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The Spirit of Poverty

Sending meaningful financial and human resources to faraway places like a small Batwa village in Burundi, Africa not only makes us feel good – it also changes us.  I’ve twice now visited this, one of the poorest places in the world.  Over the past three years I’ve come to better understand myself, my views on poverty, love and grace, how I listen to others, and how I can better impact my local community.  In addition to meeting some immediate physical needs, these outreach efforts can bring dignity, peace, hope and spiritual healing to those we partner with. After three years serving our friends in Burundi, I’ve learned that despite severe material poverty, there exists a deeper “spirit of poverty”.  The 140 families in the village of Bugenuzi, (our friends with whom we’ve committed to partner and journey with) share something very profound with you and me.  They long for healed relationships. They long to know God. They long for healthier marriages, dignity and trust from others, a future and purpose for their children, peace, security, to trust and be trusted, to be understood and respected – to love and be loved.  They cry and hurt over the exact same things we do here in the west. And in that way we all share in the same spirit of poverty. In fact it has little to do with material wealth or lack thereof. Reaching out internationally gives us a glimpse into other cultures and value systems and by doing so gives us a better glimpse into our own brokenness and need for love and forgiveness.  Sharing the Good News and being Jesus to others is a universal calling whether we do it locally, regionally, or globally.

Reaching out internationally gives us a glimpse into other cultures and value systems and by doing so gives us a better glimpse into our own brokenness and need for love and forgiveness. 


Note: The Chapel partners closely with an amazing organization called Harvest Initiatives who are committed to providing holistic care to people and training to indigenous leaders in Burundi, Africa. As of August 2016, the Chapel has sent three teams to assist with building houses, help train pastors and distribute food to children and adults. But it’s Harvest Initiatives that nurture vision and strategy, maintain staff, and provide daily developmental support in Bugenuzi. In 2012 and 2013 our village experienced an average of 72 deaths per year (6/month) of children under five due to lack of nutrition and basic medical attention. burundi-3  As a result of our partnership with Harvest Initiatives, there was only one child death in 2015 and none so far in 2016.  The long term strategy is to nurture and develop a self-sustaining community where outside aid and resources are no longer necessary. Generosity changes everything!


So how do you define poverty?

In a recent meeting I was challenged to think about how I view poverty.  So I thought I’d throw it out to you to weigh in on.  What is poverty?  What do you think of when you think of someone in poverty?  What do you think are the characteristics of individuals or communities experiencing poverty?

Heading Back to Africa

Today I’m very excited (and a little overwhelmed) to find myself making preparations to return again to Burundi, Africa in late August.

Initially, I wasn’t planning on going back this year, but the opportunity arose and some recent developments cleared the way for me to consider joining this 2016 team.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a team mission to a Ba-twa village of Bugenyuzi.  (Google Burundi Africa and the Ba-twa)  here to view the video we produced in 2013 and learn more about this amazing villageIt was kind of an exploratory mission to help build shelters, teach scripture, serve children, and was our church’s first introduction to the people and to learn how we might better serve them over a longer term.

Since then my church, The Chapel, has partnered with an organization in Burundi called Harvest Initiatives.  Together we coordinate various support and efforts exclusively for this village.  Developments including advances in food security for young children, ongoing construction of shelters by the villagers, education and health/ hygiene training have all flourished within the context of love and sharing of the Gospel.

Similar to our first visit, one of my responsibilities is to film and bring back updates and stories. In addition to helping with construction of shelters, my desire is to return with more than just images of poverty.  My goal is to capture life stories of joy, struggles, growth, hopes and dreams as spoken by the actual voices as we look into the faces and eyes of our friends on the other side of the world. My heart is to help you get to know these souls as more than just some distant people in great need.

Most importantly I like to ask you to please be praying for our team of 8.  For our safety, discernment, and most of all that we reflect God in all that we say and do. And that we bring the love and hope of Christ to these wonderful friends.

And, if you feel led to financially assist me and our team, you can do so by returning the bottom portion of  This pdf form  with a check for any amount made out to The Chapel(I know the due date says June 20, but anytime within the next 2-3 weeks would still be very helpful.)  Mail to: The Chapel 4444 Galloway Road, Sandusky, Ohio 44870.

