The boy slumbered, concealed by a narrow patch of shade alongside a mud house. An open-air church service had concluded nearby under a grove of mango trees, and the crowd dispersed meandering back to other parts of the village. Don Rogers ’81 noticed the sleeping child’s distended belly and worried that family members somehow left the young boy behind. “He was alone and obviously malnourished,” said Rogers, recounting his first visit to Tanzania in 1989. “I brought over the local pastor, who gently woke the boy, put him on his knee, and introduced him as his son.” The realization that the small, starving boy was the pastor’s own child jolted Rogers. “This man wanted to reach his whole village and make a difference by sharing God’s love with the people,” he said, “but he couldn’t feed his children.”
Back home in Garden Grove, California, at Living Spring Christian Fellowship, where Rogers served as a youth ministries pastor, leaders organized rummage sales to purchase two fishing boats and a net for the Tanzanian pastor. He would soon make use of the equipment on Lake Victoria, discovering a way to not only provide for his family, but also employ other villagers in a burgeoning fishing business. “I was hooked,” said Rogers, who cites that trip as one of many significant encounters that led to founding Empowering Lives International (ELI), a vast nonprofit dedicated to equipping the poor through its centers across East and Central Africa. “God put into my heart a vision to establish a training center to strengthen pastors and others suffering from poverty with ideas and encouragement that would help them break the cycle of poverty.”
After more than two decades of service in Africa and 17 years as ELI’s international director, Rogers was honored as Azusa Pacific’s 2012 Alumnus of the Year at Dinner Rally in October. “Don Rogers’ life is a testimony to obedience, to leaning fully into the call of God upon your life and committing to being a difference maker wherever God places you,” said President Jon R. Wallace, DBA. “He embodies all that we hope to impart here on campus—our motto, God First; our mission to develop disciples and scholars with intellectual and moral virtue; and our vision to value all people—and he has brought it to life through his calling. What a privilege it is to witness the work God has done through him and his family.”
Rogers’ endeavor grew from modest beginnings into the border-bridging organization it is today. A short visit to Africa became a series of annual summer mission trips, during which Rogers and others conducted practical training sessions on topics such as developing a tree-seedling nursery, crafting cement water-storage jars, and fostering poultry production. “Empowerment is seeing someone discover their importance in the eyes of God,” said Rogers. “That recognition motivates them to reach their potential, and then we can help provide access to practical information.” Empowering Lives gained official nonprofit status in 1995. The next year, Rogers and his wife, Amy, moved to Africa and oversaw the expansion of ELI from Tanzania into Kenya, and later into the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Nationals comprise a substantial part of ELI’s staff and core operations. “God has aligned us with amazing national leadership throughout the years here in Africa,” said Amy Rogers. “It is because of His leading and the faithfulness, obedience, and sacrifices of our national leadership that ELI is what it is today.”
The partnerships enable greater cultural effectiveness as neighbor teaches neighbor. “When we go into villages, we walk together with the people to solve challenges and develop their vision for the community,” said Samuel Teimuge, director of the ELI Ukweli Training Center in Ilula, Kenya.
Empowerment through skills-based knowledge represents the heart of virtually all ELI ministries. The group’s children’s home in Ilula, Kenya, which cares for nearly 100 orphans, stands adjacent to a training center where innovative strategies for agricultural advancement and income generation are developed and disseminated. There, residents learn to grow vegetables with a vertical garden, bake bread in an improvised oven, and better protect precious grain against insects—and so do the youth. “These vulnerable kids, once had no hope and no future, usually because AIDS had claimed one or both of their birth parents,” said Gary Enniss ’83, Rogers’ longtime friend and ELI board member. “Now, they attend high quality schools and speak about their future careers. In many cases, they receive an education equal to that of even privileged children in Africa.”
With Rogers at the helm, ELI is now establishing businesses within Africa with the aim of providing even greater opportunities for the African people while becoming a more self-sustaining organization in the process. “This ministry has the fingerprints of God,” said Peter Maru, director of the ELI training and development center in Kipkaren, Kenya. “The people of Africa believe in the good things we are doing through training, because He has empowered our mission.”
Evelyn Barge is a writer and editor in the Office of University Relations. firstname.lastname@example.org