There’s a funny saying we pass around at our office: “People build bridges.” When we face an obstacle that seems too big, a challenge too overwhelming, “people build bridges” reminds us that people are capable of extraordinary things . . .
But we always meant it as a metaphor.
Then this summer, I met some folks who really do build bridges—and no, they’re not engineers, not construction crews, and they don’t have dump-trucks and cranes. Rather, they’re rural farmers, everyday people facing tremendous obstacles, from persecuted churches in impoverished villages.
And their work has made a tremendous impact.
FROM POVERTY TO FLOURISHING
Churches have moved their communities from extreme poverty to wholistic flourishing, accomplishing more than I could imagine. Most amazingly? They’ve done it with little to no outside resources.
Reconciled World trains churches to discover the resources and assets God’s already given them, to reach out and serve their communities through creative “Acts of Love.”
Over the last five years, churches in the area we visited have built, with their own volunteer labor:
- 10 BRIDGES: These bridges are no joke; constructed with steel and concrete, they take 50 people from a church one to two months to build. The bridges connect people’s homes (on one side of the river) to their farms (on the other side), so they can farm during the rainy season when the river rises, expanding their agricultural year.
- 100+ MILES OF ROAD: These roads are built by hand; the amount of work that goes into them is insane. Large work crews from the churches mobilize to build them together, connecting the villages to one another and their farmlands, and allowing them to transport their crops by motorbike instead of by hand.
- OVER 100 HOMES: For widows and the disabled. More than thatched huts, these are built with concrete foundations, multiple rooms, and the works. We met a family with a crippled husband whose home was currently being built, and they were overjoyed (think Extreme Makeover, only being done by the church).
- HUNDREDS OF TOILETS: Health & hygiene have drastically improved as the churches have built hundreds of toilets to combat sickness and disease by improving sanitation in the community.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact: they’ve moved their community out of extreme poverty into flourishing and abundance.
Villagers describe the food scarcity of the recent past: when crops ran out during the year, they’d scavenge or eat grass for weeks on end to survive. Now, with the bridges, their farming season is much longer—they can access their fields year-round. And with the roads, transporting crops is much easier.
They have a food surplus, with an abundance of crops all year round. They even have plenty to share with neighboring communities when hard times hit. And the extra income has given them money to invest in their neighbors—like building homes for the vulnerable and toilets for, well, everyone.
Locals even say the land itself is more productive now, as they’ve come to worship God. Which brings me to the next part.
FROM PERSECUTION TO THRIVING
The church has exploded in this area over the last five to ten years.
- FROM JAIL TO LEADER: Almost every pastor we met spent years in jail or forced labor camps in the past, for refusing to renounce their faith. Now, they’ve become respected leaders in the community. The same local officials who once looked at them with suspicion, now give them “citizen of the year” awards and allow their churches to worship freely and publicly with the support of the community.
- FROM PERSECUTION TO THRIVING: Churches hid underground as recently as a decade ago in a context of persecution. Now, however, they’re bursting at the seams with thousands of people and the blessing of the community. Christians have gone from a small, persecuted minority to booming. We saw churches almost every few miles, averaging 300 – 500 people, with even some “megachurches” and “multi-site” congregations of 1000+ people.
- GREATER OPENNESS: We were told that just five years ago, we would not have been allowed to be in this area as Westerners and would have been thrown in jail. But now, locals see Christianity not as a “foreigner religion” but as “their religion,” embodied in their own cultural way, and are much more comfortable with outside visitors.
God is on the move; His Church is on mission.
LOCAL CHURCH ON MISSION
A final, powerful thing: all these “Acts of Love” were done by local churches with their own time, volunteer labor and money. Our church has financially supported Reconciled World, which partners with the churches by training, equipping, and consulting at the heart of this work, but there is a dignity and a power to this work coming from the local churches themselves.
There would be a tendency in the West to see these churches and leaders as “impoverished” and dependent on our help, resources, and expertise, but God sees them as powerful agents of ministry, a witness to the power that comes from God Himself transforming lives and transforming communities through them.
Joshua is the current Chairman of the Board for Reconciled World. He serves as pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community, a church in the heart of Portland, Oregon. Josh oversees the church’s city ministries in areas of foster care, human trafficking and homelessness; and develops international partnerships in areas of clean water, HIV-support and church planting. Josh is also a worship leader who enjoys writing music for the life of the church. Josh’s wife Holly and daughter Aiden enjoy spending time with friends over good meals and being a foster family for vulnerable children.