Let Hope Rise

How the Central African Republic is making a comeback.

In January 2011, a group of the Central African Republic’s key leaders met in a bomb-struck, crumbling government building to discuss restoring hope in the hearts of the nation’s youth.

They knew their country was in a state of decay. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic (CAR) had, at that point, suffered 11 mutinies and countless rebellions. The country is currently ranked seventh on the United Nations’ list of the poorest countries in the world. Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof has called it the most abused country in the world, due to the military and rebel groups who have raped, robbed and killed thousands throughout the capital city and countryside.

One of the leaders in attendance at the January meeting, Jean-Serge Bokassa, grew up witnessing horrific bloodshed at the hands of his father, the emperor of the CAR in the 1970s. Bokassa watched war, political corruption and even cannibalism destroy his family, friends and the entire country he called home.

Today, Bokassa serves as a governmental minister for his war-torn nation. And as he seeks to turn a fresh page in his country’s history, he sets his hope fully on one thing: the Word of God.

Dan Franklin, a liaison for the Florida-based international children’s ministry, OneHope, was also at that January meeting. As a 30-year-old American, he encountered the CAR from a different vantage point than Bokassa, but he saw the same bullet holes that scarred many of the buildings in the capital city of Bangui—and he also shared the same hope.

As Bokassa, Franklin and the others in the meeting that day sat among the rubble of the nation’s violent legacy, the leaders of the country’s education, health and environment sectors all agreed: The CAR needed spiritual restoration more than anything else.

“We can see the hopelessness, but God is our hope, And a nation that puts its hope in God will be blessed.” —Theodore Kapou, bishop of the Apostolic church

“In that moment, I knew an amazing partnership had formed,” says Franklin. “These leaders shockingly agreed that Jesus is the hope of the world. But I knew a long road lay ahead.”

Reversing Hopelessness

In many ways, the Central African Republic serves as a metaphor for Africa as a whole. The country has a rich supply of natural resources—diamonds, gold, oil and uranium—yet struggles with a stagnant economy. The average income hovers at about $2 per day.

How does a country rich in natural resources become one of the poorest in the world? A paradox of this caliber could only be created internally—by systemic political corruption.

After decades of witnessing their government embezzle finances and violate human rights, citizens in the CAR have come to expect the worst of those who have pledged to serve them. Societal injury has been so deep—and distrust so widespread—that OneHope president Rob Hoskins believes the nation needs more than another poverty alleviation program.

“You can address the surface issues of the economy and government, but if you don’t change the beliefs and attitudes of people, then you’re going to see persistent, chronic problems,” Hoskins says. “We want to create new hearts and minds based on the Word of God.”

And what better way to shift a society’s belief system than to engage its future leaders?

According to the Barna Group, nearly two-thirds of believers accept Christ during childhood and adolescence. In the CAR, just over 40 percent of the nation’s nearly 5 million people fall below the age of 14, creating a ripe opportunity to counter the nation’s scarred past by reaching its youth with the transformative good news of Christ.

After the meeting of government leaders in early 2011, OneHope received the official green light to begin working in schools, neighborhoods and community centers throughout the country. The goal was simple: Share God’s Word with every child to undo the cycle of corruption in the nation’s youth. The method was straightforward too: Equip local churches to do the groundwork, in order to ensure that God’s Word takes root in each unique, local context.

How does a country rich in natural resources become one of the poorest in the world? A paradox of this caliber could only be created internally—by systemic political corruption.

Still, the challenge remained. Undoing the effects of violence on a generation of disillusioned youth would take both creativity and time.

Redeeming the Past

Gordon Olson, founding director of Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry, developed a similar vision for reaching the Central African Republic with God’s Word—but not before the nation’s legacy of violence affected him on a deeply personal level.

In 1991, Olson’s 24-year-old son, Tim, traveled to the country with his girlfriend on a mission trip. As an aspiring architect, Tim was supervising the construction of a church in Bangui. While working on the project, he took a short trip to a game preserve in the northern part of the country. On his return from the preserve, a group of armed bandits accosted and murdered him.

