The Case of the Vanishing Orphanage

“You are the first American group to ever visit our community.” Simon’s words sent chills through the missions team that had ventured to his remote Kenyan village. It was a risk to come to such an isolated place, but its undiscovered magnetism was also its allure. Their arrival was a momentous step in a long journey.

Several years earlier, Simon* met these Colorado church leaders at a John Piper conference. They had an immediate kinship. It was hard not to love Simon: He was eminently likeable, oozing charisma with each handshake and smile. Now in Kenya, after months of careful planning, they had finally arrived. As their bus labored up the dusty driveway, the orphanage they knew only by pictures came to life.

The orphanage looked like many like it in Africa: A fenced-in compound with simply-constructed dormitories and classrooms. The zenith of the complex wasn’t its buildings, however. It was the 200 smiling children which greeted the visitors with hoots of delight when their bus arrived. The trip unfolded in typical fashion. The Coloradans spent their days playing with orphans, seizing photo opps, and dreaming with Simon about ways their church could help the orphanage flourish.

“The Vanishing Orphanage”

 The trip rattled stereotypes and collided cultures. Simon orchestrated the trip with clockwork precision, his robust leadership skills firing on all cylinders throughout the week.  As the trip came to a close, the bus drove the team away.  The children chased their bus, wrenching the emotions of even the group’s most stoic members. Hearts full, the team flew home, now well-equipped to share their stories of helping orphaned children and exploring uncharted places.

Despite the many positive moments throughout the week, there were unnerving whisperings among the group. It was strange the teachers didn’t know many of the orphans’ names. It seemed overly-controlling when Simon prohibited them from visiting the neighboring village unaccompanied. Also odd, the orphanage lacked a garden, which is like an Alaskan lacking a snow shovel: The fertile soil can give anyone a green thumb. These quiet whisperings slowly unfolded into loud gasps, and then into protests, and then into many tears, when the group returned to visit Simon’s orphanage just one year later.

On their return trip—one which almost mirrored their previous trip—a team member, Dan, stayed around after the team departed for the States. On his own, Dan journeyed from the Nairobi airport back to the orphanage on a scout mission to investigate the team’s concerns. As he arrived in the village and walked toward the orphanage, a woman approached him, grabbed his arm, and amplified the whisperings.

“Just so you know,” she shared solemnly, “the orphanage is not real.”

Dan, panged with a haunting feeling of betrayal, trekked from the village to the orphanage, hoping to disprove her. He arrived at the place where he played with smiling children just one day earlier. His eyes confirmed the woman’s words: The place was deserted. The yard where the children used to run and play? Nothing remained apart from the lonely debris which bounced with the wind across the red clay earth. The sleeping quarters? Empty. The cafeteria? Vacant. No workers, no orphans, no supplies, no anything. The orphanage had vanished. It was all a mirage.

In truth, the Colorado church was not the first American group to visit Simon’s community. In fact, many churches from across the US and Canada were privy to Simon’s deceitful wooing over the years. His highly-sophisticated web of lies featured faux staff, rented children (he pitched it to their parents as a day camp), and staged arrests (always resulting in generous bail outs by the visitors). All told, this Madoffesque charity scheme collectively defrauded these churches of tens of thousands of dollars. More disappointing, it tainted many wonderful memories and fertilized the unhealthy seeds of cynicism and close-heartedness.

 

My first response to Simon’s elaborate scam was eye-rolling distrust.

This type of story can cultivate skepticism, prompting us to pull back. But it doesn’t have to. It does not mandate that we retreat. In the face of even unbearable trials, Jesus prods us to advance, but to do so with eyes wide open:

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.
–Matthew 10: 16

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples preceded their harrowing journey to bring the good news to the world. He knew their path would be lined with hardship. Still, he sent them out, charging them to be as shrewd as they were innocent. Abounding in compassion, but not the undiscerning kind. Go to Kenya, but send back a scout if you sense something is amiss. Pour out generosity, but do so discriminately, taking Jesus’ instructions as your marching orders. Love abundantly, but always ask hard questions.

