A City on a Hill

In his farewell address to the nation in 1989, President Ronald Reagan, borrowing a line from Jesus, described the United States as a “shining city on a hill” for those seeking freedom, a place “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace” whose “doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Over the course of centuries, the United States certainly has been a place of refuge for many fleeing persecution and “yearning to breathe free,” which is an honorable legacy. But when Jesus talked about a “city on a hill,” he was not referring to the United States of America, nor to any other nation-state. Jesus told His followers that they—those early disciples who would go on to form the earliest church—were the light of the world, which, like a city atop a hill, could not be hidden." (see Matt. 5:14) “Let your light shine before others,” Jesus told them, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)

Faced with a global refugee crisis unprecedented in recorded history, now is the moment for the church to shine, not to hide our light. Millions of displaced people, desperate for hope yet reviled and feared by many, will decide what they think of Jesus based on how His followers throughout the world respond to this crisis, whether with welcome, love, and advocacy, or with apathy, fear, and scapegoating. Across the nation and the world, local churches are seeing this moment of crisis as a chance to live out Jesus’ instructions, shining their light, so others may look to and glorify God.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus told His followers, each of us—you. He continued: "But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matt. 5:13–16)

Our ultimate hope is that the church would shine its light through the refugee crisis. As we access the same power that rose Jesus from the dead, we pray God’s people would rise up as never before to welcome strangers, each doing what God has called all of us to do:

To bind up the brokenhearted.

To love our neighbors.

To do justice.

To love mercy.

To pray without ceasing.

To practice hospitality, and to learn to receive the hospitality of others.

Maybe just to take a plate of cookies across the street, trusting that smile can overcome a language barrier.

To write a letter to a congressperson, or gently speak up at the workplace water cooler when someone repeats a false rumor about refugees.

Perhaps to forego a vacation to give sacrificially for those whose travels were involuntary.

To stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters, mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice.

To proclaim the love of Christ in word and deed to those who don't yet know Him.

Our prayer is that as the church lets her light shine and steps into the good works God has “prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10), the displaced of our world will praise our Father In heaven.


Adapted from Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir, available on Kindle for $1.59 throughout the month of July. For more about the book including a Bible reading plan and small group discussion guide, visit www.worldrelief.org/seekingrefuge





World Relief’s Church Empowerment Zones: This Changes Everything

Picture a village. Remote, undeveloped, overwhelmed by poverty and characterized by broken relationships. Where malnutrition, illness, and a small number of positive role models oftentimes leave children extremely vulnerable. And where the perpetual cycle of poverty cripples entire generations, decade after decade.

Now picture that same village in community. A community characterized by thriving relationships, strengthened families, spiritual richness, economic sustainability, and good health. Picture community leaders and church pastors, once isolated and fragmented, sitting together, in conversation. Learning, talking, sharing, and envisioning. Eager to connect, encourage, and challenge one another. Eager to love and serve the most vulnerable, to fulfill the Great Commission, and see the next generation renewed, restored, and transformed in Christ.

What if I told you about a unique and innovative model, pioneered by World Relief, that fulfills this very vision? A beautifully biblical and thoughtful process by which communities are truly being sustainably changed from the inside out. Where the cycle of poverty is being broken, and communities are beginning to experience a fullness of life unlike anything they’ve ever experienced?

Here it is. It’s called the Church Empowerment Zone (CEZ) Model. And it changes everything.

World Relief helped us to understand we are many parts of one body, and that we have a responsibility to come together in unity and serve the most vulnerable. That we have to be the answer to our own problems. Now we share our community’s burdens. we care for the poor and most vulnerable. We are creating love where the Devil was bringing hate and division. We are bringing the Kingdom of God down to Earth.
— Pastor Radolpho

Pioneered by World Relief in Rwanda over the last 7 years, our CEZ model is a powerful, unique model that adopts best-practice thinking on “moving from [interventions] focused on community deficits and professional-client relationships to a model that empowers the community by building on local assets and professional community partnerships.” [1] We do so by establishing local ownership from the outset, focusing on leadership development and capacity building, and building upon our core tool: a transformative curriculum that works to eliminate the underlying causes of poverty and end the vicious cycle once and for all.

