The Story of Jackson and Our Misguided Steps

Years ago Arise Africa was looking to expand our child sponsorship program.  Our American on the ground, Megan, knew of a local Zambian pastor who was running a community school for orphaned and vulnerable children.  Megan knew this pastor because he had received some training from American pastors from the old organization she worked with before Arise.  This man was known to be honest and hard working.  His passion was for the children in his community.  He had gone through some pastors training with Americans that spoke truth and love.   For the sake of this blog post let’s call him “Jackson.”

After meeting with Jackson a few times and feeling like he was trustworthy, our Zambians and Megan decided to expand our child sponsorship program into his school.  We were really excited because Jackson was partnering with an American church who would take mission trippers over once a year to support him.  We thought that this added support would be great for both Arise and the church in America.  We could use all the added help and Jackson would be getting aid from two different organizations. 

The biggest issue we had was with the name of the school.  Jackson had named it the “Midget School.”  When asked why, he explained that little people (as in children) go to the school.  I struggled to “spin this” to Americans.  Announcing you are opening up sponsorship and need Americans to get on board with the “Midget School” didn’t sit well with me.  I didn’t want to offend real little people and we felt like the name of the school would be “lost in translation” in America.  Luckily after a few discussions Jackson agreed to change the name of the school.  Although for years our staff continued to refer to the schools as “The Midge.”

When we start a child sponsorship program in a new school it must be monitored very closely.  Suddenly we have Americans funding particular children.  And suddenly we are handing over funds to pastors or headmasters who have never had much funding or help.  We must help them know how to budget and pay teachers and others with the new funds.  There must be a level of trust and understanding.

Things with Jackson went really well for years.  The other church in America that had worked with him communicated to us before they went on trips.  We would all help try to figure out what was best for his school while working with Jackson.  Our child sponsorship program grew and we suddenly had over 70 children at his school. 

At that time we realized that Jackson’s school was tiny, and we need more space.  The school and church were actually being run out of his home.  The family lived there which caused some issues and they needed to have their own space and privacy.  

Then we ran into another issue of Jackson not only trying to run the school but doing his pastoral activities and finding odd jobs to make ends meet.  When he was at the school you could tell the size it had grown had become too much for him.  When we brought over school supplies and books for a library, he didn’t know how to use them.   Teachers and our staff were having to step in to manage things.  We needed someone focusing on the school itself.  We also believed if we wanted to improve educations we needed to hire someone who had been trained as a headmaster.  Jackson’s gifts were discipling and loving on the children in the school.  He was a pastor.  We needed him desperately but we also needed someone who was educated in education!  Arise wanted to do more to help and go deeper on all levels.  In order to do so we needed trained professionals.  Jackson was trained to be a pastor, and he loved the community so much had started this school.  We were now trying to make it better and better and it was getting difficult.                                                 

One day I received a phone call from the American church that had been working with Jackson too.  We had all been communicating about these issues and trying to come up with ideas about the next steps to help. 

They proposed that they might step in and offer Jackson a full time salary to run the school.  That way he could focus only on the school and not other jobs he was taking to make ends meet for his family.  They also offered to find him a home and purchase it for him so that his family could move out of the school. 

All of this sounded great but I was concerned for a few reasons.  First, if Jackson was offered a full time job by the church in America, who was checking in on him daily?  They had nobody on the ground.  It wasn’t going to be our job to keep tabs on him.  Second, Jackson wasn’t qualified to be the headmaster of the school.  He was a qualified pastor.  I tried to suggest this but they were confident that if Jackson could focus on the school only, he could run it.  I asked them to allow us to hire a qualified headmaster and allow Jackson to pastor and do outreach with the children and their families.  That was his gift and he was really good at it.  We needed that so badly. 

Another concern I had that with giving Jackson a full time salary and purchasing him a new home, he suddenly would be receiving some serious cash.  Moving his family out of the school would give us more space, but I was scared that Jackson might not be able to handle all of the instant income he would be getting. 

The church proceeded forward although I expressed my concerns.  Jackson was “hired” by the church.  His obligation was to be the headmaster and to write them a monthly report about the school and what he was doing.  Not too much later the church also purchased a home for his family and they moved out of the school grounds. The extra space was a major blessing for the functioning of the school and I am sure his family was much happier. 

It didn’t take long for Jackson to not show up for work.   When he was there he slept in his office, in fact our staff took photos because when they reported this we didn’t believe it.  Suddenly the church was calling me when reports from Jackson never were sent for months.  They were asking Arise to step in and talk to him and asking me for advice.  Arise didn’t want to be a middle man.  We just wanted to love on the children well.  I suggested stopping the monthly payments to him until he started communicating and doing his job well.  They told me they made a promise and couldn’t go back on that now.  They basically were enabling Jackson and that was a really hard pill to swallow for me. 

I hate to say it but I am not sure if I would show up for my job if I suddenly got a new house and knew money was going to be in my bank account no matter what I did!  I might take a break too and spend that CASH!  Especially if I had never been exposed to a monthly salary and that kind of financial stability.  If anyone has cash given to them with no strings attached it could be very damaging.  If anyone is suddenly given a good amount of cash and a new home without any lessons on finances, it is most likely not going to go well.  Jackson had won the lottery!

