A New Way to do Missions With People Like You
words by: Ferree Hardy
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
~ Jesus Christ (John 15:5)
Are you ready to see some positive changes around the world? Some business leaders in Ohio are. With a tiny seed of an idea, a new non-profit, “Branches Worldwide” is shaping up to bring economic and spiritual growth to business leaders and their communities in countries all over the world.
A Branch with a Vision: Brian Miller, Founder
On their website, founder Brian Miller, of Sugarcreek, Ohio, explains the beginnings in a video entitled “Branches Worldwide – The Vision.” He had been listening to a presentation by a demographer, an expert in human population changes, who forecasted world changes and what various countries might look like in the next thirty years.
Brian found himself thinking about the presentation over the next several days. It was like he heard God telling him, “Impact thirty individuals, in thirty different countries, over the next thirty years, with the principles of servant leadership.”
These individuals could then, in turn, impact their communities. “Somebody that can provide a way to earn a living, giving people jobs, can open people’s hearts to hear the gospel….” Mr. Miller explained. As a businessman himself, he understood the power of living your faith in the business world. The thought of how Christian business people could impact individuals and communities all over the world gripped him.
Brian envisioned an organization that would come alongside and aid young Christian business leaders called to grow their faith along with their businesses; leaders for whom their business IS their ministry.
The overall plan boiled down to this: “30 Leaders. 30 Countries. 30 Years.” But first, another “branch” was needed.
A Branch with a Mission: Dan Owolabi, Executive Director
Just as one vine and many branches make up the disciples that Jesus spoke of in John 15, there are many branches in Branches Worldwide. Dan Owolabi, (pronounced Oh-ah-lobby) is the Executive Director. His mission is to travel the world and find the thirty leaders in the thirty countries.
Dan is uniquely qualified with vast leadership and people skills, a pastor’s heart, and many cross-cultural experiences. In his book, “Authentic Leadership,” available on Amazon.com, he tells about growing up in the small town of Dalton, Ohio—in the only black family. His parents were also both deaf. Can you imagine if the first language you “spoke” had been sign language? Dan’s was. Both his parents had emigrated from Nigeria to the United States as young adults, which is a story of courage and faith in itself.
After college and graduate school, Dan served as both a public school teacher and a pastor in northeast Ohio. He also co-founded Owolabi Leadership, and has counted it a privilege to help thousands of people hone their leadership skills. Around 2018, Dan sensed a change coming in his life. In prayer he wondered, “What’s next, Lord?”
The answer came in a phone call from Dan’s old friend Brian Miller. Brian and Dan had served together about ten years earlier at a church in Holmes County, Ohio. Back then they had enjoyed some great conversations, but this was the first time they’d talked in years.
Many meaningful discussions ensued about how to actualize Brian’s idea to “impact thirty leaders in thirty countries for thirty years with the principles of servant leadership.” At this point they didn’t even have a name for the organization Brian envisioned. But that was about to change. Dan and Brian got together one afternoon to brainstorm. On a white marker board they quickly wrote down every possible name that came to their minds. Just as quickly, it seemed, they’d draw a line through it; nothing fit. Finally, they went to Scripture. Reading John 15 showed them a picture of how their organization would work: Christ Jesus was the life-giving vine and servant-leader “branches” would abide in Him. Thus, the name “Branches Worldwide” went up on the white marker board and stayed. It embodied both a fitting name and a fitting mission of abiding in Christ. After all, servant leadership is what Jesus taught. Dan was appointed executive director, and they began growing their organization: assembling a board of directors, applying for non-profit status, building a website, finding necessary staff, and reaching out to a potential donor base. The idea for “Branches Worldwide” was taking root.
30 Leaders, 30 Countries, in 3 Years!
So how does the organization plan to expand? With Branches Worldwide firmly set up, Dan is now determined to find the thirty global leaders in three years! Then there will be thirty prime years ahead for these young business owners to serve their communities, and for Branches Worldwide to serve them.