When the church’s construction was complete, Olson and his wife, Betty, traveled to the CAR to see the project for which their son had sacrificed his life. Local leaders named the church St. Timothy Lutheran Church in honor of the Olsons’ son, and Olson began to sense God’s calling to bring hope to the country’s oppressed people—especially when he realized he was not the only one who had lost a loved one in the war-ravaged country.

“We had to walk a long journey of forgiveness,” Olson says. “As a result, we love the country and are committed to its people, through the good and the bad.”

It wasn’t long before Olson’s personal journey overflowed into his work—and Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry began. The organization exists to transform communities from the ground up by equipping local churches and development programs with God’s Word. Rather than inserting corporate offices and foreign objectives into the local soil, Lutheran Partners, like OneHope, works primarily through grassroots movements within the church.

One of the ways the organization accomplishes its work is by making the Bible accessible to pastors-in-training in the country. Olson explains that many of these pastors enter seminary with an eighth- or ninth-grade reading level and with torn and threadbare Bibles. When Lutheran Partners learned of this reality, it purchased hundreds of Bibles translated into the local language—Sango—and launched literacy programs through local Lutheran churches.

Of the youth rising to reshape the CAR’s future, only about half are young men—and so Lutheran Partners has also sought ways to empower young women. Because illiteracy rates are highest among women in the CAR’s male-dominated society, Olson encourages local pastors to promote women’s leadership, and he also designed a way for young women to be equipped for the task—Lutheran Partners built a compound to provide literacy and Bible classes for young women, and they offer a scholarship to top-scoring female students who want to continue their studies in Bangui.

Though he once would have never expected it, Olson’s life today shares common threads with the narrative of the African country that claimed the final breath of his son. He has suffered great loss because of the country’s violence, as have so many who live there, yet he has great hope God will continue to redeem the past while forging a brighter future—a brighter future that is rising even now.

“Even though many people there live in the midst of poverty and hopelessness,” Olson says, “they embody the life of the Scriptures.”

A Change in Course

While reaching the youth of a nation with Scripture might seem as simple as opening a book, the OneHope team started with something a little less conventional: basketball.

Boasting the FIBA African Championship in 1974 against Senegal and in 1987 against Egypt, the Central African Republic once had a thriving basketball program. But years of civil war destroyed most of the country’s sports infrastructure, and many children who would have, in a previous era, practiced shooting basketballs now practice shooting guns.

“It’s not uncommon for kids in the CAR to ask themselves, ‘Can anything good happen to me in life?’” Franklin says. “We heard how much they loved basketball, so we wanted to give them back the sport as a way to boost their passion.”

To help revive this national pastime, OneHope organized youth basketball clinics with local pastors in the capital city of Bangui. They recruited Adrian Crawford, a former Florida State University basketball star, to join the clinics, and they developed a smartphone app to coach pastors on how to run effective practices with their teams.

As soon as practice began on the first day of the clinic, hundreds of kids showed up in a matter of minutes, ready to play and wearing only ragged shorts and flip-flops. It wasn’t long before the court was filled with smiles.

But practice wasn’t over when the game was.

At the end of the clinic’s first day, the staff gave every participant a copy of Book of Hope—an interactive, Bible-based magazine.

As the participants’ love for basketball grows, so does their love for God’s truth. This is just what happened to 16-year-old Emmanuel, who gave his life to Christ after hearing Crawford speak on a Sunday morning.

When Emmanuel received an opportunity to travel to the U.S. to play basketball, he was thrilled. However, his visa was not approved.

“I assumed he would be so frustrated and would walk away from Christ because he had been denied this great opportunity,” Franklin says. But a few weeks later, “[Emmanuel] still had such excitement for his future because of the [promises of the] Word of God. This is the change we strive for.”

Emmanuel still hopes to play professional basketball someday, but has plans to complete secondary school and attend a university first.

A Bigger Picture

What about practical issues of poverty? While the Word of God may have the power to restore hope and value, youth who lack basic life skills will still struggle to succeed in the world.