Jesus sends us out. No retreat. No close fists. No bitterness. Go boldly, shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

*Names changed to protect confidentiality.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Snapshots of Suffering

Lush vegetation creeps onto the roads wherever it’s permitted to do so. Tired political posters adorn the street signs, interrupting the brightly-painted buildings which line the crowded streetscape. Our bus darts through the tight thoroughfares in San Pedro, avoiding overtaxed motorcycles with nearly impossible precision. The streets teem with Dominican culture: Venders peddling just-picked-from-the-field sugarcane, scads of Chihuahuas scampering behind their owners and uniformed school kids winding through the bustle toward their classrooms.

I like it here.

There is richness in the culture and authenticity in the people. My work has been the impetus for my recent travels here. Traveling with groups of HOPE donors, we visit the courageous Dominican entrepreneurs we serve throughout the country.  Each trip looks different. The donors, entrepreneurs, and communities we visit are unique. I see new places and experience fresh stories. There is one theme, however, which connects all these trips. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve committed one regrettable act on every trip I’ve taken here, an act I’ve only recently even identified.

While navigating through the DR, we always stumble upon a sad neighborhood. These communities, normally labeled shanty towns, usually border sugarcane plantations and they reflect a much cloudier image of the spirited Caribbean culture. Like a dandelion-rich lawn on a well-manicured suburban street, these poor communities stick out. The evident material poverty is jarring. And it’s in these places—on every trip—where it happens: I slip out my camera and capture the misery. I find an especially forlorn-looking mom or a cobbled-together home (preferably both) and snap away.

These snapshots, illuminating the most desperate scenes I can find, become like trip trophies. They’re the type of pictures which make me feel guilty about complaining. About anything. They remind me of how nice my house is and how full my closets are and of just how very much I have. The pictures hold just a glimmer of redemptive value in this convicting power. But, when I snap these candids, I define those communities by what they lack. With each flicker of my camera lens, I make one more strike against those places, stamping them by their deficiencies.

Our charity is often the same. When given the option between defining people by what they have or by what they lack, we normally choose the latter. It’s easier to meet needs than it is to unlock potential. It’s quicker to heal wounds than to train doctors. It’s simpler to raise money to give stuff than for training to make stuff. But, I know I’d sure rather be known for what I do well than by what I lack.

The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
–Zephaniah 3:17 (ESV)

I’m thrilled to serve a God who truly knows me. A God who does not define me by my weaknesses. A Creator who made me in his image. A Father who “exults” over me, his child. These truths convince me that If God and I sojourned across the Dominican together, his pictures would look strikingly different than mine.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

His Weekly Word: Christian Activity

Photo: heartfeltmusic.org

How often do we go on mission trips?

Go to church because we are Christians? Tithe to a church because we know it's a biblical commandment? How often do we date someone because they are a Christian also? Go to a Christian college and upon acceptance claim that God led us there? [divider] We go to church functions, board meetings, take on positions as elders and

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deacons because we are Christians. We like to do cute things–––like give up chocolate for Lent–––making some trivial sacrifice that has nothing to do with bringing us closer to God.

What if there is supposed to be more to our decision making?

What if I told you these things are…

1. Completely worthless without a daily walk with God, and, 2.

Pointless without a confirmation from God that you are actually supposed to do it.

You see, all of the things above are great and definitely have their place… but WHY? Why are we doing them? Did we get a word from God

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about doing this or participating in that? Sometimes, it just “feels” like the right thing to do in order to tell ourselves we are good Christians that serve the Lord. This walk is about

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I will be the first to admit, I'm guilty of this more often than not. See, we think all this Christian activity is what this life is all about, but the Word says differently:

“Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” Matthew 7:21-22

We have to seek Him daily.

“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added

unto you.” –Matthew 6:33

And ask Him what His will is for our lives.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” –Matthew 7:7

We must know Him above our

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“I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” –Hosea 6:6

We must know Him in every aspect of life and He will direct us.

“In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” –Proverbs 3:6

[box_help]Sound Off: What are your thoughts on “Christian activity”? Pointless, meaningless, meaningful? Let us know in the comments.[/box_help]

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Too Much of a Good Thing

Tourists flock to Lancaster County to experience the magic of this agrarian hotspot. Lumbering dairy cows, hard-working Amish farmers and roadside produce vendors breathe life into Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The picturesque farmland makes for more than great postcards, however. The land is Lancaster’s most-treasured asset. The rich soil and bountiful nutrients create the perfect environment for farmers.

