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Empowering Pastors, Empowering Communities

A letter from Joshua Heikkila, serving as Regional Liaison for West Africa, based in Ghana

November 2017

Write to Josh Heikkila

Individuals: Give online to E200353 for Josh Heikkila’s sending and support

Congregations: Give to D507520 for Josh Heikkila’s sending and support

Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery).

 


When the Evangelical Church in the Republic of Niger (EERN) sends out pastors and evangelists to start new congregations, there’s a challenging road ahead for them. Often, the church cannot pay salaries, so the pastors’ and evangelists’ families have to find a way to generate an income on their own. In rural areas, this can mean finding land on the village outskirts to plant a farm. In towns and cities, it can mean raising goats for personal consumption and sale. But despite these challenges, families are stepping forward to be trained and sent.

The EERN is a small denomination with an ambitious vision. They have dreams of expanding throughout Niger, and inspired by their faith in Jesus Christ, to bring about a life-giving transformation to the country and its people. But when you look at the environment in which the church is situated, it can seem like an overwhelming task.

Men from the Fulani ethnic group bringing goats to market in the city of Maradi, Niger.

To begin with, Niger’s problems with health, education, and development are daunting. By some estimates, 70 percent of the population can’t read or write. A significant number of children die before their fifth birthdays. A large number of women die in childbirth. The average citizen of the country lives on the equivalent of just over a dollar per day.

At the same time, the Christian presence is very small—probably .5 percent of the population is Christian, with a 98 percent majority that is Muslim. This means that for every one Christian in Niger, there are almost 200 neighbors of a different faith. The reality is, a large number of people in the country have never met a Christian even once, and most don’t come into contact with Christians on a daily basis.

The church is forced to ask itself, is it even possible for so few to have an impact on so many?

When the EERN considers its ministry and mission, it’s encouraged by the parables of Jesus, where small things are shown capable of having a big influence. A little bit of salt flavors the whole pot of soup. A little pinch of yeast leavens the whole loaf of bread. A small candle lights an entire room. The church therefore is looking for small and innovative ways its Christian faith can impact all of Nigerien society.

One pastor’s wife weaves dried grass into strips, which are then sewn together to make mats and rugs. It takes about two days to weave a rug-sized mat of 4 feet by 6 feet, which can then sell in the market for roughly $2. Access to goats will help a family such as this one to be better off economically.

In recent years, the EERN has established a half- dozen primary schools, and there are plans to open more. These schools, which serve both Christian and Muslim students, are known for providing some of the very best education in the country. Some years ago, the church began a health clinic in a poor neighborhood of Niger’s capital Niamey, and hundreds of patients are now seen at the clinic each month. Plans are currently underway to build a clinic four hours to the east, in the town of Dogondoutchi.

The church has also started construction on a nurses training school, to be able to supply these clinics and others in the country with necessary staff. I’m excited that PC(USA) mission co-worker Jodi McGill, a nurse and public health specialist who arrived in Niger in July this year, is beginning work with the clinic and school. Jodi’s husband, Jim, a specialist in water, sanitation and hygiene, will begin working with the EERN’s office of rural development, which has plans to improve access to water and sanitation facilities in communities across Niger. Greater access to wells and toilets does a lot to cut down on the spread of illness, therefore improving community health and wellbeing.

The first step in all of these plans—with health, education, and development—is to send out pastors and evangelists to start congregations in areas where the church has never before been present.

Goats kept just outside a house in a rural community in Niger. When a family is able to begin rearing goats, it can help them with the costs of sending children to school, and can provide for a feast at Christmas or Easter. If a family has enough goats, they are able to share with neighbors in need, to help lift them out of extreme poverty.

For a family in ministry, the church has discovered that providing them with three goats—one male and two female—can empower them economically to do the work to which they are called. If a family begins to rear goats, when one is sold in the market, it can bring in enough money to send a child to school for the year. One goat can be a special feast at Christmas and Easter. One goat given to a neighbor in need can be the first step in lifting that family out of extreme poverty.

Because women often work with agriculture in the family, the church has plans to start this goat project specifically with women in the families engaged in ministry and evangelism. An amount of $150 can provide one family with the three goats it needs to start, and $1500 can help 10. Please consider a gift which will give a boost to these families in ministry in Niger. A gift can be given to account E051746 and marked “women’s goat project.” (pcusa.org/donate/e051746/)

As always, I need to ask for your support, to make it possible for me to be present in West Africa, to engage with our church partners in the region. My presence helps us to share with them the gifts God has given us, and at the same time, to learn from them and their gifts. For those who have given before, I hope that you will do so again this year. And for those who haven’t, I hope you will consider starting. Thank you, and may God be with you in this season of Advent and Christmas.

-Josh


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