Deb Gilbert never pictured herself as a missionary in Africa, but she also never imagined the immense pain she would experience when her son Sean died at 18.
“Your perspective on life changes a whole lot when something like that happens,” she said.
The young man’s death was the catalyst for Deb Gilbert and her husband, Mike, to close the family business, sell their Lutz home, liquidate their belongings and move to Africa to establish One City Ministries.
Before her son died, he was entrenched in a cycle of addiction, Deb Gilbert said. He would attempt to step away from his self-destructive lifestyle, but would be easily drawn back into it by his friends. Once the Gilberts knew their son had a serious problem, they tried to get him help. But Sean wasn’t ready to make a change.
He finally had some close calls that even scared him and had reached a point when he realized he had to change, Deb Gilbert said. Sean talked to his parents about it on a Friday evening.
“He knew he had to stop seeing certain people. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction,” she said. “On that Sunday evening, he was with some friends. And he said, ‘This is the last time I’m going to party with you like this.’ And, in fact, it was.”
The Gilberts’ son’s partying that night led to his death, and about six months after her son died, Deb Gilbert said she was in his room and having a conversation with God.
She said she was looking at Sean’s ashes and telling God: “This is all I have left of my son.”
In response, she said she heard God say: “Everything here is ashes, that’s not the important thing.”
Next, God told her to go to Africa, she said.
“I walked out of Sean’s room and said to Mike, ‘We’re moving to Africa.’”
At the time, Deb Gilbert said she knew almost nothing about the continent.
The death of their son was a pivotal moment, causing the couple to reevaluate their lives, Mike Gilbert said. They felt compelled to answer God’s call: “God gave us distinctive marching orders.”
Before moving to Uganda, however, they did some research on Africa and they visited another ministry that had operations there. Although that ministry didn’t feel like the right fit for them, Uganda did, Mike Gilbert said.
So, they started One City Ministries, and moved to Africa.
That was six years ago.
The ministry they’ve established uses a holistic approach.
“We deal with the economic issues, we deal with the health issues, we deal with the spiritual issues,” Mike Gilbert said. “You can’t go in and pick one weed and feel like you’ve weeded the garden. I liken it to building a house. You have to first build the foundation. The foundation to me is opportunity, which brings empowerment, which will help whittle away at injustices.”
When they arrived at the village, they did not give any handouts, Deb Gilbert said.
“We didn’t have enough to hand out,” she said.
A woman came to them with baskets she had made, and Deb Gilbert bought them.
“Her reaction, I think just stuck with us forever,” Deb Gilbert said. “She went to her knees and thanked us. She was able to buy for her family to eat that night.”
The word started to get out that Mike and Deb were buying, and people would bring them things they were making. Some were beautiful, others not so much.
The idea, initially, was to bring the artworks to America to sell them and to help raise awareness of the little opportunity these villagers had.
“Our first year, we wanted to bring the stories back. We ended up having 16 giant boxes of things people had made. And, all had a story,” Deb Gilbert said.
They brought those items to Grace Family Church in Lutz, where she previously worked, and set up an African marketplace in the sanctuary.
Over time, the program has evolved. