“I’m bit by the materialistic bug. I like cars and I like nice things,” admits Michael Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio. One Sunday in 2004 he came across a two-page spread in the Sunday paper. On one side was an ad for a BMW (“lease it for only $800 a month”). On the other was a photo of a starving child by the side of a road in Darfur, Sudan. As he read about what was the first genocide of the 21st century (and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at that time), Slaughter wondered why he and other Christians “Knew so much more about the sedans than the Sudans of the world.”
So during a Sunday sermon in December, 2004, he told his congregation, “A million people could die in the Sudan this year if they don’t get seed in the ground.” The Janjaweed—violent, horse-riding militias deployed to terrorize the populace--had burned many in Darfur off their land. “Christmas is not our birthday, it’s Jesus’ birthday,” Slaughter continued, and he challenged them to consider taking whatever amount of money they spent on their family for Christmas and giving an equal amount of money to the Sudan Project. That is the kind of gift Jesus would be excited about.
That year the church raised $317,000 in their first “Christmas is Not Your Birthday” miracle offering. The money went to buy bags of seed and farming supplies for peasants in south Darfur so they could grow crops to feed their families. After a year of hard work and help from farming experts with UMCOR (United Methodist Committee On Relief, Ginghamsburg’s partner on the ground in Darfur), the farmers reaped a bountiful harvest. Says Slaughter, “For every bag of seed we gave out, there was a 19 bag return. It was like a miracle. We put 5,209 families back into the farming business that year. We supplied 23,000 folks with food.” The Sudanese families used some of the money they made from farming to buy back children (900 of them) who had been sold into slavery. They also had seed leftover for the next year’s planting.
Slaughter thought the children of Ginghamsburg would balk when their parents told them Christmas was going to be simpler so that they could help kids in Darfur. To his surprise and delight, the children heartily embraced the project. “Many were saying things like, ‘Mom, kids will die in Darfur if you get me anything so don’t get me any present.” Even beyond the Christmas event, some children continued to carry the message. They’d ask their friends not to bring gifts to their birthday parties, but to finance the Darfur fund instead. To this day, Slaughter reports, “Kids are coming up to me all the time with envelopes with $100-and-something dollars or $200-and-something dollars.”
In 2005, the church raised $535,000 more, which UMCOR used to train teachers and build and refurbish schools. That year 22,000 Sudanese children were able to get an education because of the money Ginghamsburg invested. UMCOR also started life skills training centers to teach young men and women who had grown up knowing only war to learn trades for supporting themselves and eventually their families.
“Water is peace,” say the Ginghamsburg-sponsored African staff, people who know what it is to be without clean water. In 2006, this lack of access to water made it difficult for farmers to grow crops and for herders to feed their livestock. It also made water-borne diseases a serious issue. So that year, the one million dollars Ginghamsburg gave was used to rehabilitate and construct water yards—locations containing wells and separate accesses to water for human consumption and for agricultural use—that gave clean water access to 75,000 people and lowered instances of disease. These water yards were purposely built near schools in order to support the health of Darfur’s children.
Now the members of Ginghamsburg are raising funds for Darfur in a variety of creative ways. Artists from the church and surrounding area donate artwork to be sold at a show called “heART4SUDAN.” Proceeds are donated to the Sudan Project. The kids host an annual Christmas Bazaar that sells “kid-powered gifts and presents like homemade baked goods, dog treats, candles, and jewelry.” This year, they raised over $18,000.
To date, Ginghamsburg and its 118 partner churches, schools, and businesses have invested about $5.6 million dollars in the Sudan Project. As of December 2012, more than 250,000 Sudanese have benefitted:
• 80,000+ have been fed via agriculture projects
• 243 schools have been built or rehabilitated
• 194 teachers have been trained
• 29, 243 students have enrolled in school over the course of the project
• 808 graduates have graduated from the three Life Skills Centers
• 19 water yards have been implemented
The project’s next phase, Slaughter reports, is to start new United Methodist faith communities in Aweil, South Sudan. These churches are envisioned as “empowering centers” in their communities, involved in growing disciples through long-term, developmental programs.