Alabama school helps foreign missionaries multiply talents

Preaching the practical

LINEVILLE, Ala. --- In a rural nook of east Alabama where there aren't enough bright lights to blot out the stars at night, missionaries and community leaders from foreign lands are learning to save lives in the Third World not just with Bibles, but with mud, sand and leaves.


Located off a winding highway, an organization called Servants in Faith and Technology has offered training for three decades on how to use common items to improve and extend lives in underdeveloped nations.

On a recent day, 19 trainees from 10 countries learned how to make efficient, clean-burning cook stoves from mud bricks. The small, boxy structures replace open fires that the World Health Organization blames for 1.6 million deaths annually in the world's poorest countries.

On other days they'll learn how used tires can become the foundation for gardening systems that use only a little water. They'll find out how sand can be used as a filter to rid drinking water of dangerous parasites. They'll see how the ground-up leaves of some tropical plants contain enough nutrients to save the life of a malnourished child.

Raphael Ogbole, 42, says low-tech solutions such as the mud-brick stoves, which cut noxious smoke, can have an enormous impact in his native Nigeria, where he works as a Christian missionary in the northeastern part of the country.

"My mother cooked on a three-stone stove and every time she came out of the kitchen she had tears in her eyes" from the smoke, said Ogbole.

Jean-Eles Denis said simple water-purification systems can save lives back home in Haiti, where about 250,000 people died in an earthquake in January and more than 1 million still live in tents or other temporary shelters. Millions lack access to clean water.

"People who live in the city can go buy water, but people who live in the country don't have the ability to do that," he said.

Hundreds of people from about 85 countries have come to rural Alabama for training in the 31 years since the opening of Servants of Faith and Technology, or SIFAT (which is pronounced SEE fat).

It was founded by Ken and Sarah Corson, a missionary couple who moved to Bolivia in 1976 and were inspired to come up with a way to improve life for residents of the world's poorest areas. They returned to the U.S. three years later and founded SIFAT near Sarah's hometown of Wedowee.

Today, SIFAT operates on a 186-acre campus that includes classrooms, gardens for research and demonstration, outdoor training labs and a "global village" area where visitors can stay in mud huts and open-air houses like those that are common in much of the world.

SIFAT is Christian, but anyone is welcome and people of other faiths have been trained. At SIFAT, the focus is more practical than evangelical. A vital part of the operation is the 10-week training sessions, where people come to learn how to use appropriate technologies to improve living conditions. Back home, they can spread the knowledge as teachers or even help set up small businesses to provide jobs and needed items.

The program primarily trains missionaries, but graduates also include government officials, teachers, doctors, businesspeople and agricultural experts such as Denis, an agronomist in Haiti.

"These people are learning basic ways where they can have a good quality of life even though they don't have the resources we have," Sarah Corson said.