A Risky Dream

blog Apr 25, 2024

With Jerod and Katina Smith

Jerod Smith had already been on several mission trips when he arrived in Ethiopia in 2004 to participate in a nightly crusade and daily food distribution. An Army veteran and himself a survivor of childhood abuse, Jerod is not one to be surprised by hardship or suffering. But something changed on the third day of the trip when he and the team were feeding orphans.

“This is the first time I had seen poverty at this level,” Jerod recalls. “These were children who were in trouble. They came in with swollen bellies, messed up feet. It was pretty awful.”

After Jerod gave a brief gospel presentation, the team distributed plates of food to the children. They were finishing up when a boy came into the room who was in even worse condition than the rest of the children. He had a crippled hand, feet that were swollen and cracked and patches of hair missing. The women in the kitchen put together another meal, and Jerod held the plate while the boy hungrily scooped up the food.

“He’s eating so fast, as though someone was going to take the food from him, and it’s just destroying me on the inside,” Jerod explains. “And so, for the rest of the trip—we were there for two or three more days—I couldn’t eat. Every time I would try to eat, I was just thinking, Who’s going to feed this little boy after we’re gone?

When he arrived home, Jerod still had a year left at Victory Bible College in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a school founded by the late Billy Joe Daugherty.

“In Bible college, everything I had heard up to this point was just about how good God was, about how God’s going to supply all your needs according to His riches and glory,” he explains. “Everything was just positive, positive, positive. But I’m coming home from Africa wondering, What is God doing? Is He asleep? I was angry.”

Jerod recalls writing in big letters in his journal on the return flight, “God, why would you allow this to happen?”

The response Jerod heard in his heart turned the question back on him.

“I just heard God speak to me, clear as a bell. I’m not saying an audible voice, but just in my heart, ‘Why would you let it happen?’”

Jerod shared his experiences in Ethiopia with his wife, Katina, and also how he felt God bending his heart toward missions. She did not share his enthusiasm for the idea, so they shelved further conversation about it. After finishing Bible college, Jerod and Katina launched into three years of youth ministry. Their time as youth pastors was fruitful, but Jerod’s passion for Africa remained. The problem was that Katina wasn’t budging. She enjoyed their lives in Oklahoma, with Jerod serving in church ministry and her working as a dental assistant.

“One day in prayer, I just felt like God was saying, ‘I’m going to send you to Africa,’” Jerod recalls.

When he told Katina what he was experiencing, she recalls responding, “I’m not moving. God never told me that.”

They met with their senior pastor, and he asked Katina if she had prayed about going to Africa.

“No,” she replied. “I’m not going to pray about it because I’m not going.”

Instead of forcing the issue, Jerod waited for God to work on Katina, knowing she would need to hear from Him as well. Over time, she began to ask Jerod questions about Africa, such as, “If we go, can we take the dog?”

Then, one day, she was at work with a patient and began to involuntarily weep. “All of a sudden I just had this crazy feeling come over me—and I’m not one of those kooky religious people,” she says, laughing. Katina had to excuse herself to call Jerod, and when he asked her what was wrong, she replied, “I know we’re supposed to go.”

It took them eight months to raise support, and they served as missionaries to Rwanda with Assemblies of God World Missions for three and a half years. It was then they grew in their depth of understanding of the needs and opportunities in Africa and built relationships with national pastors.

Katina, who had been initially resistant to going to Africa, found fulfilling ways to contribute to the work, getting a certification in hygiene to train villagers in good health practices. More importantly, she found her heart bound to the Rwandan people.

“It blew my mind just how awesome the Rwandan people are and how much they loved us. You would think they’ve known us our whole lives,” she explains. “They reached out to us like we were one of them, and it made us fall in love with them.”

It also became clear their entrepreneurial approach to missions didn’t fit the organization. So, they returned to Oklahoma City, where Jerod returned to church ministry for four years. The church grew, and he enjoyed the security and comfort of a well-paying ministry role, but the dream of ministry in Africa never went away.