Rather than separate social development from spiritual formation, OneHope coordinates the efforts of local churches to engage social needs through initiatives that are creatively rooted in Scripture.

For example, according to the World Fact Book of the CIA, about 44 percent of the Central African Republic’s population is illiterate. But among children, this percentage rises much higher. Franklin explains that in most local schools, up to eight students must share one book, since so many children lack reading materials required to learn.

OneHope chose to combine a physical solution to this problem with a spiritual one. Partnering with local churches, the organization shipped over 200,000 books to schools in the CAR and developed a literacy program specifically for mothers and children. These materials follow the metanarrative of Scripture, so while students become literate, they’re also learning the story of how God has redeemed the world.

Another physical challenge facing youth in the CAR is a lack of clean water. The scarcity of this resource has caused over 60 percent of school-aged children in the country to suffer from roundworms and other parasites—diseases that not only debilitate health, but also limit a child’s ability to attend school and prepare for the future.

To address this issue, OneHope recently piloted a new hygiene education program for children. Wanting, once again, to do more than meet basic needs, the program provides each child with anti-parasitic medicine as well as an illustrated booklet that couples practical hygiene lessons with biblical principles.

In all its initiatives, from basketball to hygiene, OneHope weaves lessons of character development, as modeled by Jesus and other biblical figures, such as Joseph and Daniel, believing that cultural transformation takes root when change happens on all levels—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
“We don’t just want these kids to have a religious experience,” Franklin says. “We want the love of God to reflect off every part of their lives.”

A Brighter Future

Theodore Kapou, bishop of the Apostolic Church, has been praying for this national renewal in the CAR for years. From his post, where he oversees the country’s largest network of churches, Kapou has seen how social ills can be combated with God’s truth—and he believes future blessing starts with claiming God’s promises in the present.

“We can see the hope-lessness,” he says, “but God is our hope, and a nation that puts its hope in God will be blessed.”

When Hoskins and Kapou discovered they shared a similar vision for the CAR, they united their efforts in local church communities. Together, the two friends have been raising up youth leaders who model biblical lifestyles for others to follow.

Kapou and Hoskins soon discovered many others who had caught this vision, as well.

Take a young man named Ernest, for example.

When OneHope team leaders hired a translator to help them learn the local dialect, they hired a translator locally known as “Pastor Ernest.” When they asked the young man how he had acquired his title, Ernest took a deep breath and shared his story.

He had grown up in the streets of Bangui without an education, struggling to find food every day. He converted to Islam as a teenager to gain access to Muslim feeding programs, but he never understood the religion.

One day, a stranger had pity on him and invited him to lunch. When the man uttered the name of Jesus when praying before their meal, Ernest unexpectedly burst into tears.

“What’s happening to me? Why am I weeping?” he asked. The man replied, “Jesus is showing you how much He loves you.”

In response, Ernest accepted Christ and became the man’s disciple. From that point forward, Ernest thrived in his new faith, yet he was frustrated by his inability to read Scripture. He prayed and asked God for help­—and God answered His prayer.

Ten years later, at age 26, Ernest is fluent in English, French and Sango. He has a family, works as a translator and runs a small network of house churches.

When he looks at his past, Ernest realizes it was a single word that set his life on a new course that has led him here. “God has blessed me so much,” he says. “I owe everything to the Word of God.”

Now, when Franklin looks down the streets of the Central African Republic, he doesn’t see the bullets lodged in building walls or the craters left from rebel bombings. He doesn’t think of the corruption that has shackled the nation for decades. Instead, he remembers Minister Bokassa, Emmanuel, Pastor Ernest and many others who have endured lifelong hardship yet stand today rooted in the Word of God.

Although placing a country’s future in the hands of children may seem risky, Franklin points to the Gospel—the story of one small Jewish child who grew up to forever change the world. In light of God’s Word, Franklin—and many Central African Republic youth with him—is beginning to see how the most powerful change starts with the smallest of seeds.

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