Bread for a Hungry World merges with Christian Relief Fund
Two nonprofits with connections to Churches of Christ — Bread…
NEYBA, Dominican Republic — Her name is Milagro, Spanish for “miracle.”
“It’s because she is a miracle,” said her mother, Belkis Montero, standing outside their simple hillside home of cement blocks and sheet metal in this Caribbean nation, an hour east of the Haitian border.
Milagro was the sole survivor of stillborn triplets. She weighed less than 2 pounds at birth. Now 15, she copes with developmental delays that require specialized schooling. She’s nonverbal, but she gave a slight, demure smile when she saw a group of her countrymen — clad in bright orange shirts with the letters “CRF” in bold white — approach her family’s chicken wire fence.
Milagro is one of more than 10,000 kids sponsored through Christian Relief Fund, a faith-based nonprofit that provides food, education and spiritual support. The ministry’s hard-to-miss shirts can be found in 17 countries, from the rural, mountain communities near Campamento, Honduras, to the slums of Eldoret, Kenya.
The nonprofit’s 50th year may be its most challenging — and its most important. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down economies around the world. Montero, Milagro’s mother, worked as a housekeeper before the lockdowns but hasn’t had reliable income in more than a year. Her husband, Lidio Morillo, farms a small plot of mountainside land to help the family survive.
The support they receive through Christian Relief Fund has become a life-sustaining blessing for the whole family, Montero said.
As the pandemic persists, “we pray for God to increase our faith,” she said. “Whatever we receive, whatever God decides, we hold on to it.”
The ministry was born out of a tragic message, sent a half-century ago along a wire from India to the U.S.: “John Abraham is dead.”
The words tore through Baxter Loe, minister for the Forest Hill Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas. He had traveled to India on a mission trip and met Abraham. The Indian evangelist shared a name with the Old Testament patriarch who was promised “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” by God in Genesis 22.
John Abraham was struggling to feed a multitude in the midst of a famine, and he asked Loe for help.
Loe told Abraham he would do what he could. Then Loe returned to the U.S. and fell swiftly back into his daily routine.
Months later, when Loe sent a wire asking how best to send money to Abraham, he received the short, devastating reply.
In 1971, Loe launched an initiative to care for the evangelist’s children, the John Abraham Memorial Christian Relief Fund.
In the five decades since, Abraham’s children have multiplied.
The ministry shortened its name and and expanded its reach, launching programs across Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Native workers, including ministers for Churches of Christ, coordinate the programs. CRF has helped to plant churches around the globe — more than 100 in the East African nation of Kenya alone, said Andrew Brown, the ministry’s vice president for strategic growth.
The nonprofit built dozens of schools that care for orphans and vulnerable children and has worked alongside other nonprofits supported by Churches of Christ, including One Kingdom, New Life Behavior International and Bread for a Hungry World. The latter merged with CRF in 2013 after its then-president, Bobby Moore, saw advertisements for his ministry and CRF in the same issue of The Christian Chronicle.
He approached CRF and asked, “What’s the difference in us?” Moore now serves as CRF’s vice president for global operations.
The nonprofit distributes aid after natural disasters, including the recent earthquake in Haiti, and digs water wells. An estimated half-million people have access to clean water through CRF’s well-drilling initiatives, Brown said.
Djounio Dorvil, a water program coordinator for CRF in northern Haiti, said that his favorite part of the job is watching the elderly in the villages he serves stare in disbelief as clean water comes gushing from the ground.
“That’s when they get really happy,” he said. “That’s when there’s more joy.”
The pandemic shut down schools worldwide, including Milagro’s in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican government started broadcasting classes on TV and radio. Teachers try to communicate with their students through cellphone messenger tools including WhatsApp.
“It’s a little complicated,” said Wanda Wilkiris, 15, who lives near Milagro in Neyba. She does her best to keep up with her subjects, especially her favorite, math. She wants to be an architect.
