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Students Take Hope to Horn of Africa

July 23, 2012

Five students and one faculty sponsor from Oklahoma Baptist University traveled to Africa May 13-June 2 to invest their time in the lives of children who happily vied for the attention of the visitors. The team's tasks included a journey across the dusty Ethiopian plateau and through the lush mountains to encourage local churches and to join a Texas volunteer team to provide leadership development. They also found opportunities to minister to people struggling with HIV/AIDS.

OBU student volunteers pause outside a house church in the Horn of Africa wearing traditional outfits given by local believers. The team included (from left) Koty Koster, Britanee Russell, Meagan Barth, Lauren Divine and Bettsy Yarbrough.

Ethiopia is a land of great disparities, said Dr. Krista Hands, assistant professor of mathematics whose son was born in the country. While many people live in simple abodes resembling shacks more than houses, others live in homes similar to those found in the United States. The country boasts wide open plateaus with big skies, but thick smog fills the air in the capital city.

As the excited team pulled up in a van onto a large grassy lot at the orphanage, children surrounded the van to see who was inside. The visitors had come to spend time with the children of the boarding school complex, which includes a kitchen and tin-roof dining hall. The children live in long yellow-and-red concrete dorms.

"A lot of the kids were dying to show us their rooms," said team member Britanee Russell, a sophomore from Springdale, Ark. "The children had been painting beautiful paintings on the walls proclaiming the joy of the Lord, and many had pictures hung up from their sponsors in the U.S."

While the land also includes a chicken house, the orphanage intends to plant gardens and fruit trees. The next phase of building plans include a complete school to serve not only the children who live at the orphanage, but also hundreds of local children.

"The orphanage sat on quite a large bit of land, and sitting at the back of that land was the beginnings of a boarding school for the children," Russell said. "There were several classrooms made out of cement and cinder blocks. The children were so excited to show us these classrooms, but they didn't realize that money had stopped coming in to fund the classroom so all construction has stopped for the time being."

Russell, who is a children's ministry major, felt connected to a little girl, Lancsel, who loved doing crafts and wanted to always hold Russell's hand. Another little girl, Rachel, felt ill the first couple of days the team was on site, but when she felt better, she also didn't want to leave Russell's side.

Rachel, a girl who lives at the Hope for the Hopeless orphanage in Ethiopia, paints the nose of OBU student Britanee Russell. Russell was one of six OBU team members who ministered in the Horn of Africa during the summer 2012 semester.

"They both had the sweetest smiles, and I could listen to them laugh all day," Russell said. "Another little boy, Zalalam, grabbed the hearts of the whole team. He spoke fluent English and loved joking around with us. He kept us laughing all day and it was great to have another translator!"

At the drop-in center, students interacted with the children who live on the city streets. In addition to providing for their basic needs, the drop-in center offers a process of restoration of hope for children who commit to leave habits learned on the streets. The OBU team did crafts and shared Bible stories with the children at the center.

"Besides sharing the love of Christ with the kids we came into contact with, we brought many donations for the various places we visited," Russell said. "Each of us brought two suitcases, one of which was full of donations. We brought lots of shoes, diapers, toys and craft supplies so that we are helping the centers who are providing everything for the children."

Working with the Texas volunteers, the team also sought out communities affected by HIV/AIDS. Their goal was simply to love the people by sharing the love and hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In the Horn of Africa, Russell said, many people with HIV or AIDS do not have adequate medical care because what care is available is unaffordable. She said there is a stigma about HIV/AIDS because many people believe it can be contracted through something as simple as a hug.

"Because of that, these people are usually estranged from their families and are alone," Russell said. "We painted the nails of the women … and put lotion and sanitizer on their hands as we prayed over them. I remember one woman saying to me, through a translator, that she hadn't been touched in so long because people were afraid of her, and she was curious as to why I would be different. It was such a great way to share the Gospel with her."

Whether they were working with local church members, children in need or people suffering from illness, the team members appreciated the genuine attitudes of the African people.

"The people we worked directly with through the churches and orphanage and drop-in center were so loving and kind," Russell said. "They wanted to serve us just as much if we wanted to serve them. Food is love in Ethiopia, so we were hardly hungry with plates full of Ethiopian food. I found what my mom told me before I left to be very true: a smile and a wave are universal."

At OBU, where part of the mission is to engage a diverse world, more than 60 students and faculty and staff members are broadening their worldviews this summer through Global Outreach Trips sponsored by the Avery T. Willis Center for Global Outreach.

Three women in the Horn of Africa express a renewed commitment to their faith in Jesus Christ. A team from OBU recently traveled to Africa to encourage local church members, spend time with orphans and share hope with people suffering from HIV/AIDS.

For Hands, the travel to and from Africa is difficult as she leaves her husband and children at home. Then, she finds leaving Africa is also difficult as she wonders if she will see the children on her next trip or if they will have left the orphanage. Despite the difficulties, Hands said she believes it is important for all Christians to participate in missions.

"Going on a mission trip gets us outside our comfort zone," she said. "It allows us to see that God is at work in other places, and it can look so differently than what we are accustomed to. We go to be a blessing, to share Christ and to positively impact others. But the awesome thing that happens is that when we go, we are changed! We are forced to look at things differently, and this broadens our view of ourselves and our calling."

For the OBU team, it was a trip of lasting impressions as they witnessed about 50 baptisms in local churches, heard incredible testimonies and celebrated with new believers in Christ.

"It made me so very excited to be in heaven where we will all worship together," Russell said.

To learn more about Hope for the Hopeless ministries, click here.