The following is a session transcript of a conversation hosted as part of our Online Global Conference originally aired on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. Do trees, farming, and savings really connect people to God? Spiritual renewal is happening around the world through our work. Come learn about the exciting next phase of our commitment to deepening faith and supporting churches.
Presenters: Scott Sabin, CEO
Paul Thompson, COO
Durbel Lora Brito, Country Director - Dominican Republic
Richard Mhina, Program Manager - Tanzania
Birori Gaparani, Country Director - Democratic Republic of the Congo
Evelin Castellanos Holistic Ministry Manager, Mexico
(Scott Sabin): Hi, I'm Scott Sabin, the chief executive officer of Plant With Purpose. I'm here with our chief operating officer, Paul Thompson, and we're here to talk about the way that faith is integrated into our work and why we think that's so important.
(Paul Thompson): Thank you, Scott. It's great to be here with you, and it's great to be with all of you as well. You know, the things that we are known for at Plant with Purpose is our commitment to environmental restoration, economic empowerment, and spiritual renewal. I'd like to have you, Scott, if you would, take a moment and talk about the genesis of our commitment to spiritual renewal. Why is that important to us?
(Scott): Thanks, Paul. I want to start by saying everything that we're able to accomplish is by the grace of God. We have enjoyed unusual favor this past year. As I was talking with many of our directors in the field, it’s nothing short of miraculous. It's tempting to think of the spiritual side of our work as just a side, just an aspect. But really, it is so integrated. I have to start off by giving glory to God for what we've been able to do while we're working in some of the most difficult countries in the world. In places where open warfare is often the norm, and in the midst of a global pandemic. The fact that we've been able to persevere, we've been able to make a difference, we've seen hope and good news. That really is a testimony to God's hand in our work.
I just want to start by saying that I think it's really important that we never miss the opportunity to give glory to God for what He is allowing us to participate in. To your original question, we were motivated from day one by the love of Jesus, inspired by what Christ had done for us, to make a difference in the lives of people around the world. As we did that originally: helping people to grow more food and restore their land by planting trees-- we realized that even as we were changing the nature of their water resources, we had living water to offer. It's often struck me that if all we're offering is the water that flows in their local stream, yet Christ has given us living water, we're missing a huge opportunity.
(Paul): As you have spoken a moment ago about the integration of our work together in these three particular areas, can you speak to how we have integrated spiritual renewal into the core of our connection with our partners in the field?
(Scott): Let me just for a second talk about some of the very practical aspects that we've discovered, as it was a part of our goals and our motivation from the very beginning. We've learned that it ends up making everything work better. Durbel, our Country Director in the Dominican Republic, told me an amazing story about how making people more prosperous doesn't transform their lives. I remember our first director in the Dominican Republic told me a similar story. They found that as people became more wealthy, they would oftentimes spend their newfound wealth on the run. They would order more alcohol, a TV, and a mistress.
We realized that when we're talking about transformation, that's not what we're talking about. We've learned that it makes all other aspects, or all other parts of what we're doing much more effective, because it's the change in attitude that really gives people the hope and the sense of urgency that they need to start to change their situation.
(Richard Mhina:) One of the strengths of our program is the spiritual renewal aspect of our program, because there are other NGOs down here. But you would see that even the government acknowledges: How is it possible you guys are having that great impact? We say, I believe it's because of the spiritual renewal component.
(Evelin Castellanos:) We have a workshop about identity and vocation and it’s based on the story of creation from Genesis. When God wanted to create humanity, He looked for a model or a template for creating us. He himself was that model, so he says “Let us make him in our image, in our likeness.” He gives us a task, a purpose. He says, let him have dominion over the fish of the sea. Over the fowl of the air, and over all the earth. Every creeping thing. So we ask people what it means to have dominion. That word means to steward. But that stewardship needs to be done according to the principles established by God In a just way, in a responsible way. We see in Genesis 2:15, that God takes mankind and puts him in the Garden of Eden. Why did he place him in Eden? To tend to it and take care of it. We know he gave Adam at least three tasks to work the land, to care for it and to be a responsible steward. And this is how we begin planning our activities.
As people share their reflections about being created by God and made in His image and likeness they conclude that they are people with value. And that God has given us a potential to make progress. There are so many things that we could do. I could even fly an airplane! Do I have the potential to do it? Of course! It’s just that I don’t have a need to fly an airplane right now. But–We can learn a lot of things. They say, yes, yes we can. What things do we want to learn? What skills should we develop? Let’s work on that and recognize our gifts, our talents.
There have been times where a women’s group would ask each other, “What do we know how to do? What gifts do we have?” and they would answer, “I don’t know how to do anything!”
Then I reply, “Really? Are you sure? Because you make great tortillas that I don’t know how to make. You grow vegetables, you plant corn and beans, something I don’t know how to do. I don’t know how to produce food and you do. You know how to do many things.” and then they say, “That’s right.”
