UNREACHED

Igniting Change: ZOE's Mission to Empower Orphans Around the World

September 06, 2023 UNREACHED Season 1 Episode 3
UNREACHED
Igniting Change: ZOE's Mission to Empower Orphans Around the World
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Journey with us to Africa, India and beyond, as we uncover the incredible story of ZOE Empowers, a global movement focused on empowering marginalized and orphaned children. We sit down with Gaston Warner, CEO of the Global North for ZOE, to gain insight into the innovative programs developed to enrich lives and create sustainable change. Together we explore the moment Epiphanie Mujawimana, a Rwandan social worker, changed the game by asking young people not what they need, but what they need to help themselves.

Our conversation ventures deeper into ZOE's empowering programs, each thoughtfully designed to provide vulnerable children everything from food security to business development training. We take a look at how local leaders, pastors, and school principals join forces to identify children in need, respect their faith and decisions, while guiding them on the path to self-reliance and resilience. The gospel holds a substantial role in Zoe's work, delicately introduced on the path to unlocking each individual child's future. 

Finally, we take you to the slums of India, a testament to Zoe's transformative impact. Here, lives have been changed and communities rebuilt. Gaston shares the heartwarming story of Jebes, a pastor from Florida, who dedicated his life to help vulnerable youth in India. We also bring you the inspiring tale of young Rwandans, once victims of abuse, finding strength in Christian love and forgiveness to reconcile with their abusers. This episode is a testament to the limitless power of empowerment, community, and faith in transforming lives. Tune in, be moved, and discover the power of empowerment to change the world.

Follow @unreachedpodcast on Instagram for more!

Dustin Elliott:

In Revelation 7, john shares his vision of heaven, with members from every tribe, tongue, people and language standing in the throne room before the Lamb. Yet today there are still over 7,000 unreached people groups around the world. For the last six years, my family and friends have been on a journey to find, vet and fund the task remaining. Come journey with us to the ends of the earth as we share the supernatural stories of God at work through the men and women he has called to reach the unreached. Hello everybody, dustin Elliott, back with you, your host for the Unreached podcast, again today, one of our really good friends we've met through bless and our work looking for finding, vetting and funding the task remaining.

Dustin Elliott:

The global church Zoe Empowers has such a story, such a strategy. And when you talk about working with the most marginalized and the people on earth that have the least in their family, the least at their disposal, the least in terms of options for what they can do and where they can go, the work Zoe is doing is with those people. But Zoe has found a way, they found a strategy for empowering them, for lifting them up, for building community with them. And so today I have my friend, gaston Warner. He's the CEO of the global north for Zoe. He's been with the organization for quite a while, and so, gaston, thank you so much for being with us. Why don't you start out by telling us what is Zoe and how did all get started.

Gaston Warner:

Absolutely, dustin. Thanks for that introduction. It's a pleasure to be here and speak with you all. So Zoe started off in a way that a lot of nonprofits or NGOs started off. There was a passion for helping people. There was a group of churches in North Carolina at the time that felt God lay on their heart a responsibility for these orphans in Africa left in the wake of the HIV AIDS pandemic. So they started Zoe. That time it was called Zoe Ministry, and they started it as a response to that orphan crisis in Africa, and they started off just doing normal relief work you know good stuff but they did medical mission teams and feeding programs and clothing programs, and they would. They would share the gospel and all those pieces. But early on in the ministry, something transformational happened. They put out word in Africa that they were looking for something truly effective working with orphan children and vulnerable youth that would help sustainably change their lives, and they were introduced to this Rwandan social worker named . A pastor had heard her speak at a conference and said she's got an entirely different approach in this, though. So they met Epiphany and and they were blown away by what she was doing. So Epiphany grew up in Rwanda and she was not not a total orphan, but she was a vulnerable child.

Gaston Warner:

At the age of nine years old, her father passed away in an automobile accident and her mother was disabled, and so, as a nine year old, epiphany was tasked with not only kind of feeding herself but also helping her family to survive in that situation. She was desperate to stay in school. So she started. She was a pretty resourceful nine year old. She started buying gum those kind of like chicklets in Mexico that you'd see those little gum squares, and she would buy them in bulk and she would sell them. But she wouldn't sell them for money. She said I would sell them for sorghum and people would say, how much is it? She said, oh, just a handful of sorghum. Because she said if I asked for money they would give me a certain amount. But because I was a nine year old orphan, they would have pity on me and they would give me double the sorghum that I would ask for. And so she started earning a little money and then she plowed that into other businesses, start growing onions and selling them on the side of the road, and she was able to stay in school and help her family and then flash forward.

