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!”

What’s new for 2018

What’s new for 2018

Happy New Year! I’m looking forward to another year with new connections with grassroots leaders, more stories of families moving out of poverty and into sustainable prosperity, and hopefully a new donor database (let me know if you have database skills you want to share with SIA)!

This year, the SIA Board of Directors will also be diving into three discussions about how we operate. I’m looking forward to this opportunity to honor what we’ve learned from our experiences over the past 22 years and to consciously open to the ways we can take “smart risks” in supporting more justice in the world.

Smart Risk #5 Practicing Vulnerability

Updating Small Business Fund Training Tools

These are the training guidelines that our Small Business Fund (SBF) Coordinators use with the new business groups as they design their business plans. Over the years, we have supplemented the original document with materials on record-keeping (including record-keeping for people with limited literacy), and planning for reinvestment.

After our SBF conference in Malawi in May, I’ve felt the need to work with our coordinators and board to evaluate all the training guidelines and see what we need to add or change to make sure that the new business leaders are receiving the support they need. Mindset preparation is one important concept that’s not in the current version of the training tools.

Pastor Brasswell Nkhonjera from Mzuzu, Malawi at the Small Business Fund Coordinator’s Conference in May 2017. Local SIA Coordinators mentor the new business groups to help them start successful endeavors.

Increasing diversity of board members

What perspectives are we missing? What expertise can we add to our team? What qualities are particularly important for our board? How do we facilitate listening to local leaders?

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

Reviewing our mission statement

Does our mission statement (“Spirit in Action is a network of people worldwide who are serving God by empowering others”) reflect our current mission in the world? How do we articulate our purpose? What words can we use to describe and motivate us?

For all these topics, there is no correct answer and so we’ll be using consensus and listening decision-making processes. This will help us to share our own inner-knowing, reflect on Del’s legacy, and listen to the wisdom of those around us.

We welcome your prayers and input! Many blessings for peace and justice in 2018!

Helping their children to have a better life

Helping their children to have a better life

All around the world, parents have the common hope that their children will have better lives than their own. This was the hope of Chimwemwe Beza and Timothy Mtambo in Manyamula, Malawi.

Chimwemwe left high school after her second year and never was able to return. She didn’t have the support of family to continue her education, especially since they were struggling to meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and a home. Still, Chimwemwe and Timothy held onto the hopethat their children – Mphatso (15), Jestina (13), and Constance (10) – might be able to attend high school.

In 2014, when the family was invited to join the Spirit in Action Small Business Fund (SBF) program, the dream of sending their children to school felt far-off. They used their $100 initial grant to open a small retail shop in the Manyamula marketplace. They also bought a piglet, since pigs are a good way to invest savings in rural Malawi. Timothy and Chimwemwe worked long hours to save some money for their children’s education.

Chimwemwe in her first retail shop in 2014, after receiving the $100 Small Business Fund grant.
Malawi

A year later, the family changed their business from a retail grocery shop to a second-hand clothes shop. This is a good business because they are able to buy the second-hand clothes for a good price and there is lower competition in the marketplace.

The Best School in the County

The business has been so successful that for the last two years, Mphatso and Jestina have been able to attend one of the best elementary boarding schools in the county! The test results are now in and the parents are so proud that both children were selected to attend one of the top high schools next year.

Chimwemwe is so proud to be able to afford a top quality education for her children!

When Small Business Fund local coordinator, Canaan Gondwe talked to Chimwemwe, he reported: “She was all joy to tell me that the Small Business Fund has impacted her children tremendously. She says, ‘had it been not for SBF, her children could not have attended boarding school and would not have been able to make it to high school.”

The business continues to this day – 4 years after the initial grant! – and the family is working hard to continue to support the children in having a brighter future! Instead of Spirit in Action paying for school fees directly, we are helping families earn enough so that they can pay for the school fees themselves.

Chimwemwe in her roadside clothing shop

#GivingTuesday – Support entrepreneurs in Malawi and Kenya!

#GivingTuesday – Support entrepreneurs in Malawi and Kenya!

#GivingTuesday is here! As we receive, so are we called to give. And as other receive, they also pay-it-forward to help another. This ripple of giving is embodied in our Spirit in Action logo, and it is at the core of what we do. Start a new ripple of hope today by donating to Spirit in Action now!

Supporting Families

Wilson Nikosi (Manyamula, Malawi) “I did not even have a piece of soap or a blanket. I was using a sack to sleep on. I was failing to send my child to school. And then I met Canaan Gondwe and he talked to me about Spirit in Action. And with the Small business fund I bought groceries supplies and paid school fees. Now my children are eating. Now I have a house made of baked bricks and I have iron sheets as a roof on my house.

“Yes, I have been sharing the gift. I have assisted two people by giving them tomato seeds and sharing compost. Without the grant, I don’t know where I’d be. I am all thanks.”

Thomas Nkhonde, Wilson Nikosi, and Tanya Cothran in Wilson’s shop in May.

Supporting Women

Pheris Amati (Nairobi, Kenya): “I’m grateful for the Small Business Fund support. I can now feed my family. Kids are going to school. I can pay the rent. My husband has been sick and now I can get medicine for him. With my business, I am making bags like this backpack. For Sharing the Gift I have taught a friend to also sew these bags.”

Support Girls’ Education

Rose (Meru, Kenya) I met with Rose in June and had tea in her house. Four years ago, Rose received a water tank from Spirit in Action through the local organization CIFORD Kenya. In her garden she grows kale and green onions, alternating rows of each. The green onions keep away the aphids and screens keep the chickens out of the garden. She also uses manure from chickens as compost.

With the profit from her garden, Rose bought flour to make ugali, the staple food in Kenya. She now doesn’t have to buy as much food, because they are growing it themselves. Both of her daughters attend university! Rose told me, “Now I can pay for school fees for my daughters. University is subsidized, but it still costs $350 a year.”

Today, with giving in the air, please consider supporting families, entrepreneurs, and girls’ education with a donation to Spirit in Action. Thank you!

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