Dan is introduced to potential business leaders through the far-reaching network of the board of directors, staff, and volunteers at Branches Worldwide. For additional outreach, there is also a contact form on their website which they use to get introduced to potential leaders, mentors, and networkers. The best qualified global leaders emerge with these five specific characteristics:
- Has a strong faith in Jesus
- Leads a business or organization
- Age 25-40
- Employs 5 or more people
- Can speak English
The goal for 2020 was to place the first five leaders in North America (see chart on page 12). Even though the Covid-19 pandemic hit, God granted that they placed four of them. Panama was the only country they missed, and at the time of this writing, Dan Owolabi is interviewing potential leaders there. This year’s goal is to complete Panama and to discover the five leaders on the continents of South America and Europe.
The time table for bringing young global leaders on board with Branches Worldwide builds up like a snowball as they anticipate more contacts and travel time.
Dan said that choosing only 30 countries out of approximately 195 countries in the world was challenging. The selections had to do, in part, with the country’s economic stability; they also looked for countries in which corruption was not rampant.
Branches First Global Leader
Narlly Solano Mendez, became the first of Branches Worldwide’s global leaders, and she is also the first director of Dario Christian Academy (DCA).
When she was only seven years old, Narlly’s parents moved to Washington state to escape a civil war that killed approximately forty thousand people in Nicaragua during the 1980s. She learned to speak English and assimilated to American life. At age twenty-two, she graduated from University of Washington and became a first grade teacher. About the same time, she also went on a mission trip to Nicaragua with Compassion In Action to rebuild a tiny school which had been damaged by a hurricane in previous years.
Only two months later, Narlly found herself back in Nicaragua. It was 2004, and she was no longer a first grade teacher, but the director of Dario Christian Academy! And although she was in her homeland, Nicaragua was very different from living in America most of her life. Her mission team was gone. She was on her own. This new job, and this new country, were things this young lady would have to figure out.
When she started, Narlly was responsible for forty-seven students ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade. Today, there are over four hundred students. Classes have expanded to include kindergarten through eleventh grade (in Nicaragua, there is no twelfth grade). It’s a highly regarded school, providing students with a quality education that equips them with a Biblical worldview and an understanding of respect, hard work, and God’s love.
Narlly is married to Julio Mendez. Julio is originally from Guatemala, but he was living in the US during their courtship, so they talked over the phone for a year before they got married. Narlly often worried that marriage would be difficult, but today she doesn’t know what she’d do without her husband! Julio also works at the school and they have three children: Julieta, Abigail, and Josias. Regarding the many positive changes she’s seen, she told me in a phone call, “It’s obviously not due to me, because God sent a young lady down to Nicaragua who didn’t know what she was doing! But now I can step back and see what God has done.”
Yet, we know these things don’t just happen; it takes hard work every day. Each morning before sunup, Narlly and her family push aside their mosquito netting and get out of their beds at 5:30. The children’s uniforms are cleaned and pressed before school begins at 7:00. For breakfast, the family eats beans and rice cooked together with an egg. Narlly and Julio enjoy a cup of coffee from a nearby coffee plantation. She admits it is better than what we can find in our grocery stores. (As an aside: If you’d like to try some Nicaraguan coffee, you can find it freshly roasted at Better Life Coffee in Dalton, Ohio, or online at betterlifecoffee.org. Part of the proceeds will help Dario Christian Academy. And, by the way, it was through this coffee shop that Branches Worldwide first heard of Narlly.)
The children ride their bikes to school if it’s not raining, and Narlly and Julio drive; it’s less than two miles. All students and staff get to school independently. Many take taxis, which are very inexpensive. Some children who live far out in the country get on a bus at 4:30 a.m. and transfer from three different buses to get to school.
At school, Narlly is busy bringing out the best in everyone. She manages projects, scholarships, educational standards and the many other opportunities and challenges in education. On the Branches Worldwide website, a video features Narlly describing her school. She glows with love as she tells how the teachers weave a biblical worldview throughout each lesson. When you take a peek into the library, even the librarian is sharing the gospel with visitors; in the kitchen, you may hear the cooks praying as they work. In every corner, she adds, it’s always about God’s glory and the bigger community outside of themselves.
Nicaragua has a long history of Catholicism and remains at a staunchly 50% Catholic population today. The student population of DCA comes from approximately 60% Catholic and 40% evangelical homes. Dario Christian Academy is evangelical and does not waiver in its doctrine, however. Narlly said, ”There is a cultural stigma about leaving the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, so it’s often hard for families to send their children to DCA. But they want a quality education.”