Next time we saw Jackson he had a purchased a car.  He didn’t have a drivers license or insurance but he had a status symbol, a car.  Jackson didn’t have a house mortgage and had a monthly income and had no accountability on the ground.  His only accountability was thousands of miles away.

One day when I was in Zambia I asked Jackson what was going on.   I told him the church had called me so disappointed that they weren’t receiving emails and reports about the school.  What broke my heart was Jackson told me he didn’t know what to write or how to send a report.  He told me he didn’t know what to say or what was happening. He said he didn’t have internet sometimes, which was hard to understand because he had enough money to buy a car but couldn’t afford to hit up an internet cafe every once in a while.  Jackson didn’t know how to operate a computer well he told me.  Jackson had been set up from day one to do a job that he wasn’t qualified or trained to do.  Some of this wasn’t his fault.

Months passed with Jackson continuing to not show up for at the school and doing very little.  We knew he was at least paying the teachers with the school fees we paid him because they continued to show up for work.  The church had already informed us that when their commitment was up, they would not be funding Jackson anymore.  I agreed this was the right decision but I was really concerned about what Jackson would do.

Sure enough right at the time the church’s commitment was up, the teachers of the school started to approach the Arise Africa staff accusing us of not paying Jackson school fees, and in return Jackson had not paid them.  We had deposited the funds into the schools’ bank account and showed them proof of it with our deposit slip.  But somehow the money never got to them. Teachers were surprised and told us that Jackson had informed them that we had not paid him. 

Suddenly the funds we gave Jackson that month to run the school had disappeared.  When asked about this, Jackson gave us no response and ignored our questions.  Jackson was stealing our money.  He was stealing our donor’s money.  Although this only happened for one month, we had a big issue on our hands.  I believe he needed our money to supplement his lifestyle that he was used to having with little accountability. It was awful. 

After trying to approach Jackson and love him through the process we ultimately had to cut ties from him and the school.  Jackson refused to understand his part in the issue and never could explain where the funds went.  He told us he would “write a report about it” and we are still waiting to see that report!  He would not show up to meetings, even when we asked for other Zambians from his church to help.  We tried talking to Jackson about the way he had been treated and we sympathized with him because he had two years of constant income with nothing he had to do.  Of course when his funding got cut off, he panicked and took our money.  Jackson hadn’t been trained or helped along the way. He was not set up for success.

Ultimately we had to cut ties entirely from Jackson.  The church in America stopped helping him as well.  Arise Africa purchased land and opened our own school.  All of our sponsored children’s parents decided to move them into our new school and not stay at Jackson’s.  In fact Jackson himself asked if his own children could go to our school!  It was kinda weird!  It still makes me sad to think about Jackson. 

I tell you this story not to point fingers at Jackson or the church in America that was trying to help.  But I do tell you this story to explain to you that individuals and organizations can really HURT someone while in the process of helping. We are just as at fault as anyone else in this situation. 

I feel sorry for Jackson.  I think Arise messed up by growing our sponsorship program with him too much and trying to expand when he really probably didn’t want it.  Sometimes progress and enhancement to educations aren’t want everyone wants. Sometimes individuals aren’t educated enough to see what quality education looks like.  We have to be able to identify that and know we cannot partner with someone who doesn’t have the same dreams for children in Zambia that we do.

I think the biggest disappointment is that we all missed a huge opportunity to use Jackson where his gifts and training were.  He was a pastor.  He was a man who at one time was thoughtful and honest.  He needed to be discipling and loving on the children, their families, and surrounding community.  I wonder often if Jackson had been hired to do that full time, how it would have turned out. 

There is a book called When Helping Hurts and we have read it many times and gone to conferences that the authors have put on.  Poverty alleviation is HARD.  There is a reason poverty still exists after 2018 years.   People have studied development for hundreds of years and are much more qualified than we are to do it.  We must listen to the experts.  If we want to help and not hurt we better educate ourselves and take advice from Biblical experts in our field. 

As a supporter or donor I urge you to read this book.  If you give to any charity you should be asking the hard questions.  Are we putting a band aid on something or are we making an impact that will cause change forever?  Are we running over locals and hurting third world economies by our practices or building them up?  You work hard to make money and you give it to Arise and other charities.  We all need to make sure that funding is properly being used and in a Biblical and ethical way.    

Every charity and ministry makes mistakes and we need grace.  Arise Africa is not perfect and we know of situations we have not helped well including this one.  In fact we have had to apologize to Zambians when we have hurt them while trying to help.  But we do strive to obey the Lord and help in a responsible and loving way.  We want to help and love in a way that will provide a lasting impact for hundreds of years.  We are trying to put ourselves out of a job in Zambia.  We pray for a day that poverty doesn’t exist. But until then we will continue to learn from the experts, pray, help, apologize when necessary, and ultimately rely on the Lord.

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