We meet Regina while she was cleaning onions on her mat in Wudo market. We sat down to talk with her about what God is doing in her life through the micro-finance ministry of Seed Effect in Kajo Keji, South Sudan. It turned out to be a little challenging – because she was so popular! It seemed like everyone in the market wanted to buy from Regina even though there were many other people selling similar vegetables.
When we asked Regina why she was so popular, she giggled and said, “Because I am so cheerful and happy!” There is no denying it, she is an extremely cheerful person and when asked she has no trouble giving the reason for her joy, “God fills her heart with love.”Regina grew up surrounded by conflict, losing members of her family to the conflict, and with what little they had they were just sustaining themselves with food. She wasn’t able to go to school as a child. Without any education, Regina was forced to work as a very low paid cleaner. She shared with us how she used to hate knowing that she wouldn’t have any food to take home to her family, and how helpless that made her feel. Not only was she unable to survive on the meager wages, but it was hard manual labor, with unpredictable and excruciatingly long hours. So much so that when she became pregnant with her twins she was forced to leave the job.
Regina found herself pregnant, jobless, with children to support, no business experience and no savings to fall back on. She said the word the best described this time for her was “Alone”.
She says God provided a way to her soon after that – and that way was a loan and education through Seed Effect. She heard of Seed Effect through people in the market, they told her she could start small, and grow, and have her own business. She wasn’t sure where to start, so she asked for a loan to start a small restaurant. As she grew to know the Lord, she saw how He had showed her love and provided mercy to her and provision that she couldn’t do on her own. Since she can’t read, the scripture shared by Seed Effect was her way to get to know the Lord.She also grew in her business knowledge through Seed Effect’s business seminars. With new found confidence, she took on a fabric business, and then transitioned to her current business selling produce and food items. Regina says one of her favorite business skills she has acquired from the seminars is time management. Specifically she learned that if she gets to the market early, and has her goods all set up and displayed, ready for customers as soon as the first one arrives, she gets more business. We got to encourage Regina with how we saw her living out Ephesians 5:15 “Look carefully then how you walk, not as the unwise, but as wise, making the best use of the time” and being faithful with her business.
Regina wouldn’t let us leave without telling us one last time how thankful she is that through her business she is able to come home with something to put on the table for her family, and to pay for her children to attend school – all 7 of them!
This is the first in a short series of throwback posts, stories about our time in Africa a few months ago.
As we were looking back over the last 11 months and thinking about some of our favorite parts and most meaningful time, we kept coming back to the time we spent in South Sudan with Seed Effect. Reminiscing made me realize that I never shared many of the stories we captured from that incredible time. Part of our time in South Sudan was spent gathering stories for Seed Effect to be able to share about the work going on there and for supports to get a feel for what it’s like there. But it was such a powerful experience for us that I wanted to share them on our blog as well.
I came expecting neatly buttoned up stories of past hardship, then with God’s intervention through Seed Effect, a transformation, renewal and new hope. I had drawn up in my mind a neat beginning, middle and end, all tied up with a bow. And I was expecting to fill in these predetermined blanks with the client’s details.
But God had a different plan. Today when we went to hear stories, we didn’t go to a market where the clients had been with Seed Effect and experienced life change yet… instead, they were on their very first loan, just a month or two into it. To be honest, my first reaction was disappointment when I learned this. How am I supposed to get these triumphant stories, when there hasn’t been time for it yet?!?
But as I listened to Clements and Kenny talk about how they are learning to trust God, and how they want to grow their businesses. And as I got to encourage them with 1 Peter 5:10 “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” God reminded me that His establishing, restoring and strengthening of us isn’t a past tense story – it’s happening now, it’s ongoing.
God reminded me that none of our stories are finished. We are all in the midst, none of us complete. And how short sighted of me to think any of God’s stories of work in us are neatly packaged.
That’s what faith is about. I can hear Kenny talk about his carpentry shop and how he wants to invest in more timber so he can build for more people in the community, and while his life doesn’t look much different yet… than it did a month ago before the loan, I hear the hope in his voice. And I know it will be different because God is working in his life through Seed Effect sharing the word of God with him, through my prayers for him. We are all unfinished, but God who began the good work in us will bring it to completion.
Seed Effect comes alongside Kenny and Clements and dozens of other clients to wade through the messiness in the middle. And celebrates the small transformations along with way, with full faith that God is using it to bring glory to Himself and draw us closer to him. Because God promises that he will establish, restore and strengthen us through it.
