Monday, April 19, 2021

Building Roofs Through Sweat Equity

 (This post is part of a series on S4P's mission statement. Here's a link to introduce you to the series.)

“Back in my day I…,” or, “When I was a kid I…” If you are over a certain age, odds are good that you have uttered at least one of those phrases a time or two. If you are over a certain age and have children, your kids can probably fill in after the ellipses. Perhaps your version ends with “...had to work for what I got,” or “...didn’t have everything handed to me on a silver platter.” That is what is known as “sweat equity,” and it is still alive and well in the Sower4Pastors ministry. 

One of the ways Sowers4Pastors empowers pastors is by helping with church construction projects. But new churches aren’t handed over on a platter, silver or otherwise. When a pastor shows up requesting help with a church building project, Allen and Russell keep the attention on the roof. Church building projects are primarily in rural areas and the churches are told they must provide the land, labor, and all of the materials except roofing materials. Allen describes the process as “labor intensive.” 

Sowers4Pastors loves when a congregation comes to them and says they’ve grown as a home church or that they started out in a much smaller building and no longer have enough room to meet. Sometimes a congregation wants to turn the smaller building into a designated Sunday school building and build a larger sanctuary. The idea behind the church construction ministry is to come alongside congregations that are ready to work. It simply isn’t as successful to build a church with no people there. 

There is an emphasis on ownership. It is the congregation’s church. They buy the land, build the walls, and everything else except for buying the roofing supplies. The roofs cost an average of $1000 each. Sowers4Pastors has seen some churches that don’t even put down a floor before they start meeting. Yet, when Allen and Russell pay a visit a year or so later, often the packed dirt has been replaced with ceramic tiles. 

Churches generally approach Sowers4Pastors when they have about 60 people attending regularly and want to have the space to grow to accommodate 250 people. By making sure that each congregation has sweat equity in their building, Sowers4Pastors’ ministry funds stretch that much farther, and also insures that the congregations will feel a sense of ownership, which usually leads to better care and concern for the church building.

In the past, whenever Sowers4Pastors has tried to do the construction projects differently, there have been issues. This way, they can easily spot the motivated churches, and, since each congregation owns its own church building, there are no calls to repair things that break. This is not to say that there’s never a time for building a church first when starting a church plant, but in this area, the risk of no one coming to fill up the empty seats is too great. It all goes back to stewardship, sweat equity, and a general lack of silver platters. 

- posted by Christi.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Pastor Training School: Part of this Complete Mission Statement

(This post is part of a series on S4P's mission statement. Here's a link to introduce you to the series.)

When you were growing up, how many times did you beg your mother to purchase the latest sugary cereal? She may have ignored your cries of, “But, Mom, it’s part of a complete breakfast! It said so on TV!” Sowers4Pastors is a lot like a “complete breakfast.” Some parts are a little flashier than others, but it all works together to support their mission statement.

Pastor training school is a key component in the Sowers4Pastors mission to empower pastors. It doesn’t have the “wow factor” of delivering backpacks. The pictures probably don’t spark the same warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see pictures of kids in feeding centers. But it is “nutrient rich” and absolutely essential. Before settling on a ministry “menu,” Allen and Trish spent plenty of time seeking advice from other missionaries. The big question was, “What’s the most needed thing?” They didn’t want to move into town and offer the missionary equivalent of a big bowl of Crunchy Sugar Loops since the area undoubtedly needed something more substantial. One of the answers they received was, “training for pastors.”

Allen saw that the pastors in the area had a love of Jesus, but they didn’t have a lot of training. Sending the pastors off to seminaries would have been cost prohibitive and it would have meant the pastors would be abandoning their flocks. Plus, few of the pastors in the area have enough education to waltz right into a seminary. But they don’t need seminary degrees to establish a stronger foundation of biblical knowledge. A local training school seemed like the answer, but Allen’s gifts aren’t in teaching.

As it turned out, one of the indigenous missionaries the family spoke to before deciding to settle in Gracias was Dr. Julio. Dr. Julio, a Honduran-born medical doctor, was preparing to go to Peru to begin a pastor training school there. When that opportunity didn’t come to fruition, Dr. Julio was available to take on the teaching role of a training school while Allen handled the administrative side of things.