“At the end of that four years of pastoring, we felt again God was going to move us back into full-time missions,” Jerod explains. “And so, this time we, through prayer and advice from some of our overseers, decided that it was probably best that we start our own organization.”

It was January of 2014. They gave the church a five-month transition plan and decided their last Sunday would be Mother’s Day. Not everyone thought they were doing the right thing.

“My friends were like, ‘You are insane. I cannot believe you’re leaving a good church, a six-figure income, to go start something that may not work.’ But man, the truth is we just heard from God, and we knew it.”

They had a name (Advocates for Africa) and a vision (to share the gospel and meet physical needs), but not much more than that. Jerod notes they went on a few trips to Africa that first year and raised about $35,000 to cover ministry expenses, but they each had other jobs to provide for living expenses—among Jerod’s gigs were a stint as a private investigator and repo guy, while Katina continued working as a dental assistant.

On the weekends, they visited churches and shared their heart for Africa, raising money for ministry projects and casting a vision for sustainable long-term impact. When enough funds for a trip would be raised, they’d head to Rwanda for a crusade, pastors conference or Jesus film showing, returning to raise funds for the next trip. Katina did the bookkeeping, and Jerod lined up preaching engagements.

“It was a grind,” Jerod recalls, describing trips to the mailbox hoping for checks to come in. “I remember the first time we had a $500 check from somebody, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to work!’”

About five years into this rigorous schedule, Jerod concluded they couldn’t scale Advocates with the current funding model. Their dream included child sponsorship, schools, providing housing for the homeless and rescuing women from prostitution. But it was entirely dependent on preaching and raising funds at individual churches.

“I can only preach in so many places, even if I preach 52 times a year—which is not possible. No pastor is going to give up Christmas and Easter,” he recalls thinking. “So, we started developing a strategy to raise the money. I basically took business principles and started applying them to the ministry.”

Jerod’s research led him to a deep dive into how other organizations such as Compassion International, The Salvation Army and United Way raise funds directly from donors. He read books, talked with other nonprofit leaders and combined his learnings with what they were already doing engaging churches. He also incorporated practices he had applied in the business world before going into ministry.

“When we did that, we went from raising a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to raising half a million in a year and a half,” Jerod notes, describing a process that involves creating a pipeline of relationships, engagement and communication with donors. Each year funding increased, leading to being able to raise more than three million dollars in 2023—a significant accomplishment for a ministry celebrating its tenth year in 2024.

This scaling has allowed Advocates to grow its footprint both at home and abroad, with seven staff members based in the U.S. and 58 in Africa. Their ministry is built on three areas of emphasis: hope, compassion and education. It includes evangelism programs, schools, child sponsorship, food distribution and vocational training for vulnerable women.

The child sponsorship program Advocates launched in 2018 now feeds and educates 1,200 children. Katina leads Advocates’ compassion projects, and child sponsorship was her baby from its inception when they were traveling back and forth to Africa while working jobs in the U.S. to make ends meet. The vision began with the goal of sponsoring 100 children, but it grew when they linked up with Africa New Life, a large sponsorship ministry led by Rwandans Charles and Florence Mugisha. With 11,000 students sponsored throughout Rwanda, Africa New Life has deep experience there, and Katina learned everything she could about best practices in administering the program.

“Still, to this day, I talk to them,” Katina notes. “They are the ones that taught us because we knew nothing.”

Advocates Christian Academy currently has 258 students and is in the midst of a capital campaign for a middle school that will expand the capacity to 515 students. The long-term plan is to expand each year so students will be able to continue attending through high school graduation. The multi-million-dollar facility is an hour and a half outside Kigali, in a location where access to quality education is out of reach for most of the population.

“We believe that your economic status or your family heritage should not be the determining factor of you getting to do what God’s called you to do,” Jerod explains. “So the only way to prove that is to educate these children who have absolutely nothing but have all of this potential that is covered up by poverty.”

