The nudges and whispers that built Just Hope International

February 26, 2015

I believe that God has been nudging me all my life. Whispers here, murmurs there – quiet suggestions that my life should have a greater purpose. But the noise of the world, school, work and relationships kept me distracted, and over the course of many years, I achieved a successful American life: college graduate, MBA, CPA, great job, easy street when I retired in several years. It all fit together so well. And that easily could have been my life’s story.

But God whispered a little louder, and I began to run out of excuses. A new church home for me in 2003 introduced me to international service, and over the next few years I traveled the world on church mission trips. My eyes were opened to both shocking poverty and astonishing love.

Was God done nudging? Not yet. In 2007, I helped sell the company where I had worked for 20 years, and I found myself working for a foreign private organization. I began experiencing a powerful, undeniable feeling deep in my soul that I was supposed to take a new path in life, that it was time to actually take that leap of faith that was at the heart of God’s murmurs for so many years. It was time to commit my life – not just my vacations – to serving the world’s poor.

There are times in our lives that are monumental, and this was one for me. I was considering leaving a great career and diving into something where I had no experience. I thought about what it meant to call myself a Christian, and I decided I could either exhibit the faith I had professed all my life, or retreat into a safe zone and live the rest of my life wondering, “What if?” I decided to go to the middle of the lake and jump.

Those early days were an education about life. In Managua, Nicaragua, I worked on a food project for children in poor areas. I met a little girl named Suyen living on the streets who happily spent a few nights in the extra bed in my room. I thought that was a great gesture on my part. (Oh my, how little I knew.) She wanted a rag doll that was for sale at a nearby outdoor shop. Not much money… no harm. She named the doll Francesca and did not let that doll out of her hands for the last few days I was there, even sleeping with her arms wrapped around her at night.

On my last day in Managua, this child who had nothing saw another little girl who also lived on the streets. Without hesitating, Suyen ran to her and handed her Francesca, her one possession. I had never witnessed anything so unselfish, and it still brings tears to my eyes. I thought I had done something special for Suyen – a room for a few days, some food, a doll. What she did for me was change my life, exposing me to a depth of love I didn’t know was possible.

Around the same time I traveled to Peru, where the Shining Path terrorist group killed 80,000 Quechuans in Peru over a 12-year occupation from 1980 to 1992. Anyana was one of many villages decimated during the reign of terror, and in 2007, the Peruvian government had begun allowing people back into their villages to reclaim their destroyed homes and land, and start the process of rebuilding.

It was in Peru where I discovered that when assisted appropriately, people have a better chance to escape poverty. When assisted inappropriately, poverty will more likely continue. On this trip, we delivered sets of chickens and guinea pigs to the villagers. With the use of husbandry, these animals can quickly become a food source and with a little time, an income generator. We also delivered seeds for them to use to start gardens and farms, and when I saw the potential trajectory of these gifts, I “got it.” I had my “ah-ha” moment, when it occurred to me that to make an impact that lasts, handouts aren’t going to do it. In fact, I later learned that handouts, when the long-term development of people is called for, will do more harm than good. If a community has lived in poverty for an extended time, handouts will only keep them there.

On a trip to Lilongwe, Malawi, I crossed paths with a man named Samuel Banda. I met him in 2008, as he stood near my living quarters alongside several paintings of his own beautiful landscapes and wildlife, and smiled at me, imploring me to notice his work. Notice them I did, and then I noticed something truly remarkable. The man had no hands.

When he was a child, he told me, he was caught stealing food. His punishment was swift and terrible: the police chopped off both of his hands at the wrist. I couldn’t imagine the agony – from the immediate pain and shock, and then from the long recovery over the months it must have taken for such traumatic wounds to heal. And finally – the realization that without hands, he couldn’t work. Without work, how would he survive?

In time he learned how to hold a paintbrush using the stubs at the end of his arms, overcoming a severe disability and becoming a true artist.

On my next visit to Malawi, I commissioned Samuel to create nearly 20 paintings for me. Samuel’s perseverance and determination to thrive despite the harsh blow dealt to him as a child inspired me then and inspires me now. Samuel encouraged me, as someone wanting to help, that the human spirit to survive is strong. I heard a call to use my resources to tap into that spirit in the places of the world where the world has not been kind.

Fast forward a few years and few projects. I had left my comfortable career behind and committed myself, one way or another, to reorienting my efforts to serving the world’s poor. Unexpectedly, this took the form of a new career in the financial market, where I put a “hobby education” in trading to work in our capitalistic economy. Hours upon hours of learning this new skill, most of which was done after hours back while I was still working full-time, began to deliver some not-bad returns. Those returns allowed me to cover my personal living expenses and administrative costs for my international service projects. I never wanted to go this alone, however, and it was (and still is) my fervent desire to find others who agreed with my approach to solving chronic poverty and who wanted to join with me. Through friends, family and church contacts, our base of support grew.

