With the partial support of ELCA World Hunger, the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Japan is a nine-month service leadership training program that attracts people from around the world, enabling them to live and work together while learning agricultural skills they can return to their home communities. ARI also invites guest lecturers from Japan and abroad to teach sustainable development, organic agriculture and more.

With this model, ARI empowers leaders from around the world to build community, embrace diversity, value rural life, see the dignity of work, promote food sovereignty, and live in harmony with nature. Graduates are returning to their countries equipped to work on sustainable development, building relationships with local leaders and transforming their communities. Participants also receive ongoing support from ARI in identifying funding opportunities and leadership.

As the impact of COVID-19 began to ripple around the world this spring, countries closed their borders and airports and flights were changed or canceled. Of the 26 students who planned to participate in ARI this year, only seven arrived in Japan; others encountered travel restrictions and other challenges.

Four ARI participants from Sierra Leone were at the nearest Japanese consulate – in Accra, Ghana – who were applying for visas to enter Japan when Sierra Leone closed its borders and the Ghanaian government ordered closures across the country. Participants were granted Japanese visas, but airports and borders were closed, so they could not leave the country.

Then ARI asked for help from its graduates in Ghana. John Yeboah, a 2018 graduate, responded to the call, providing passengers with safety, food and accommodation. He escorted them by bus from Accra to Kumasi and took care of their needs while they waited for news of their travels.

Modeling what he experienced during his schooling in Japan, John even worked with ARI to begin training students right where they were. He led them with morning exercise, time management techniques, leadership training and coaching, and discussions and reflections.

John Yeboah (second from left), a graduate of the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, is shown with four students from Sierra Leone and two local farmers on a pig farm in Kumasi, Ghana.

The first few weeks of COVID-19 restrictions prevented Ghana from traveling to its fields. Eventually the restrictions were eased, allowing the group to begin the agricultural part of its unexpected training program. Following ARI’s curriculum, they practiced growing crops such as cabbage, beets, carrots, chili peppers, okra, lettuce, spring onions, mint, spinach and cucumber on John’s organic farm.

ARI staff called John’s work a testimony to the impact of the ARI training program on the community. With his demonstration of servant leadership and his ability to adapt in times of crisis, John turned a challenging and stressful situation into an unexpected time of learning and connecting for Sierra Leone participants. Despite a difficult year, John and people like him around the world show adaptability, ingenuity, and Christ’s love of neighbor.

Because of God’s work that brings people across borders and through challenges, a Ghanaian farmer led students from Sierra Leone to a training program established by an institute in Japan, with funding from congregations and individuals in the United States. Indeed, John’s story, partly made possible by gifts to ELCA World Hunger, reflects ARI’s motto: “That I can live together,” regardless of the distances that separate us.

This story was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition Without borders. See the full publication here.

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