(Scott): And so we've incorporated it into our theory of change, the document and the map that explains how we get from where we are to where we want to go. Part of where we want to go is helping people change their relationships with God, their neighbors, the environment, and with themselves. The only way to do that is by taking on some spiritual change. But, It's more than that. It's intentional. In response to your question, we work very closely in partnership with the local churches. We believe that the local church is God's chosen instrument for change in a community in most of the places we work. Churches already exist. We're working in a lot of predominantly Christian communities. We also work in communities that are Muslim and Buddhist. But, where there is a church, we partner very closely with the local church and we provide training for church leaders.
Again, Richard in Tanzania uses a curriculum called redemptive agriculture. One of the things it brings out is the value of farming. A lot of the subsistence farmers and smallholder farmers around the world have been taught that they really don't have anything to offer in the economy. It teaches that you only make a dollar a day or less. So, the economy doesn't value what they have to offer. Oftentimes, their own governments don't value what they have to offer. You know, they consider them to be the backwards people.
The church has traditionally had nothing to offer other than the hope of salvation. You know, “the gospel doesn't apply to anything you do today”. However, this curriculum that we're teaching (redemptive agriculture) talks about how God was the first farmer. God created a garden and placed Adam in the garden to attend it and to keep it, and has given us the same task.
What's exciting about that is that people who have considered that what they were doing (digging) didn't contribute barely anything to their own families. Now they see themselves as actually having a role in God's plan, and being able to contribute to God's kingdom as stewards of creation.
(Paul:) I know you and I have talked several times about some of the impacts that you've seen in our communities around the world where we're working. Can you recall some of those particularly impactful moments where you've seen the result of spiritual resilience and spiritual renewal in our communities?
(Scott:) As I was talking with our directors this past week, they shared a lot of other stories as well. Some of the most poignant ones to me were in eastern Congo, in the DRC. Talking to people who had grown up with this incredible conflict, this deep seated conflict. In an environment in which men didn't do much and very shared some stories with me about it. There's actually a saying in one of the communities that if a man's married, he shouldn't do anything. I mean, that's kind of his place if he has a wife. To see people valuing their lives working alongside them, to see reconciliation within the family, people not only changing the way they treat their wives, but changing the way they feel about themselves. They realize they have something to offer.
A story that I've shared for a number of years, is one about a former warlord I happened to talk to. I actually spent a couple of days walking with him in eastern Congo. I didn't know his history at the time. Sitting down and talking with him, he told me “we don’t do anything”. He said they just sat around and played cards, until our pastor came and told them that work was a gift from God. He thought maybe he had something he could contribute. He said this as if there was a light bulb going off: “I thought maybe if I help my wife on the farm, we can do something great.”
The cool thing about that story is he is still doing that. There has been a culture shift in those communities. Birori has some other stories about that, which only comes from a heart transformation. The other thing I asked him was, what's the spiritual background of this? Did you become a Christian? He said, “No, I've always been a Christian. I just never knew it applied to anything besides Sunday before.”
We often think of that as a malady that's peculiar to the church in America. However, all of our directors told me stories like that. One of the things that Durbel is sharing is that a lot of the churches that they deal with have nothing outside of their Sunday service. There is no tradition of Bible study. The savings groups do a devotional and start to read and study the Bible. A light comes on there and it's been really fun to see that.
(Paul:) Talk about what you have experienced over the years in Plant With Purpose, as you've seen us integrate these aspects of environmental restoration, economic empowerment and spiritual renewal. How have the communities become stronger because of the integration of those three elements?
(Scott:) Well, I'm really glad you asked, because we didn't always integrate them. I think that we've always had these three elements. There was a time when you could travel and you'd see it. You'd see a church program over here and you'd see a farming project over there and you'd see a savings group in a third place.
What we learned is that there's a tremendous synergy between these three elements. There's been some research and study showing how savings groups and agricultural training and rushed land restoration together are more effective than either one. The third element of spiritual renewal is dramatic because of what it does for the attitudes. One of the things that Richard shared with me is that Plant With Purpose participants have a noticeably different work ethic than anybody else around them.
Another thing we measure is if people take satisfaction in their work, and we see a noticeable change there. It really is from a practical standpoint, something that accelerates all of the other dynamics. The other thing that we hear a lot about is how it brings about reconciliation.
Birori had a story for me, he's had a number of stories along this way. Again, and I really have to stress the history of conflict that he's dealing with. He told me a story of a couple of women that were in the same savings group, and they really had a problem with each other. Yet, part of what's being taught in the savings group is unity, and they're hearing the same message in church. It ultimately led to them reconciling forgiveness between them. The two of them are actually in business together now.
(Paul:) Talk about some of the experiences that you've had with our country directors, as you've talked about in our planning. I know we’ve got collectively some big plans for spiritual renewal for the coming year. Talk about some of those plans.
(Scott:) Well, one of the things that I'm excited about this year is bringing together as much of the combined wisdom of our teams as we can. Everybody works in their own context, and having the rare privilege of getting to visit each of them and to know each of them. I know, for example, I shared earlier about the redemptive agriculture piece that Richard is teaching. The teaching theology of work the Birori and Noe are teaching and the church, community and change, that is taking place in Mexico.