The words of one of my favorite worship songs echo in my head as I reflect on today, “You’re not finished with me yet! You’re not finished with me yet! By your power, I can change, I can change, because you’re not finished with me yet!”
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about our time in South Sudan for a couple weeks now. To be honest it’s so intimidating and overwhelming to me that I just keep putting it off. I just don’t feel like I can do justice to the way the history and situation seems almost impossible, the hurt nearly every person faces daily… and then the passion and love Seed Effect team has and the incredible things God is doing there. So, I totally wussed out at first and asked Rick to write a post blog about our time there, and he did an awesome job!! Thanks, babe!
But I feel like I want to add a few other thoughts and experiences of mine that aren’t as well organized. The best way I can think to do it is a list of the things that surprised me, stood out to me, and where I saw big impact.
1) There is so much power in what is considered status quo in a society. Over the last few years I’ve really come to see how much who you surround yourself with defines your worldview and so many facets of your life. But I hadn’t seen such broadly held societal influences have such power. And it’s so sad. The status quo in South Sudan is a deadly and depressing cocktail made with 1 part corrupt leaders, 1 part regular loss of property and loved ones, 2 parts lack of sense of value of human life, and 1 part “no light at the end of the tunnel” visible for most people. And if you’ve never known anything or seen anything different, how could you possibly believe, work and risk for something different??
2) The war’s lasting effects include many people who have really only known refugee camps for their adult life. And when they were told to return to South Sudan, they had literally NOTHING to return with. Imagine starting a new life, in a new place with no bank account or money, one change of clothes, no tools, you’ve lost everyone you know, no seeds to plant, no house, shelter or tent even, no food, no containers to put water in…. And then when you think you are going back to the town where your family is from, you show up to find that another family from a different tribe has already claimed that property as their own. Nothing you can do about it. Where do you go from there?!
3) The passion and energy that the native Seed Effect team has for Jesus is effervescent and incredible! They are GIANTS in faith. I am so encouraged by them, and inspired, and challenger to grow my faith. They are not exceptions to the above two bullet points, they have lived and are living through some big, tough things. But they embody delighting in the Lord like I’ve never seen. And out of the overflow of that, they care for Seed Effects clients and share who Jesus is with an intoxicating enthusiasm. They have seen God fulfill His promises in their lives, even through incredible heartbreak and hardship. Here are just a couple of stories from folks on the team: Scovia’s story and Butti’s story4) The life change, and hope, and joyfulness I saw in the clients leaves no doubt that God is mightily at work in Kajo Keji through Seed Effect!! To hear a woman tell you that she used to feel she was not worth anything to anyone, she had no value in the world… and now, because of Seed Effect showing her who Jesus is and what she means to Him, telling her she does have worth and showing it by investing in her so she can have a business, she not only values her life, but her kids’ lives, and values the lives of others in her village and is helping them know worth and love. It’s pretty incredible.
5) I felt like there was a “theme” to my time in South Sudan, a phrase that continually ran through my mind like a song stuck in my head, that so many of my experiences fit into… That was God’s Promises. Not an entirely new concept, but it felt like God revealed it to me in a new way. I mean EVERYTHING was like “oh that’s one of God’s promises to us from the Bible”, or “oh, WOW, that’s God making good on one of his promises”. Maybe it was that I was reading through Genesis with Join The Journey while I was there too. A couple of the ones that stand out in my memory:
God promises to be our comforter in hard times, and “delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” psalm 37:4 If he is our biggest delight and source of joy, then our hearts desire will be for a deeper and closer relationship with him. It’s an awesome Catch 22! I saw people who had lost so much embodying these and have a joy shining out of them like nothing I’ve ever seen.
God promises he will not allow us to suffer forever and that He is there in that suffering, 1 Peter 5:10 “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace… will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you” It was a pastor in South Sudan who first pointed out this verse to me, and it echoed in my mind as we visited different clients, especially some of the newer clients who had not experienced as much life change yet. I encouraged them with this verse, but only because I had been encouraged with it from other Seed Effect clients. They saw it in their life – they experienced true suffering, suffering that I can’t fully fathom. And they stood in front of me with huge smiles and this crazy sparkle in their eye talking about how God and the work of Seed Effect had given them hope and strength and joy.
….and that His love never ceases and his mercies are new every morning, Lamentations 3:22-23. God gives us new mercies every day because each day only has enough mercy in it for that day…. We will not have to bear tomorrow’s troubles with today’s resources, God gives us new hope and mercy each day for it’s own trouble. In so many of the stories we heard in the markets of Kajo Keji, there seemed past days when Regina or Kenny’s circumstances were too much for any person to bear, but as they revealed their stories, God had provided just the right event or person to give hope, or a hand up, or love them, or just the right guidance just when they needed it.
