Stepping Into Leadership and Changing A Community Forever

For most of his life, Matt Lossau felt like he never had permission. Like many of us, he played it safe. He rarely initiated, and was the kid who always waited to be picked.

But all of that changed in March of 2009. He went on a men’s weekend called The Crucible Project, a global community of 1,700+ Christian men committed to live with integrity, grace and courage to fulfill their God-given purpose. Matt’s initial weekend experience taught him some things about Christian manhood he hadn’t been exposed to before … how to live with deeper levels of authenticity and new models for integrity, grace and courage. He was so inspired by his initial weekend experience that shortly after, Matt signed up for a second-level Crucible Project weekend on leadership. It promised to teach him to stretch him beyond his comfort zone, take risks and increase his influence.  In anticipation of the leadership weekend, Matt received a letter from The Crucible Project. And, when he read it and what it asked, for the first time Matt felt like he had “permission” to do something bold.

“I spent most of my life waiting to picked and wanting people to ask me,” said Lossau, describing the letter which encouraged him to start a leadership project in his church, workplace or community that would require stepping out in faith, getting out of his own way and taking risks. “I felt like I had permission to go out and rock my world. I sensed I had the potential to do something big. I was excited and scared at the same time.”

Matt Lossau (center, white shirt) gathers with the people of Gambella, Kenya. As a leadership project, Lossau was inspired to motivate his neighborhood to raise $15,000 to fund the African village from poverty to sustainability over a three-year period.

Lossau already had an idea of what his leadership project might be. Inspired by a great aunt who was a missionary in Kenya, Lossau had a growing heart for poverty in Africa. According to the Hunger Project, 1.4 billion people in developing countries such as Kenya live on $1.25 a day or less. Rural areas account for three out of every four people living on less than $1.25 a day. And 22,000 children die each day due to conditions of poverty.

“I knew I didn’t want to dig a well and leave. I know I wanted to do something with an organization that would be sustainable there.” Lossau said.

Two days later, Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision, was the guest speaker at Lossau’s church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. World Vision is a Christian organization dedicated to tackling the root causes of poverty and justice. After the church service, Lossau approached Stearns and shared his desire. Stearns listened and gave Lossau recommendations on organizations that focus on sustainability in Africa. Lossau’s subsequent research led him to Global Hope Network International (GHNI), which goes into the poorest villages of the world and transforms them holistically by training and teaching residents to contribute directly to clean drinking water, growing nutritious food, education for all children, and disease prevention.

GHNI had a Transformational Community Development program to help villages lift themselves out of severe poverty. Working as partners, Lossau would provide funding and become a sustainability coach to the village. In turn, locally-based GHNI staff would make frequent visits to the village and train residents in low-cost, low tech ways to transform their community. GHNI had even identified a village that Lossau could adopt. It was Gambella, Kenya. GHNI had already been there since 2008. Gambella was a drought-gripped community in the “bush” of Africa, about five hours north of Nairobi. It is one of more than 1,000 villages of the Borana tribe, and is stricken with high disease rates and crushing poverty. In Gambella, there are no paved roads, no electricity, no running water and the “houses” look like backpacking tents constructed from sticks and mud.

“Just imagine driving by any open field near your house and 1,800 people living there out in the open. That was Gambella. It didn’t come up on Google Earth the first time I looked for it,” Lossau said.

  • He had a leadership project: Change the lives of 1,800 people in Gambella.
  • He had a partner: Global Hope Network International.

All Lossau needed now was people. And money. To transform this poverty-stricken community into a sustainable village, Lossau would need to raise $5,000 a year for three consecutive years ($15,000 total). He also would need sacrifice precious vacation time and personal money to make trips to Gambella. Finally, he would need to mobilize a small army of people help him realize his vision.

Stepping Outside His Comfort Zone

It was Labor Day weekend, 2010. Lossau’s neighbors — many of whom were Christians and either went to his church or neighboring churches — were coming over for what they thought was a Labor Day cookout. But … Lossau had something more in mind.