World Relief’s “Transformation Tree Curriculum” (TTC) focuses on better equipping local pastors—inspiring and faithful servants of the Lord, who are genuinely called to serve with all their capacity and might. They are resourceful, and their strength and enduring spirit blesses their communities abundantly. And so we stand with and alongside them, sharing in our knowledge and resources.

Our TTC grounds these leaders in the scriptural calling to care for and shepherd all people. It addresses foundational beliefs concerning God’s compassion for the poor, the root causes of poverty, and our call to love and serve one another. We teach pastors that in order for the vicious cycle of poverty to truly end, value systems, beliefs, and ultimately behaviors must change. We demonstrate that in order for holistic physical transformation to take place, spiritual transformation must first lead the way.

Impact is catalyzed as these leaders are brought together and equipped, not just as a distribution mechanism, but also as change makers and kingdom champions. They are developed as true leaders. They are inspired. They learn to shepherd and, in turn, teach others to be shepherds. They are equipped to transform their communities. And they themselves are transformed—as leaders, teachers, community activists, neighbors, wives, mothers, husbands, and fathers.

But it doesn’t stop there.

“We used to see so many of our church members not living out their faith. Since the introduction of the World Relief trainings, their lives have changed. They are integrating word and deed. Helping one another, praying, and understanding the word of God.”
— Aurelie Uwinana, Volunteer Leader

Once foundational beliefs and values are in place, and World Relief staff have served as initial trainers and catalysts, we equip hundreds of “ordinary people” to take part in this great kingdom work. Through our Outreach Group Initiative, we use local church volunteers to reach their neighbors and communities, enabling us to address the deepest of issues that extend beyond the ‘front door’ of the home. Lessons begin with biblical teachings that provide spiritual building blocks for our technical interventions. Parents are taught about the obligation to care for their children as a blessing (Psalm 127:3; 1 Timothy 5:8), farmers about the honor and privilege of tending to land (Genesis 1:28, 2:15), families about the importance of saving and sharing money (1 Corinthians 16:2, Proverbs 13:22), couples about respect and support for one another (Hebrews 10:24, Ecclesiastes 4:9), and many more.

With the building blocks laid and beliefs and values instilled, technical interventions become rooted in powerful scriptural support, and adoption for long-term behavior change becomes possible. We then see the gospel work powerfully through the servants, initiating transformation in their communities because the gospel has become powerful in them and among them.

Evidence of change is not simply anecdotal. Not only did our most recent evaluation reveal significant progress in health behaviors and economic standing (the use of clean latrines up 55.4% from 4.4%, and the expansion of income generating activities up to 90% compared to 67% outside our intervention areas), but also in family strengthening and relationships. 84% of beneficiaries claimed their spousal relationships had improved significantly, and 96% reported better relationships with their children. 75% of couples responded that they now made joint decisions, as opposed to 47% in the comparison area, and attitudes toward domestic violence changed drastically, with less than 15% of respondents justifying wife beating as opposed to over 45% prior to intervention.[2] There is no doubt that these numbers showcase visible, tangible transformation in our targeted communities.

Trosha’s story is one example of the powerful narratives of transformation behind these statistics. As I sat with him in a small community in Bushenge, Rwanda, he told me his story:

“My wife is HIV Positive. I am HIV negative. Three years ago, we were barely surviving. The conflict at home was unbearable. There was no peace. The issues of HIV in our home led to fighting so bad that we were close to killing one another. So the church came to us, and volunteers invited us into World Relief’s Mobilizing for Life Program. I began to learn how to treat people with HIV/AIDS, how to support them and give them hope. I began to understand my responsibility for taking care of my wife, and began to care for her and help her with her medicine. After 11 years of pain, we began to live together in peace. Since then, we’ve discovered many of our friends are facing similar issues, and we’ve gone to over 6 homes to share our lessons and council friends. Now, we join together as happy homes, transformed through our churches and this program, and in community together.”