The students would arrive for three days of training, once a month, so they would not be kept from their livelihoods or their flocks for too long. They received 16-20 hours of classroom training in eight sessions per year. Training school operates from March-October, allowing the pastors to work the coffee harvest.  

To date, 125 pastors have graduated for the three-year program. Fifteen pastors have gone on to complete a fourth year. Over time, the school developed a mentoring system, with the second-year students assist in teaching the first-year students, and the third-year students assist in teaching the second-year students.

The results of this program, according to Allen, have been remarkable. Many of pastors have gone on to become district supervisors for their denomination. The congregations are benefiting from improved teaching, as well. Pastors were sticking to very basic teaching before - mostly the Gospel message and some passages of the New Testament. The teaching the pastors have received at the training school have enabled them to expand their preaching to include more difficult topics in the New Testament, and the relationship between the Old Testament and the New.

For several reasons, the school has been closed down for most of 2020. Obviously, COVID-19 was one reason. The school has not been able to reopen due to the ongoing lock-down in Honduras (which is slowly starting to ease), but, thanks to the trickle-down method of educating, local pastors who have completed more training are able to share their knowledge with pastors who aren’t as far along in their training.

In the meantime, Clay Powell, the head teacher of the program, had to return to the States with his family. He will not be able to return for several years. This leaves the school without a seminary trained teacher.

Allen has requested that people add this to their prayer list, that once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted a teacher with the right training and temperament might hear the calling to join the ministry. Please join the crew at Sowers4Pastors in praying that this need might be filled.

- posted by Christi.

Monday, April 5, 2021

S4P: the Retrospective and the Road Ahead

If someone were to make a documentary about Sowers4Pastors, it would probably begin something like this:

In 2001, the Sowers family moved to the island of Guanaja in Honduras for “a couple of years” in response to Hurricane Mitch. Sometimes time just gets away from you because here it is 20 years later and Honduras is still home for quite a few Sowers. 

The Sowers family right before heading to Honduras

Allen, Trish, and their passel of young ‘uns ended up on the islands for five years. The plan had been to help build local infrastructure (hence the plethora of tools in the photoshoot above), but while they were there, they also ended up doing much more traditional evangelism at a local youth center. They lived in the community they served. They ran a weekly Sunday school program and held Sunday services for adults. Their evenings were filled with different events for children and youth, which included Bible lessons and a time of worship. They were pretty much what you think of when you think of foreign missionaries. But, after five years, they knew it was time to move to the next thing. 

They could have gone anywhere! Anywhere in Honduras, that is. Why did they need to stay in Honduras instead of heading for a different country? Three letters. B-E-N. Even though he was (and is) very much a part of the Sowers family, Allen and Trish were unable to legally adopt him. They could take him to another area of Honduras, but they could not take him out of the country. Rather than resort to throwing darts at a map in search of a new home, they piled in a vehicle and headed off on a family vacation to see where they felt God wanted them to work. 

The trip took them to 15 of Honduras’s 18 departments (which are like states in the U.S.). They visited with other missionaries along the way and felt that they were being called to empower pastors. 

Allen thought, “What if we could empower 25-50 pastors?”

The family first felt called to check out La Esperanza. With its high altitude, the city is famous for having the coolest climate in Honduras. This was particularly appealing to Allen, who doesn’t care for the heat and they were looking for a place where they could survive long-term. But when the family visited the city, they learned that Trish’s asthma doesn’t care for the high altitude. Also, they discovered that La Esperanza was already home to eight other missionaries.

When they finally visited Gracias, they met two indigenous missionaries who were talking about ways to help empower pastors. The road seemed clear. It took about nine more months to complete the move.

Shortly after the move, Allen began thinking about the 800 or so filled shoeboxes that were heading his way. On the island, distribution had been easy. In Gracias, he had no idea how to choose which children would receive a shoebox. Allen feels that God led him to the conclusion that he should reach out to the pastors and say, “We don’t have enough for everyone in the congregation, but we have enough for your kids.” 