In comparison to the people of Gambella, Lossau’s neighbors were beyond wealthy. They had clean drinking water, warm homes, electricity, flushing toilets, education, and health. After the cookout, Lossau would gather his neighbors and cast a vision of his neighborhood adopting Gambella and funding it toward sustainability over a three-year period. Lossau likened the challenge to Nehemiah, his favorite leader in the Bible. Nehemiah, Lossau notes, was an ordinary guy who sensed a need. Nehemiah stepped in to meet that need. And so did Lossau.

“I was scared to death. I wanted to throw up,” Lossau said. “I never wanted to be the guy who got things wrong. That’s why I always played it safe. What if I chose the wrong project? What if I screwed this up?”

Lossau’s neighbors in Algonquin, Il would hold garage sales and other fundraisers to raise $5,000 annually to sponsor Gambella’s transformation to sustainability. Two girls in the neighborhood were so inspired by the Gambella story, that they joined Lossau and his wife on a trip to the Kenyan village.

For an hour, he cast a vision of ordinary people in an ordinary neighborhood doing something extraordinary for Gambella. Yes, it would require money. But Lossau didn’t want his neighbors to use their own money. He challenged his neighbors to be creative and come up with $5,000 a year by holding garage sales and other fundraisers. Lossau also had some other requirements for his project:

  • It had to include all generations, so children could learn about a world bigger than their own.
  • It had to include the larger community so Lossau’s project could reach other neighborhoods.
  • And it had to include people who did not have a relationship with Jesus Christ, so they could see how Lossau’s neighbors were modeling Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40 to help a village in Kenya.

Once he cast his vision, he asked those who were interested to sign a letter of commitment. About 20 of them did. And the journey to bring Gambella to sustainability began.

“It was definitely a high point. I’m not sure I slept that night,” said the guy who had always waited to be picked. “But I was also scared. They had put their faith in me.”

A buzz of excitement started to spread through the suburban neighborhood. They had more to talk about than the weather or sports. As a neighborhood, they now had a story to rally around. It was a story about one neighborhood of 1,800 reaching across oceans, religions and cultures to change lives in another neighborhood of 1,800.

Within the first few months, more than 30 families chipped in for a community-wide garage sale. All of the proceeds went to Gambella, and Lossau’s neighborhood was on its way to funding its first year of sustainability. Neighbors would hold subsequent garage sales annually. They also sponsored a community-wide “No Frills” 5K run. Bring your own water, your own food and racing bib. And if you were competitive, bring your own trophy to present to yourself. The only “ask” was a donation to Gambella. More than 60 runners from across the Chicagoland area showed up.

That was also about the time when Lossau realized that he had a dilemma. His first trip to Gambella was quickly approaching. Leaders set the example. As the leader, he challenged his neighbors not to use their own money. Lossau had to find way to fund his airfare, immunizations and expenses for his first trip. So, he went into his garage and looked at one of his most prized possessions … his motorcycle. And he made a difficult decision to sell it in order to fund his journey.

The First Time

Not long after the motorcycle sold, Lossau found himself in Nairobi, heading north for the five-hour drive to the village. He was accompanied by Jeff Power, the director of Partner Development for Global Hope Network International.

“I cried the moment I set foot in the village. But I also remember being struck at how happy most of them were “ Lossau said, recalling the barren field and dismal living conditions. The people of Gambella lived in a condition of poverty beyond what Lossau had imagined. At night, most of the villagers slept under trees. The only things that resembled buildings were a couple of thatch huts that they used for classrooms. Most villagers wore the same set of clothes for six months. For food, they ate mostly rice. Gambella was also experiencing a brief period of peace. The village had not been attacked by neighboring tribes for nearly six months.

That first night, the elders gathered the entire village for a ceremony to kick off the new partnership between Lossau’s neighborhood and the people of Gambella. The village leaders lined up Matt and the staff of GHNI and gave each one of them a tribal name to commemorate their new place of belonging in the Borana tribe. The leader of this Borana tribe was a 77-year-old man named Boru, which means “morning” in Borana. Lossau didn’t suspect it, but he was about to be blessed with a high honor as Boru bestowed his own name upon Lossau, his fellow leader and new partner from a neighborhood tribe in Algonquin, IL.

For Lossau, the first trip had its share of ups and downs. Things didn’t always go according to plan. Materials weren’t ready. The villagers who said they’d help didn’t show up. That’s when the staff at GHNI coached Lossau that “the plan” to achieve sustainability is secondary to the relationships and trust required from the people they were equipping to achieve sustainability.

