Carpenter's Kids builds relationships and hope

May 7, 2009

His arms filled with a school uniform, sturdy shoes, soap and school supplies and his stomach with the promise of breakfast every school morning, the little boy beamed. "Now I am real person, just like everybody else," he said. Selected by his village in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika as one of the diocese's neediest children – many of them HIV/AIDs orphans – he is now a "carpenter's kid."

Carpenter's Kids is a growing partnership born in 2006 between the Anglican diocese in the central region of Tanzania and the Diocese of New York. Irene Mhogolo, chair of the Women's Organization of the Tanzanian diocese and wife of Bishop Mdimi Mogholo, told the boy's story during a recent visit to Atlanta while encouraging links in Episcopal parishes beyond New York.

Currently, Episcopal parishioners are linked with 4,676 children. The goal is 10,000 children in 2010. The Diocese of Virginia expanded Carpenter's Kids links in January, and the Diocese of Atlanta's launch is imminent.

"We are moving beyond 'program' to 'relationship' and even 'friendship,'" Mogholo said.

At least 200 HIV/AIDs orphans and other vulnerable children – including those caring for ill parents and younger siblings – live in each of Central Tanganyika's 200 parishes, totaling approximately 40,000 needy children aged 5 to 18, according to the New York diocese.

Central Tanganyika parishioners choose participants based on need, with carpenter's kids' religious affiliations ranging from Christian to Muslim to tribal to none. Parishioners prepare a nutritious porridge for the selected children on school mornings, using firewood they've gathered. Linked parishes pray for one another weekly and exchange news via e-mail monthly – more frequently if those in Central Tanganyika can get to Dodoma, Tanzania's capital, where computers and Internet access are available.

Parishioners from the Atlanta and Virginia diocese pledge $80 a year for five years to enable a carpenter's kid to attend school. Those in the Diocese of New York pledge $60. The cost difference is covered by a 2008 three-year $100,000 grant from Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) paying for administrative costs, including leadership development, volunteer training and transportation to remote villages.

"Our hope is that these communities will use skills honed in the Carpenter's Kids program to further mobilize their own empowerment," said Janette O'Neill, ERD's senior director for Africa.

Accountability stressed

"Carpenter's Kids is designed by Tanzanians for Tanzanians with village involvement but with Western-style accounting," said Suzanne Clark Johnson, Carpenter's Kids coordinator for the Diocese of Virginia. The program's emphasis on financial accountability includes pro bono assistance from a retired IBM executive.

"I look at programs around the world," said Buck Blanchard, Diocese of Virginia world mission coordinator, "and this is the best-run I've ever seen."

"It's a very transparent system, which gives us great confidence," said New York Suffragan Bishop Catherine S. Roskam. "It's a gift of communion to do great things without a great deal of money."

Perhaps the deepest gift is the change experienced on both sides of the world. "What I see in parishioners from our diocese who have traveled to the [Diocese of Central Tanganyika] is nothing short of transformation," said Roskam. "It's not just a New Year's resolution to live differently, but a deep shifting of priorities in terms of spending, living and faith."

"Many people," Mhogolo said, "find it amazing that people who live in such poverty all their lives can have such a vibrant faith, and it transforms their spirituality and lives."

For Kelly Alexander, now 25, the blessing came in the form of a call that included a chicken. Shortly after graduating from the University of Georgia in 2006, Alexander began teaching in Dodoma. One of her friends, a New Zealander who worked for the Central Tanganyika diocese, invited her to help. She did, eventually conducting a health-situation assessment.

During a trip to help distribute uniforms and shoes to carpenter's kids, she realized how deeply connected she felt to the children of the Dodoma region. "The village kids danced and sang a welcome song, and then, although they were very poor, they gave me a chicken and a dozen fresh eggs. They were giving us all they had because we were sharing some school uniforms."

Today, Alexander is working on a master's in public health at Atlanta's Emory University and a master's in international affairs at Georgia Tech.

"The experience I had in Tanzania inspired me to go into global health. I want the opportunity to give back," she said. "The kids that I met in the villages (carpenter's kids or not) are some of the happiest and most joyful one would see anywhere … Being a part of the community in Dodoma is what made me love the place and what is drawing me back. People in the diocese were welcoming, kind and, most of all, genuine."

'Unmistakable call'
Johnson agreed. "The relationship is so much greater than the transfer of money," she said. An especially moving moment for her occurred during her first visit in October 2007, when she heard a women's choir singing, "God has given us so many blessings, what can we give God in return? We are poor in things so we can only give you our love."

"There is no other way to say it but that I felt an unmistakable call to go back to Mwitikira," Johnson said. By year's end, she will have traveled there five times, journeying two hours from Dodoma on an unpaved road to the village, which has neither electricity nor running water.

Soon after her initial 10-day visit, Johnson made plans to spend seven weeks with the villagers – and then signed up for Swahili lessons.

"I wondered what kind of rust was going to be dropping off my 60-year-old brain cells," she said. "Now I struggle, but they slow down for me."

In return for her show of respect, the villagers invited her to preach and assist the priest in administering Communion.

"To live with such people of faith has deepened my faith," Johnson said. "The opportunity to be part of Carpenter's Kids is a sacred experience. It's not that we from the U.S. are going to teach them about God's love; if anything, we learn from them. Their faith is very deep, very strong, because it's been tested. Virtually everyone has lost one or more children. People die of hunger, AIDS, malaria, accidental drowning. Hunger is real. Without the nourishment the carpenter's kids receive on school mornings in that uber-nutritious porridge, their brains wouldn't be nourished enough to learn. In many cases, it's their only meal."

Johnson is a parishioner at St. Paul's in Richmond, Va., one of two relationships between the Diocese of Virginia and Carpenter's Kids initiated in 2006. The other involves a different kind of "parish" – six Delta Tau Delta fraternity brothers, including Blanchard, the only Episcopalian among them – who graduated from the University of Colorado in 1980 and 1981. They and their families sponsor 100 carpenter's kids in the villages of Mleche and Chilonwa.

Virginia Theological Seminary soon will partner with a Tanzanian parish as well, helping the Virginia diocese toward its goal of 22 links, Johnson said.

"Carpenter's Kids is too good a model not to expand," said Johnson. "It's an honor to be part of it, as an agent of God's love, as a recipient of God's love. Carpenter's kids enlarge the family of God."

Related Topics: