Jennifer VanderGalien shares the mission work

Rex Brewer, who visited the Shining A Light Women to Work ministry and training center, was so moved by his experience that he wrote the following article which so eloquently captures the essence of the work being done in Tanzania.

 

The Shining A Light Story

By Rex Brewer

Have you ever realized that you can give things to God that are of value to Him? Or are you just sitting around daydreaming about the greatness of His redemption, while neglecting all the things you could be doing for Him? I’m not referring to works, which could be regarded as divine and miraculous, but ordinary, simple human things – things that would be evidence to God that you are totally surrendered to Him.

 Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest

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Author Frederick Buechner describes a saint as a “life-giver” who makes others come alive in a new way, a garden-variety human being through whose life the power and the glory of God are made manifest even though the saint herself may be standing knee-deep in the muck.  On a recent trip to Tanzania I met and observed up close one such extraordinary modern Christian “saint,” Jennifer VanderGalien of East Lansing, Michigan.  VanderGalien is the founder and director of Shining A Light Ministries (shiningalight.org), a “Women to Work” program in Arusha, Tanzania that has created a training center where women learn a trade and are educated in areas of health care, money management, business and literacy. The goal of VanderGalien’s non-profit organization is to break the cycle of poverty by empowering women to be self-sustainable thereby changing the future for their families and for their community.

That is the story. But the real drama is in the backstory.  The compelling narrative here is that of VanderGalien herself, white, educated, affluent and healthy, and how she came to identify with and work among the black, illiterate, poor and sick.

For a thoroughly modern American woman willing to turn her back on the American dream for a life of selfless service to poor families in Africa is not easy to dismiss. VanderGalien’s decision several years ago to leave the comforts of American upper-middle-class life to work with the poor women of an African backwater makes no sense by any modern measure of success.  Perhaps there may be some who could view her as a “holy fool.” Yet she did not come to such a decision as an act of self-sacrifice; she chose it in response to what can only be described as the miraculous touch of God.

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Arusha, Tanzania is a modest town in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, a jumping-off place for well-heeled Western adventurers and safari-goers to the great wild animal preserves of Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Tarangire.  Down one of its dark streets lies Engaranumbe, technically a suburb of Arusha but with the appearance of a remote village. Five or maybe seven thoroughly unpaved roads, trails really, converge in what functions as the village square.  Any numbers of people lounge about in small scattered groups as a small army of boys plays soccer, using sticks and mosquito netting as makeshift goals.  Ducks, chickens and scrawny goats roam freely; feral dogs slink in the shadows, sniffing about for their next morsel.  A campfire sparkles not far away, illuminating a line of blue-dress clad girls as they file past on their way home from school.  One of them is skipping as they disappear into the dusty midsummer Tanzanian twilight.

VanderGalien’s rented house faces the square. It is a sturdy and hard-swept dwelling with furnishings that are, to put it kindly, unpretentious. Her lifestyle, though, is neither one of simplicity nor of intentional poverty. She indulges in functional kitchen appliances: a tiny refrigerator, a two-burner propane stove, a little sink — one may suspect these would be equally at home in a small recreational vehicle.  She eschews the washing machine, preferring instead to outsource the washing to the local laundress for a few schillings per load.  On the other hand, where business is concerned, VanderGalien is not averse to employing the tool of her trade made available by technology: an electric sewing machine.

But it is clear that VanderGalien is not here in Arusha to be a homemaker.  She is here for nobler work: to empower a dozen or more women by creating jobs that they may work and provide for their families.

Although I have great respect for Jennifer VanderGalien and her service to the twin kingdoms of God and man, I also confess relief that she is not a “saint” in the mold of Francis of Assisi or Anthony of Padua.  VanderGalien may be known not just for her spiritual depth and sacrificial service but also for her acerbic wit and fondness for dwarf bananas and peanut butter. Not at all like the self-effacing Mother Theresa, VanderGalien is rather the kind of person to include on your guest list to liven up a party; she is a robust, outspoken and handsome natural blonde Midwesterner of Dutch ancestry with eyes as clear as filtered water and a throaty cackle that fills up the house. She is animated and talkative, often leaving one thought unfinished to pursue another, and speaks openly about her past failures as well as her supernatural deliverance from a life of drugs, despair and darkness.