Gaston Warner:

She became a successful school teacher in Rwanda and in the 1994 genocide obliterated everything. Over the course of a hundred days there was 800,000 orphans created and Epiphanies' heart went out to these children because she knew what it was to live on the streets, she knew what it was to sleep hungry, she knew what it was to suffer the way they were suffering. And so she decided to stop school teaching and to dedicate her life to helping these children recover. And so she went to work where the resources were, for some large Western aid organizations that you'd instantly recognize, and she worked for each for several years and became disillusioned with the work. And this is what Epiphany would say. She said I would watch as these generous people would come to my country and they would give things to my people that my people desperately needed. And then I watched as these young people became so good at receiving these things that they forgot how to do anything for themselves and they were trapped in this cycle of relief and dependency on that relief that had no dignity or hope embedded in it.

Gaston Warner:

And so Epiphanie and a team of other Rwandan social workers, frustrated by that endless cycle of relief and dependency on that relief on a shoestring budget started going directly to the villages. They would speak to all the Muckity Mucks, all the pastors and the village chief and the school principals. They talked to all those folks. But, more importantly, they went directly to these child and youth led households. You know you'd have a 15 year old girl raising three younger siblings. And these households, they would often go and beg on the streets for food or they would beg for work and they would work and people would pay them in food, always just enough to keep them alive for the next day. And so Epiphany and her team started spending time with these young people and over time they started asking a very different question than what they were seeing in the nonprofits. Instead of asking the question, I'd always ask and work with desperately poorer populations. I'd always say you know what can I do to help them, especially orphan children in Africa living in extreme poverty.

Gaston Warner:

But Epiphany and her team were asking these young people what are the things you would need in your life to be able to stand on your own feet, to have a community that loves you and to feel like your life is meaningful? And over the course of time they developed a three year community based empowerment program where these young people actually took the lead in their own journey out of poverty and they became in the course of that three years. They became self and safe and healthy. Not by Zoe making them safe and healthy, but by the staff giving them access to the resources where the community could stand behind them as they learned their child rights, as they got their own food, as they got their own housing, as they were able to secure health and hygiene and all those pieces for themselves. So they became safe and healthy. They became skilled for long term success where they have multiple businesses and employees and they know how money works and how to reinvest it. And they became able to lead meaningful lives wrapped in layers of community, and that looks like things like being reintegrated in their community.

Gaston Warner:

A lot of these kids were like a pariah before, because they were sick and they were dirty and they might be begging for food. They might even steal food in order to survive, so they would be chased away from others. And as they started their own businesses and as they got clean and as they became contributing members to society, they reintegrated as leaders in their community and leaders in their churches. There's a lot of family reunification, where adults are located and the young people are able to reintegrate with those adults, but with the source of their own income. So if there was abuse in those relationships before, they had more kind of agency in that relationship and then finally they're able to know they're not beyond the love of God and Christ in ways that are really gentle but very effective.

Gaston Warner:

So Epiphany and their team designed this three year program and Zoe started supporting Epiphany's work alongside of our own relief work. That was the year I came on Zoe's board in 2007, when the first year we started funding Epiphany's work. I remember sitting in my first board meeting and we were evaluating the results of our work and the relief work. You know we'd probably help some young people survive in extreme poverty, but when we looked at Epiphany's work she had helped transform them permanently out of that situation in a way where they had all the dignity of being able to accomplish those things for herself.

Gaston Warner:

So it was pretty apparent that everything Epiphany was doing was better than anything we were doing by any measure. Her social stuff was better, her community stuff was better, her spiritual strength, kind of in evangelism pieces, were so much stronger than ours and so we said, well, we're going to stop doing what we're doing and we're going to come behind this woman who God has laid his hand upon and kind of pushed forward with that. And when we did that, god started blessing it. Since that time, in 2007, when it started, we're now at nine countries. By the end of this year, we'll have empowered over 180,000 orphan children and vulnerable youth. By the end of this year, we'll have between 60 and 70,000 currently enrolled in the three year program. So it's amazing to see what God's done with it, the story with epiphany.

Dustin Elliott:

It reminds me just of the concept of give a man a fish versus teach a man a fish, right? So you know a lot of what I think relief and aid and humanitarian aid and all that is is very much give a man a fish based stuff, and not that that's not super needed and super helpful, especially in critical times. But what she was doing was going several steps down the road. You're now in nine countries, so this model that worked in one place has actually been proven to work in others. Can you talk about where else you've grown?

Gaston Warner:

Yeah, it was really interesting because when she started it in Rwanda and I love your illustration about you know, teach a man a fish instead of giving him a fish Epiphanie is kind of teaching them to fish and then teaching them how to control the fishing industry. I mean, so she's I mean she, she had this crazy vision that the young people can do these things. Those of us from the U? S that had supported the relief work, it never occurred to us these children had those kinds of God given gifts. I mean, they're just African orphans. What could they possibly do for themselves? And epiphany said no, these are, these are young men and women of God and they can do anything with God's help. These kids, they're smart, they're hustlers, you know. They. They're motivated because they know what it means to sleep hungry. They want to help their young siblings survive. And epiphany I think that's the real secret in the sauce of what she designed was the level to which she trusted these young people to stand on their own feet, right. Yeah, so early on in the program and this is one of the hardest things, as you're talking about replicating it in another place is this is one of the hardest things to get across as we're starting a new program. When epiphany was beginning this program, she said this empowerment will never be sustainable unless, from day one, these young people are making their own decisions.