Please join me on this journey and check back for updates and monitor our progress in August.



A Really Joyful Update (June 2016):

A little over one year ago, I received what I can only describe was a gracious gift, a miracle.  In December of 2014, I survived a Subarachnoid Cerebral Hemorrhage (ruptured brain aneurysm).  Not only did I survive, but the incident was classified as a non-traumatic stroke which, as I understand, means that it produced no negative ongoing medical or physical deficits. From what I’ve been told, the survival for this type of episode is very low and with a positive outcome like this is statistically quite rare.

After just three weeks in ICU (following an emergency brain surgery on Dec. 4, 2014) I was discharged directly to home and was able to fully participate in our son’s wedding just 25 days following the episode.  No step-down unit and no rehab was indicated.  And after about five additional weeks of working from home, I was cleared to drive and returned to work full-time. In fact, over the past 17 months, I’ve not so much as taken a Tylenol for a headache.

UPDATE June 2016: Health wise, this past year and a half has been relatively uneventful – with the exception of a non-emergency 2nd surgery last June 2015 (that was needed to do additional repair) and a few followup brain-scans necessary to monitor healing and progress.

This week my neurologist said confidently that from here out, he expects to only perform annual scans for the purpose of “monitoring for long-term developments”.  He went on to say that I do not need to consider this aneurysm when making day-to-day decisions regarding activities of any kind, and that “I can go on and live my life normally”.

He went on to say that I do not need to consider this aneurysm when making day-to-day decisions regarding activities of any kind, and that “I can go on and live my life normally”.

Needless to say, my wife and I are pleased beyond words and thanking God for this undeserved gift of life, mercy, and grace each day.  I wake each morning excited about whatever future that I have left, and expectantly listening for God’s voice regarding my purpose and whatever comes next on this journey.  It’s all good.

Thanks to everyone who has encouraged and prayed for us during this unsettling time.  Thanks for your love and concern, your kind words and listening ears.  My prayer today is that sharing our story somehow brings hope or encouragement to whatever difficulties or heartache you may be experiencing. We pray that whatever you may be struggling with that you discover, or draw closer to, the God that created you in His image and loves you beyond words.


Well that wasn’t quite what we expected to hear (May 2015)

May 2015: Here’s what things looked like five months post surgery.  Things seem well, feeling great.  People we talk to are still surprised that I’m alive and I’ve gotten quite used to getting up, driving, working full-time, and generally feeling great for the past four months (almost as if nothing happened).

That Friday I had what was a standard followup to the coiling procedure that was done to block-off future blood flow to the aneurysm that so suddenly threatened my life back in December of 2014.

Sure we braced ourselves a little for the possibility of some unexpected news, but overall I became quite confident that all was well and the hardest part was far behind us – and this exam was just a routine activity.

I laid in the recovery room waiting for the Dr. to stop by before sending me home.  When he arrived I asked (over-confidently) “well, was it a success?”

Seriously He replied. “Well, that depends on how you define success.  If by success you mean we got thru the procedure, then yes. ”  He then went on to report that unfortunately the surgery back in December was not totally successful and that the aneurysm appears to be reforming.  What this means is that we need to do the surgery again in a few weeks.  So in June 2015 there was another surgery which included additional coiling and the addition of a new, somewhat experimental, mesh stent to help bypass the aneurysm in my brain.

Six months later, In December 2015, a follow-up angiogram procedure indicated that all was stable and healing and that additional surgery was not indicated. So far so good!  They’ll follow-up again in June of 2016 and re-assess.

Video interviews re: suffering

My wife Marge and I recently had the opportunity to sit and share with Pastor Bill Schroeder at The Chapel in Sandusky, Ohio about a recent crisis and what we’re learning as it continues to unfold.  On December 3 (2014) I experienced a sub arachnoid hemorrhage (brain aneurism) that almost took my life. Below are three short videos that became part of a 3-week message series called Beyond Me/ Lifted by God.

Interview Part 1 from “Questions in Suffering”

“… and that’s what prayer looked like for those first hours and days. It was more like God are you there?”  -marge

Lifted By God – Gary and Marge interview part 1 “Questions in Suffering” RT = 09:30 from The Chapel on Vimeo.