We sip hair-curling Tanzanian peaberry coffee and nibble chocolate biscuits as she begins:

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“I want the story to get out, not just because it’s about me, but because it’s about what God has done in my life.” She summarizes her childhood: “We were raised in a Christian Reformed home with very godly parents. I was as normal as you can get.”  VanderGalien describes church as mainly providing a social setting for well-dressed families to accumulate dignity by being seen.  “Every time church was open our family was there.  But I had no relationship with God growing up.  I was into my friends, into popularity.”

VanderGalien’s descent into addiction began early and continued unabated for nearly twenty tears.  “I got drunk for the first time at age 15. In high school I smoked pot for the first time. When I graduated from high school and went off to college I stopped going to church.  I continued to run from God through college and doing the selfish things of the world. I did whatever was exciting, entertaining and popular.  I wanted to live on the edge – just like all my friends — but they grew out of it and I continued.

“After college I landed a very successful sales position,” she adds. Meanwhile, her personal life was adrift: “Around that same time I was diagnosed with a medical condition and was prescribed vicodin, a pain medication.  And I loved it!  I took it every day. Vicodin was my drug of choice. I would do anything to get it. Couldn’t think about anything else. When that doctor stopped prescribing it, I went to another doctor. When that doctor stopped I went to another, and soon I was doctor hopping all over the State of Michigan. I would take any prescribed narcotic that I could get and this continued for the next eight years.

“Through all of this misery and emptiness that the drugs couldn’t satisfy, I started going to therapists and psychiatrists to find out what was wrong with me. They diagnosed me (incorrectly) as having ADD, ADHD, depression, anxiety and bi-polar disorder and started prescribing medications for these conditions on top of what I was already taking.

“In January of 2004, a doctor busted me for doctor hopping and sent me to my first secular rehab.  This is where I met people who introduced me to heroine and crack cocaine, and that was my undoing.  I was addicted to heroin in a matter of weeks after leaving rehab.  Over the next two years, I was in and out of seven different rehabs and detox centers and I was locked up in a state mental institution. Drug addiction rehab didn’t work.  It just introduced me to new drugs and new people to do drugs with.  Every time I got out I went right back to using and I fell further and further down.  I totally lost my sales career.”

VanderGalien had spent 8 years in a pharmaceutical fog, and two years on hard drugs.  “I would do whatever I had to do to get the drugs,” she confesses.  “When I was on crack I was possessed by something much more powerful than me. All I could think about was getting more. I had no car, no job, and was homeless. I had no contact with my family; they were done with me. I was emaciated and exhausted. No therapist or psychiatrist could help me. I was in complete darkness. That’s when I cried out to God.”

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Like the prodigal son who wizened up after appraising his condition, VanderGalien came to her senses. “I was alone in a sleaze-bag motel on 28th Street in Grand Rapids on January 16, 2006 at 11:30 in the morning when I was touched by God,” she says, recalling the event as if it were yesterday. “One moment I was lost in complete darkness and the next I had peace and was relieved of the oppression I felt nearly my whole life. God touched me. He just reached down and touched me. I didn’t know it was God because I didn’t know him but I knew something was different because I didn’t want to be high any more. So I called my mom and told her I was finished with drugs. She was praying and an hour later got my call. It was her prayers and the prayers of the few who knew what kind of situation I was living in that had been answered that day. She picked me up the next day and took me to yet another rehab, where I continued to feel the change that God had done in my life.” This would be the first in a chain of miraculous events that has continued right up until the present moment.

VanderGailen’s experience echoes the spiritual awakening of Levin, a major character in Tolstoy’s Anna Kerenina. Levin says, “Knowledge unattainable by reason has been revealed to me personally, to my heart, openly and beyond a doubt, and I am obstinantly trying to express that knowledge in words and by my reason . . . my life is no longer meaningless but has an incontestable meaning of goodness, with which I have the power to invest.”

“Since that moment,” VanderGailen testifies, “I sleep soundly every night and I don’t wake up with that awful pit in my stomach trying to figure out how to get through the day.  I now rest under the protection and care of Jesus. I played no role whatsoever in my own salvation.  I know that God can save anyone, anywhere, at any time. It was God’s sovereign initiative that I felt his touch on my life.  I had nothing to do with it.”

So VanderGalien emerged, Lazarus-like, from the tomb of her addictions. And like Lazarus, her restoration was not complete until the grave-cloths had been removed. The habits, hang-ups and hurts that had bound her for a decade needed to be unwound, through a yearlong God-focused rehabilitation at Western Michigan Teen Challenge.  “Even before I came skipping through the doors of Teen Challenge I had already begun to experience God’s peace, and for the first time I felt a sense of hope.”