Gaston Warner:

Kind of the heartbeat of Zoe's work with these empowerment groups of 25 child and youth led households. This illustration I gave was a 15 year old girl. You might have a 12 year old boy with younger siblings. You might have a 19 year old young woman with her younger siblings, you might have a single street child. But there's about 25 of these households that come together in that empowerment group and that group elects leadership and they began to make their own decisions from day one.

Gaston Warner:

And Epiphanie said we can't have too many staff, because if we have too many adults in the room, these young people will never take their own authority. It flips it on his head. It's. It's not that you have a case worker doing things for these children. Is that these children and these youth become their own case workers. It's them that are doing the work and them that are making the decisions. And that's why after three years, they continue to improve, because they've been doing that from day one. It's not like they leave the program. And I said well, what will we do now? It's they've been guiding the program all along, so it's their program.

Dustin Elliott:

But let's dig down a little deeper. Now we've kind of got the concept. We see what we're doing. Help me understand. How does the program actually work?

Gaston Warner:

So before anything happens, before any child is spoken with, the local leaders are brought on board.

Gaston Warner:

The pastors of the local churches kind of come on board with it. The village chief, the school principal, you know formal and informal government structures, and it's that group that tends to design the list of initial people that might qualify for the program. And it's the local leaders who actually invite the young people in their community to come to the, to the initial meeting. So they know that Zoe's there. But it's really a framework for the local community to stand behind their own vulnerable children. So that's a big piece. Then they have the first meeting and the first meeting is a little rough because they're expecting food, and why not? I mean, you've got all these starving young people and they come to this meeting and they say it's for orphans. So they're expecting to get some handouts. But the staff tells them that this is an empowerment program and first that's kind of disappointing. But they'll have some young people further along in the program give their testimonies. If Zoe's been in the, in the area for a while, it already has a reputation. They know that if they can get into a Zoe group life is going to begin to change for them. But even in new clays sometimes these kids are so desperate that they'll say I'll give it a try, and the ones who are willing gather into these empowerment groups and then over the next three years the Zoe staff and the local leadership kind of do training. So on food security, that's a big one at the beginning. If you've ever not had enough food to eat, you can't think of anything else except food, and so getting food in their bellies is mission critical.

Gaston Warner:

At the beginning. Zoe starts right before growing seeds and they'll get some trainings on how to grow crops and they'll learn how to grow some food. They'll immediately start some businesses, usually really simple businesses, so that they can have money to buy food. A lot of them will be homeless. Some will have homes that are in poor repair for their parents. So Zoe will do some training or have local people do some training on on how to you know, start these businesses and rent a place to live and then save and buy land and save and buy materials and build your own house. Over the group will help each family repair their home and together they'll come together for mutual help projects and help repair the home. So they'll start their individual businesses and those tend to be pretty simple at the beginning but then they ratchet up pretty quickly afterwards and as they start getting income, zoe helps them get health insurance and they pay a little bit. And Zoe pays a little bit at the beginning but pretty soon they're paying all of it and Zoe's kind of stepping back. Zoe will help them reenroll in school. The principal was one of those kind of stakeholders in the community that was brought in before they started and so, even though these kids might have, been true of it or not, have paid any of their fees before, they kind of grease the wheels for them to be welcomed back and they start earning and Zoe will help with some of the expenses at the very beginning, but very soon their businesses are able to pay for their siblings to go back to school and so they do all those pieces. There's like four or five different financial pieces the individual businesses, group projects and vocational training that they have access to, along with animals and pieces like that. They help them get kind of better health going and along with their health insurance they're able to get healthy.

Gaston Warner:

They talk a lot about child rights. So these kids and these young people not only know their rights but how to enforce them. And they'll have usually they'll have the person locally who's in charge of enforcing those rights do that training, so they not only have a head knowledge of the rights but they have a relationship with the person who has the authority to enforce those rights and then they advocate for each other. So and Zoe does that across every area of life there's there's about 12 different pieces that fit together, or every one of those pieces have synergy with the other pieces. So if you're running a business but you have malaria, you can't run your business, and so health and hygiene and business development both have to be addressed simultaneously. You know, if you're going to school but your siblings are starving at home, you're going to drop out of school, and so you know a formal education but also the ability to feed your family have to go hand in hand. So there's a lot of synergies in a holistic model that begins to attack the root causes of poverty.

Dustin Elliott:

Jesus modeled kind of a dual approach to humanitarian aid and delivering the gospel. Right, it wasn't just that he would help a blind man see, but he would forgive him of their sin. So he came with both. So how does Zoe introduce the gospel? How does Zoe bring and bridge the gospel and begin to teach these children about the love of Christ? Where does that come in? How does that introduce, taught and discipled?