With a supply of shoeboxes labeled for older boys, younger boys, older girls, and younger girls, Allen headed down the road with one of the indigenous missionaries. Whenever someone approached, they asked if that person knew of a pastor.

Within two months, Allen had met 185 pastors--dwarfing his original projection of working with 25-50 pastors. Since that time, the ministry has grown to the point where it works with close to 1000 pastors. There has been a lot of attention on the sponsorship program, but Sowers4Pastors wants you to know that they have never lost sight of their primary focus of empowering pastors. 

Some of you might recognize this photo - it gets a lot of mileage. It's a photo of the family a little while after they moved to Gracias

In the coming weeks, we’ll be talking about this topic in greater detail, but here are the top 5 ways Sowers4Pastors is empowering pastors:

  1. Pastor training school

  2. Operating a wholesale Bible book store to sell discounted Bibles and other materials.

  3. Helping pastors get transportation

  4. Putting roofs on churches

  5. Helping the pastors set up feeding centers and sponsorship programs as a vehicle to reach out to their communities

The crew is recognizing more and more as they pass the 20 year mark on their ministry that they are working with people who don't know the background of the ministry. Sometimes they interact with people who only know the sponsorship program, but to the Sowers the sponsorship program is another tool to help them empower local pastors. They view it as a way to help empower the next generation of pastors and church leaders, by helping them get a better education as kids than they would have otherwise. More importantly, the sponsorship program is helping the local pastors lead people to Jesus. Only God will know how many individuals - including future pastors - come to that commitment through this program. The Sowers family feels so blessed to be a part of this! And they feel blessed to have you as their partner!

- posted by Christi.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Finding Peace During Spiritual Warfare

When you are in any kind of battle, there is an adversary - an enemy of some sort. With a formidable enemy, one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to underestimate his abilities.

Trish pointed out that frequently missionaries are called front-line warriors, in the spiritual battle that comes along with spreading the Gospel. But, as she said, “We don’t consider ourselves front-line warriors - those are the Honduran pastors. We are part of the supply chain. And we happen to be in the part of the chain that is directly next to the front line. Our job is to pass resources along to those on the front line.”

There have been years when Sowers4Pastors’ work has met with little resistance. This is not one of those years. This year, they are personally struggling, they are seeing the Honduran pastors they work with fighting battles, as well as the churches that support them in the U.S.

As in any battle, a formidable adversary analyzes our weaknesses. Sowers4Pastors is seeing that among their staff members. Anyone with a weakness to be exploited is experiencing problems related to that weakness, and, of course, everyone has weaknesses.

When their ministry began, the Sowers were a typical nuclear family living a non-typical life in Honduras. Now, that ministry has grown to include people with different last names. And the original nuclear Sowers family has also changed. The ministry staff is made up of a group of friends, co-workers, adult offspring, parents of young children, parents of teens, parents of adults, siblings, grandparents, and in-laws. All of this distant and recent history means there are ample opportunities to pull up old and newer grievances! The team has made it a point to rally--praying together and spending time together in the Word.

They are also looking for all kinds of prayer support they can call in for what is definitely a spiritual battle. While asking for prayer, Trish wants to remind supporters that this is not entirely a bad situation. She said,

“When the enemy is exploiting our weaknesses, it serves as an opportunity for God to reveal to us areas of our lives in which we have been spiritually sloppy or negligent; where we may have been harboring sins. It’s a time to reinforce our spiritual armor, and it can be a time of painful growth. As a team, we are trying to up our game in all of our spiritual disciplines to be able to ward off attacks which may damage the ministry.”

“Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” James 4:7

Thank you so much for your prayers!

- posted by Christi

A Mish Mash of Updates!

There's a bunch of different things happening right now - so here's a mish mash of updates!

