Transforming the lives of African orphans

"Don't talk to me about God," Angelique, a young Rwandan orphan, sobbed quietly. "If there is a God, he doesn't love me."

In 2008, when she was just a teenager, Angelique uttered those words to a member of the ZOE Ministry staff. Despite her youth, Angelique had suffered more than most people do in a lifetime.

At age 15, both of her parents died. Angelique and her two siblings - a 12-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister - moved in with their grandfather. Within six months, he also died.

Angelique's troubles grew even larger when the mud hut where her family lived collapsed in a rainstorm. Grieving the loss of the closest adults in her life and struggling to provide for her two young siblings, Angelique was now homeless as well.

After much searching, Angelique found three separate homes that would each accept one child. This seemingly good news quickly turned ominous for Angelique when she realized she would be staying in a room already occupied by a 24-year-old man.

After three months of abuse, Angelique became pregnant, but with limited resources and nowhere else to go, she had to stay and endure more abuse.

Enter ZOE Ministry

However, Angelique's life changed dramatically, thanks to an encounter with ZOE Ministry.

With the help of ZOE Ministry's Orphan Empowerment Program, Angelique received a new home for herself and her siblings, and she began her own business. This 17-year-old, who once had no hope and no desire to hear about God, now joyously tells how God transformed her life, sharing her home and her faith with other needy orphans.

This moving account is one of numerous true stories of the orphans who experience life change and renewed hope through the work of ZOE Ministry.

As a new avenue of ministry, the staff at ZOE compiled the stories of these orphans, paired the vignettes with Scripture passages and created a collection titled "A Little Child Shall Lead Them: Scenes of Faith from African Orphans." These sermon illustrations are designed to be a resource for pastors and other Christian leaders.

Jean Damascene (right) and his sister display food from a bumper harvest.
Jean Damascene (right) and his sister display food from a bumper harvest.

Mutually beneficial work

Greg Jenks, executive director of ZOE Ministry, said his staff developed the illustrations to show their work is mutually beneficial. "Too often, our mission work is one-sided," Jenks said. "We look at those to whom we minister as people who are only capable of receiving. Thus, the mission work tends to become paternalistic and one-sided."

"We want our relationship with our orphans to have a mutual component to it. We minister to them, but they, in turn, minister to us. So much of our work involves affirming the dignity of these orphans. We don't see them as helpless, hopeless youth and children. We see them as people merely needing an opportunity."

Gaston Warner, ZOE's church relations and strategic-planning director, also emphasized ZOE's goal of creating a "reciprocal relationship" with its mission work.

"A lot of Americans like to go over to places of extreme poverty and try to fix things," Warner said, "and they want it to be quick and tangible. Really, what you need to do is be partners with people and develop relationships that are reciprocal. It's a much harder way to do missions, but it's a much better way to do missions, for both parties."

Jenks and Warner said the staff determined that U.S. Christians could benefit from hearing about the changed lives of orphans.

Give and receive through ZOE Ministry

ZOE Ministry believes that all Christians make up the body of Christ and are meant to live in relationship with one another. The ministry believes too many view missions as something done for others without realizing the gifts offered in return.

The project believes that the African orphans offer an example of how to live out Christian faith while living in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. It asks that you allow God to speak to you and your congregations through the examples of these children and that is why it is offering this series of videos and PDFs downloads.

The stories told through the orphans provide present-day demonstrations of God's reconciling, strengthening, and creating presence in the midst of turmoil. The subjects include evangelism, faith in adversity, forgiveness/reconciliation, God working through us, love of neighbor and community, prayer, returning good for evil, stewardship and answering God's call.

Read A Little Child Shall Lead Them: Scenes of Faith from African Orphans . Learn more about how to share in ZOE Ministry's work or donate to the ministry.

Catch a glimpse of Jesus

"Through their lives, we catch a glimpse of Jesus from the perspective of those who have suffered immeasurably," Jenks said, "and yet, through God's help, have risen above it."

"These children live out the gospel in ways that can inspire and transform us," Warner said, explaining that the orphans serve as an example of what it means to trust in God to meet daily needs. He said he hopes these stories of faith help "the American church to rediscover what it's like to walk with the people in the wilderness.

"We may have forgotten that we have to rely on God every day to survive," Warner added, "because we have things, and we think we can make our own way. But these orphans teach us &ellipsis; to see everything we have as a gift from God."

Warner said the children who are part of ZOE's program continually reach out to others in need, sharing their resources. He said the orphans' ability to help other people gives them a renewed sense of worth.

"That's something else true empowerment allows for. If we were just going in and giving them food, it doesn't empower them to help others," Warner said, emphasizing how ZOE's program allows the orphans to participate. "The children have a hand in their own redemption and in each other's redemption."

*Snell is a communications major at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. She completed her internship with United Methodist Communications in December 2011.

News media contact, Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn. (615)-742-5470 or [email protected].

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