I hear God, as He’s looking over South Sudan, declaring “I know the plans I have for you, and you, and you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”. I hear that for Rick and I, for Seed Effect’s leadership team, and most loudly for the Seed Effect clients.
Currently, I’m working on more posts for the Seed Effect blog with client stories and more of our experience. As those get published, we will put them on this blog as well. So stay tuned!
After literally years of wanting and trying to visit the Seed Effect team on the ground in South Sudan we finally made it! (If you don’t know Seed Effect the micro-finance ministry in South Sudan you might want to read: What is Seed Effect, Our South Sudan Visa Journey and South Sudan Here We Come). We new about micro-finance but we were ready to see it in action. We met up with Drew Mosier, Seed Effects Dallas based state-side Executive Director in Entebbe, Uganda and headed to a little air stripe between Entebbe and Kampala. After an interesting “baggage screening” (unpack everything) we meet our pilot, Dallas, and the 4 of us climbed into the only 4 seats on the plane! I got to play co-pilot. We taxied down the dirt runway and we were up, up, up and away for our two-hour flight to Arua, Uganda.
We arrived in Aura just in time to find out that we were going to have a two, no maybe three… no, no, make that a four-hour layover while our next (and bigger) plane went and dropped off some other people that were headed to a different part of South Sudan before coming back to take us to Kajo Keji (KK), and the Seed Effect headquarters. We briefly entertained the idea of walking into town but the security guy with the gun at the gate to airport didn’t think it was a good idea to leave the airport grounds and suggested we enjoy the “canteen” on the airport grounds (we didn’t argue it’s one of our travel rules… “Don’t argue with guys with big guns”). We passed the time catching up with Drew, playing dominos, getting a briefing on South Sudan and watching the lizards catch bugs. Before long our plane was back and we were flying the short 45 minutes to KK!
Our plane landed Kajo Keji International Airport, aka the dirt strip at the edge of town and we were greeted by what seemed like a hundred kids surrounding the plane and greeting us with “Hi-eeeeeee…!” In the middle of them all was Scovia Kiden, the South Sudan Country Director for Seed Effect, with some of the team to greet us and take us to the office. We piled into a Land Cruiser and down the dirt road into town. We arrived at the office and meet the team then it was on the compound where we’d be staying for our time in KK. Compound sounds more exciting that it is, it was the local pastor’s house and everyone seems to call any group of buildings with a wall around it a compound in South Sudan.
The pastor’s compound had one of the few water wells in the area so there were always kids running in and out all day every day with jugs of all kinds to fill up and carry home. We took our turn playing “water pump” a few times over the course of the next few days and the kids seems to like it when we pumped as the jugs seemed to multiple very quickly when I was pumping water… or maybe I’m just a lot slower at it than they are.
The next few days were a whirlwind of meeting with the team, with clients, hearing stories of life change, training, learning and encouragement; and a lot of getting used to the speed of life in rural Africa. One of the first things we learned was “gayla-tot” which is what all the kids yelled at us if they weren’t yelling “Hi-eeeeeee…” it loosely, and affectionately, translates to “white person.” We got a lot of that; driving down the road, walking through the market pretty much everywhere. Kids would run out to the road and wave at us as we drove by yelling “Gayla-tot. Gayla-tot.” Then we would wave and they would yell “Hi-eeeeee!”
We visited a bunch of the markets around KK and met a number of Seed Effect clients. Some were on their ninth or tenth loan cycle while others were just starting their first or second loan cycle with Seed Effect. They all had amazing stories full of suffering and hardship but full of hope and optimism as well. They want to see their country healed. We heard stories of fleeing the violence and instability of a civil war and ongoing conflicts, of families being lost in refugee camps and stories of uncertainty. But we also heard stories of healing, of kids that can now go to school, of communities being stabilized, and stories of life change. Part of Liz and I’s goal for our time in South Sudan was to document some of the stories of Seed Effect clients and share them with the world. We’ve got number we plan to share of the next few months on Seed Effect’s blog so stay tuned.
The Seed Effect team had asked if we could lead some team training on a number of topics. Liz saw a perfect opportunity to work Brinker’s and “big rocks” analogy into her training class on “Goals and Priorities” and of course there were plenty of rocks to work with. And what team training would be complete without a seminar on “Feedback is Priceless?” She did a wonderful job and had the team totally engaged. She can now add internationally known development speaker to her already overflowing résumé.
