How Ministering in Ethiopia’s Red Light District Led Me to Work at Children’s HopeChest

I was a pastor for 15 years. 

The last church I worked at (The River, Kalamazoo MI) partnered with Children’s HopeChest in Uganda. The relationship built between Oditel CarePoint and The River transformed lives. It quickly became one of the most powerful discipleship tools we had. It also transformed the way we did local ministry.

The River is an inner-city church, and I had oversight of our local outreach programs. I thought the best way to care for the poor and needy was to throw bus tokens out of the window and set up a food pantry. It was about the fifth time I was sexually propositioned for a bus token that I realized this probably isn’t the best strategy. No relationship was being created and we became Kalamazoo’s bus token dispensary. 

Watching HopeChest in-country leaders create development plans and be accountable and responsible for their own development was a wonderful light bulb moment for me 10 years ago. The River’s resources were simply a catalyst for that development. The real secret sauce was in the relationships. I took the HopeChest Community-to-Community model and applied it to a local under-resourced middle school (Maple Street Magnet School). Instead of going to the school and telling the administration we want to help and we will do an annual backpack drive and raise money for food, we built a team that went to the leadership and asked, “What is your vision for success and how could we help them accomplish that?” To this day the partnership with Maple Street is going strong. A couple years ago our team went to meet with all of the teachers and administrators to talk about the upcoming year — the team was met with a standing ovation. Transformation was happening in both communities.

Wil in Uganda smiling and speaking with a teenage boy
Wil in Uganda, leading a Vision Trip

Over the years, HopeChest leaders asked if I would lead Vision Trips and work for them part-time. I had a remarkable passion in this area and was happy to try and make it work. On one of my Vision Trips to Ethiopia, our team went to minister to prostitutes in the red light district. I’ll never forget one of the girls who was about 13 years old. I told her, “God loves you.” Girls in the red light district rarely look you in the eye. However, this girl lifted up her chin and looked me straight in the eye and said, “If God loves me, why would I be here?” This broke me to my core. I have two daughters and I know that if either of them were in this type of situation I would scratch through a wall to protect them. Then the Lord whispered, “And who is scratching through a wall to protect this child of mine?” My life would never be the same.

It wasn’t long after that encounter that HopeChest leaders, Tom Davis and Bob Mudd, invited me to work full-time at HopeChest. This was a difficult decision. I love the local Church, I love the people, and colleagues I worked with at The River. But again, God spoke. This time through scripture. I always saw my role as a pastor was to introduce people to God. When people encounter God, their lives are never the same. I stumbled onto a verse that made it crystal clear that HopeChest was my next calling. Jeremiah 22:16, God says, “If you want to know me, defend the cause of the poor and needy.”

Now and for the past nine years, I get up every morning filled with new opportunities to invite people in businesses, churches, and schools to know God through defending the cause of the poor and needy. 

I guess you could say, I’m still pastoring, it just looks really different now.   

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This is my story. I want to know how your story is leading you to team up against poverty.

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