Changing Lives One Drop at a Time

By Karen Smith –

According to the United Nations, 3 billion people will be added to the global population by 2050. Up to 90 percent of them will likely be born in regions with no sustainable access to clean drinking water.

Today, one in eight people do not have access to clean water. This amounts to 884 million people – 37 percent of those people live in sub-Saharan Africa. According to The Water Project, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from a water-related disease. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) reports that 5,000 children die each day from water borne diseases.

These numbers mean something to the congregation at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio. They represent an opportunity to save lives.

Ginghamsburg is a United Methodist congregation in a town of 9,300 people, just north of Dayton, in the heart of the “rust belt.” When the Rev. Mike Slaughter was appointed to Ginghamsburg 34 years ago, he inherited a 104-year-old small country church on a quarter of an acre with fewer than 90 members and an annual budget of $27,000. The population of the Miami Valley region where Ginghamsburg is located has declined by more than 30,000 people during that same time because of the region’s dependence on the declining automobile industry. In August 2008, Forbes magazine named Dayton as one of the 10 fastest dying cities in America. Today, however, roughly 4,500 people worship, attend class, serve, or find community each week on the church’s campus.

Photo courtesy of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church.

Photo courtesy of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church.

Despite the church’s original lack of stature and size, the vision was cast to have the church members become radical servants who would meet practical and spiritual needs for the “least of these” in the communities around them. The church immediately started a food pantry and gently used clothing store and later added car and furniture ministries. These ministries, now known as New Path Outreach, serve more than 40,000 people a year.

That passion for mission to the local community has also birthed a Christian Counseling Center, a Clubhouse teen-led after-school program for kids in “at risk” communities, and two urban campuses in economically challenged Dayton neighborhoods that are serving as the empowering centers for their communities. The church has also deeply invested in national missions, having sent 70 teams to the Gulf region since Hurricane Katrina.

In 2005, Ginghamsburg began its largest international mission focus called The Sudan Project. During the previous year, the international news reported that hundreds of thousands in Darfur were at risk of starvation since the violence had prevented crop planting at the start of the growing season. Pastor Slaughter clearly felt God’s urging to engage the Ginghamsburg faith community into serving the needs of the vulnerable victims of this senseless war and the first genocide of the 21st century.

That Advent season, the congregation was reminded that “Christmas is not your birthday – it’s Jesus’ birthday!” We were also challenged to have a simple Christmas that year. All were asked to spend only half as much on their own Christmas as they would normally spend and to give the rest as a Christmas Miracle Offering to serve the people of Darfur. That same challenge has been issued in all subsequent Advent seasons, generating a total of $6.1 million for sustainable humanitarian project in both Darfur, Sudan, and Aweil, South Sudan.

Ginghamsburg’s work in the Darfur region, in partnership with UMCOR, has funded three primary projects since early 2005.

• A sustainable agriculture program has had an impact upon 85,000 people.

• A safe water and sanitation project implemented 19 water yards serving close to 100,000 people and their livestock, along with installing 1,438 latrines in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and institutional latrines for schools.

• A child protection and development program constructed 243 schools that have served a cumulative enrollment of nearly 30,000 students, implemented life skills training programs for teen males and women, and supported seven kindergartens for the youngest students.

Photo courtesy of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church.

Photo courtesy of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church.

In 2011, Ginghamsburg extended its work in East Africa into South Sudan, the newest country on the planet, by building a primary health care unit (PHCU) that is serving 15,000 South Sudanese. Via the UMCOR partnership, Ginghamsburg’s project has trained 46 community health workers and traditional birth attendants. A second PHCU is now under construction, and health worker training is expanding. Access to safe water is also a critical component in South Sudan, so the project has implemented boreholes to serve households located in the health unit’s vicinity, as well as 350 household latrines.

Safe water is the most critical health need in the region and undergirds all of Ginghamsburg’s work in Sudan and South Sudan. Unsafe water results in poor health, disease, and sometimes even outbreaks of violence over scarce resources. Common problems include humans and livestock sharing the same water sources and, in the more arid Darfur, children traveling up to eight miles (in one direction) by foot or donkey to collect unhealthy groundwater in five-gallon jerry cans.

In Darfur, the water yards have been constructed near the IDP camps and villages serving children in the child protection and development project so that children may remain in school rather than travel for hours each day through unsafe territory to retrieve water for their families. Latrines and hygiene training are additional key components to the safe water initiatives.

Ginghamsburg has also witnessed how critical safe water sources are to the rebirth of communities that have been decimated by violence. In November of 2009, the Ginghamsburg team visited a village called Deriga, which has been redubbed “Ohio 2” by the villagers. (Ginghamsburg is typically known as the “Church in Ohio” since the Sudanese struggle with pronouncing the name Ginghamsburg.) In 2006, Deriga was burned to the ground by a militia attack. The few remaining villagers, hearing of Ginghamsburg’s work in the region, persistently approached Ginghamsburg and UMCOR asking for the construction of a water yard. All initial petitions were turned down due to the complete devastation of the town and few remaining occupants. However, persistence paid off.

In the spring of 2008, water yard construction began. As soon as the drilling started, 5,000 people returned to the village. School construction followed next, and the population swelled to 11,000. An agriculture program has also been implemented, and the village now boasts a population of 20,000 — more people than the town’s population before its decimation.

Surrounded by soy bean fields, the people of Ginghamsburg Church are constantly reminded that they are an ordinary church that serves an extraordinary God. The true greatness of any local church is measured by how many of its attendees are committed disciples, or those who are willing to live more simply and sacrificially so that other people can simply live.

The church’s next call, while continuing its current work in Sudan, South Sudan, and Dayton, is to raise $1 million over the next five years within its largely blue collar congregation toward United Methodism’s Imagine No Malaria campaign. We have a special heart to serve South Sudan and it has not yet had a national distribution for Malaria nets. Ginghamsburg challenges other churches to step up and risk outward, not operating within the limited resources that attendees can count with human eyes but within the expansiveness of our unseen and limitless God.

Karen Smith is the Executive Director of Missional Operations for Ginghamsburg Church and acts as the team coordinator for the church’s executive team. She also partners with the ministry teams that define Ginghamsburg Church’s outward face to the local and global communities. These include print and web-based communications/marketing, media, missions, the church’s three affiliated 501c3 non-profit partners, and global resources and conferences. 

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