I was volun-told that I would be preaching on Sunday, which was nice of Drew to tell me in advance because he said on his first trip he only found out that the American visitors were always expected to “Give the Word” when they called him up to preach so I was extremely thankful for the day or so I was able to prepare in advance as well as for Join the Journey and their daily devotions to inspire me to speak on Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22… luckily for y’all the mango tree the church meet under didn’t have any recording equipment so we won’t be posting my “sermon” here.
Over and over throughout our time in Kajo Keji I was constantly reminded of 1 Peter 3:15 “…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” It seemed as if the Seed Effect team always had the gospel on the tip of their tongue, the Word of God seasoned all of their conversations; it was truly encouraging, and more than a little convicting.
The second leg of our trip was a scouting expedition to Yei, which is one of the towns Seed Effect is considering for it’s third branch in South Sudan. Yei is considered by many the most stable part of South Sudan and it shows, people and groups are flocking to Yei, it’s main market was HUGE! We met with a number of groups and individuals that are based in Yei to get an idea if Seed Effect would be a good fit for the community. And three flights and another four-hour layover at the “canteen” in Arua later we were back at the airstrip outside Entebbe hugging Drew bye and jumping in a car to Kampala.
Liz and I talk a lot about expectation these days, as we travel always wondering what the next village/country/place to sleep will be like and South Sudan was everything I expected and at the same time nothing like I expected. There were no bullets whizzing overhead but we heard stories from other parts of the country where the bullets still regularly fly. There is practically no infrastructure, no paved roads, electricity in most places is own your own with solar panels and generators and the water is pumped by hand from a well. The people are warm and inviting and proud of what they are doing. Clients view Seed Effect as a company they are choosing to give their business to, but also as part of their family. Maybe I just didn’t know what to expect but I was totally blown away.
God is working in South Sudan and he is using Seed Effect.
I’m sitting here at the Doha Airport, and can’t believe are less than 12 hours away from starting our time in South Sudan with Seed Effect (more on what Seed Effect is about)! We’ll be flying into Entebbe, Uganda, then taking a small bush plane to the rural town where Seed Effect is based. It’s been a challenging journey just to get visas and be allowed into the country, and God has used that process to remind us that He is in control and we just need to trust him. (more on that in a another post) We’re excited to have more detail around what we’ll be doing and we’re eagerly preparing!
In reality, we are not going to be there to hand out loans, or build a storefront for a new business. It’s important that the clients are being served by other South Sudanese, locals who are there invested in their daily lives. So we’ll take more of a behind the scenes role. A big part of it is for us to get to see how God is using Seed Effect and the microfinance loans to change lives, families and communities – that leads to the first thing we’ll be doing – Curating stories of individuals, families and communities that have been transformed by God through Seed Effect. Rick will do some photography and design, I’ll do some writing and content generation. What we create will be used for the website, social media, etc to raise awareness, engagement and support.
While we are there we are also going to be teaching staff training seminars to the Seed Effect staff. We’ve been asked to do seminars on time management and goal setting, attitude towards work, humility, and team building and team work.
So I’m working on a couple powerpoint presentations (déjà vu!) I’m thinking of using the Big Rocks demonstration to talk about goals and time management.
And our third area of focus will be creating a database system for clients success metrics and then analyzing the trends and making them meaningful results and insights. Basically this will allow Seed Effect to quantify the impact of the work they are doing, which allows them to apply for grants and expand their work. We plan to get an understanding for the current survey system and what the team there is working with in terms of technology, reliable internet access, etc and it will most likely be some ongoing work for us for the months following.
In reality, this is God’s trip and we may end up doing something completely different! We are excited to be part of whatever God has for us.
We aren’t sure what the internet situation will be there, so we may not be back online until after January 15, when we plan to be back in Uganda and headed toward Tanzania. But we would love to have you praying for us while we are there.
We need your prayers for us that we are completely trusting of God in all of this trip and running toward Him. Pray that God is preparing our hearts for it, humbling us, drawing us closer to him. Pray for us to recognize spiritual warfare that may be happening and be strong in it – if Satan can’t keep you away from where God wants you, he’ll try to make you ineffective, distracted or demotivated when you’re there. Pray that God is preparing the hearts of those we’ll meet in South Sudan. Pray for us as we start preparing the content we’ll be presenting there. That we take the opportunities God gives us to bring him glory through this process – whether that’s in the plan we think we have, or different circumstances God gives us. Pray that we have open hearts to hear what God wants for us. Pray that any logistics challenges of getting to and around South Sudan are just preparing us even more to be there and trust God, to know it’s him that got us there and is doing the work there.