Gaston Warner:

The way that Zoe kind of does evangelism I find kind of beautiful and it goes to what you're kind of laying out there, dustin. Jesus did address the whole person. I mean, everyone has needs and some of those needs are spiritual needs and some of those needs are physical needs and some of those needs are psychological needs. But God addresses us as people because he created us, and so Zoe kind of takes the same approach. Everything in the program is the young people's own decision, and so Zoe doesn't roll in with a curriculum that they have to go through. But at the same time Zoe's staff are all Christians, share their faith in words and actions simultaneously. Any child is able to fully participate in the heart of the primar, regardless of their faith. If a Muslim child joins and they graduate as a Muslim, we don't actually see that as a failure. But they will have seen and heard the very best of the Gospels over three years in their program. Because conversion doesn't come from us, conversion comes from God. And so we approach these young people as Christians, but as Christians that want to help them have hope in their lives, without asking anything in return, and the effect of that is amazing. These young people are stunned that people, especially people that are financially supporting it from half a world away. They'll often ask why? What would drive you to reach out to me when I was dying and help me in this way? They're just stunned by it, and that opens up a possibility for our staff to talk about their faith and the gospel and God's love.

Gaston Warner:

And so often these young people, because they have lived lives that are kind of like nightmares. Many of them have lost both parents. Some have lost one parent. They might be living with an elderly grandmother. The physical and emotional abuse are usually a daily part of their life before the program, and so many of them before the program feel like maybe God doesn't exist or if God does exist, that God must hate them, because they feel like God's cursed them in their lives. And so if we rolled in and gave them food in exchange for listening to a sermon, they would do that because they're desperate for the food, but it wouldn't be a relationship that would actually I mean, it might for some, but probably it wouldn't have the same impact. So what we've seen is that these children are like water falling on a desert plain. I mean, they just absorb the gospel in ways that are really powerful.

Dustin Elliott:

Take me from there to one of the coolest things I've ever seen. You build these dream charts and there's that kind of looks like a shape of a house. It's four quadrants and then there's one more piece to it, and this is a really amazing way that you take a young person's mind and you find out what matters most. What are they most afraid of, what are they most hopeful for, what do they want for their lives, and then how you can be in relationship with them and help them realize their own dreams right. So take us through a dream chart.

Gaston Warner:

Absolutely. They're really cool. The program itself is iterative, so every year there's changes. All those, almost all those changes come from the young people themselves or the program staff. So there's a lot of things that have kind of changed and augmented over the years in the program.

Gaston Warner:

But one thing that stayed completely consistent just as it began were these dream charts, and that was designed by Epiphany and her team. And the problem she was facing is, you know that these young people have experienced such deep trauma in their lives and how can we take them from a place where they're kind of shell shocked from that trauma? How can we take them from that place in a way where they can engage that trauma and name it, even if they can articulate it with words, but also focus on the hope that God has in mind for their lives? And so she came up with this dream chart, and it really is a simple tool. It's a poster sized piece of paper, it's divided into quadrants and then it's got a little kind of cut out at the bottom of that and they talk in like early on in the program. So maybe the first meeting they'll say, hey, we're going to have you do a dream chart and these are the questions we're going to ask them, that we're going to want you to draw out a representation of how you feel about those things, and so, and then maybe the second or even third meeting, they'll actually bring the poster sized pieces of paper in the quadrant with a little cut out at the bottom, and and the usually the eldest of every family will actually do the drawing. Unless you know, maybe the second oldest is a talented artist and so that maybe they'll do the drawing. But but the whole family's talked about it and in the first quadrant they asked the question what makes you sad? Almost always, especially if they're total orphans, they'll draw the coffins of their parents, because that's, even if it's been five or six years since their parents passed away, it's still a very present kind of pain in their lives and and but they can draw anything they want, but I'd say probably 80 90% are drawing the coffins of their parents. So what makes you sad? And what that does is it allows them to engage some of the pain that they've had in the past. They don't have to use words, they just draw the picture. So if they're, if they're illiterate, or if they can't write, or if they just can't articulate those feelings. They're able to write that out.

Gaston Warner:

Then the second quadrant is what makes you happy, because it's not good to, I mean, but it's good to name our trauma and name our sadness, but it's also good to name our joy. And so what makes you happy? In the first year of the program that's almost always food, because if you're hungry what makes you happy is food. So they'll draw pictures of food. What little girl drew a flower? Because she loved flowers. So they can draw whatever they want.