Lighthouse Team

A team of people who participate in the Lighthouse Church sponsorship program is currently on the ground in Honduras. Russell and Allen are working with the team, which is making the most of its time by completing multiple projects. Here’s the rundown:

Sister churches come up with their own pet projects and Lighthouse Church has chosen one of its focuses to be getting books in the classrooms of Crucitas. The church did a book drive to get age-appropriate, Spanish-language books for pleasure reading into each of the ten schools in the program. Members of this team realized that the schools don’t have a good place to store the books, so they are building bookcases to create mini-classroom libraries.

A lot of the men in this team are skilled electricians. Even though their church is connected to the Crucitas program, they are also doing wiring for the new(ish) church in Quelacasque. The building is already in use, but there are still things to be completed.

Some members of the team are putting up playground equipment at the smallest school in Crucitas. It’s a one room schoolhouse that will be needing an additional room or two in the not-so-distant future. But for now, the team is welding metal to erect a swingset and other things to help the kids burn off some energy.

Profile Views and Red Letter Days

Kelsea and Kirstin are updating and uploading profiles for sponsors at sister churches. This is taking up most of their time because there is a looming deadline. Two of the sister churches are planning sponsorship drives in the coming weeks and need to have profiles on each available child. 

Kim is working on the profile updates for Manna4Lempira at this time as well. They also got a huge batch of mail. The current team brought down the most recent letters from the Manna sponsors, which Kim and Jonathan will translate. The team will not be going home with extra luggage space because there is a big push to have children writing letters to their sponsors, as well - they will be taking back letters for one of the sister church programs.

Farm Life

Caffeine lovers, rejoice! The coffee harvest is complete and the final tally is a little over 50,000 pounds of coffee beans. The end of the harvest signals a new kind of work around the coffee farm. First, the guys chop around the trees with machetes to keep the weeds down. Then sprayers are filled with a combination of fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides and the entire farm is sprayed to prepare for next year,

Wheels of Good Fortune

Motorcycle distribution time is back and it’s bigger than ever. This year, 35 pastors’ applications have been approved and their deposits have been received. Now, it’s just a matter of a lot of back and forth communication with the Honda dealer.

Where Does One Buy a Gold Shovel?

There has been a new groundbreaking ceremony on the Sowers’ property. Well, maybe there wasn’t a ceremony, but we should all chip in and get them a fancy gold shovel for next time. This breaking of ground was for a new house for Allen and Trish. No, not the new house that ended up being just right for Russell and Iris’s family. No, not the renovation of Russell and Iris’s old house that became Allen and Trish’s new house. This ground was broken for a new “new house.” Kelsea is currently living in town, due to a lack of housing on the property. Kirstin has a place on the property, but it’s barely sufficient. The plan is for Kirstin and Kelsea to move into Allen and Trish’s current new house, which was also Russell and Iris’s old house. (There were undoubtedly less complicated ways to convey that information, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.)

Generally speaking, March, April, and May are the months when Allen and Russell can focus much of their attention on construction. Allen’s lofty goal is to complete the house in May 2022. While Trish admires his enthusiasm, she isn’t going to hold him to that goal and anticipates that it may take longer.

-posted by Christi.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Primero Dios

When students begin the Manna 4 Lempira program, there is great excitement. They feel that they are being given a key that will open doors of opportunity for a brighter future. While lack of resources is a significant challenge for most of the families we serve, in many cases, there is also a lack of hope. When it comes to the future, there are more questions than answers. Manna helps families find a way forward, a way to plan and dream. Our program provides resources, support, encouragement, and spiritual development for students through their pastors, teachers and sponsors. If all goes according to plan, students can make plans to continue with their education as God blesses.

But what happens when everything DOESN’T go according to plan? Honduras has a “Primero Dios” culture. It’s a phrase we often see repeated in letters from the children and in everyday conversation. People here don’t make plans for the future without being careful to say this phrase. Roughly translated, it simply means “God first”—or as we people from the southern US say, "Lord willing and the creek don’t rise." People simply don’t make plans without acknowledging that God’s will in their lives is ultimate.

I’ll see you tomorrow—Primero Dios.

We will finish the harvest next week—Primero Dios.

I’ll graduate high school this year—Primero Dios.

