About the Author
Rachael Varnum is an editorial assistant for Moody’s Alumni Association.
As Martin Simiyu studied at Moody Theological Seminary, he was restless. “My heart was beating for Africa and for my village and for the people I left back at home,” he says.
When he learned about Moody’s history of organizing short-term mission trips for graduate students and professors, Martin and two other students suggested a visit to Kenya and Cameroon. The school agreed, and in 2002, 18 students and two professors traveled to Africa. Their trip was planned to last a few weeks. Instead, it became the catalyst for a new ministry now surpassing 20 years.
In 2002, two Moody professors, Drs. John Fuder and Marvin Newell (fourth and fifth from the right), joined Moody students, including Martin Simiyu and Merrell Mcilwain (second and third from the left), at O’Hare Airport for a mission trip to Kenya.
Martin Simiyu MA ’02 founded Possibilities Africa with the help of Merrell McIlwain MA ’05, Tyson Griffin MA ’03, and Matt Shada MDiv ’03, students he met while completing a master’s in Missions at Moody Theological Seminary. With locations in Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, their ministry equips leaders to initiate spiritual and economic transformation in their communities.
Possibilities Africa emphasizes the power of God’s Word to transform all aspects of life. As Martin says, “Your whole life can be described, can be built, can be developed from the Word of God.”
The Word of God transformed Martin’s own life several years before Possibilities Africa began. Growing up in a small Kenyan village, Martin and his family struggled with poverty. “I was very interested in Christian things because that’s how my mom raised us to think,” he remembers, “but I didn’t understand the Word of God because it wasn’t being taught or preached.” One of three students in his high school to qualify for college, Martin traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to attend Pan Africa Christian College.
Martin Simiyu MA ’02
As Martin worked on a bachelor’s in Bible and Theology, he ran across an ad for Moody Bible Institute in a Christianity Today magazine in his school’s library. “The story of D. L. Moody inspired me to want to study there and become a great leader,” he says. After Martin was accepted, his friends in Kenya raised money to purchase a one-way ticket to Chicago.
In the middle of a snowy December, Martin arrived with only $100 in his pocket. By the time classes began a few days later, God provided a temporary home with a missionary who had recently returned from Africa along with a job in Food Services.
During a winter grad school retreat in Wisconsin, Martin met Matt Shada, now a pastor in Omaha, Nebraska. Matt remembers sitting at a table with Martin and another African student, both underdressed for the weather. “They were freezing,” Matt says with a grin.
Martin-Simiyu and Matt Shada on a church mission trip.
Martin also took several classes with Tyson Griffin, currently a pastor in Georgia, and Merrell McIlwain, a former lawyer with Focus on the Family. During class they noticed that the professors emphasized personal application. “It’s head, but it’s also an emphasis on the heart,” Tyson explains. “It’s an emphasis on getting in the lives of people.”
When the group of Moody graduate students and professors traveled to Africa with Martin in 2002, they were struck by the richness of the land but the poverty of the people. Upon their return, Merrell said, “We can’t just sit here and pretend like what we saw we didn’t see.”
For several months, the group met for prayer, sometimes on Moody’s campus and sometimes in the home of their professor of Applied Theology and Church Ministries, Dr. John Fuder. As they prayed, Martin’s vision for gospel transformation became infectious. “We all felt like all we needed to do was provide some wind in Martin’s sails and God was going to explode the ministry in Africa to impact hundreds of thousands of people,” says Matt, “and that’s what has happened.”
After Martin graduated, Merrell continued helping him plan for future ministry. Soon they registered a non-profit organization in the States to support work in Africa, which eventually became known as Possibilities Africa.
Martin Simiyu and Merrell McIlwain
Martin went on to earn an MA in Organizational Leadership from Biola in 2005, then returned to Kenya. “Initially it was, ‘Let’s fix the poverty,’” he says. Martin would purchase cows and give them to people, hoping to help improve their economic situation. However, he began to recognize a problem. “That form of empowerment is based on giving people things. And the more you give people things, the more they want you to give them more things.”
