What happened after a million meals were packed at all Southeast Christian Church campuses last January may seem a million miles away. 

Until you see the faces of who opened those packets—widows carrying young children as they ran from soldiers in Sudan, weary grandparents trying to care for orphaned grandchildren, sullen teenagers who know nothing but war, babies with rust-tinged hair that shows lack of nutrition.

In Uganda, home to some 2 million refugees, families that slipped through the cracks of aid from other nonprofits were chosen for food packets and BeFriend, a pilot program that uplifts, encourages, trains and empowers for three years.

Once food packets with rice, beans, powdered vitamins and freeze-dried vegetables reached Adjumani and Nyumanzi, in North Uganda, families sat in the dust to wait their turn.

They were grateful for food that eased hunger, but even more grateful those packets were just a beginning. These people are valued by staff and volunteers with Life In Abundance, Southeast’s partner in Africa. Someone checks on them week to week.

In the last year, they have become entrepreneurs, Bible study leaders, evangelists, business owners.

They are refugees, but they are so much more.

June 14-22 a team from the Crestwood Campus visited families that benefit from BeFriend.

Living beside her mother’s casket

Gloria’s home is a clay and reed, one-room hut in the Alere refugee camp in Adjumani.

It is not far from Sudan where rebels stormed through villages killing everyone in their path. The camp is full of those who survived genocide. They lost the little they owned.

A cross sits on a cement casket beside the hut Gloria, 12, shares with her 10-year-old sister, Mary, and grandmother, Martina. It’s where Gloria’s mother was laid to rest.

Life is hard in Alere.

The community of more than 7,000 is a mix of five tribes, mostly refugees from Sudan. History among many of these tribes is not peaceful. Now they survive side-by-side in a hard place.

Gloria’s dark eyes seem way too big and sad for her age. Her purple school uniform is her best dress. The BeFriend project pays her school fees. School is high privilege in this community. Though Martina works dawn to dusk, she cannot afford the $15 fee to send Mary to school.

Martina tends a small patch of corn growing beside her hut, carries water in a yellow plastic jug, gathers and sells firewood by the side of the road. Her big dream is to own two goats to start a small business.

Transformational development agents trained by Life In Abundance check on Martina every week. In spite of a hard history, Martina has hope. God’s people are on her side. They pray for her and help her find ways to care for her granddaughters.

Martina had no idea that Kagunda Chege, LIA regional director, was about to make her dream come true. He visited her, leading a pregnant black-and-white goat by a rope.

Martina was so grateful that she offered her prized egg-laying chicken as a gift.

So it goes from family to family in Alere. LIA volunteers know each one and their challenges.

‘We have a big God’

The empty blue container once packed with food is still parked in Nyumanzi, a refugee community of 42,000 about an hour from Adjumani.

Though the shipping container is empty, people in the community love the sight of it near the church.

Pastor Isaacs partners with LIA. He helped identify vulnerable families for food packets and the BeFriend project. In the last year, his church has grown from four to 200 people meeting weekly to worship and to reach out to their own community.

“The goal of the church is to win souls and make disciples,” Isaacs said. “Through LIA, we were empowered to reach out to vulnerable people. We visit them and encourage them. We wish to do more, and we are not limited. We have a big God.”

He understands moving beyond relief. It’s a huge shift in thinking when it seems that no one in the camp has anything. But these people are courageous, smart and resourceful. They want to work and provide for their families.

“We don’t believe in just giving food,” Isaacs said. “You’ll eat today and be hungry tomorrow. We believe in giving seed to eat for a long time.”

Mama Elizabeth belongs to the savings group in the church. She is one of many who pool their money to give 30-day loans to those with good ideas for businesses that will help feed their families.

“Don’t be desperate like you don’t have a Father,” she tells a group of those helped by LIA. “We can’t be desperate. We are not alone.”

Now members of the church make baskets, buy and sell cloth, sell maize and flour, bricks, soap and torches.

Since she grabbed her three children and ran from soldiers in Sudan, Rebecca has become an entrepreneur.

“We didn’t have a bedsheet or saucepan,” she said. “We walked days in the bush to this place. Pastor Isaacs did trauma counseling with us. He helped us go on.”

She said profits from the liquid soap she makes allows her to pay school fees for her children.

There are countless stories in every camp of men and women who know God answered their prayer for survival. They bake bread and sell fruits and vegetables in the market. They pay bills, reach out to others in the community and have a deep sense of pride in what they’ve accomplished.

BeFriend has been so successful that it will soon launch around the world.