Enter COVID-19. The pandemic shattered the plans of students who have worked and fought and dreamed. In our youth meetings, we often hear students crying out to God, asking God—what will my future be now? How can I go forward? How can I continue my studies? Education and access was a problem before COVID—and now it is an even bigger challenge for students. That is why the continued support, encouragement, and relational aspect of Manna 4 Lempira is so important. We are here—the churches are here—walking with these students and their families, continuing to meet needs and offer counsel.

Sindy entering
 the program

Beautiful Sindy enrolled in our program in 2016. She was entering her final year of studies when the pandemic began. We read her anguished letters, heard her prayers, listened as she fought through online classes. And yesterday, we celebrated her as she received her high school degree! She thanks her family, her church, our program, and her sponsor for supporting her through her process.

Sindy with her high school diploma!
Primero Dios, this is not the last we will hear from this generation of fighters and dreamers in Honduras, who are wisely using the resources given them to faithfully pursue God’s calling on their lives.

- posted by Kim H.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A PSA for Child Sponsors

Who doesn’t love a good Public Service Announcement? PSAs taught us that only you can prevent forest fires and that your brain on drugs resembles a fried egg. And don’t even get me started about the crying Native American man who just wanted us to keep America beautiful. This is a PSA post to all child sponsors--those in the Manna program, as well as those in the Sister Church programs. Well, it’s really more of a behind-the-scenes look to help everyone understand the logistics of what happens during different parts of the process. I mean, there’s not even a snappy slogan, so can it really be called a PSA?

As you know, Sowers4Pastors has recently finished up the most exciting part of the year (at least where child sponsorships are concerned) with the distribution of backpacks and shoes. Since that is the time most children are going to show up, it’s a good opportunity to update attendance records, too. This is something Sowers4Pastors does throughout the year, with the help of school and church records. But it is not uncommon for a child to not show up to events for a while and then show up again at backpack time. If they don’t show up for a backpack, odds are good that they aren’t in the area anymore. Since it’s a time to find out if kids registered for school, it’s also a time of year when a large number of children are removed from the program. Sowers4Pastors recognizes that this is a difficult time for sponsors whose children are no longer participating in the program.

This also presents a time-crunch situation for the administrative staff. They must remove the children from the website, but they also need to notify each sponsor directly if their child is no longer in the program. This adds to the time-crunch because the administrative staff must do multiple things at once. They notify sponsors and cancel the sponsorships without delay because they are paying money each month and it wouldn’t be right to keep charging someone for a child who has moved on. This is tricky business because the notification and cancelation need to happen almost simultaneously. If the sponsor is notified first, they can go directly to the website and cancel the sponsorship. If that happens, the child’s picture will still be on the website and will show up as a child without a sponsor. Someone else could stumble across it and apply to sponsor a child who is no longer available. Yikes!

Notifications from the website come from one email address. Notifications from Trish saying, “I’m sorry, but…” come from a separate address. For various reasons, people don’t always receive the notification from Trish. Sometimes it ends up in a spam folder. Sometimes the sponsors have changed their email address, and forgot to update Sowers4Pastors. The ministry hasn't found a way to remedy the situation. Sowers4Pastors always wants to do right by sponsors, but sometimes this cancellation process causes confusion.

It should be noted that if a sponsor has sent a backpack for their child, an effort is made to get the backpack delivered to that child, even if the child leaves the program. This isn’t always possible, because sometimes the child has left the area, but Sowers4Pastors visits each location three times to attempt delivery. Then they store the backpack for a year, just in case they are able to deliver it during that time.

It’s helpful to remember that one of the main goals of the program is to empower more children to go to school and to go for more years. In the mountain villages of Western Honduras, there is traditionally very low school attendance. The average child doesn’t finish 6th grade. In fact, 6th grade graduation is looked at as a much bigger achievement than high school graduation is in the States. For most families, completing the 6th grade is the highest educational dream imaginable. Many of the parents in these locations never attended school at all! Attendance beyond the 6th grade is extremely rare in the communities connected to sponsorship programs. 

