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.

Transforming Lives and Communities Through the Local Church

transforming communities world relief

by Tim Breene
World Relief CEO
 

For years governments and humanitarian organizations have poured money and effort into global aid. With the state of our world today, it’s no wonder people ask, “What has this accomplished? Is there a better way?”

Over seven decades, World Relief has operated in more than 110 countries alongside governments and other humanitarian organizations. Over these years, the successes and failures of our efforts have become clearer.

Humanitarian organizations bring essential emergency aid to those caught up in natural and man-made disasters. They make meaningful contributions to lifting people out of material poverty, reducing preventable diseases and increasing access to education.

However, too much of the public’s focus and money is consumed by crisis interventions and progress is rarely sustained after the initial response. And too often, interventions address only symptoms of vulnerability rather than root causes. They stop at the front door of the home and don’t address what goes on at a familial and relational level. Too often they lead to cultures of dependency, incredible waste, and even fraud and corruption. For all the progress, 1.3 billion people are still living in extreme poverty and—according to a recent World Bank report—these people are becoming far harder to reach.

World Relief believes there is an answer to these challenges. And it lies in engaging the local church and leveraging it to do what neither governments nor social enterprises nor multinational corporations are able to do.

The story of Dr. John Snow, the father of modern public health, is a most illuminative example. During the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, Snow became convinced that the disease was spreading through water contaminated by human waste, but he needed the help of local clergyman Reverend Whitehead to engage with the local community to map the households where cholera had occurred. This legendary collaboration reflected a shared commitment to the health and well-being of all people and an appreciation of the value of trusted relationships and community support in affecting change. It became the basis for modern-day epidemiology and pointed the way to the collaboration we so often need today.

Today—even with scientific and technological progress—the church still has a crucial role to play as it follows Jesus’s command to love “the least of these.”

Most people will remember the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa and the ripple of fear that went around the world. We all applauded the courage of medical workers who bravely served on the front lines and the work of scientists and doctors to develop a vaccine in record time. But less well known, perhaps, was the critical role that faith leaders played to complement and extend the impact of government and humanitarian aid organizations, convincingly documented in a 2015 Report, “Keeping the Faith” by Christian Aid, CAFOD, Tearfund and Islamic Relief Worldwide.[1]

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, the majority of the population are practicing believers, and faith leaders enjoy significant trust and respect. Unfortunately, there was a significant delay in engaging these leaders at the start of this most severe Ebola outbreak in history. As the disease spread, draconian measures were taken which went against cultural values and religious practices, resulting in a widespread public denial of the disease and even hostility towards those who were seeking to contain it. Many of those with Ebola chose to remain with their families and burials were undertaken in secret. As a consequence, the disease continued to spread. Government messaging on the cruel medical realities of Ebola spoke to people’s intellect, but did not create behavior change; rather, such messaging served to push care of the sick, as well as traditional approaches to burials, underground.

Later, once faith leaders became involved, they played a transformational role. Using religious texts, they preached acceptance of Ebola workers and survivors and role modeled this acceptance in religious services. They also helped to drive out the stigma that was destroying community cohesion. Where Ebola-control practices were considered irreligious, it was the participation of religious leaders alone that enabled an acceptance of the necessary changes to curb the spread of the disease.

The HIV/AIDS crisis provides another and perhaps even more compelling example of how critical it is to work with a deep respect for, and understanding of, traditional belief systems in order to impact sustained change. Twenty years ago, most people in Africa believed that AIDS was a plague from God and that it targeted sinners, who were merely “reaping what they had sown.” But then church leaders mobilized, and through the efforts of PEPFAR’s Track 1.0 AIDS Relief Program, they led their communities in reducing the demonization and stigma associated with the disease, encouraging care and treatment of HIV through voluntary testing, counseling and wide antiretroviral [ARV] distribution. Today 10 million people in Africa are on ARVs—a remarkable number when one considers that a mere 12 years ago there were almost no patients enrolled in official ARV programs. (For more details on the role of faith based organizations in combatting HIV/AIDS, see The PEPFAR Report, A Firm Foundation.[2])

Three attributes of church leaders make their influence in these situations particularly effective. First, they are highly motivated to support their communities and do so out of a spirit of compassion. Second, they usually have unparalleled access to, and knowledge of, their communities, especially in hard-to-reach areas where many of the world’s most vulnerable are concentrated. Third, they are trusted by these communities because of their moral voice and long-term presence and commitment. Unlike traditional NGOs, churches have no exit plan.

At World Relief, we truly believe the local church is God’s primary answer to the broken world, and his preferred plan to bring redemption—whether physical, spiritual or social—to his people.

Ephesians 3 states that “His purpose was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”

Through the church’s responses, we see God revealing his wisdom and redemption, pushing the darkness back. We are the hands and feet, but the power and the glory are his.

The same strengths that have made the church such a powerful force for good in the examples above do not stop there. Our experience convinces us that these same strengths, when properly harnessed, create a unique platform for the alleviation of poverty, for long-term community development, for the welfare of women and children, for peace and reconciliation, and for developing resilience to recurring disasters like drought and hurricanes.

Our experience convincingly demonstrates that long-term sustainable solutions are more likely to be truly transformative when we recognize the importance of local ownership and the unique position and moral authority of the local church; when we recognize that poverty is not just economic but that it takes many forms; when we recognize the crushing weight of despair and the power that comes with hope and the restoration of dignity; and when the church acts in unity to serve its community.

This is why the local church is at the heart of our theory and praxis of change. Not only because it is our calling, but because we have seen and been touched by the concrete evidence of its transformative power—physically, socially and spiritually—in our work around the world.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where we are operating our innovative Church Empowerment Zone models, the impact of our work has multiplied throughout villages and even entire communities. We rely on the local church to carry messages concerning health, agriculture, savings, family strengthening, and child development to their neighbors. Our unique model empowers churches and their leaders to realize and fulfill their God-given potential to serve the most vulnerable in their communities, working collaboratively across tribal and denominational lines, and joining in unity with a common vision for their communities.

By building the capacities of church leaders and their congregations, and by enabling them to identify the unique needs and harmful beliefs in their communities, we ensure sustainable transformation comes from within and can multiply and expand once World Relief exits. In this way we are helping to move whole communities from despair to hope, from dependence to self-reliance, from broken relationships to thriving families, and from isolation and loneliness to shalom. We are also ensuring that the local church is not just a convenient delivery mechanism for our services, but the essential foundation of our work—pivotal in how we create real and lasting transformation that integrates physical, spiritual and social development, both individually and at the community level.

Of course, none of this undermines the importance of government and humanitarian NGOs.  In fact, public/private partnerships have never been more important given the multitude and scale of the challenges we face in the world today. And we need to stay open to collaboration with new social enterprises which bring much needed innovation to longstanding and previously intractable challenges.

Just as Dr. Snow and Reverend Whitehead discovered over 150 years ago, each of us have a role to play in seeking the well-being of all people, and we are stronger and better when we work together.

Over the coming months, we will be sharing a series of posts, entitled Perspectives, that demonstrate the extraordinary effectiveness of our Church Empowerment Zone model and how the principles that make it so powerful can also be applied to issues such as economic development, peace and reconciliation, disaster resilience, and maternal and child health, to name a few. These pieces will reveal that there are few other models capable of the kind of impact and leverage that we see when we harness the power and potential of the local church.

 

[1] Keeping the Faith (reliefweb.int)

[2] A Firm Foundation (pepfar.org)


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Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey, and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.