Church begins 4-Acre farm run by and benefitting local refugees
By Lindsay Peyton
Crops to plant, seeds to sow — that’s the main topic of conversation lately for the Congolese Women’s Empowerment Group (WEG) of FAM Houston. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the nonprofit, which started as a ministry at Westbury UMC, broke ground on a garden. WEG members named it “Shamba Ya Amani,” which translates from Swahili to the “Farm of Peace.”
The 4-acre plot of land, owned by Alief ISD and overseen by the International Management District, will soon transform into raised beds of vegetables and herbs. There are plans for a fruit orchard and honeybee apiary. About 25 women and their families will be served by the garden –members of WEG will both run and benefit from its operation.
Esperance Chibalonza is one of the women who became part of the project. Originally from Congo, her own harvests were often disrupted by militia. “Because of this unrest, I decided to flee from my original country,” she said.
As a refugee in the U.S., Chibalonza planted a garden in front of her apartment with seeds she brought from Africa. The space was limited, and she dreamt of expanding.
Now, with Shamba Ya Amani, her vision is realized. “It’s a big place,” she said. “I can grow many things.”
Ndjabuka Francine Murhebwa, interpreter on the Women’s Empowerment Leadership Team and member of First UMC Houston, joined WEG members for the garden’s groundbreaking. The occasion was filled with song, dance and prayer.
The Rev. Hannah Terry, Founding Executive Director of FAM Houston, also blessed the ground.
“We will get a lot of food from that land,” Murhebwa said. “We’re already talking about what to plant. We’re getting ready.”
Running a farm builds confidence
The Rev. Sylvia Kiboko at First UMC Houston-Westchase, who serves on FAM’s Women’s Empowerment Leadership Team, said that running the farm will build the confidence of group members. “When the women are here, they can be together and feel stronger,” she said. “We can’t wait to see the results of the blessing that will come out of the garden.”
Kiboko explained that several women in the WEG were able to garden in their former homes in Africa. “If they can do it here, it will make them more comfortable,” she said.
Kiboko was already actively ministering to Houston’s refugees when she met Pastor Terry in 2017. She speaks Swahili and French, the languages of many of the refugees who live in the 10-mile radius around her church. She and her husband would go door-to-door to pray with the neighbors and offer spiritual support.
Finding Terry felt like a godsend. “It was like a magnet, so easy to connect,” Kiboko recalled. “What she was dreaming was almost exactly what I was dreaming of.”
Ministry started by meeting neighbors
Terry’s ministry also started simply by meeting the neighbors who surrounded her church. She was to serve Houston’s Westbury UMC in 2012.
“I was hired to start a new neighborhood ministry,” she said. “It was very much a blank slate. We didn’t set out to start a ministry for refugees. We just wanted to get to know our neighbors.”
Many of the church’s neighbors ended up being refugees and immigrants, including a number of women from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. To further get to know them and understand their needs, Terry moved into their neighborhood and started a weekly pot luck.
“It grew so fast,” she said. “We shared food, stories, prayers and sometimes an art project with the kids.”
Terry wanted to do more and thought perhaps a network of house churches would be born in the neighborhood. Instead, she ended up launching Fondren Apartment Ministry, now simply known as FAM Houston.
The nonprofit incorporated in 2017, and its social services expanded. Currently, the organization offers ESL classes, Bible studies and resources for refugees. Several other churches have joined in the effort.
The WEG launched in 2019, when Terry connected with Shirin Herman, who established HISD’s refugee program. “We realized we had a shared vision,” Terry recalled. “We had the same passion. We were like, ‘Let’s do this together.’”
The two also worked with Interfaith Ministries of Houston, which also holds firmly to the belief that empowering women is key to helping refugee families.
FAM Houston’s WEG offers informational talks to members and points them towards resources for health care, mental health and parenting. The mission is to grow in community and build confidence for the refugee women.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the group pivoted to meeting online. Food insecurity also emerged as a primary focus.
Terry realized that a number of women in the group were gardening in front of their apartments.
“There’s no greenspace at their apartments, but it’s in their blood to farm the land,” she said. “There are women who only have a 1 foot by 2 foot piece of soil, and they’re still growing stuff. We began wondering, ‘What can we do to help them have access to land?’”
Before the pandemic, FAM Houston partnered with Plant it Forward, a nonprofit that helps refugees develop sustainable business practices. First, the two nonprofits worked together to provide farm shares of fresh produce to women in the group. Then, they joined forces again to develop the Shamba Ya Amani garden.
“The pandemic brought this in a year of tremendous challenge,” Terry said. “Still, in the midst of a pandemic, this has been a giant year of growth.”
Literacy classes and mentoring
The garden is just one example. Much like tilling the soil for this project, Terry is laying the groundwork for the future, planning financial literacy classes and mentoring programs for youth.
“We’re digging in the dirt together, and we’re putting down roots,” she said.
Terry also hopes to expand the WEG. She said its members are an inspiration during trying times.
“The women in our group have been through tremendous trauma in their lives – and they’re here today,” she said. “They’ve lived through it, and they’re strong. They’re resilient.”
Pastor Kiboko compared FAM Houston to a pillar that holds up the refugee women and gives them strength. “It’s like a lung,” she said. “And if someone does not breathe, there’s no life.”
The WEG opens a path to continue her ministry to refugees. “It’s a continuation of what I am supposed to do,” she said. “Pastor Hannah also gives me motivation. She has a big heart.”
Murhebwa agreed. “Pastor Hannah is like a long-lost sister,” she said. “God guided me to Pastor Hannah. Now, we’re helping women from the ground up to gain confidence in themselves.”
Murhebwa has worked as a translator in Houston for years. “I used to ask myself, why isn’t there someone helping my community? Where is that person?” she recalled. “Pastor Hannah is doing all she can to reach out to my people, and that is a blessing.”
As an example of Terry’s dedication, Murhebwa recounted a story of a woman calling her after 10 p.m. with three children and no food for them. She did not have an income to cover the expenses.
By the morning, Terry brought food and diapers to the woman’s house. “She took that time out of her day and delivered it all herself, even during COVID,” Murhebwa said. “I know that family will be forever grateful for her.”
That is simply the type of person Terry is, Murhebwa explained. “She doesn’t just see you,” Murhebwa said. “She sees what’s in you, what God has planned.”
Most importantly, Terry gives a voice to the Congolese women when they needed it most. “She wants to help women become independent and self-sufficient – and she is making it possible,” Murhebwa said.
In the nine years since Terry moved to Houston, the city’s refugees have benefitted from FAM’s outreach. Terry said she is simply following God’s call.
“You show up and pay attention to what God is doing already, then you join God,” Terry said. “
I’m not responsible for this. This is God’s work. My job is to lean in.”
For more information, visit famhoustontx.org. Forms on the website allow individuals and congregations to get involved.