Gaston Warner:

Then the next quadrant is as you move around your village or your community, what makes you sad, what don't you like? This is a really powerful piece that's kind of hard to look at sometimes, but often they'll draw pictures of people beating children or prostitution or getting you know drunkenness. And whatever they draw, you can make a pretty safe assumption that that's something in their life that has been a problem. So it might be with drunkenness that there's men who drink a lot and then, because they're vulnerable and don't have parents to protect them, the men come by their house, or that they're young men that have stolen food to feed their siblings and they've been caught and they've been beaten for that. So usually that's a part of the section that tells the Zoey staff. This is probably something with which this young person is dealing with.

Gaston Warner:

And then the next quadrant, the final quadrant, is what is your dream?

Gaston Warner:

If you could accomplish what your heart's desire, what would that be?

Gaston Warner:

So you might see a house and a cow and a bicycle. You know that might represent that young person's dream. If they could get those things in their lives, they would be a success beyond their imagining. And then the final cut out at the very bottom, is your life principles. What must you do every day in order to get from where you are now to where you want to be? And what they ask them to do is take that dream chart and put it on the wall of their business or the wall of their home, somewhere where every day, when they wake up, they can be reminded of what they've overcome and what they're hoping to achieve. And that's just. It's such a simple, powerful, wonderful tool. So when you go visit these young people we have lots of trips going over vision trips where you can go and talk to them and share with them. We always say you know, do you have your dream chart and they'll pull it out and they'll walk through it and say what they've accomplished, and it's really cool.

Dustin Elliott:

We've set up a lot of the background of Zoey. We've talked about epiphany, but we met you later, just a few years ago, kind of after that, part of the story and the project that we met you in with Bless was in India, and so can we go through a little bit of that project the young people in India where we were working I think we started in 2019 and tell us about that project and what's going on there? Yeah, it's really cool.

Gaston Warner:

So since 2019, bless has partnered with eight empowerment groups and that eight empowerment groups represents 213 child and youth led families, or 562 total young people, and that's primarily in India. What's? It's exclusively in India, primarily in Chennai, which is in southern India, and Visag, which is still in southern India, but it's about a 12 hour drive north of Nigh, both really large cities. When we moved to India from Africa, we weren't entirely sure that this African born mission would work as well in India because it's such a different context. But we knew that both shared that extreme poverty, millions, hundreds of millions of orphan children and vulnerable youth living in that kind of life threatening poverty. So we kind of put out a word that we're looking around in India and we had a pastor from Florida who we didn't know that well, but they heard that we were looking around for good partners and he had a partner through the Indian gospel mission in India named Jebes, and Jebes if you need a picture of Jebes, think of one of the Old Testament prophets. I mean, this guy is fearless. In just every way he's an amazing guy. But I met with him, funnily enough, in an Indian food place in Florida and we met together and we were talking and he told me he said I'm really interested in what you all do because seven years ago God put it on my heart to work with the young people in the urban slums. There were these boys that were mostly in criminal gangs and that lived in these hopeless kind of lives. There were girls, many of whom were being actively trafficked. And so he said I felt God putting it on my heart to reach out to these young people and he spent seven years kind of breaking into the community and when we had our conversation he said I think this is something they'll be interested in. So he started talking to them about Zoe.

Gaston Warner:

These urban slums in Chennai are kind of hard to break into. It's kind of a closed community. They don't really trust outsiders. But he had been there for a long time and then one day something broke. There was a brother and a sister that were having an argument and Jebes was there in the slums talking to some of the gang leaders and they heard this big commotion. So they went over to see what was happening and they saw this brother and sister having this argument is too small a word. What had happened is that the brother was selling his sister to some men for their use and she had refused. And so the brother had cut her arm off at the elbow and so she was sitting there bleeding and there was a crowd around and all this commotion and Jebes, seeing this, rushed in and bound her wound and carried her out of the slum and took her to a hospital.

Gaston Warner:

And what Jebes didn't know is that everyone in the slum had just assumed he had stolen her. But what he did is he took her to the hospital and he paid for her care and two weeks later he brought her back to the slum and the gang leaders he had been talking about said now we believe you. You know, we weren't sure about you before. Now we believe you. If you have something that can really help our people, we'll support you in it. And so he was talking to them about Zoe, and they organized their first Zoe empowerment group and that young woman was one of the first members of the first group in Chennai and we can go back and visit with her now and she's doing really well and she is thriving businesses and it's just such a powerful story of how God can make a new beginning from a tragedy in such powerful ways. So we started off in Chennai. It took us a little while to really get our feet under us.

Dustin Elliott:

Jebes wasn't sure everything would work like it did in Africa, but over the years we've gotten it where the program in India is almost exactly like the program in Africa and it works in the same kind of way and I don't want to get too far ahead of us because you and I've had this conversation before, but what's happened there since then, with so many kids and how you have described to me? If you're walking through that slum and you're a total outsider, that may be a dangerous place to walk, but if you're walking through there and they know you're with Zoe, what's the difference?