I met Trosha and his wife sitting on a small wooden bench under a tree, just down the road from their home. At the end of our time together, Trosha invited us to see his humble home before we began the long trip back to Kigali. As he led the way through a small opening in the trees, a clearing came into sight, upon which stood several buildings. On this once small, rented plot, he had created a beautiful, thriving home. A house for his family, a kitchen garden for their food, an animal paddock for their livestock, a clean latrine, an outdoors space for friends and family. This was a little slice of God’s kingdom, here on earth, blessing Trosha and his family with riches, both spiritual & material, far greater than they could ever have imagined. What’s more? His neighbor’s homes were beginning to look strangely similar… And it was a beautiful, inspiring picture.

Trosha’s story is one of hundreds coming out of our Church Empowerment Zones. The evidence of visible, tangible transformation occurring across multiple domains of intervention, and the corresponding change in belief and value systems, are contributing to truly transformative outcomes in the lives of leaders, volunteers, and beneficiaries alike. Our CEZ model is empowering hundreds of local churches to begin building a legacy of hope, generosity, and self-reliance that sustains progress long after we depart.

“Jesus is the one that started the work we do, and we are told to do it. This is why I am doing it - because it is like Jesus.” — Outreach Volunteer


[1] J.P Kretzman and J.L. McKnight: Building Communities from the Inside Out: A path towards finding and mobilizing community assets. (Evanston IL: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, North Western University 1993.)

[2] Integral Mission Outreach Groups. Pilot Project Final Report Evaluation. Bugesera, Rwanda. May 2017. World Relief.

Francesca Albano currently serves as Product Development Lead at World Relief. With a background in strategic marketing communications, she connects her interests in brand strategy, audience engagement, and storytelling around her passions—children, disaster and humanitarian relief, human rights, and poverty alleviation. Francesca best describes herself as a storyteller, writer, foodie, globetrotter, and humanitarian.

Business as (Un)usual

When the small puddle jumper plane landed on its rinky-dink airstrip, I came to grips with the fact that I was face to face with one of the world’s oldest, most isolated, and yet most intact cultures. I had been a student of Africa for years at that point, but Turkana (the name of the people and their ancestral homeland) was unlike anything I had ever encountered. This would not be ‘business as usual.’

It was 2011 and I was on staff at Wheaton Bible Church. At the invitation of World Relief, our church was considering responding to the food crisis that was gripping Turkana, and setting up a long-term response by equipping the few local churches on the ground to help change their community. I had no idea what was in store for the journey ahead—both for me and the Turkana.

After a 9-hour drive to World Relief’s program area on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, I realized just how much I had to learn. With roots dating back thousands of years, the Turkana have changed little until the past few decades. With very little Christian witness, the Turkana have maintained their centuries-old faith tradition—one of the only monotheistic traditions in sub-Saharan Africa.  

At the center of the very complex life of the Turkana stood something very simple: cows. Cows represented stature in the community. They represented livelihood and economic well-being. Cows were traded between families as part of traditional marriage arrangements. Men created physical scars on their arms to note how many cows they had stolen from neighboring tribes during raids. One woman even told me on that inaugural trip that the pecking order of a Turkana family goes as follows: Men, cows, and then women. And if a man had to choose between his cow and his wife, he would choose his cow.

The importance of cattle is not something that is, by itself, remarkable about tribes in this region of Africa. However, as I entered Turkana on this first trip, I quickly became aware of something quite unsettling: there were absolutely zero cows to be seen.

While always a dry region, the severe changes in climate meant that the land could no longer sustain cows. They had all died. I learned that Turkana historically encountered roughly one period of unseasonable dryness in a 10-year period. However, in a very rapid fashion, their climate had changed dramatically. They were now experiencing periods without rain every 2-3 years [1].

