Growing Up Together: 10 Years of Rice & Beans Month

by Jen Johnson

Rice & Beans Month has changed, and even saved, many lives. And over the course of 10 years, it has taken on a life of its own at Grace & Healing Ministry in Tanzania.

When Lahash was a brand new organization, its founder Dan Holcomb traveled to Dodoma, Tanzania, and met a dedicated group of women called the Mothers of Love. They had recently started a community-based program to assist extremely vulnerable children suffering with HIV. Their program, called Grace & Healing Ministry, was clearly a great match for partnership with Lahash.

On a return visit a few years later, Dan and a local pastor visited a little boy named Eliya. The Mothers of Love were deeply concerned about his health due to HIV and extreme poverty. About 20 people occupied the small, run-down house where Eliya lived. Having lost his parents, he had nowhere else to go. He was even managing his own medications at his young age.
Dan and the pastor arrived to a warm welcome and a modest evening meal. After eating it, they realized that there was no other food in the house. Everyone else was preparing to sleep without any food, going hungry to bless their visitors. Their sacrifice left an indelible mark on Dan’s heart, and so did little Eliya.

Back in the U.S., Dan and the Lahash staff poured their energy into advocating for Eliya and other children like him by matching as many kids with sponsors as possible. Wonderful progress was happening, but burnout was setting in as well. The staff needed balance, spiritual renewal, and sustainable rhythms if they were going to make it in this ministry long-term.

The very first Rice & Beans Month was born out of this time, bringing a sense of unity and spiritual purpose to the Lahash team. They simplified their diets to reflect common foods in East Africa, and after a month they had saved enough on groceries to help Grace & Healing Ministry buy bags of beans and maize flour for many hungry families. Inspired by the generosity Eliya’s family had shown him, Dan was eager to bless them in return.

About 75 families were assisted by this first food distribution. Women walked away smiling with large bags of food balanced on their heads, and children carried smaller ones. Everyone knew it was not a sustainable solution to the ongoing problem, yet this small start left Lahash and Grace & Healing Ministry hungry to do even more.

The following year, the event grew a bit. It grew again the next year. And the next. As it turns out, the Lahash staff members weren’t the only people in need of spiritual renewal and the chance to make a difference in the lives of others. Participants found ways to make the event uniquely their own. Small groups and Bible studies participated together. Families taught their young children about the needs of hungry kids. Participants connected online and around tables, sharing recipes and praying together for their East African brothers and sisters. Churches got involved as a communal Lenten practice. As the years went by, Lahash updated Grace & Healing Ministry about the outpouring of support, and shared the increasing funds that were donated as more and more people were eating rice and beans!

This support lifted the hearts of the Mothers of Love, as they witnessed precarious ups and downs in the children’s health. Eliya’s medications were so hard on his stomach that he simply could not take them when he didn’t have sufficient food. This left him susceptible to all sorts of sicknesses, and at high risk of the HIV virus progressing into AIDS. In response to this critical need, Grace & Healing Ministry used the funds from Rice & Beans Month to create a daily nutrition program for HIV-positive kids like Eliya.

“They depend on that food,” said Esther Muhagachi, the ministry’s founder. “We are very much sure that they don’t have anything to eat. Sometimes they could go and pick the food in the dustbin, where people are throwing it away.” Knowing there was food available at the center stopped them from wandering around picking through trash. “Now they come to the center and they eat.”

This program not only changed Eliya’s life, but saved it. The Mothers of Love, several of whom are HIV-positive themselves, fed the kids well. They also helped them learn to be more open about their health struggles and seek care before small issues became big ones.

The growth and impact of Rice & Beans Month inspired the local church in Dodoma, too. The members had always prayed for the participants in the U.S., but started brainstorming other ways to contribute. Most of their meals were less hearty than rice and beans already. So they talked about walking farther distances instead of paying for transport. Skipping buying the occasional soda. Stretching already-simple meals just a little bit farther.

While participants around the world grew in faith, compassion, and sacrifice, someone else was growing up, too. No longer a little boy, Eliya was progressing well academically, and the nutrition program had adapted so that he and some others could receive meals at their schools. Younger kids in the Sponsorship Program now looked up to Eliya, and he helped lead the worship choir at church. Health issues still had to be monitored closely, but he was more stable than he had ever been.

A Lahash team from the U.S. visited Dodoma in 2017, and was happy to witness some new ways that Rice & Beans Month money was being put to wise use! It was as if all the love, prayers, and donations had helped unlock new levels of creativity, innovation, and stewardship. A structure had been built to house chickens for a poultry project, and some of the older children were maintaining a garden right on the church property. They were proud to show it off, pointing out that the greens were helping feed the kids at the weekly sponsorship meal.

Eliya is now helping to oversee the poultry project and develop a plan to add garden space nearby. His own nutritional needs are being met, and he is helping ensure others have more to eat as well. He recently completed secondary school, and is hoping to pursue higher education through the Lahash Stand With Students program. “Eliya has now grown physically and spiritually strong,” Esther says proudly. “I love seeing him leading the praise and worship team, and always I shed tears of joy when I remember how his situation was when we registered him. I just praise God.”

Rice & Beans Month and Grace & Healing Ministry have truly grown up together on a journey marked by sacrifice, challenges, creativity, victory, and prayer. People all over the world have experienced God’s love in new ways, and built deep connections across the global church.

Ten years has given us so much to celebrate, from churches hosting Rice & Beans potlucks in Oregon to chicken eggs being given to kids in Tanzania. Amidst all the growth of the programs and participants, one little boy has  quietly become a healthy, strong young man who is already making a difference in the lives of the next generation. Without Rice & Beans Month, Eliya might not have had that chance.

The needs are real, and so is the impact. We have not yet eliminated hunger and disease, but we have decreased it. We look to the future with hope for many more sustainable food projects to be established and thrive. There is lots more growing left to do, and lots of kids like Eliya whose lives depend on it.

You can see Dan’s first visit with Eliya and also see the impact of the lunch program for kids living with HIV in the videos:
“Dan & Eliya” and “More Than A Meal”