SALEM, Ohio – On a good Sunday, Carroll County’s tiny Leesville Faith Community Chapel congregation swells to 120 people.
The parishioners drive just a few miles to fill the pews, hear uplifting testimony and then go about their day: a Sunday fried chicken dinner, a visit with friends or neighbors.
Half a world away, some 800 people rise early to walk miles, hoping to reach the Migori Worship Center in a small town in Kenya in time for their service.
They listen to Pastor John Okinda’s morning testimony, and many stay for his evening message, too. It’s too far to walk home.
All the time, they’re hungry and helpless. Many of them haven’t eaten in days.
A Kenyan government newspaper just reported what these people already know and fear – that 2.3 million of them will die this year from starvation alone.
But this day in 2004, with two visiting Leesville church members watching in disbelief, something happens.
With their hands and hearts, the two Ohioans reach out as if to say, “Just wait, we’re on our way. We’ll save you from starvation.”
They buy 80 loaves of bread, a tub of butter, several cases of warm Coca-Cola. Those in the congregation eat like they are kings, says Keith Cope, one of the men there that sweltering day.
Something gnaws at Cope’s insides, but it’s not the same hunger that grips these people.
It’s a feeling of hope, a feeling that there’s something he and his fellow churchgoers back in Ohio can do to help.
Cope’s minister, Doug Mallernee, met John Okinda seven years ago. The Ohio congregation took Okinda’s African church under its wing, sending clothing and money to help the ministry.
It didn’t feel like enough. There must be something else to do to make a bigger impact there, Cope remembers them thinking.
He had been praying himself, telling God he would go wherever he was needed, do whatever the Lord wanted him to do. It never crossed his mind that a friend’s invitation to join a mission trip to Kenya would fulfill that prayer.
Kenya is in east central Africa on the equator and is roughly five times the size of Ohio.
Stepping off the airplane, Cope was dumbfounded. He expected to see desert-like conditions, he says, but was greeted by green and fertile growing ground.
The Kenyans aren’t starving because they can’t produce enough food. They grow potatoes and cabbage and maize and pineapples, but once the harvest peak hits, the food begins to rot.
If they can’t eat it when it’s fresh, it spoils.
Cope, who grew up with a mother who canned green beans, asked Okinda why his people didn’t can or preserve their produce and meat.
Cope was aghast to find the Kenyans had no perception of – and no word in their Swahili language to describe – traditional American canning.
The project started innocently last year, with Cope and the Leesville parishioners hoping to can fruits, vegetables and meat for the Okindas and their church.
Upon his return, Cope and fellow traveler Glenn Norris set to work with a video camera, an open-pit fire and several canning jars. Their product was a video tape that will teach how to can, how to feed families, how to conquer hunger.
Cope thinks this project can change all of Kenya, and maybe even the African continent. It will teach the people to can, to create jobs, to see God in action, Cope says.
The Ohioans boxed two jars each of green beans, carrots and meat, plus a single jar of corn for a shipment. They packed a few empty jars, an antiquated 1948 canning guide, their homemade video and a waterbath canner and sent it toward Okinda.
The African church leader made arrangements to get a generator, television and VCR set up so his followers could learn.
The eager students waited. Three months later, the package arrived.
They were shocked to see meat in a glass jar. Surely it wasn’t fit to eat. It had been around for three months.
Outside, in their shack-like version of a slaughterhouse, a side of beef just hung was already starting its blackened rot in the 85-degree sunshine.
But Okinda encouraged them, and they ate.
“… The congregation went into applause of how sweet and tasty the meat was. Please, we crying for more of your beef, we have never tasted one like this before,” Okinda wrote back to his friends.
On July 14, 2004, the Kenyan churchgoers canned on their own for the first time in their history.
Cope and the Leesville congregation heard the news and cried.
Tractors and electricity
There’s still more to do. The Leesville church hopes to help Okinda’s people continue canning and eradicating hunger. But to do that, supplies are needed.
The Ohioans want to send 30,000 canning jars, plus 100,000 lids and bands, 20-30 waterbath canners and other supplies to Africa. And that’s just their first shipment.
The Leesville church has worked with Malone College, local auctioneers and other churches to raise roughly $25,000 for the effort.
No barrier can stop them.
The Kenyan government opens any package shipped into their country, decides a value, and then imposes a 25 percent duty fee that the sender or receiver must pay, Cope says.
That amount may not be huge on several boxes of jars, but the Leesville church also plans to eventually send a tractor and loader to a community where farming with oxen is the norm.
There’s no way they could afford to give the jars and equipment and pay the taxes, Cope says.
A government official who worships with Okinda went to the country’s parliament and got special permission for the church’s donations to be duty-free.
There are also plans to help Okinda and his followers erect a building with electricity and clean water where they can preserve their food.
The church volunteers’ plans have spread, and others in the community offered jars and assistance.
The director of the Salvation Army Camp near Dellroy invited them to use the facility’s kitchen to wash and box the donated jars, and others offered a storage building where they’re storing caseloads of jars ready to ship.
Cope says so far, they’ve collected about half the jars –
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