Cows—the very thing at the center of Turkana life—had been taken away. Without the ability to trade livestock for food, the population—especially children—faced significant hardships. On that first trip, I learned that over thirty percent of the children were malnourished. The communities were being forced to transition from their ancient roots. Pastoralist herders now had to settle down and learn to grow food on plots of land.

To the outsider, this seems an obvious adaptation. But it was and continues to be a radical departure for the Turkana. Learning to grow food in a place with increasing severity of drought and altering their livelihood during the midst of crisis presents numerous challenges. The Turkana were facing the most significant challenge they had ever encountered in their ancient history.  Nothing was usual about this experience for me, or for the Turkana.

The realization that your history and belief system could be (at worst) harmful, or (at best) not helpful for the future is a very painful and confusing process. Changing hundreds of generations’ worth of cultural beliefs about what is valuable—beliefs about identity, gender, family and vocation—is no easy feat and no short-term project. This is what the Turkana were faced with; simple interventions and programs would be helpful, but would not help the Turkana transition long-term. There needed to be something more unusual, something more transformational for this group of people.  

On that first trip, we met seven small indigenous churches who were responding on the ground and who wanted to expand their reach. Through emergency food distribution and setting up wells and small farms, these churches—many of whom had pastors that could neither read nor write—were trying to do something remarkable. They wanted to help their communities transform their mindset and make the transition to life in a new climate. My colleagues and I could not say anything other than, “Count us in.”

You can view the first several years of this journey in a mini-documentary that was produced by Wheaton Bible Church. The Sunday this documentary was shown was my last Sunday on staff at Wheaton Bible. Coincidentally, I was in Turkana on a subsequent trip when God made clear a calling to my family to move to a different part of the country. Shortly after leaving Wheaton Bible Church, I joined the staff of World Relief.

Now, seven years into World Relief’s project in Turkana, two things are true:

  1. A lot of good has happened in Turkana. World Relief has helped catalyze a movement of change where families are able to thrive, communities are able to flourish and churches are being strengthened and even planted. We now serve 41,258 people through 83 volunteers, 25 local staff and 20 Turkana churches. We are the only humanitarian organization in the area of Turkana where we work. The ministry includes wide-ranging activities such as providing access to clean water, agricultural programs, nutrition training, church and volunteer mobilization and maternal and child health interventions—not counting several more programs on the way.

    This progress is worth its own full-length exposé. Working with churches to help an ancient culture transition through the hardest thing it has dealt with in thousands of years is nothing short of an act of God! While many choose to stop short of total transformation, we are compelled to the longer, harder journey.

  2. Turkana is worse off now than it was in 2011. Wait…what? Yes, in spite of all the progress that we have made, it continues to be ‘business as unusual.’ Turkana is facing a new drought wherein it has not rained substantially in over two years. Remember those cows? The Turkana transitioned to small farms and goats. Goats are smaller and need less food and water. This current drought is so bad that even the goats cannot survive. When my World Relief colleagues visit villages, they are greeted with goat carcasses—a reminder of how bad things are. Remember the thirty percent of children who were malnourished seven years ago? Currently in 11 of our 12 operating areas, over fifty percent of people, including adults, are severely malnourished and in need of immediate food aid for their survival.

It has been reported (though not widely) that the world is facing the worst food crisis since World War II [2]. In Turkana and in many places throughout sub-Saharan Africa, this is due to several cycles of failed rains. In places like Yemen and South Sudan, it is due to conflict. In the coming months, World Relief will be writing more on this global catastrophe, as well as our response and the ideas we have about what our enduring solutions to it might be.

A quick detour: The institutions created post-World War II to work in such situations (e.g. the U.N. and the World Food Program) have never been so strained, due to this current food crisis and the global refugee crisis. The global community has cut poverty in half since 1990 [3], but now it is stretched so thin that many of those gains might be erased [4].

