Twelve million African children orphaned by AIDS. Three million dead worldwide each year for lack of clean drinking water. We’ve heard the mind-numbing numbers, seen the pictures. And we want to do something.
“You can’t do anything to solve other people’s problems,” responds Lois Ooms ’67.
That’s the lynchpin in her message of hope when she talks to Westerners.
It’s a message Ooms has been learning and living for 39 years. In 1969, she went to eastern Kenya to teach biology and chemistry under the auspices of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, intending to stay for two years. When she left the country last November she handed over her role as director for the Transformational Community Health and Development program to a Kenyan woman in order to respond to a surge of requests that she bring the program’s principles to other countries.
“It works everywhere—in rural areas, city slums, in Muslim countries,” Ooms said, “and it works with any problem people want to address.”
“It” is an approach to development that Ooms said is truly transformational for the people involved because its first principles are theological.
“We start by telling people, ‘Every one of us is made in God’s image and has gifts and resources that God wants us to use to restore relationships—with ourselves, others, creation and Him.’ In a context where the predominant worldview is fatalism, that’s hugely freeing to realize. People see they’re not helpless; they believe they can do things not because foreigners help them, but because they’re God’s image bearers.”
Just what they do is completely up to them, Ooms explained. “Once people understand the basic principles of how to start a simple program without outside funding, how to sustain it and avoid dependency, then they go back home to find out what their communities want to do.”
A school and feeding program for orphans. Micro-finance groups. An HIV/AIDS clinic. Distribution of mosquito nets. Raising chickens. The projects are as many and as varied as the communities that undertake them. Ooms has no idea what they all are or how many are under way.
She does know that besides spreading spontaneously, “like wildfire,” across Kenya, word of this development model has reached people in 15 or so other countries torn by war and traditionally closed to missionaries. They want to learn how to start their own local groups. Working out how to respond to them is part of Ooms’ work now.
Another part is traveling the United States, speaking about the model, especially to disillusioned missionaries. “Those are the ones I can work with,” Ooms said. “They have seen the failure of projects that poured money and labor into a problem because well-meaning Westerners wanted to do something for people they thought too poor to do for themselves.
“We give no money or labor to begin a program. No matter how poor they are, people can find resources for something they really want. Those are the programs that are sustainable.” She added, “We’re not hard-hearted. We want to give people the dignity that’s theirs as image bearers of God.”
Ooms is often asked, “Is there no place for charity from the well-to-do in the West?”
“I struggled with that for many years,” she said. “One of my Kenyan colleagues gave me the answer. He said, ‘Let us start the vehicle and drive it. When it gets stuck in a mud puddle, you help us push it through. But don’t push us all the way to Nairobi.’”You may email Lois Ooms to learn more about her work in transformational community development.
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