Seed Effect is a Christ-centered nonprofit microfinance organization. The mission is to plant the seeds that overcome poverty by providing access to microloans, education, and spiritual discipleship in marginalized communities. It starts with a life, impacts a family and transforms a community. Here’s a great video from Seed Effect:
Why not just give these folks some food or something?
Yep – Food, water, healthcare, and education are mere luxuries for millions in South Sudan. But when you ask the materially poor what they believe poverty really is, the answer might surprise you. They won’t always tell you that it’s a lack of things, but more often they’ll say that it’s a lack of dignity, security, opportunity, and hope. They say it is loneliness, pain, bondage, and powerlessness. Seed Effect exists because people lack access to the hand-up, the tool, the opportunity that could change the cycle of poverty in their families for generations to come.
Microfinance is a tool that can enable the poor to break the cycle of poverty by providing small loans and savings services to support income-generating businesses. With repayment of each loan, the money is reinvested as loans to other entrepreneurs, thereby multiplying the impact of each donation.
Ok, so what does that actually look like?
Here’s an example, a woman may have a business selling hand-sewn dresses in the market. While she’s very hard-working, she is only able to complete a new dress every few days. However, by providing her with a microloan to purchase a sewing machine, she is able to make more dresses, grow her business and better provide for her family.
As Milton Friedman, the 1976 noble peace prize winner, put it “the poor stay poor, not because they are lazy, but because they have no access to capital.”
God has really used the process of getting our South Sudan visas to remind us that He is in control and we just need to trust Him. It’s kind of a funny story now, but in the moment we were stressed, which just showed us that we weren’t fully trusting God with it.
To say it mildly, we have hit a few obstacles to getting our visa to get into the country. We couldn’t do it before we left on our trip because you have to get it within three months of when you’ll be there. So we were planning to get the visa in Bangkok or Uganda where they have South Sudan embassies. This hasn’t worked out for us. We could not get in touch with the embassies in Bangkok or Uganda. So we tried the embassy in Germany, but they will only issue visas for German residents. We then realized this may be the case in Uganda as well (but they have not answered their phone ever, in the weeks we’ve been calling). The folks in South Sudan also do not answer. And we have not been able to successfully communicate with the embassy in Kenya either. We were calculating if it was even possible to overnight our passports to Washington D.C., get them to expedite the processing (from 2 weeks to 1 week) and have them shipped back to us in Germany – all with the holidays and before we flew out. After calculating it every way we could think of, it just wasn’t going to work.
We were getting rather concerned at this point. We were really stressing out, and had to stop and remind ourselves that this is God’s trip and if He wants us there He’ll make a way.
The day before Christmas we learned that there is an embassy in Brussels (where we already happened to be going for NYE). And they actually answered their phones and said they issue visas to non-residents of Belgium. But timing was tough… it’s typically a 5 day process… with the holidays, they were closed Christmas through the 29th, and then may be closed for the new year and we needed to fly out on Jan 6. We completed their online application, only to learn a couple hours later that it no longer works. We must go in person and it takes 2-3 days.
We went early for NYE and dropped off our passports. They agreed to try to expedite our processing to make our flight, but no promises. We already had our flight purchased at this point so we were committed. We had friends praying for us though, and felt much calmer knowing God had it in control.
We planned to return on January 5th to pick up our visas and passports, less than 24 hours before our flight. We arrived at the South Sudan embassy with big smiles, knowing whatever the outcome, it was God’s doing. And we were met by very friendly staff who told us happy New Year and handed us our passports with the visas in them! We were beyond excited! What a great journey to begin our journey to South Sudan.
As many of you know Liz and I are big supporters of Seed Effect a micro-finance ministry that we’ve worked with for the last few years. One of the “pillars” of our trip was to spend some time working with Seed Effect in South Sudan and our trip is right around the corner! We’ll be there in January spending about 10 days meeting the the local staff, collecting stories, learning and seeing what God is doing in South Sudan. We plan to document these stories of life change and share them through Seed Effects various social media channels (as well as right here of course).
Many of you have partnered with us to support the work Seed Effect is doing in South Sudan before but we’ve got some exciting, timely news … matching donation through the of the year!
So while many of you are considering your “End of Year Giving” please consider partnering with us and Seed Effect and you’re money will go even further with a matching gift.
You can read more about our heart for South Sudan, the work of Seed Effect as well as donate directly at SeedEffect.org/LizAgostin. You can hear more about the work of Seed Effect and stories of hope from the South Sudanese themselves below: