Scores of American adults, teens, and children are getting a small glimpse into Third World life through an organization that has sought to forge partnerships and friendships between people from the Americas and those of Third World countries.
“Simply put, our purpose is to share and educate and raise awareness about people in poverty,” says Wineva Hankamer, who oversees work camps, tours and projects for an encampment in rural Alabama called SIFAT.
SIFAT, or Servants in Faith & Technology, started through the efforts of Ken and Sarah Corson, a missionary couple that desired to share practical information about Third World mission points. Since its birth in 1979, SIFAT has trained, educated and enlightened the world’s poorest people, as well as those who will serve there and those whose only practical exposure may be on 175 acres in Lineville, Alabama.
Hankamer, who is also a deacon of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, said, “Most people come in with no idea what it is like for 80 percent of the world’s population.”
“They leave with a whole different view of the world and the struggle that so many people face on a daily basis just to survive. I think they have a new appreciation for their lives and what their purpose should be when they leave us,” she added.
While SIFAT was established to train missionaries, over the years the ministry and the churches there have evolved to empower local residents, community leaders, teachers, town mayors and others.
The goal is for these people not just to “give a man a fish,” as the proverb goes, but to teach those in their communities how to fish.
The work camps that SIFAT conducts throughout the year hammer this point home in different ways, using age-appropriate techniques. But according to Hankamer, it’s the visual images that make the first and sometimes most powerful impact.
The encampment is divided into villages, with homes similar to those one might see in Africa, Asia or Latin America, and animals indicative of different cultures – chickens, guinea pigs, goats and others. Visiting schoolchildren participate in day programs, while older campers might stay in a stone embankment house typical of Nepal, for instance.
No details are omitted, right down to the hammocks that often serve as beds. Campers also must pass through a makeshift customs station before entering the villages, leaving behind most of their clothing and other personal items.
“It’s the world in microcosm,” Hankamer said. “And I’d say it’s a powerful illustration.”
International students who participate with SIFAT programs in the summer also bring an invaluable perspective to the work, she says. Those on college break, for instance, often come for 11 weeks to work alongside the campers on projects. Their stories, their memories of life at home, often bring a sense of realism to the villages.
“Our motto is ‘Sharing God’s Love in Practical Ways,’” said Tom Corson, the founders’ son, now executive director of the organization. “Our projects and our hearts and souls really are about empowering people. You can go in with, say, a medical mission team, and you’ll be doing the same thing every six months unless you teach these people how to take care of themselves.”
Hankamer says SIFAT’s two-fold mission is evangelical in nature, practical in application.
“On the fields, we want them to come to Christ, but first we want to take care of their needs,” she says. “Our work with the programs here is to make people aware of the needs and then teach them how they can make a difference.”
In addition to Alabama, SIFAT also operates projects in Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Philippines. Currently, SIFAT runs as an Advance Special ministry of the United Methodist Church.