You may recall what a big deal it was when the Honduran government decided to build a middle school in the community of Guacutao (where the Edgewater Alliance Church program runs) because so many children were actually completing elementary school and preparing to continue their educations. This shows the program is working. On the whole, children are receiving more education. There are even some high school students in the program. However, if you sponsor a child through Sowers4Pastors, it’s important to recognize this reality: The majority of the children are not going to complete the program all the way through high school.

If you sponsor a 5th or 6th grader, it is likely that you will only have them for a year or two. Some people feel called to sponsor the older children, in part because it is easier to build in-depth relationships through letters. That is a wonderful thing. However, if this is you, be prepared for a high turnover rate of sponsorships. Recognize that your input, however long that lasted, was a part of getting that child and the community to become more involved in education.

A whole new batch of Manna kids is on the website now, and the kids in the Sister Church program are getting added to the site now. You know, maybe there’s a snappy PSA slogan in this after all. Something like: “This is a slow, gradual process, but it is making a difference, one sponsorship at a time.”

- posted by Christi.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Sponsorships! Get 'em While They're Hot!

Do you know that feeling when absolutely every bit of laundry in your home is clean, folded, and put away? Well, neither do I, but people assure me this is a real (albeit rare) phenomenon. For a brief and shining moment last week, this same sort of rare event occurred with Manna 4 Lempira. There was a point where every single child in the Manna program was sponsored. That’s right. If you went to the website and narrowed your search to “Unsponsored” children, there were no photos to scroll through. Just like the clean laundry comparison, it didn’t last. But still, we know it is possible! (When we say Manna4Lempira, please keep in mind this does not include the sister church sponsorship programs - several of them have gotten down to zero unsponsored kids in the past)

So you know, when I posted this, all the kids pictured in this post were unsponsored - but we'll see how long that lasts! Like the lady said, get 'em while they're hot!

Janckel here was feeling shy, so he took his photo with his mom

Milton looks like a fun guy!
At the time of this writing, there are 31 brand spankin’ new-to-the-program kids available for sponsorship. That’s not a lot, but everyone would love to see them sponsored. This is how Trish and Kelsea are spending their time for the next several weeks. Sixty Manna kids were removed from the program because they moved or stopped attending school for any number of reasons. Then 130 new kids were added. So, as you can see 99 of those have already been sponsored. This year, Kim, Trish and Kelsea worked to make a special offer to current sponsors. If a new child had a sibling in the program, that sibling’s sponsor was notified. A lot of the sponsors went ahead and snatched up the siblings, photo unseen! 

I bet Lesmin is looking
forward to having a
new pen pal!
Trish and Kelsea are working on all of the sponsorship programs. They have to figure out which children are no longer in the program and notify their sponsors. Then they remove those kids from the website and add in the new children. Entering a child to the system requires uploading a shiny new photo and adding their full names, favorite colors, plus a little bit about the child. It’s not a small project. If we want to return to the laundry analogy, this is like someone who actually sorts their clothes and follows the care instructions on the tags rather than shoving everything in together and hoping it all doesn’t come out pink. (Yes, my mama did raise me better than that, but I’m a bit of a laundry rebel.) Paper profiles are also created for each child so their sponsors will have something to print up and put on the fridge.

You might notice that there are quite a few really little ones available for sponsorship. That’s because Honduras mandated preschool a while back. Just because they “have to” attend doesn’t mean they can attend. Sowers4Pastors figured they would provide the needed backpacks of supplies for preschoolers, too. Backpack day can be overwhelming for the little ones, so some of the photos are of a child crying in a mom’s arms. Trish insists they’ll be ready to pose for the camera next year. You can also see that almost every child currently available for sponsorship is a boy. This has been an ongoing area of concern because boys are less likely to be selected by sponsors. 

Mario's not angry - he's just not sure how he
 should act in front of the camera!
This might be the first time he's ever had his photo taken.

Sowers4Pastors is very excited that people are stepping up to sponsor off the website. Hopefully the kids will be attending their brick and mortar schools soon. If not, there will still be education happening. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if these children could find sponsorship sooner rather than later?

If you are looking for a kid to sponsor, click HERE to see the most current list of unsponsored kids in the Manna program!

- posted by Christi