ZOE zeroes in on orphan aid in Africa

LAKELAND -- With many ministries, the seeds of change take decades to blossom, even if they manage to avoid the hard-packed ground.  

Peter, ZOE beneficiary
Peter, an orphan left to care for his siblings, has started a bakery business with the help of ZOE Ministry.

Not so with ZOE, a United Methodist effort taking root a world away, not only in terms of distance, but in the way of life for young people compared with Americans on the brink of adulthood.

ZOE targets parts of Africa hit hard by famine, AIDS or other diseases, leaving thousands of orphans homeless with no parents to provide or look out for them. Missionaries work with the oldest siblings to get businesses started so that families can have a steady source of food, shelter and education within two to three years.

Molly McEntire, a rising senior at Florida State University and a member of First UMC, Lakeland, said the speedy results of the ministry in Africa keep her going back year after year.

Of mission efforts she has seen in Africa, “this is the one that is making a huge impact, not only in the lives of the orphans but in the community,” McEntire said.

“You’ll meet a child that is absolutely at the bottom and within two years, they’re [one of] the leaders of the community. … The empowerment that they have is incredible.”

She returned June 13 to Lakeland after her fifth trip to Africa. In Maua, Kenya, she met a young man, Peter, who told visitors how his mother died when he was 12, leaving him and four siblings with no parent in their small wood-frame home. Unable to buy wood for a coffin, Peter was prepared to take the home apart when a neighbor finally agreed to provide wood if the boy would pay for it later.

“All the siblings got split up,” McEntire said, repeating Peter’s story. “He became a street boy.” 

Molly McEntire with children in Kenya
Molly McEntire, center, enjoys missionary work, here with students in the Beacon of Hope program in Nairobi, Kenya.

She said boys as young as 8 live on the streets, traveling in gangs and carrying bottles of glue in Maua. Sniffing glue stolen or bought from shoe repair shops has become a major problem, with boys addicted to the chemicals and facing mental impairment from repeated use.

Peter made his way to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and largest city, to seek better job opportunities. Eventually he learned to make pastries by working in a bakery. When he was 16, he returned to his hometown and collected his siblings.

“They were barely surviving,” McEntire said. “No one wanted to help the orphans.”

After ZOE put the family in a working group of households in similar circumstances, Peter received funds to rent a room and start a bakery. Three months later, the teenager was making money enough to hire two other orphans to make deliveries.

McEntire said Peter’s group, called Emmanuel, had 23 young adult leaders responsible for a total of 150 family members.

Though Peter’s business took off faster than most, the results are not atypical, said  Rev. Greg Jenks of Clayton, N.C., who founded Zimbabwe Orphan Empowerment, or ZOE, in 2004 as a relief mission. Since 2007, when the organization adopted a model developed by Epiphanie Mujawimana of Rwanda, more than 27,000 orphans in four African countries have been helped. Of those, about 10,000 have reached self-sufficiency and no longer require ZOE’s assistance, Jenks said.

“It is a completely indigenous solution to the problem of orphans,” he said.

The orphans who benefit initially tend to reach out to other bereaved children, so that more are fed, clothed and sheltered and have an opportunity to attend school.

Jenks said churches like to sponsor ZOE’s work because of the relatively quick results and the feeling that people learn to look out for themselves. 

Missionaries with ZOE orphans
Missionaries Jennica Hill, left, and Molly McEntire, second from right, with the ZOE Emmanuel working group of orphans.

“So often churches get bogged down in the mission they’re supporting,” Jenks said. When churches sign on for a three-year commitment to get a particular group on its feet, he added, “they can feel good about what they achieved. They haven’t walked out and left kids hanging.”

Jenks is a former United Methodist church pastor who launched the ZOE ministry with the support of the North Carolina Conference.

The mission aims to build disciples of Jesus, as well as provide for physical needs, he said.

“Every training has a biblical theme to it,” Jenks said. “Every event begins and ends with prayer.”

While in Africa, McEntire also did some missionary work with the Methodist Church of Kenya in Meru. She is pursuing a degree in sociology and hopes to work for a nonprofit organization after graduation.

“My dream job would be to work for UMCOR [United Methodist Committee on Relief],” she said. “I really want to work for a nonprofit that has local and global impact.”

For information about ZOE, visit www.zoeministry.org.

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