Narlly has built quality into Dario Christian Academy, in part with class sizes nearly half the size of public school classes. At DCA, there are twenty-four students per teacher, which promotes a better learning environment. The public schools classes are forty to sixty children per teacher. But to Narlly, “The Gospel is why we do what we do. To have the Catholic children is an outreach. Otherwise we would not be able to reach them at all. Now we can teach them and love them every day.”
Julio has brought in horticulture, gardening, cooking and nutritional education to supplement the traditional classrooms and enhance the student’s lessons. When he first arrived, the school property included five empty acres with a couple of trees. Today, those barren five acres are bursting with hundreds of trees: mango, lime, cashew, and many more. The trees are all properly labelled and cared for so the children can learn how they are grown and harvested.
The school day ends at noon with lunch provided for the students and staff so Narlly is assured that everyone she knows will have at least one full meal each school day. Lunch is always freshly cooked beans, separately cooked rice, and tortillas. Dinner will be leftover beans and rice in the homes that can afford them. This is the usual diet in Nicaragua—beans and rice, three times a day. Narlly and Julio add a little variety when they can. A few months ago, someone gave them a chicken to eat, but before they ever got hold of a butcher knife their daughter Abigail had named it Chloe and started carrying it around! Now they have a chicken in the house whenever mama and papa turn their backs, Narlly told me with a laugh.
Narlly’s Branches Worldwide Mentor
Branches Worldwide ministers to Narlly by providing her with a mentor of her choice. Once a week, she and her mentor, Beth Beechy, will talk together by phone or online. Narlly said, “Becoming a part of Branches Worldwide was a surprising and humbling experience! Wow! People who want to invest their time, and wisdom, and walk beside me! To help me serve my community more effectively! It’s been the greatest blessing so far. Beth has also invited a business consultant, Linda Allison, to join our sessions. They both use their strengths to help me grow. They don’t boast that they are strong, I just see things.”
When asked about a specific problem her mentor has already helped with, Narlly continued: “When doing missions, especially in a very poor country like Nicaragua, it’s easy to think you must get as many resources as possible from the outside. The problem is that those in need don’t ‘get to’ invest with dignity to the best of their abilities. Beth has been helping me think through working on a more sustainable model so that a higher percentage of the cost of the school will come from the families themselves. The question is: How to do this wisely? Beth Beechy has helped in such a way that I can process this big question.
Also, I’ve received much input on problem-solving with my staff, and taking into account their unique personality types and gifts. This is essential for an institution. We all need each other.”
One of the greatest benefits of having a mentor has been on a more personal level. Narlly said, “As a leader it can be hard to find opportunities to share my personal joys and struggles with someone who can pray, listen, and give sound advice. That’s exactly one of the most wonderful things about Branches and the mentor they paired me up with.
For many years I felt like I existed on an island, having moved down to Nicaragua very young and single to start Dario Christian Academy. I asked my husband a few years later, ‘Who would we turn to if we ever went through a marriage crisis or needed a good friend?’ We looked around and saw people we were serving with love, but not someone we could reach out to back then. Today I don’t feel so all alone.”
Branching Out with Branches Like You
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in North America, yet you can see that a little pocket of it is rich in faith that will blossom and branch out to bless the city of Dario. That blessing will spread throughout the nation of Nicaragua and perhaps the world.
What started out as just a little seed of an idea in the heart of Amish country in Ohio has taken hold in Nicaragua, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica.
Lord willing, the same thing will be happening in Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Austria, Czech Republic, Ireland, Norway, and Spain by the end of this year.
Can you, too, envision Christian business people having a life changing impact on their communities by sharing the gospel through the servant leadership that Branches Worldwide is sowing into their lives? Your branch of home-grown wisdom, godly experience, or business expertise might fit right in!
For more information on how you can help change the world, please reach out to Dan Owolabi at:
2798 Cove Lane, Millersburg, OH 44654
330-359-8250 // www.branchesworldwide.org/contact
Individual and corporate sponsors may donate through the website by mailing a check to the address above, or through facebook.com/branches.worldwide.
To learn more about Branches Worldwide, visit www.branchesworldwide.org