Interview Part 2 from “Purpose in Suffering”

 “… and that’s the thing, if someone’s going to have the final word in my life I’m glad it’s God …because that’s a heart that I can trust” -marge

Lifted By God – Gary and Marge interview part 2 – “Purpose in Suffering” RT = 08:20 from The Chapel on Vimeo.


Interview Part 3 from “Comfort in Suffering”

“… it’ was people coming along side and loving”  -marge

Lifted By God – Gary and Marge interview part 3 “Comfort in Suffering” RT= 07:40 from The Chapel on Vimeo.

I was told I dodged a bullet

A couple of years ago, when I first set up this blog and thought about writing, I decided to include a category called “life”. I never quite knew why, other than I thought I might want to journal or have a place to ponder and process bigger picture thoughts and ideas. Since then I never felt I had much notable to contribute – until now:

On December 17, 2014 (after 14 consecutive days in the ICU at the University of Toledo Medical Hospital) the head of neurology (the attending doctor of the interdisciplinary medical team overseeing my treatment) stood in my room alongside his team and gave this short, simple, matter-of-fact report: “Mr. Yonek, you dodged a bullet”. They kept me for a few more days of evaluation for OT, physical therapy, and to monitor my blood pressure etc. Then on Friday the 19th they discharged me straight to home, not seeing any need for additional therapy or rehab. What an indescribably amazing outcome. Although quite weak and unsteady from lying still for two weeks, and still substantially medicated, I was able to get up and walk a few steps with the assistance of a walker. After about three days at home I was able to walk unassisted and even began navigating the stairs in our house, albeit very slowly and carefully. I was able to be home for Christmas Eve with my wife and family close by and, most of all, I was well enough to attend my son’s wedding on Dec 28th. My recovery to this point seems significantly ahead of schedule, but I’m being careful to rest and not to push it. I’m still on several medications, mostly for pain management for ongoing headaches from the surgery. Headaches, which I’m told, will last another 4-5 weeks but are quite normal.

…stood in my room with his team and gave this short simple matter-of-fact report: “Mr. Yonek, you dodged a bullet”

The whole episode happened on December 3rd. I was having lunch with a co-worker at a local fast-food place. Suddenly, a few sentences in to our conversation, I felt oddly dizzy and my voice sounded echo’y to me as if I was talking inside a large tin can. Despite several attempts, I just couldn’t complete my thought or finish my sentence. I can remember trying to say to Charles, “I just don’t feel right, I think something is really wrong” – at which point I apparently passed out. Some time later I could vaguely see and hear Charles telling me to “hang in there, the squad is on the way”. Apparently he had assisted me to the floor avoiding any fall or additional physical trauma, called 911, contacted my wife, and contacted our office to request prayer from our staff and to get the initial word out to close friends. He then stayed by my side until help arrived. And for this I’m forever grateful.

One of the many blessings during this entire ordeal was that, aside of the 10 minutes or so that I was unconscious and the time I was in surgery, I had unusual clarity and understanding of what was going on for someone in my circumstances. In fact, that was what I think was most encouraging to the medical professionals – beginning with the rescue squad. When they arrived at the scene I was beginning to answer basic questions with regards to time and place, I knew who I was and I was beginning to remember pertinent information such as address, phone numbers, dates etc. They were all very calm and clear, repeatedly telling me that “I was in the middle of something very serious” and “things were going to happen very quickly”, wanting to make sure I understood as much as possible. Before being life-flighted, the ER doc told us I needed to be calm and still, and that the next 72 hours would be crucial to my survival. As time went on I was encouraged, almost daily, at reports I was getting with regards to my coordination, reflexes, and motor movements. It was hopeful.