Jerod notes that the ripple effects of a child’s education built on a spiritual foundation include generational improvements in health and prosperity and even impacts on politics and government.

“The curse of Africa is corruption,” Jerod argues. “We felt like God spoke to us to build a school that concentrated solely on godly leadership and ethics, training children from the time they’re in nursery school up through the time they graduate and go to university, really driving home to them their character, theology, discipleship, training them to be leaders from the time they’re in nursery school.”

A nation of 13.5 million people bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Republic of Congo, Rwanda was colonized by Germany in the late 19th century and invaded and ruled by Belgium during World War I. The country gained its independence in 1962 but was soon wracked with ethnic conflict. From 1990 to 1994, a civil war became the backdrop for a genocide that claimed the lives of between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsi minorities—most of whom were murdered by fellow Rwandan civilians from the Hutu majority.

Thirty years later, this dark chapter in Rwanda’s history is still very much a part of life in the country. In the early years of his time there, Jerod recalls seeing family members separated by the war be reunited by happenstance on the streets of Kigali. He also observed murderers and the families of their victims worshipping together in church, reconciled by forgiveness.

“I could be out in a village church about to preach, and a pastor would lean over to me say, ‘Hey, you see that guy right there, sitting on the second row?’ And I would say, ‘Yeah.’ And he’s like, “The lady sitting right next to him, he murdered her whole entire family.’ And I’m just like, this is a level of forgiveness I don’t understand. I can't fathom it.”

It’s this spiritual dynamic that Jerod says captures the hearts of all who come to serve in Rwanda.

“That’s the level of forgiveness that we have to think about when we think about the sins that Jesus has forgiven us from,” he notes. “And so, when you go to Rwanda, you see that in action, the meekest, most loving, most accommodating, most gracious God-loving people.”

Growing an organization from scratch has come with a learning curve, and Jerod and Katina have each uniquely experienced the challenges of that leadership journey. For Jerod, a former Army sergeant, it required a pivot from a “command and control” model of leadership.

“A military-type leader can get a lot done, but they also leave bodies in the wake,” he explains. “So, I’ve had to learn how to be more of what I would consider a true leader, influencing people to want to do the mission.”

Jerod believes this shift contributed to the growth of Advocates in ways that wouldn’t have a happened otherwise. He had been accustomed to giving a lot of direction, expecting those he led to carry out the vision exactly as he would. But he discovered this short-circuited the natural learning that happens when people closer to the details are able to solve their own problems.

“We were raising good money, but we really didn’t start expanding the work until we started delegating to other leaders and then actually letting them figure it out,” he notes. “The key to explosive growth is delegation. But then you can’t interfere.”

Unlike Jerod, Katina had little background in leadership before the two launched Advocates for Africa. Although she had managed a dental office, she wasn’t prepared for the complexity of developing a child sponsorship program in a cross-cultural context from the other side of the world.

“As I took more ownership of sponsorship and our programs, it was really difficult for me because I am a doer,” she explains. “I don’t like to delegate. I am the type that I would just rather do it myself. So I’m learning that you’ve got to have a team.”

An advantage she notes, however, is that delegating in Rwanda can be easier than it is in the U.S.

“They want to do the very best,” she notes. “So I found that it was easy for me to delegate stuff to them because I knew that they would do it.”

The needs in Rwanda, and elsewhere in Africa, can feel overwhelming. Advocates is just one of countless other larger—and smaller—ministries on the continent seeking to make a difference. The immensity of the task doesn’t escape Jerod, and he realizes they can’t solve every problem they see. But the vision they received at the beginning provides the filter that defines their activities.

“I think most founders want to do everything. Every need they see, they’re like, ‘We can fix this.’ So early on is when we prayed, ‘God, what is it that you’re calling us to do so we don't drift?’” he explains. “That’s when we decided God was telling us to bring hope, compassion, education. Those are our filters. If it’s going to bring people hope through evangelism, if it’s going to display the hands of Christ through compassion or if it’s going to help us to teach the Word of God to people, we do it.”

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