Most years.

The summer of 2011 was unkind.

Pennsylvania Dutch Country

The headlines on July 25 tell the story: “Extreme heat, lack of rain leaves Lancaster County’s crops withering in the fields.”

An unusually dry summer distorted Lancaster’s reliable farming formula: It was all sun and no rain. Farmers watched the forecast daily, hoping for movement on the weather radar. One month later, the radar exploded with action. Hurricane Irene and the drenching storms that followed brought record-setting rain.

When the rain came, I cheered for farmers! The inches of precipitation brought sustenance to the struggling soybean sprouts and browning cornfields that desperately needed it. Contrary to my intuition, however, the farmers did not echo my cheers.

Jeff Graybill, a Lancaster agricultural expert, reflected on the rains saying it was “…too dry in the summer, and now there is far too much moisture than we need.”

The over-abundance of rain increased the chance of mold and diseases in crops and delayed farmers’ ability to plant fall crops. The same farmers who clamored for rain to come became desperate for the rain to stop. The much-needed gift arrived. But, too much came and it came too fast.

It was too much of a good thing.

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During the summer of 2008, Michael Spraggins took a trip to Burundi. The trip sobered Michael, a successful entrepreneur from Orlando, as he immediately felt the pain of the African nation. All around he saw every sort of brokenness, but the healthcare issues especially gripped his heart.

The people of Burundi, like the crops in Lancaster, were dying. Burundi needed “rain.” The pains needed to be addressed. And here was the critical moment. The moment when Michael confronted a desperate situation and committed to act. The moment when emotion often trumps good judgment.

“I descended onto the Burundian tarmac with handful of ideas that promised to change the health prospects of the poor in one of the world’s poorest countries,” Michael reflected.

Michael, armed with a toolbox full of solutions, arrived in Burundi. But, here was the crux. In this moment, he balanced his passion with discretion. Before launching his ideas, Michael learned that “most of those ideas were wrong.”

Before firing up the fundraising engine and rallying the church troops, he paused. He knew that even good gifts like healthcare can be delivered in ways that create more problems than they solve. Michael admitted that his ideas might bring flash floods instead of needed water. So, he endeavored to ask hard questions, to test his ideas, and to find solutions that bring lasting impact, like the type of rain that grows crops. Rain that is steady and measured.

When Michael stepped back from the urgent pain, he was surprised to discover an existing solution. “An unforeseen outcome of our original sustainability thesis was that the church-based clinic outperformed our other pilot clinics in providing the highest quality of care, to the most people, at the cheapest cost.”

Church-based medical clinics were Burundi’s best-kept healthcare secret. They far outperformed their peers and simply needed to be multiplied. So, Michael decided to do this through his upstart organization, LifeNet International. He could have sent rain like Irene sent Lancaster’s farmers; rain that fell too hard and too fast. Instead, he chose the path lined with humility. And that path is leading to a fruitful crop for the people of Burundi.

Prominent Atheist Supports Evangelism

Photo courtesy UK Press Gazette

Matthew Parris, an award-winning columnist with a prominent British newspaper, wrote this in a recent column:

 Travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: One I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good. (emphasis mine)

What a powerful proposition Parris suggests. I agree with him strongly, as does my organization, HOPE International. We believe his comments are the reason Christ-centered organizations are so important in Africa. Still, it is confounding to read this from an atheist. Essentially, what Parris says compares to Mitt Romney making a comment like this in a primary debate: “You know, I believe I’m a great candidate, but I just think Rick Perry is better prepared and will be more effective than me at bringing about the type of change we need in America.”

It’s laughable to think about. Yet, this is what Parris says. Despite that he whole-heartedly believes there is no God, he supports and believes in the work of Christian organizations in Africa because of the transformation which only God can bring. We have seen this clearly demonstrated around the globe. The transformative message of Christ coupled with an effective and empowering method of helping is a dynamic combination.