We can’t let this happen. And we won’t.

Back in Turkana, we are seeking to provide emergency food aid to over 40,000 people through a network of community leaders, churches and volunteers developed by World Relief over the past seven years. We know how to do this. We have the skills, the knowledge and the network. But this effort will cost more than $2 million.

Food aid is simply not enough. The sad reality is that Turkana will continue to experience a worsening climate and more severe droughts like this one. We do not want to stop at giving food aid. We do not want to stop with normal programming—business as usual. We do not want the legacy of our work to be a faded sign on the side of the road. We want to work with the Turkana to help them change and adapt to the world around them. This is why working with churches is so important. Such complete change can only come from within the community and it will take years. This is what makes this work so transformative, so sustainable and so special.

It will not be an ordinary journey. Our hope is that people will come to find their identity in Christ. That women and girls will find dignity as image bearers of God—not as less than livestock. That families will move from being on the brink of starvation to finding solutions that allow them to work with pride as they provide for their children. That churches would be strengthened and planted.

We need partners like you, and churches like Wheaton Bible, who won’t let 20 years of progress in sub-Saharan Africa be erased. We need individuals and churches throughout the U.S. who—in the face of global crisis—will answer Jesus’ call to stand with the vulnerable, to feed the hungry and to help an entire people group transition to a more resilient, sustainable future.  We need people who are okay with business as unusual.

Will you join us?


[1] Drought Adaptation and Coping Strategies Among the Turkana Pastoralists of Northern Kenya (International Journal of Disaster Risk Science)

[2] 20 million at risk of starvation in world's largest crisis since 1945, UN says (CNN)

[3] World’s Extreme Poverty Cut in Half Since 1990 (Wall Street Journal)

[4] The world has made great progress in eradicating extreme poverty (The Economist)

As SVP of Strategic Engagement, James Misner helps churches, foundations and individuals stand with the vulnerable in the U.S. and around the world. Leading teams domestically and internationally, James seeks to facilitate meaningful cross-cultural experiences, leading to deeper levels of discipleship. Prior to joining World Relief, James served on the pastoral staff at Wheaton Bible Church, leading global outreach efforts, and also on the outreach staff of McLean Bible Church. James received his undergraduate degree from American University, and a Master's degree from Wheaton College. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Sabrina, and their family.

The Magic Years: Care Groups


My grandson had a birthday recently. He’s two. He blew out candles, devoured cake and ice cream, and tore into presents. His favorite was a large bubble machine that floated huge translucent bubbles all over the room when he blew with all his might.

My work every day at World Relief involves birthdays. We mark them, celebrate them, prepare for them, and advocate for them. No, not birthdays with cake and bubbles, but birthdays with critical significance: the milestone of reaching a precious child’s fifth birthday.

The months of life in a mother’s womb and the first five years of a child’s life are the most critical. These are the years of rapid brain growth, physical, mental, and developmental growth, of early adaptation to our world of disease, of bonding with mother and family, and of discovering personhood, belonging, and identity. These are the “magic years” as described by author Selma Fraiberg. [1]

Too many children in our world never reach their fifth birthdays. In fact, nearly 6 million children under-five die every year. [2] They die prematurely from diarrhea, malnutrition, malaria or pneumonia; all of which are preventable deaths. Today, however, we know how to simply, cost-effectively and radically ensure that no child fails to reach his or her fifth birthday because of these causes.

Recognizing what nutrition experts call, a “Window of Opportunity” to promote nutrition and early development during the first 1000 days of life (counted from conception to two years), World Relief and the communities and churches we work through are seizing this opportunity to protect and nurture these precious children under the age of five. The interventions are basic:improved nutrition for mothers, infants, and children; prevention of life threatening pneumonia and diarrhea;and prevention and early treatment of malaria. Something as simple as hand-washing with soap can prevent persistent diarrhea that may eventually lead to severe dehydration, malnutrition and even death in a two-year old.