Gaston Warner:

A particular slum was known as the worst one in Chennai, and Chennai is several times the size of New York City, so it's a big city in a rough area and this was the roughest area in the town. Once the old people started supporting Jebes, he could work there. But once they started seeing the results of the program and the sustainable results of the program, and once they started knowing what it meant to accept God's love, it began to transform the whole place. And now when you go as a member of Zoe into that area, they see you as someone that God's used in a powerful way and we can walk anywhere in that area without a problem and people see us as insiders, even us Americans that go over to see the program because we know we're associated with this work and they've seen the results.

Dustin Elliott:

And one of the most incredible things you've ever said to me is when one of these kids starts to get it, it starts to click and their business starts to grow. Who do they hire?

Gaston Warner:

My favorite part of the program it's not even actually technically a part of the program, but it's the result of it is the way the kids pay it forward. They feel like their lives have been redeemed from the precipice by God and by these people that have stood behind them, and they want to pass that along to others, because they haven't just been charity cases, that they've been empowered and so they want to pass that empowerment on to others. Just like when we're called to be disciples of Christ. We're called to make disciples of Christ, not just to hang out as a disciple, and the program can have the same theme. They're called to go out and help other people.

Gaston Warner:

So as soon as their lives begin to stabilize and they have enough food and they have a decent place to live, we see them start adopting other orphans. They share their food. They'll raise these other kids. If they receive vocational training, they become a seamstress or a barber or a welder. We see them start training other orphaned young people in that business so that they'll have that skill and they can apply it as well In their businesses. As you mentioned, most of them have two or three diversified businesses by the time they graduate and they have employees of their own and when we ask them who did you employ and why? They'll often say I employed another orphan because I know what it was like to live like that. Or they'll say I employed some widows in my village because I knew it was difficult for them to find work and they have children that depend on them. You have the orphans caring for the orphan and widow in the community in a way that just seems like the kingdom of God to me.

Dustin Elliott:

Tell me some stories like of kids coming through the program and changing their future in terms of their walk with the Lord and their eternity.

Gaston Warner:

I'll use some examples from Chennai, india, because that's one of the areas where there's very few Christians kind of nationally it's a very low percentage and it is an unreached population in so many ways. Zoe's staff in both Chennai and Vizag so we have got the two programs in India are almost exclusively Christian ministers. So they have churches that they pastor and they do Zoe on the side, but often they'll be working with young people that are in an entirely Hindu village and they've learned how to be really careful because when they come in, especially as a Christian organization into an Hindu village, they have to do a lot of. You know, they have to tell people. We're not coming to convert them. We will share our faith with them, but we're not running them through a program or anything. If they were doing that they'd be kicked out immediately and or they would have to lie about it and then do it, and we're not willing to do that either.

Gaston Warner:

But there was one group that was an entirely Hindu village and their lives were really hard in so many ways and they went through the program and they experienced that transformation. One of Jebesa's staff leading that is a Christian pastor and so they met in his church and for many of them that was the first Christian church they'd ever been in. And over time they started talking to him about his faith because they were curious as to what would make someone reach out to them, because they were the unreachable, the ones that no one cared about. Why did he care about them? That entire group came to Jebesa three months before graduation and the third year of their program and said we all want to be baptized. This has been such an incredible thing. We've accepted Christ into our hearts. We all want to be baptized.

Gaston Warner:

And Jebesa, that's wonderful, but we have to wait three months until you graduate. And they said why? And he said because I don't want the village pointing to Zoe and saying these young people were baptized just so they could receive these services. And they said that's smart, or else other villages won't let you in. And so they waited until graduation and then that whole group became baptized. And so it's just kind of a really powerful story of how coming with no ulterior motives and just loving people is really powerful and at the heart of God. I've seen a lot of missions that use the social work, part of it as bait to be able to preach the gospel. And again, no shade on that and I've seen successes come out of that. But I think there's a power in being transparently loving to people in a way that you don't expect anything in return, and allow God's spirit to move and do that work of conversion in a way that's beyond our imagining or our power.

Dustin Elliott:

How many kids through 2025 is the goal for Zoe to reach?

Gaston Warner:

So Zoe would like to have empowered over 250,000 orphan children and vulnerable youth by the end of 2025 and to add five new program countries in partnership with other NGOs.

Gaston Warner:

We feel like we stumbled across this program that we did not design and would have never designed, but God has given us stewardship of it and so we kind of take that seriously and part of that stewardship is to grow our own organization and when we're committed to doing that, we're gonna do that to the best of our ability. But we feel like part of that stewardship is having an effective solution in a humanitarian crisis where there's so few effective solutions is to share that and give it away to other organizations. So we're in a lot of conversations with small nonprofits and larger nonprofits and we're happy to partner with them, we're happy to assist them to kind of move through, figuring out how it works, and then we hope they'll take it on their own and take it beyond what we could do, because it seems like God has a plan for us and we're part of that plan and we're blessed to be part of that plan, but we're not the plan?