Teen Challenge differs from secular rehab programs in that it focuses intensely on Biblical principles. Her new addiction was to God’s Word. “I memorized over 300 verses when I was there,” she chirps, “in the King James.” She recites her favorite: “I Timothy 1:16: ‘For this very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and have eternal life.’

“2006 at Teen Challenge was the best year of my life up to that point,” VanderGailen exclaims. “I felt very safe and protected there. I didn’t have to worry about anything except my relationship with Christ. Every week I would share about what God had done for me, and I prayed for 45 minutes every day for a year.

“What I learned most from Teen Challenge was that God gives gifts, and he has given me the gift of faith.  I felt that God gave me the ability to believe that he could handle anything.  I learned that God would provide for me and give me peace.”

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God uses people. God uses people to perform His work. He does not send angels.

Angels weep over it, but God does not use angels to accomplish His purposes.

He uses burdened broken-hearted weeping men and women.

David Wilkerson

After Teen Challenge, with really nowhere to go, VanderGalien traveled with friends to South Bend, Indiana.  “I got a job and a place to live.  I lived with a Christian family for six months.  I found a good church, Calvary Temple.  I felt very welcomed. I started to pray for a direction.  I prayed: ‘God, help me.  I don’t make good decisions on my own.’

“I started to think about serving God by going on a missions trip. The Pastor’s wife connected me with a pastor working with an orphanage in Arusha.  God made it all happen.” A three-month short-term missions trip lasted much longer. “I stayed for seven months.  People kept sending me money.  I asked God for friends, and he gave me eight friends here, all women about my age who were also involved in ministry work. I started applying for a long-term visa. I kept praying for the visa.  One day I walked into the house and the pastor handed me my visa. It was for two years.”

“I worked in an orphanage for two years. I just loved working with the children.  But I realized there needed to be a program that was more substantial.  Of the 107 kids only 30 or so were actual orphans.  The rest were sent there because their mothers simply didn’t have any way to support their kids.  I started thinking and praying about the women.”  Most of the local women, as it turns out, are not educated past primary school, are unskilled, and have large families.  In many cases the men are not around, and even if they are, they don’t acknowledge the children of a previous union.  Often the men are abusive to their stepchildren.  Some of the local women had been reduced to begging and prostitution to survive.

VanderGalien began to formulate a plan whereby the women of Engaranumbe could earn money to become self-reliant. “Every November I would come home and in February I return to Tanzania,” VanderGalien says.  “I noticed that my friends coming back had sandals. I noticed everyone was wearing sandals.  Everyone loved the sandals.  I spent weeks and months praying and I knew that God wanted me here.  He wanted me here to work with these women.  I knew that sandals would be very popular in the States.  I knew that I would be able to sell a lot of these.

“Out of the blue a stranger came to me and says, ‘I’m looking for someone to buy Maasai sandals, because I make them.’ I thought . . . aha moment!  I could buy sandals from him to sell to raise money.

“Then it really came to me: I could teach these women to make sandals. It was like a Holy Spirit 2×4 to the head.”

The following events occurred in rapid succession: a 501c(3) corporation organized to sell sandals back in the States, a board of directors, website development.  “We chose the name ‘Shining A Light’ because it’s more effective to shine the light than it is to curse the darkness,” VanderGalien says.  The name ‘Shining A Light’ also invokes the exhortation of the prophet Isaiah:

If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

and your night will become like the noonday.

(Is 58.10)

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There is no doubt that to be truly poor is to be truly cursed – by ignorance, by disease and by malnourishment.   But in a strange and undeniable way, the poor are also blessed, for whatever reason, with such qualities as courage and love and a willing dependence on the God who is alive in the world.  It comes as no surprise, then, that God would give us a sneak peek of his splendor.  Yet God gives us only, as author Frederick Buecher puts it: “momentary glimpses into a mystery of such depth, power, and beauty that if we were to see it head on, in any way other than glimpses, I imagine we would be annihilated.”

A visit to the Shining A Light workshop reveals such a glimpse into the Kingdom of Heaven. A dozen or so women, dressed as colorfully as tropical birds, sing as they work, thumping the leather-punches with the thick part of their hands in a percussive counter-beat to their song.  Others are sewing strings of tiny colored beads onto leather straps.  Two men are there.  One is named Peter, who sews the soles onto the sandals; the other is Elisha, the shop manager.

The women sing as they sew and bead in their cramped workshop, and at the sound of their songs, for reasons I still do not completely understand, tears run from my eyes as my heart is pierced.  These women, in the face of unbearable daily stress, are responding with resilience, even nobility.  Theirs is a sense of purpose and dedication; I am stunned by the stark contrast to others I have known who live in comfortable, even luxurious environments and yet seem utterly lost.

