatest weapon

Hope is our greatest weapon for facing the future. No matter the challenges we confront today, we must not let pessimism keep us down.

Maybe our politics failed us. Maybe you were betrayed by people you had previously trusted. As we end 2017, make this your oath: never fail yourself and never be destructive because society mistakenly thinks its right to do destructive things on behalf of the majority. We can make this world better than it was yesterday. We can make it better for all people.

However little start, share, learn, network and strive to inspire others, even if it is just one other person.

You have our best wishes and prayers for the New Year. We believe you’ll arrive at the New Year with dreams and an uplifting vision for our world, for our generation and the next generation. The ULM team will never stop to stand with those who are threatened; we’ll stand to make those who have been silenced to speak out for themselves. We are committed to this journey. We do not go to bed blissful, satisfied with the way things are. Every challenge is an injustice to overcome and this gives us reason not to relax. 

Turinawe Samson
ULM-Uganda

Local and school leaders at the Inclusivity Club Conference in November.

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