As a decidedly Christian organization, we are actually able to add tremendous value to the lives of our clients because of our Christian-ness. And Parris, an atheist, seems to agree. In other words, HOPE is not just a Christianized knock-off version of bigger secular organizations. HOPE’s faith-based approach is much more than that – it’s ultimately the singularly most-important characteristic of our work.

[box_help]What does this say for the Christian mission when Parris, a prominent athiest, gives it such a sterling review? Let us know in the comments.[/box_help]

Coffee Shop Talk: The Introduction

[box_light]Ed. note: Please welcome B. She’s our new weekly Q&A writer and will be answering questions from a female perspective (naturally). You can find her subsection under “Faith.” Do you have a question or comment? Send it to us on Facebook, Twitter, via email, or in the comments, and we’ll do our best to have her answer it in future weeks.[/box_light]

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“A triple, venti, nonfat, extra hot, caramel macchiato, please.”

Feel free to order or make your favorite cup of java, pull up a chair and get settled in.

I will admit, I am a bit of a coffee snob. I do, however, promise to keep my opinions on your choice to myself.

I am so excited to say that in this new weekly column, I will be giving my opinions, advice, encouragement, etc. to all of the many questions you pose to me. (Let me take this moment to say that I most certainly DO NOT have all the answers, nor will I be writing as if I do. Please keep that in mind while reading these upcoming articles.) With all of that said, I would like to officially welcome you to the reading of the very first “Coffee Shop Talk.”

[divider]

When I was brainstorming over ideas as to what to call this column, I thought of a whole handful of different names. (Most of them were so cheesy you would’ve probably laughed and scrolled right past the article.) I was racking my brain for ideas while enjoying the first cup o’ joe for that day–––and BOOM!–––it hit me.

“Coffee Shop Talk.”

I don’t know about all of you, but I think it’s a safe assumption to say that this generation THRIVES on coffee and caffeine, and keeps many Starbucks and local joints in business. Heck, half of us probably work there, right?

I want this column to feel just like that…We called each other up, scheduled a morning to meet, and now here we are; sitting across from one another sipping on our drinks, and just talking. No pressure, no formal meet and greet. Just friends, coffee, and chit-chat. I, personally, can retrace most of my favorite conversations and moments of epiphanies to a coffee shop. I hope this column feels just like that. I don’t want this to become a Dr. Phil’s forum. So, let’s hang. Talking and discussing all things under the sun.

[divider]

What’s My Story?

Well, I’m Brittany Miller, a twenty-three year old Michigander, who loves coffee, cooking, and gluten free cookies. [I’m also a fan of alliteration.]

Okay, but seriously. I’ve grown up and have lived in Michigan my whole life, besides the few months I lived in West Palm Beach and Alaska. I love to hate it and hate to love it. I despise the snow, but I love a white Christmas. I love our summers but my hair fights with humidity every year.

As you can probably see, God has taken me so many different places in my life already. I am blessed to have had the opportunities to go on missions to both Mexico and Haiti on four separate occasions. In each case, God completely transformed my heart and has grown me in ways I never saw possible.

I have always known Jesus and have always loved Him. For those wanting a pin point answer–––I accepted Him as my Savior in the 4th grade when I tossed my stick into the fire at Lake Lousie. I didn’t have an active relationship with Him until my senior year of high school. Before that year, I had a roller coaster ride of being stagnant and luke warm and moments of completely burning for God. He has used so many different life lessons and people to mold me: past relationships, family and friends-each heartache, tears shed and laughs shared have been used to teach me.

I’ve learned that nothing I do apart from God is worth anything. I’ve learned that I cannot do anything on my own. I’ve learned that God’s love and grace is all I can count and depend on when this mess of life comes around me. I actively try, in all I do, to be obedient to His call and remain faithful unto Him. He has brought me to an amazing body of believers where I am blessed and humbled to serve as a youth leader alongside an amazing team of people who have some of the most beautiful and passionate hearts I have ever seen.

I am the middle daughter of three girls and an aunt to two precious little girls. My family is such a beautiful mess [as I’ve learned all families are] and God uses me, even there, to bring Him glory. I could write on and on about every experience I’ve had and all the lessons learned (and I’m sure many will be discussed throughout this column) but for me, at the end of all of this, all that matters is did I do all I could to honor the Father and glorify His name?