Dustin Elliott:

Why do you keep saying help me understand, because bless has learned some lessons in our time too. When we first started, it was in. The orphan crisis was our first topic. It wasn't protect vulnerable children, but you address both. Can you help explain that?

Gaston Warner:

Yeah, absolutely. I think it's an important point. In the US, when we talk about an orphan, we're usually talking about what the rest of the world calls a total orphan, and a total orphan is a young person who's lost both parents. In a lot of the world, if they've just lost one parent, they're called a single orphan, and if they've lost both parents they're called a double orphan. One example of Malawi there was a young woman whose mother died. She was, I think, 12 years of age, and her father had a job and was able to provide, but he forced her to marry him. She wasn't a total orphan, but her situation in many ways was much worse than if she were a total orphan, and so she was accepted into the program because she was as vulnerable as any total orphan.

Gaston Warner:

That would be part of the program. Or there's other children who have parents, but the parents have abandoned them or the parents abused them regularly, or any number of things. So what Zoe is looking for is to accept the young people into the program that are in light-threatening poverty and those who are most vulnerable, and quite often that is a double orphan living in the street. That tends to most often be the most vulnerable population. But there's other situations as well. So we kind of throw open the gates to anyone who's got that level of extreme life-threatening poverty to come into the program.

Dustin Elliott:

You've kind of put an invitation out to other NGOs, other nonprofits, other sending organizations, and you're saying look, we've got a model from Africa. It's also worked in India. That's a lot. I think you've got, as you said, four or five more places you're looking to launch. Can you share anything about where you're headed next, because somebody may hear this and go, we're already there. I'm gonna send Gaston a note and say hey, how can we help introduce you to some relationships here that can kickstart your program?

Gaston Warner:

Absolutely so. The places that we're currently working just to let people know, because we're happy to expand the program or even expand it geographically in those countries in order of size would be Kenya, rwanda, zimbabwe, malawi, liberia, tanzania, and we just added Mozambique last year. In addition to that, we're just launching right now in South Sudan, so they're recruiting their first groups in South Sudan, just outside of the capital of Juba. That's something that we're a little nervous about because it's still a war-torn country, but we think we've located in the pocket where there's enough stability and law enforcement where the young people will be able to thrive.

Gaston Warner:

Beyond that, we're in talks with a group that's in Eswatini. That used to be called Swaziland and they changed the name to Eswatini. Lots of orphans in that place, and that's what the Kiba Childal Life Foundation that's co-founded by Alicia Keys, and so they've been supporting us for a while and now they're kind of saying okay, we believe it now and we wanna kind of bring you into some other countries. So those are the ones on the most immediate radar and we're looking for other possible partners and other NGOs that want to expand.

Dustin Elliott:

So a big part of what we wanna do with the podcast we wanna help share these supernatural stories of God at work through the men and women he's called to reach the unreached and I know we've heard this story the Jobes and the brother and the sister in the arm and God used that to give credibility and now hundreds of youth have been empowered in that part of the world because they started to trust Zoe. And I think you've got another really incredible story about forgiveness that we'd love to hear.

Gaston Warner:

Oh yeah, so many incredible stories and the pieces of this story are pretty mundane, but God puts it together in such a powerful way. There was an empowerment group, zoe Empowerment Group, in Rwanda. They were in their third year of the program. This group, all of our young people, have experienced an abuse in different ways. This group, before the program, had been particularly abused both mentally and physically in their community by certain bad actors in their community. People had employed them and then refused to pay them. There was other kinds of abuses.

Gaston Warner:

But when they were in the program, life really began to change and they started a group project along with their individual businesses, and this group project was a goat herd, and so they had this herd of goats and it turns out the goats liked each other. So they got a lot more goats than they were anticipating and they were trying to decide what to do with this abundance of goats at the same time that they were studying about Christian forgiveness, because these young people had some pretty big things to forgive. And what they decided to do is they chose 12 families from their community who had been particularly abusive to them when they were vulnerable, and they presented a goat to each of those families as a symbol of Christian reconciliation, and it blew the community away. It healed broken relationships. It showed a possibility for a new way forward in Christian love and forgiveness. It blew me away just to meet this group and speak with them.

Dustin Elliott:

That's a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing that. So these kids present these goats to these families that were particularly abusive for them, and they build this bridge of reconciliation and a new path forward. Praise God, incredible. What other stories would you like to share with everyone of how these kids work together and change their future?

Gaston Warner:

You know, they're constantly doing things together that are amazing, and I think the community aspect is another. One of the secrets that makes this program work, and one that we sometimes overlook in our own churches, especially in the Western world, is that sense of community that we need each other to survive life and our spiritual warfare as well. There was one young woman I remember, panina, and one of the things that Zoe does early on is talk about child rights and their rights as a child. Not only do they hear those rights and learn how to enforce them, but they share their stories with one another, and Panina was sharing her story with her group. After the child rights trainings and her parents had both died, she was left with three younger siblings I think she was 12 years of age with three younger siblings.