Recognizing the importance of ministering to the entire person, Martin and his team developed a plan for holistic ministry. They define holistic as “the Word of God informing and influencing everything that you do.”
Today, Possibilities Africa trains pastors to lead their communities both spiritually and economically, providing a hand up rather than a handout. Pastors receive theological training and then are organized into accountability groups called Community Integrated Financial Associations (CIFA). These CIFA groups consist of 10 to 30 pastors who meet regularly to study Scripture and brainstorm ways to help their communities and one another develop economically.
Martin addressing pastors in a training session.
These pastors then organize the members of their congregations into Shalom groups so that they can work together to apply the pastors’ teaching. The pastors are equipped to create and launch Savings and Credit Corporations. Each of these groups is registered with the government and run as a bank, providing loans and accountability to lenders. Over 7,000 small businesses, from vegetable farms to small shops, have been started through the ministry model of Possibilities Africa.
Instead of high dependence on church giving from very poor members who can hardly give a dollar a month, pastors are supporting their families through farming and other means, while giving their churches and communities a new vision for change.
As they invest in the future, Martin and his team are also equipping leaders to reach children and youth. “Many churches do not offer a children’s ministry. Children sing songs and dance, but they are not taught the Word,” Martin says. “So we’re changing that by giving tools and training for that.”
Possibilities Africa has provided learning materials to churches for establishing Sunday schools, demonstrating the value of children. Some communities have also started early childcare centers, meeting needs between infancy and elementary school, a time when children are often left to fend for themselves. “We know that whatever we’re trying to do, the real change is going to happen after our generation,” Martin says.
This model of holistic ministry has sparked transformation in many communities, such as Pastor Madalitso Nakhuku’s church in Malawi. After attending several training sessions of Possibilities Africa, Pastor Nakhuku returned home and, along with his wife, planted a small farm, using the river on his land for irrigation. With the proceeds from the farm, he bought a cow to sell milk. He eventually took out a loan, bought a motorbike, and began using it to provide transportation to the members in his congregation.
Pastor Nakhuku with his cow.
Pastor Nakhuku with his bike.
Some of his church members began imitating him. Amazed at his teaching, they remarked that following Pastor Nakhuku’s example was transforming their lives too.
In Kenya, Possibilities Africa partnered with pastors in the Bokoli community of Bungoma County to provide solar lighting systems to more than 60 church families who pay for the solar system over time. Now the additional light gives pastors more time to read the Bible and pray, children can do schoolwork in the evening which improves their performance, and some pastors are hosting evening fellowships and discipleship sessions in their homes.
After a Possibilities Africa training session in Kenya, Pastor Hesbon Isinga from Vihiga County said, ‘’My understanding of the high view of God has inspired me to go back to my community and transform it holistically.’’
As Martin works in Africa, Matt, Merrell, and Tyson serve on the US board, fundraising and sometimes organizing short-term mission trips. When Martin returned to Africa in 2005, Matt’s small church plant was the first to send financial support. On one short-term trip, Matt and Tyson led workshops on Ephesians and how to interpret God’s Word. Merrell taught Sunday school on a trip and has served in almost every role available with Possibilities Africa. He has been active in the ministry since it launched in 2002.
“Moody once said, ‘The Bible was not given for our information but for our transformation,’” Matt says, “and I think that’s something we all learned at Moody, why we’re passionate about Possibilities Africa. . . . We see God transforming lives, not just stuff in people’s heads.”
Martin with pastors in Ethiopia.
By June 2023, Possibilities Africa, which has 1,400 pastors engaged in the program, hopes to be in three more countries, developing strategic ministry centers and program initiatives to continue influencing leaders and communities. “When I think about where we were, how we got here 20 years later, and how much God has done through this ministry, it’s just amazing to me,” Merrell says.
As they anticipate the next 20 years, they say their vision remains founded on Matthew 19:26: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Rachael Varnum is an editorial assistant for Moody’s Alumni Association.