[divider]

What are my passions?

Being in the will of God is the only place I want to be.

Apart from that I can never live as He has called me to. I’ve learned that when I align myself with His heart, He changes my passions to be His passions. He breaks my heart for the things that breaks His own; He gives me joy knowing that I am serving and living for Him and making Him proud.

As I said before, I have been able to go on missions to different countries. God broke my heart for global missions at the age of 16, when I went on my first trip to Mexico. I led VBS programs, played soccer in the rundown streets, hammered nails into the church walls we helped build, and most importantly-loved those precious kids the way our Father loves them. I knew from that moment, that’s all I wanted to do.

I always make jokes with people how I hope to “retire” to another country when I’m older, but I wish they all knew how serious I am. If it is in God’s will for me and my future family, I would love to be 60+ years old, living in another country, sitting in the dirt with orphans climbing all over me. I want to leave comfortability and trade it in for poverty. I know that seems crazy and impossible to live through and survive, but I serve and love a God of the impossible.

I grew up thinking and feeling that I always wanted to teach. I know God has blessed me with the ability to teach and lead, and I’ve always felt it was for younger kids, seeing as I have been a full time nanny for the last 4 years. But, God being who He is, always has a better plan in store for me. [And really, He’s just so much smarter than I am.] I began coaching high school cheerleading at the high school I once attended. I looked at it as something fun to do… God had bigger things in store. I fell in love with the hearts’ of those girls. God broke me for reaching and encouraging high schoolers. I realized all that God had taken me through and I had experienced up until that point; I was able to pour that knowledge and encouragement into them.

I am so broken and passionate for this generation. It breaks me to see how the world is falling apart around us and how the world is stepping up to offer answers, when it should be the believers of Christ leading with His love. The injustice in the world is heart breaking. The rate of human trafficking, abortion, and divorce in this world is growing; it makes me sick. I pray I can be used by God to bring freedom for the captives and hope for the broken.

[divider]

I pray that each and everyday I can surrender myself before the Cross and that my life would be used by God for the Kingdom cause. Each day I pray we can come together as one and claim hearts for the side of Life. This column is such an exciting adventure for me and I pray God will use each and every word for His glory.

Please post your questions on the Quarterlife Man Twitter, Facebook page, or email them in! Hashtag them #coffeeshoptalk so I know that you want me to answer them! Thank you so much guys. I’m so excited to be in this new experience with all of you.

until our next chat,
B

[box_success]You heard the woman… send us your questions! Send it to us on FacebookTwittervia email, or in the comments, and we’ll do our best to have her answer it in future weeks.[/box_success]

Michael Scott and Andy Bernard on Charity

Sitcoms rarely address the effectiveness of charity and international aid. However, Michael Scott and Andy Bernard exposited these deep issues on a recent episode of The Office. Aiming to impress their friends and colleagues, the winsome duo joined a busload of aspiring youngsters bound for Mexico on a three month mission trip.

The scene unfolds:

Andy: Save me an aisle seat, Michael, I’m coming. I will not stand idly by while these Mexican villagers are sick.

Trip Leader: We are actually building a school.

Andy: Whatever. I won’t stand for it.

Michael: How long till we get to Mexico?

Andy: Well, two days minus how long we’ve been on the road. 45 minutes? So, like two days basically. Maybe more.

Michael: What are we building down there again? Like a hospital? A school for Mexicans? What?

Andy: I don’t know. I thought it was like a gymnasium.

Michael: Why aren’t they building it for themselves?

Andy: They don’t know how.

Michael: Do we know how? I don’t know how.

The episode closes with the comedic tandem abandoning their charitable foray, convicted that their talents would be better served selling paper to small business owners in Scranton. Channeling their inner Robert Lupton (and my other favorites, Brian FikkertDambisa Moyo and Bill Easterly), Scott and Bernard touch on some deep issues in their short monologue:

Is our charity needed? Are we displacing someone locally who could do the job? Do we actually have the skills and capacity to serve well? Is our helping really helping?  …an unlikely source prompts big questions.