Gaston Warner:

The parents left a house and they left five acres of land, which is a lot of land. If you've ever tried to hoe five acres of land, you know it's a lot of land. But what had happened is the uncle had seen this and he had coveted that land. So what he did is he left the house for them, but he took all the land for himself and his argument was she's only a child. She cannot do anything with this land, so I will steward it for her. But in fact what he did is he took it and he used. He didn't give them any of the proceeds from it or any of the use of it.

Gaston Warner:

So she was sharing this with her group and the group said well, didn't you complain to the village chief? She said I did. I went to the village chief but he would not listen to me, because on one hand you've got a 12 year old orphan girl, on the other end you have this powerful man in the village, and so she didn't even get a hearing. Her voice was invisible. So what the group did is they decided there were 79 in that group.

Gaston Warner:

All 79 went to the village elders hut and they stood outside and the chairperson of the group and Panina went inside to talk with the village chief and they shared her story and they talked about the rights that they'd learned about and the village chief had helped organize the program. So he knew that they were kind of coming together and she walked out of the village chief's hut with her land back oh my goodness. And the group helped her cultivate the land and use a portion of it for a group project, but the lion's share of it Panina could use for her and her family, and so coming together, they're just so much stronger than they would be separately. How about that?

Dustin Elliott:

That's incredible. One little 12 year old girl going to the village chief has to be very intimidating, but 79 of them showing up, somebody's going to take notice.

Gaston Warner:

It's so cool to see the way they lift the whole village with the work they do.

Gaston Warner:

We've just had some independent study. There's a group called TAFO Christian Alliance for Orphans, and they do a lot of work in the US but also abroad. They chose Zoe as a promising practice and they commissioned research on the graduates Because they said this seems too good to be true. We want to kind of do research on it. So they assigned a researcher and we did a research on graduates one to four years out of the program and we do a lot. We're kind of nerds so we do a lot of data collection. During the program we had data on these young people that were all randomly selected but the results of their study was that from graduation, not only do they not drop off but they continue to improve up. You know, and the study was only up to four years, but we've seen them improve up to a decade outside of the program, where they continue working together, they continue worshiping together, they continue kind of employing others and being leaders in their village and being this positive force of God's love wherever they are.

Dustin Elliott:

That's amazing. One of the neat things we did with Bless early on was we did these come in sea trips, where we would offer people a chance to go over and for themselves visit it and see it with their own eyes and really have an opportunity to engage both with the workers but with the people that they're working with as well, and so I think that's something that y'all do with Zoe also, gaston. So before we go, tell us about what it would look like for someone to go experience, through Zoe's eyes, the work.

Gaston Warner:

I'm so glad you brought that up because I would love to invite anyone If you feel God placing this on your heart. We take about 20 trips a year and we have people from all different churches all over the country that kind of come together. We go over to these places and they're really fairly comfortable trips. We're not trying to make you pretend to be an African orphan for a week. We want you to be as comfortable as you can be so you can bring your best to these young people. And what we do is we show up and we listen to them brag about what God has done in their lives, what God is doing with their siblings. We worship with them, we pray with them and we tell them we're proud of them. It's such a powerful trip.

Gaston Warner:

Even if you've been on lots of mission trips, this one will feel tangibly different because you're not building a house or painting a wall, you're building a child. You'll see a glimpse of the kingdom of God at work in our world in a way that will blow you away. So what we tend to do they tend to be about 10 day trips, nine or 10 day trips. We travel over, we spend our times. We first see with the graduates, then the third years and the second years, and the first year is, which is kind of rough to see and then we'll kind of pull you off the pavement and let you see a graduate again so you know where they're going. And then we usually do some kind of touristy thing to kind of let you debrief and get ready to go back Maybe it's a safari or something like that. And then we come back and we ask that if you saw the power of God at work, that you'll become an advocate for these young people and it'll change your life.

Dustin Elliott:

It's such a powerful experience. I love that. Thank you for that invitation to everyone listening. Zoeyempowersorg at Zoeyempowers on Instagram. And I'm gonna give you directly this man right here GastonWarner G-A-S-T-O-N W-A-R-N-E-R. At Zoeyempowersorg. Give Gaston a shout. Share this episode with your friends and family. Get the word out. God's at work in the most marginalized, hardest to reach places on earth, and he's inviting you to be a part of the story. Thank you again, gaston. Thank you for listening to Unreached. Our sincere desire is that what you've heard today will cause you to see the mission of God differently and you're rolling it more clearly. If this adds value for you and we hope it does would you please rate and review the podcast wherever you listen. Also, share with your family, your friends, your church, your life group small group, d group wherever you do life, and if you wanna connect with us, find us on Instagram at unreachedpodcast or email us at unreachedpodcastgmailcom.

Zoe Empowers
Zoe Program
Transforming Lives Through Empowerment
Empowering Rwandan Youth Through Community