So What Happened? I had experienced a Sub-Arachnoid Hemorrhage

I’ve always been relatively healthy. I have no history of high blood pressure. There is no history of stroke in my family that I’m aware of. There was no advanced notice, no symptoms – it just happened. The short answer: A 1/2″, heart-shaped aneurysm on an artery that supplies blood to my brain, burst in the back of my head, near the base of my skull, and started to fill the lining around my brain with blood. I was told that everything that could have gone right, did. All the things that could have gone terribly wrong, just didn’t. I learned that less than 10% of those who experience this type of brain hemorrhage survive long enough to even get treatment. Of those, less than 10% walk away without some type of negative, long term medical deficiency. It appears that few in my age group (I was 54 y\o) ever experience this type of episode (something like <1% in 135000 men). We don’t know why this happened to me. Why it happened when it did or where it did. God knows. All I know is if it had occurred 20 minutes later I might have been driving my friend back to the office. The next day, I might have been assisting our team on a ladder or hydraulic lift installing projectors or preparing the stage for Christmas Eve rehearsals. Even that morning I could have been on the stairs at home or out in the neighborhood walking the dog. The outcome could have been far more tragic for me and for others. I do believe God protected people that day.



Doctors say that the large aneurysm may have been there my entire life. I could have been born with it. I’m told that it could have a genetic link or it could have just been a total anomaly. Thankfully I survived that first night in ICU and the aneurysm was permanently sealed early the next morning by a team of neurologists using one of two available procedures. In my case the surgeons threaded a line thru an artery up to my brain and filled the aneurysm with a “coil” of about 6″ of thin “wire” filament to permanently block the flow of blood thru it and keep it from being a problem again.

I’m still not quite sure how to mentally process all of this. I still have several weeks of recovery at home ahead of me. The fact that I’m here is indeed a miracle. There is no doubt that the first responders, hospital medical personnel, the life-flight team, and the subsequent surgical specialists brought an amazing amount of skill and urgency to the process of keeping me alive and contributing to my survival, for the most part, unharmed. But the fact that the hemorrhage apparently clotted and stopped by itself as the squad arrived is what probably saved my life and bought the time for all the other medical disciplines to intervene, diagnose, and treat.

So I’m kind of left with “why did this happen?” What’s God’s plan for all this? I guess I have the rest of my life to figure that out. Basically, I have all the time there is.

I’m very thankful to be alive. I enjoy life. I love life. I love my wife, my kids, and their spouses more than anything else in this world. I love my friends and those I get to serve in ministry with. But I can honestly say that throughout this entire ordeal I was at peace. Confused a little, but never anxious or scared about death or the uncertainty of my future. I was indescribably calm and even curious. I remember thinking to myself “wow, really/ so this is how this all ends?” I recall praying in the helicopter as I was being transferred to the stroke center in Toledo and simply saying “Jesus, I really don’t know what’s going on here, but I know you do. And I’m good with that. I don’t really want to die now. I don’t know even what to pray for, but I trust your will, and to take care of me however you wish and that you will be there to take care of my family regardless of my personal outcome.”

The reality was that this situation was so out of my hands. This wasn’t a “if I just try harder I can beat this thing” kind of scenario. I know having a positive attitude is great for one’s health, but the fact is no amount of sheer will or positive thinking or good vibes was going to alter the outcome of something like this – at that moment. Sure I can exercise and maybe watch what I eat, but I really don’t get to decide the outcomes of any of these types of life issues.

I personally believe there is a God. The God of the Bible. I believe Jesus is God and is alive and present in spirit in a very real way. I also understand that I’m not God. I believe God heard the many prayers of friends and family even before they were prayed or before anyone even knew what to pray for. Regardless of the outcome, God was there. He wasn’t surprised or taken off guard by anything. He was with me and, somehow in ways I can’t put into words, He let me know that He was with me. It was never a weird “I’m hearing voices in my head” kind of thing. But more a calming presence and reassurance that He was there and He was every bit concerned about the same things that I was. I just had to trust Him. (Jeremiah 29:11)

I believe with all my being that I will somehow eternally carry on thru my belief in Christ (even though I can’t totally get my cognitive mind around exactly what that might mean or look like.) Faith. And so I also believe God is much more than just some philosophical or intellectual debate over theology or the origin of the world. I believe that even if I had physically died that day, the hope of eternal life would have been no less miraculous or impossible than the medical “miracle” that I seemed to have experienced first hand. And I thank God for every next breath I get to take today and tomorrow and until He decides my time here is complete. Each next day is a gift. That’s grace, that’s love. And this is reality.

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