Believers Church of Statesboro Pastor Scott Moore preached a series of sermons toward the end of 2015 about blessings. During one message, Pastor Scott told his congregation, "We are called to receive blessings and give blessings. We can overcome curses with blessings."
For a powerful and concrete example of his message, Moore welcomed Ethiopian Lale Labuko to the pulpit to share his firsthand experience with both blessings and curses.
This is not the first time Believers Church has heard Labuko speak. In fact, he visited several years back to tell of his work with children from his village in Ethiopia, and the church has assisted him prayerfully and financially ever since, with monetary gifts, clothing for kids, a washing machine and other necessities.
His story is heart-wrenching and moving. When Labuko was 15, he watched the elders of his village wrench a 2-year-old child from the arms of her weeping mother and run into the wilderness of the Kara, Ethiopia, bush with the sobbing child.
Confused, Labuko sought answers from his mother.
"You must not speak of this or you will endanger our family," his mother told him. To his horror, she told him the child was deliberately drowned.
The reason? Her top front tooth had emerged uncharacteristically before the bottom front tooth. Villagers believed that meant she was cursed.
The practice of mingi
It was the first time Labuko learned about the practice of "mingi" in his tribe. Mingi is the ritualistic killing of babies and children thought to be cursed, a long-standing practice based on ancient beliefs held by several tribes living in a remote area of southwest Ethiopia in the Omo Valley.
For years, members of the tribes have been taught and believe that cursed children living on the land cause evil spirits to bring calamity to the village, like famine, death, disease and drought. Tribal elders mandate the killing of mingi children.
Four types of mingi are identified by the Kara, Hamar and Banna tribes: Twins, babies born out of wedlock, infants born from pregnancies that occur without permission from elders, and toddlers whose teeth erupt abnormally are considered cursed and are drowned in the Omo River or left in the bush to starve or be eaten by wild animals. Even older children who chip a tooth or lose their teeth abnormally are often pushed off a cliff into the river and devoured by alligators.
A grim and devastating ritual, mingi is considered the norm by tribe members, yet practiced clandestinely, hidden from the world for years.
When he learned of the practice at 15, Labuko told his mother he believed it was wrong.
"I have to teach them when I am older," he said to her.
Labuko was the first one of his village to be formally educated. Surprisingly, his father, an elder in the village, chose to send him 70 miles away to a Swedish-run Christian boarding school when he was 9, after missionaries from the school brought food to their village.
"My father wanted his son to be different from other kids. Life is difficult here," Labuko said. "He thought, 'If I send my son, he will come back and help us.' "
"It was the first time I heard about God," he said about his time at the school. "I met Jesus there."
He also learned English, which eventually served him well as a translator and guide with an adventure tourist group.
A vision to save children
Labuko once had a dream about rescuing birds that he now believes was a vision from God. At the time, he had no way to know that his dream ultimately would be fulfilled years later when he would rescue 45 mingi children.
"God sent one man to save the nation, like the Bible verses that God spoke to me from Genesis 12:1-3 that say, 'The Lord had said to Abram, "Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." ' "
Labuko believes that just as God used Abram - one man - to make a great nation, God is using him to save the next generation of Kara Ethiopians.
"I have to save the children, to give them shelter," he said.
He didn't know how he, one man, would accomplish that seemingly impossible task - but God provided others. While working as a tour guide in 2004, Labuko met an American named John Rowe, a retired software executive and computer-game developer turned passionate photographer. The two bonded and remained friends over the course of the next several years.
That relationship would have a huge impact on Labuko's mission less than five years later.
In 2007, Labuko was sent to Germany for eight months to attend a special outreach training course. Tyler Moore, son of Believers Pastor Scott Moore, was Labuko's roommate.
Labuko and Tyler Moore became best friends over their months spent together, and he would eventually tell Moore about the mingi practice and his dream to save the children - words he'd never said to anyone outside of his village.
Shortly after that course, in 2008, fueled by his faith, his vision from God and the fact that he now had a wife and daughter, Labuko chose to approach his village's elders about the practice of mingi.
"The first thing I did was convince my father to support me, to help me convince elders to save the children" - a process that took months, he said.
"The elders are not bad people. They are not cruel. I treat them with respect. They are important people.
"I tell them, 'Give the children to me. Let me be a bush; let me be a river. Let me take them away.' "
A home for doomed children
At first, his requests were ignored, and he received death threats from villagers. But he didn't give up, especially after he found out that his two older sisters had been killed as mingi infants, siblings he never knew he had.
"I wept for my sisters. I had to save my own daughter," Labuko said.
He approached the elders again and said, "These children will be a blessing. Mingi is a blessing, not a curse."
The elders insisted disaster would befall Labuko. Though he didn't believe the children were cursed, he told the elders that if he took the children away, the curse would go with them.
"I prayed to God to show these children are a blessing, to prove to the elders they are not cursed."
Finally, with much persuasion and persistence, he earned the right to save a child.
Within three months, Labuko and his wife were living with six rescued children in a rented home outside the village. Sometimes the elders gave up the children willingly after much pleading from Labuko, but more often, he would race into the wilderness to find abandoned newborns before it was too late.
"In 2009, when everything was hard on me, no money and 28 children in my home, I called Tyler," he said. " 'Please come to Ethiopia. I need your help.' "
Believers members, under the guidance of Tyler Moore's father, supported Moore's trip and sent with him clothing and other necessities.
"Tyler saw my mission and tribe, and he called his father and said, 'We need to bring him to America to do some fundraising,' " Labuko said.
Again, Believers Church came through by raising the money fund Labuko's trip to the United States and helping him get a visa. When he came to the states in 2010, Labuko shared his vision and mission with the church, whose members backed him wholeheartedly.
Labuko and Moore then traveled to California to visit the only other person Labuko knew in America, John Rowe, to tell him about the project.
"John's vision was even bigger," Moore said. "He co-founded the nonprofit Omo Child and helped with all the legal issues and funding."
"They are my angels," Labuko said about Moore and Rowe. "Without them, it's impossible to get to this point. I praise the Lord for my mission."
That mission, Omo Child, currently supports 45 rescued mingi children living in a two-building compound in Jinka, Ethiopia, outside the villages that sentenced them to death. The children are provided food, clothing, schooling and unconditional love by nannies that care for their needs.
Through Labuko's work and passion, his own tribe, the Kara, ended the practice of mingi in 2012, and he continues to work tirelessly to eradicate the practice completely. It is his hope that when the blessed children of this generation become adults, they can return to their villages and help educate and influence their tribes.
Labuko said one of his favorite verses from the Bible, Revelation 3:8, speaks to him specifically: "I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name."
One man, with little strength but a big voice, made a difference because he believed mingi was wrong. One roommate made a difference because he answered his friend's plea. One pastor made a difference because he encouraged his church to serve in the name of God. One retired executive made a difference because he gave compassionately.
One person can indeed make a difference in the life of so many. The proof is in the faces of 45 precious children, once deemed cursed, now with the power to change the world, one village at a time.