From VanderGalien’s Shining A Light ministry, impoverished mothers in this Tanzanian backwater have learned that poverty is neither fate nor destiny, and their sandal making validates the inherent dignity of self-reliance.

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Many modern stories explore depravity and little else.  VanderGalien, who has drunk from that well and come up from it with a thirst for living water, keeps reaching higher toward a vision of what people can be and should be.  Here are the portraits of a few of the women who are beginning the slow but certain ascent from poverty and misery:

Anna is 32 years old and has 3 children ages 12 and twins that are 3 years old.  VanderGalien met her as she was working in the market buying and selling vegetables. The father of her 12 year old was killed in an accident 11 years ago. She met another man who deceived her in to believing him that he wanted to marry her but as soon as she got pregnant he left her and now she is alone.  She only attended primary school. Her family is very poor and wants nothing to do with her because she got pregnant without being married.

Dorcas is 39 years old and has 3 daughters ages 20,18 & 14. After her husband died eight years ago her husband’s relatives would not let her have the land that belonged to her children, and would not help her.   She came to Arusha to work as a housegirl.  Her dream is to learn leather-working, learn how to make clothes, and to open a shop to sell clothing.

Monika is 30 years old and is married. She has 2 children: Mary, 5 years old, and William, 11 years old.  Her husband does not work because he had an accident and has left her to go back to his village to recover. She has not seen him for a long time. She only attended primary school.

Margaret is 33 years old. She is married and has 3 children ages 10, 5 and 1.  Her 5 year old, Sweet Tea, goes to preschool. Her husband is a handyman and does not make much money to support the family. She went through primary school but her family had no money for her to continue on.

Ramla is 49 years old. Her husband died 5 years ago and she has 7 children ages 26, 23, 22, 16, 9, 8, and 6.  Since becoming a widow she has been struggling to provide for her children.  She never attended school.   Shining A Light is giving her the training and resources she needs to survive and provide a better life for her family.

The rate of pay for these women is the approximate equivalent of four US dollars per day, slightly above the local minimum, and enough to feed, clothe and pay school fees for a family. An entire family can be transformed for about the daily cost of a mocha latte grande.

VanderGalien’s compassion is not limited to just the women under her employ.  A diminutive and cheery tot of five or maybe six years named Omery, known as “Little Man,” is a regular visitor to Shining A Light headquarters. He is one of any number of urchins who haunt the rubble-and-litter-strewn alleys of the village. His mother has disappeared; he is being raised by a grandmother who frequently leaves him to fend for himself.  “I’ll give him a bath, have his clothes washed, and make sure he gets something to eat,” VanderGalien announces. Little Man has just had his dinner and now climbs out the front gate.  May the angels of God surround Little Man, and may his descendants cover the earth.

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VanderGalien is almost finished.  She furrows her brow for a moment and formulates her next thought. “The valley of darkness is what really prepared me to do this work because it prepared me to totally be reliant on Him.”  Then she adds, “My faith has been tested here.”

In her relentless pursuit of an authentic faith, VanderGalien at times appears to be swimming upstream against the daily struggles to succeed at her business and to bring hope to women in a place where hope can be in short supply. Her ongoing challenges with Shining A Light do not devalue her vision but instead point out her continuing need to rely on God’s provision. To follow Jesus, she has learned, does not mean to solve every human problem – Christ himself did not attempt that – but rather to respond as he did, against all reason, to dispense grace and love to those who have been overlooked by the world.

“Grace,” as Phillip Yancey says, “is like water.  It flows to the lowest level.”

VanderGalien is a living Christian servant who demonstrates to any and all who have eyes to notice the logical consequences of a life based on faith and love.  What her story teaches us is that the gospel of grace infiltrates the world not primarily through words and rational arguments but through deeds, through love.

Hers is a great stew of a life story, a bit digressive, too many characters in it, too many turning points and subplots, and yet it’s a story which, just because VanderGalien leaves room in it for whatever and whoever comes up to enter, is entered here and there by the Holy Spirit himself, thereby becoming, as far as I’m concerned, a life story less about squandered youth and subsequent religious experience than a life story the knowing of which is itself a religious experience: of God, both in his hidden presence and in his amazing grace.

In one of our last conversations, VanderGalien turns reflective: “The most important thing I can give these women is Jesus,” she says.  “The only reason I’m here is Jesus.”

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