“I kept crying because it was so messy.” Lossau said. “I was more focused on meeting goals and less on building relationships. Plans are great, but I learned that there is no substitute for just being there in the moment, and being willing.”

Lossau had also made arrangements to procure a satellite phone during so he could the first trip off with a live Skype call to introduce the people of Gambella to his neighbors back home. Matt’s wife, Mary, gathered neighbors, friends and family at a local fire station for the call. The people who heard Lossau’s vision at that Labor Day cookout saw it unfolding before them in Gambella. It was real. And then they saw Matt, now known by the locals as Boru, surrounded by the villagers. “It was definitely emotional,” Lossau said.

The Road To Sustainability

Another year would pass before Lossau’s second trip to Gambella. Between trips, GHNI staff on the ground in Gambella would train the village committees on the five critical areas of sustainability: water, food, wellness, education and income. Lossau would also arrange video calls twice a year and engage in regular email discussions to offer coaching, mentoring and encouragement. Meanwhile, Lossau’s neighborhood continued to share the Gambella story and raise funds for the remaining two years of the program.

By the time Lossau’s leadership project in Gambella was complete, his neighborhood had provided funds for the village to build a primary school so children could go to school. Gambella has since graduated from a program where village residents are trained in low-tech and low-cost ways to lift themselves from poverty to sustainability with an emphasis on education, healthy food and water, jobs and disease prevention.

On his second trip, Lossau brought his wife and two high school-aged girls from the neighborhood who were inspired by the Gambella story. Upon arrival to Gambella, they would be greeted by the 77-year-old Boru, who would throw his cane down and greet Matt with a huge hug.

By now, the once desolate and discouraged village was coming to life. A new school building and sleeping room was under construction to attract more teachers from faraway villages, who would stay for multiple days to teach the children. Villagers were learning how to grow and sustain crops. And they were also contemplating how to implement a new windmill that had been provided to the village to assist with irrigating crops and providing fresh water.

“By year two, I had better understood that it was less about projects and more about relationships,” he said. “The people in the village would keep coming up to me and say ‘Boru, how come you’re not crying this time?’”

By Year 3, the village was thriving. Lossau knew they were making progress when he looked on Google Earth and could see buildings with corrugated, tin roofs. Kids were going to school. Villagers were earning incomes. The windmill was completed, and it was irrigating crops and helping to provide clean water. The village population grew from to about 2,000.

In the summer of 2013, Gambella officially graduated from GHNI’s Transformational Community Development Program. For Lossau and his neighbors, the vision was achieved. The people of Gambella had worked together to:

  • Create enough clean water for the whole village.
  • Grow abundant crops (in a drought area) to reverse their previous starvation.
  • Lower their disease and infant mortality.
  • Start numerous small businesses that have multiplied family incomes, in some cases tenfold.
  • Built an award winning primary school where they previously had no school at all.

Lossau isn’t sure when he’ll visit Gambella next. But his heart for Africa has grown since his last trip there. As you read this, Lossau is in Zambia on behalf of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL. There, Lossau volunteers on the church’s African Advisory and Global Teams boards. Both ministries are devoted to working with local churches on the front lines in Africa to battle against HIV/AIDS, poverty, starvation and other pandemic issues.

“None of this would have happened without the work I started in The Crucible Project,” Lossau said, explaining that God revealed Lossau’s gift for leadership, The Crucible Project nurtured it, and the Gambella project tested it. “I would still be the guy who would seek comfort over risk. I would still be the guy who was waiting to be picked. Now I feel like I have an obligation. God gave me the gift of leadership. He didn’t give me that gift so I could hide behind my fear. He gave the gift to me so I could use it.”

And the people of Gambella are forever grateful.

P.S. If you want another glimpse into the transformation of Gambella, watch this video from Global Hope Network International.

– By Jeff Madsen

Jeff completed his initial Crucible weekend in 2008 and graduated from our two-year transformational program. His mission is to build a legacy of surrender, simplicity and significance. Jeff is the owner of Legacy Nation, an independent corporate communications practice based in suburban Chicago. His heart’s desire is to write about ordinary people who leave extraordinary legacies.