In April of 2013, we made a critical trip to our new project site in Sierra Leone to drill two boreholes (wells). We had waited a year and traveled almost 8,000 miles in a couple of days to be present for the drilling. People and groups from several states had contributed financially for this effort.

In my journal I wrote, “What seems to be important in my daily life is my schedule. What am I supposed to accomplish today? When? With whom? The drilling for the boreholes was supposed to begin on Tuesday. That did not happen. Neither did the drilling begin on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. It was very frustrating. We had a schedule to maintain! What I realized during those days when the drilling was not happening, was that life was swirling along all around me.”

Amid the delay, a woman appeared at the project site with her son, Lansana. She had carried him eight miles hoping that one of us could help him. Both of Lansana’s legs were severely infected and losing tissue, and he was unable to walk. Her hopes were dashed; none of us knew what to do for him. Our attention shifted from wondering “why” the equipment had failed to “what” to do in this situation. It is one thing to give distant thought to the plight of people suffering in the world. It is another to be face-to-face with it and feel the weight of their circumstances.

Lansana did not have access to medical care for two reasons: Medical care was not available where he lived, and the family had no money to travel to where it did exist or to pay for the services once there.

After a mental shift away from what we were there to do and toward the people God had put in front of us, we were able to marshal our resources and transport Lansana to a clinic, where his infections were treated and his legs saved. It is wonderful to be able to help people. However, the problem with this solution was that it was completely dependent upon us. This experience confirmed for us that we want to be in the business of getting ahead of the problem, of fixing the broken part of the system that prevents people from having their own income and their own ability to take care of their families, so that when an infection comes along, it’s cured quickly and without a child’s pain, without a mother’s deep worry, and without a family having to choose between feeding a son or saving his legs.

As Just Hope International became fully fledged, I gratefully accepted the help of brilliant minds along the way who inspired me, taught me and guided me. Some reached out to me, and some God put in my path.

One of these people was Bob Lupton, whose 2011 book Toxic Charity resonated deeply within me. Bob put words, experience and research to my intuition that somehow, people in need must be integrally involved in solving their own problems in order for the solutions to last. His book was proof of my inklings in Peru, when I first began to sense the difference between “parity and charity,” as he puts it. Bob opened my eyes to the problems with one-way giving. He outlined the sad arc as follows: “Give once and you elicit appreciation; give twice and you create anticipation; give three times and you create expectation; give four times and it becomes entitlement; give five times and you establish dependency.”

So many of my prior trips had involved handouts, and Bob’s book both humbled me and lit a fire beneath me. I could use the gifts God had entrusted to me, not just to make people less poor for a day or a week, but for the rest of their lives! And because the people themselves would be working alongside the people of Just Hope, they would be responsible for their own success, and entitled not to handouts, but to the dignity that they would receive from having done it themselves. And having been taught and inspired, wouldn’t the chances be great that they could then turn to a family member, a neighbor, perhaps even a stranger in a faraway land, and pass on the gift?

I recruited a small crew of teammates who understood my desire to help people in a lasting way. Among our first tasks was to commit in writing to the Guiding Principles that define the pillars of our approach to curing entrenched poverty. Those principles are:

Economic Empowerment
We empower people to care for themselves by increasing their ability to produce food and income for their families. We engage directly with people to provide training and identify opportunities to connect their interests and motivations with our access to resources. We serve people who are willing to do their part in this process. As communities work to obtain independence, they reclaim their dignity, envision new possibilities and experience the power of hope.

Boots on the Ground
All of our projects are supervised by trustworthy, qualified managers who provide full-time oversight and reporting to ensure that money sent matches its intent. We provide regular, on-site project verification by executive leadership.

Business Practices
At the core of our project model are opportunities that are simple, repeatable and viable for the people we serve. All projects follow an established process that starts with an assessment, moves through planning, project execution and concludes with an exit strategy that transfers ownership of the opportunity to local people, not committing our resources long-term. We embrace accountability, build relationships to earn trust, and remind ourselves continually to “know our customer.”

Zero Overhead
100% of contributions received by Just Hope International go to project costs. All administrative costs are paid by private donors and are never paid with public contributions.

In just the same way that we partner with those who want a better life for themselves but cannot do it alone, Just Hope partners with donors who want a better world for everyone. Very few people can fund a community-changing project in a war-torn country. But through Just Hope, countless people can participate in lifting people out of poverty. We are not so well-funded that we can solve all the world’s poverty on our own. But we can build a community of givers – some who are able to donate money, and just as many who are willing to pray for us, volunteer with us and share our story with others, so that we can economically empower people in the poorest areas of the world, and together begin to change the entire concept of charity.

When I think about the ways I used to “help,” and the ways Just Hope helps now, I know that we are onto something. I hear the words of men in Sierra Leone who have said things like, “Working for Just Hope is a blessing because I am part of the development of my chiefdom,” and “Now my three children are going to school,” and “Now I have respect among my people.”

Since 2007, I have learned a lot. I am still learning. God is still nudging. But I believe deep within my soul that with each passing day, we are moving toward perfection. We might not ever get there, but God asks only that we keep trying.