Each of them have their treasures. I think of in Revelation, where it talks about the treasure of the nations being brought together. I think a little bit of that is what I'm hoping for. Each of them brings the wisdom that they've learned to develop a shared curriculum where the best of what God has taught us is being shared, so each country can learn from the other. There's a big initiative this year of putting together this shared Plant With Purpose, spiritual renewal curriculum. I'm really excited about that.
I think the other thing you mentioned was prayer. Our former colleague used to refer to that as our secret weapon. In addition to praying regularly individually. As a team in each country once a month throughout Plant With Purpose, the first Friday of the month, we gather to pray for each other. I just love the idea that in Congo, they're praying for Haiti, and in Thailand, they're praying for Mexico.
We're sharing one another's burdens, personal and professional. That's a regular and ongoing thing. It's something that everybody can participate in. By the way, if you're interested in joining us on the first Friday of the month or in your own time, we have a monthly prayer letter and would love to have more people on the prayer team.
(Paul:) Scott, you've alluded to the relationship that we have with churches in the communities where we're working. Can you talk specifically about how we are engaging our interest in spiritual renewal with our partnership with churches?
(Scott): Well, a lot of the churches have relatively weak leadership. Maybe it's one pastor serving a whole bunch of churches or a pastor who is not not very well-educated. So, it has been our intent to come alongside them, to help them. That's where we share things like theology of work, redemptive agriculture, and church community. Changing the curriculum helps churches to get involved in their communities and to take on projects, to become relevant to the community and to serve the community.
All of our directors have told me stories about how churches for the first time are getting active in helping the poor. There are churches in Haiti that are building houses for the homeless. There are churches in the Dominican Republic that have started literacy projects. There are churches in Tanzania and in Congo that have taken on land restoration projects. There are churches that are starting to care for the elderly and doing outreach projects to work on their land. It's really turned out to be a very symbiotic thing as the churches are doing that.
They're growing, and as they're growing, they're investing back. One of the things Richard shared with me is that a lot of people in Tanzania, if they're very poor, will often avoid church, as they don’t have any offering to bring.
There's an element of, “I can go to church because I have something to get”. That's increased church attendance. As people have been helped by the church, they've in turn started attending the church.
There has been reconciliation between churches. One of my favorite stories is the way the churches in the Kakumba watershed in eastern Congo were not even fully aware of each other before and often when they were in competition. Now collectively, they have become the conscience for the people there. They have taken care of relief projects in terms of helping refugees and so forth. So they really have established themselves as something very relevant and in leadership in those communities.
I really like that. Then, the cycle continues as the church becomes our ambassador. Richard was telling me a story of pastors actually having our group members stand up and give testimonies about what they've gained, and how other people can be involved with Plant With Purpose. It's a wonderful, virtuous cycle. It's cool.
(Birori Gaparani): People are hopeless. They say, “I’m living this life. This is enough. I don't have the ability to change.” But when we train the theology of work, people start having purpose. Having another vision. They start to realize, “I can change. I can improve. I can become another one. Not me present, but I can change in the near future. This is something we have observed.
(Durbel Brito:) But thanks to God through the spiritual renewal area of our work and integrating it with the rest of our mission, We are able to help farmers develop agriculturally, along with their love for God. When you love God, when you love your wife. When you love your children and your neighbor.
You no longer want to do the things that aren’t good in the eyes of God. So I would say that our work would be completely useless if you removed the spiritual part. What matters most for people’s transformation is that they can know God. When somebody knows God, as the Bible says, they become a new creation. They stop doing the things they did before. They only consider the things that please God. That’s why I say it’s the most important part of the program. This spiritual part, where farmers are coming to know God and life changes. It transforms. It gives me a lot of joy to visit some of the people I’ve met before, maybe somebody who didn’t know how to pray before is now somebody who prays with sincerity to the Lord. This is my satisfaction.I’ve met many people who were one way before who are now completely different people.
(Scott:) As I frequently mentioned, subsistence farmers have often been taught that they have little or nothing to offer. So the idea that God values them and their work, and has given each of them unique talents to use on behalf of God's kingdom is revolutionary!
That's something that all of us are teaching in one form or another, but really hoping to share that and make that more central. One of the unifying things that goes through what we're teaching everywhere is; the idea that each of us- whether here in the United States or on a subsistence farm in East Africa- has been given the unique privilege of working alongside God for his redemptive purposes. God has allowed us to be a part of his plan for redemption, for the environment, for the globe, and for the world.
That's really exciting stuff. We each get to participate in sharing the good news of the kingdom through our words and through our work. What a privilege it is to be able to reflect God's love, grace, and mercy every day in the work that we do.
(Paul): Scott, thank you for this time. I want you to know what a privilege I consider it to be able to work with you every day. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your commitment to spiritual renewal and for the work that we're doing collectively.
(Scott): Thank you, Paul. It is a real blessing to work with you as well. Thank you.