So what prevents this life-saving work from saving the lives of more children? How can we reach the millions of children needing this support throughout these early months and years? How can we impact behavior, especially where some cultural practices and a simple lack of knowledge can impede growth and development?

Long ago, a practical solution to reaching large masses of people was proposed by Jethro, a simple farmer whose son God chose to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land—Moses. Today, World Relief and many other NGOs and governments are using the same model Moses initiated…and we call them Care Groups.

Care Groups are an integral part of our Church Empowerment Zone (CEZ) model, pioneered in Rwanda and used across many of our programs in sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia and the Middle East. As a part of the process, small groups of 10-15 community members are formed, trust is built, information is shared, volunteers support one another, and then share their learnings with neighbors in their village. Complete community saturation is the goal and the means through which Care Groups can potentially reach every child under five to ensure they safely navigate their early years.

The implementation and impact results of this biblically-designed approach has a growing amount of evidence-based findings. The peer-to-peer approach has reached over 1.4 million households in more than 28 countries globally. [3] It is attracting public health experts, government ministries of health, and large development funders. And, it is at the very core of what we do here at World Relief.

World Relief’s Pieter Ernst first developed the concept of Care Groups in 1995. In his words:

About 3,500 years back in history, a skilled and educated leader by the name of Moses from a nomadic nation of around 3,000,000 people wanted, on his own, to judge and resolve all the social and many other problems they had as a result of living so close together. Interestingly, in spite of all his education and his close relationship with God, he was unable to see beyond his own experience, and God sent his less educated father-in-law, Jethro, from a distant country to visit and advise him about the advantages of Care Groups. He also gave him some important selection criteria for choosing the right volunteers, and gave him guidance on an accountability that included a supervision structure that would help secure sustainability. Therefore, in reality, Care Groups is a design structure that is 3,500 years old.  It is God’s doing… [4]

With a little updating from Moses’ time, today we are pressing our technological age to do what works, no matter how simple it may be. Public health experts who studied eight Care Group projects found that as a result of the group teachings and outreach, under-five mortality decreased by 32%. And the cost per beneficiary per year for such impact? Only US $3-$8. [5]

Once scaling and saturation takes place in communities, the Care Group model allows communities to reach a critical tipping point that has the potential to transform entire nations. As a result, the Care group model becomes an efficient, inexpensive, self-sustaining vehicle for transformation.

It is a future that is bright, and filled with healthy, joyful children, celebrating many more birthdays to come.


[1] The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood (Fraiberg, Selma. Simon and Schuster.)

[2] Acting on the Call, USAID, 2017 Fact Sheet

[3] Global Health:  Science and Practice 2015, Vol 3, Issue 3, p. 370

[4] CORE Group Conference for Global Health Practitioners, Silver Spring, MD October 16, 2014, Acceptance Speech by Pieter Ernst for Dory Storms Award

[5] Global Health:  Science and Practice 2015, Vol 3, Issue 3, p. 370

Deborah Dortzbach is the Senior Program Advisor for World Relief. She has been involved in church-based HIV/AIDS prevention and care since the early 1990s. Prior to joining World Relief she directed MAP International's HIV/AIDS programs from 1990-1997. Doborah is the author, with W. Meredith Long, of The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do (2006), as well as Kidnapped (1975), which chronicles her 1973 abduction with her husband by the Eritrean Liberation Front while they were working as missionaries.

VIDEO: Dyan Comes Home

Approximately 70% of all refugees resettled by World Relief are for family reunification. So when we saw the video below, we were deeply moved. 

Produced last year, "Dyan Comes Home" captures the story of one Sudanese family resettled by Catholic Charities, fueled by the commitment and care of volunteers from The Village Church in Forth Worth, TX.

Having seen similar stories unfold in the lives of refugee families we serve and at airports around the United States, we hope you'll be as inspired as we are to continue welcoming refugees to the U.S. and to make moments like this possible for more families.