Like most of the families the ministry serves, CRF has been forced to adapt, said Gerson Aquino. His own family has coordinated CRF’s program in Neyba for nearly 30 years. His wife, Nairobi Batista, serves as director.
Pre-pandemic, sponsored children gathered at the Aquinos’ home to receive food and clean water — plus tutoring and Bible lessons. That’s not possible now, so CRF workers stagger times for the families of sponsored children to arrive and receive supplies. The workers stay in touch with the children through WhatsApp and gather for abbreviated, socially distanced devotionals when possible.
Gerson Aquino said he’s concerned about “the new generations that are growing” in the midst of COVID-19.
In the early days of the virus, some Dominicans feared that society itself would collapse and seemed open to discussions about God. But as the pandemic lingers, many have returned to old habits, including alcohol, he said. The economic slowdown and job losses have made the problem worse.
“We need to find new ways to call people to Christ,” Aquino said.
Simple things can make a difference. As Aquino and his orange-shirted coworkers visited Wanda’s home, her father, Jesús, paused from his work. He’s a builder, but jobs have been scarce recently so he’s been doing home improvement projects.
As he offered his guests coffee, a chicken roamed among the piles of wood and tile. It was a gift from their daughter’s sponsoring family, he said, and they’re thankful, especially now, for the eggs it provides.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic — or because of them, actually — CRF president Milton Jones wants to help more children like Milagro and Wanda. The ministry has set a goal of 500 new sponsorships for its 50th anniversary.
His first day on the job as president stressed the need for those sponsorships — and eerily mirrored the experiences of his predecessor, Baxter Loe.
A coworker dropped a stack of folders on Jones’ desk — each representing a child in need of a sponsor. He picked one, a girl in East Africa, and asked for more information about her.
“You don’t have to get her sponsored,” someone told him. She had died.
In addition to meeting their physical and spiritual needs, CRF tries to help children grow into self-supporting adults, Jones said. That’s not always easy in developing nations, he added.
But it happens. Mariela Lara Mendoza is one of the success stories.
The child of a teenage mother, Mendoza grew up in a children’s home in Piedras Negras, Mexico, and was sponsored through CRF.
Now age 25, she’s “walking hand-in-hand with Jesus,” she said. She’s active in her church and teaches Sunday school. Four years ago, she became a schoolteacher at the CRF school she attended as a child.
“If I hadn’t arrived here, I feel like my life would be completely different. … I know that God’s plans are perfect, and I am very grateful that ministries like this one exist.”
“If I hadn’t arrived here, I feel like my life would be completely different — probably a single mother, jobless and struggling to make ends meet,” Mendoza said. “I know that God’s plans are perfect, and I am very grateful that ministries like this one exist.”
In the slums of Eldoret, Kenya, Jones ministered to a family who named their son Milton, after him. Jones and his wife, Barbie, sponsored young Milton all the way through high school. They helped him train and buy tools to begin work as an auto mechanic.
“Now he’s supporting himself, and he’s got a couple of kids he supports,” Jones said. “He’s active in his church.”
Jones, a former campus minister at Texas Tech University and preacher in the Pacific Northwest, said that his compassion for children orphaned by another pandemic, HIV/AIDS, compelled him to get involved with CRF.
During a visit to Kisumu, Kenya, a group of orphans once surrounded him and asked him to wear orange on their behalf because “orange is the color of hope for AIDS orphans,” they told him.
He said he would. Then the orphans asked him to wear orange every day.
“Sure,” he said, absentmindedly. “I then realized that I had committed to wear orange every day of my life. I should have remembered that I went to Texas Tech and am a Red Raider.”
Nonetheless, he wears orange daily. And his coworkers, from Honduras to Kenya, don orange shirts as they head into the streets and villages, hoping to inspire hope in Abraham’s children for the next 50 years.
SPONSOR A CHILD: christianrelieffund.org.
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