More than five million children under the age of five die each year around the globe from preventable and treatable causes. A nonprofit group is seeking to change that by offering matching funds to churches that give to projects helping mothers and children in the hardest-hit nations.
Mission Match, an initiative of the nonprofit group, Empty Tomb Inc., began in 2002. Since then, the program has made 126 matching contributions totaling $225,000 to local churches’ humanitarian projects, according to the group’s executive vice president, Sylvia Ronsvalle.
“The Christian church still has the best distribution agencies in the whole world,” said Ronsvalle. “They’re out in the rural areas where the need is. For instance, a church that just applied for Mission Match is affiliated through their communion with church planters in an African nation, where they distribute nets that are so effective and needed to prevent diseases.”
In recent years, Mission Match clarified its focus exclusively on 40 countries with the most severe child mortality rates, as determined by analysis of the World Health Organization. Thirty-two of those are African nations and six are in Asia. Haiti and Papua New Guinea are also on the list.
The initiative seeks to counter a narrative that children in impoverished countries die because of mother neglect, which research has disproven, says Ronsvalle. She and her husband, John Ronsvalle, who together lead Empty Tomb Inc., cite an extensive study by a Brazilian researcher based on hundreds of interviews with mothers who had lost their children.
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Researcher Marilyn Nations wrote in that report: “To characterize a bereaved mother as ‘negligent,’ or worse, as accomplices in her child’s death, is an act of interpretive violence, unfairly (blaming) mother-caregivers . . . “
Ronsvalle says the “mother blame myth” presents a convenient narrative that some with the means to help use to be relieved of co-responsibility for this human tragedy.
“To say it’s somebody else’s problem ignores the reality that we could prevent unnecessary deaths,” says Ronsvalle. “It is our problem. Jesus says, ‘Let the little children come to me.’ If we love Jesus, if Jesus’ life is in us, we’re going to care with that mother about her baby.”
How the program works
For Mark Kugler, missions board chairman at Christian Bible Church in Cissna Park, Illinois, it started with hearing a radio interview this past spring.
Dr. Edem Agamah of International Health & Development Network (IHDN), an Illinois oncologist who frequently travels to Ghana, spoke of the needs at the International Mission Hospital in southeastern Ghana. The nonprofit group reports the medical campus provides care for more than 30,000 people per year.
“Churches have always been the bedrock of what we do in Ghana from the beginning,” said June Agamah, the doctor’s wife and logistics coordinator at IHDN, in a phone interview. “Without the Body of Christ supporting us, we couldn’t do what we’re doing.”
Specifically, IHDN has been raising funds to construct a women and children’s clinic a few miles away, in the rural area of Wargbato. “The clinic will be located in the real bush area, right in the village where families live,” said Agamah. “When a woman is about to deliver, we want to be able to provide quality care where she is—rather than risk transportation several miles over difficult roads.”
In Illinois, Kugler suggested to his church board that they try to raise money for the clinic project and apply for matching funds from Mission Match. The board agreed.
“(Mission Match) gives you 90 days to raise the funds, which is nice,” Kugler told The Roys Report (TRR). “When that timeframe is completed, you tell them how much you raised, and they match funds up to three thousand dollars.”
Church leaders made their first announcement to the congregation in mid-June, with an in-depth presentation about the planned Ghana clinic in early July.
Kugler says people in their church across generations resonated with the project. “We hit that goal within 30 days,” he said. “By the end, we had raised an additional 1,700 dollars. People just kept giving.”
With the matching contribution, the small church was able to donate $7,700 towards the IHDN medical clinic in southeastern Ghana.
June Agamah said that this expanding work fulfills a dream of her husband, who grew up in that part of Ghana. “Good work cannot be accomplished unless you stick with it,” she said. “My husband saw the need and wanted to do something. Now we have a hospital with 130 staff, doctors and nurses from that region. It’s an amazing work that I believe the Lord’s hand has guided.”
Proven results over years
Similarly, Iglesia Cristiana Vida Nueva (Christian New Life Church) in Ponce, Puerto Rico, has been helping an orphanage in Montrouis, Haiti for over a decade.
During the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020, the church’s pastor, Rolando Cruz, learned that financial support for the orphanage had declined. Cruz simultaneously heard from a friend about Mission Match.
“We need to help them because now they are rationing food to stretch the food supply,” Cruz stated in his application to Mission Match, according to the nonprofit.
The church in Puerto Rico raised $4,600—well over their $3,000 goal for the match. Reportedly, a total of eight orphanages received food, supplies, and funding for rent due to the received funds.
In a video posted online, Gerson Cinaldo, director of the International Evangelical Organization for Integral Development in Haiti, including a network of orphanages, said: “I want to thank Pastor Rolando Cruz, the Mission Match, and also each brother in Puerto Rico for having blessed us in this time of crisis . . . ”
“How often do you have somebody come alongside you and help you like this?” said Kugler of Christian Bible Church, regarding Mission Match. “They’re standing in Champaign-Urbana with arms outstretched, with an open invitation of matching funds towards humanitarian projects. It’s like free money.”
Churches need ‘positive servant agenda’
Unlike some religious nonprofits, Empty Tomb, which runs Mission Match, makes its past three years of IRS Form 990s readily accessible on its website.
Its most recent statement, dated Sept. 2021, reports $409,000 in revenue over the previous year with 40 pages of supporting material about ongoing ministry projects.
“It’s important that people know where their money is going,” said Ronsvalle. “We aim to be very forthright.”
The group contends that the American church can give more than it does now and notes that an investment of approx. $5 billion would “make a major impact” on reducing the global child mortality rate. While Ronsvalle concedes many Americans have been hit by recent economic downturn, she notes that Americans spend $37 billion annually on candy and $14.6 billion on Super Bowl parties.
Many Americans have achieved a “level of affluence that’s unprecedented,” she added. “But the church has not given people a positive servant agenda for this affluence, and the consequence of that is self-indulgence—whether of the pastor or many in the congregation.
“If you’re taking the kingdom of God seriously, your vision is outward not inward. People invest in vision. And we believe reducing child death rates in Jesus’ name is a worthy goal.”
Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.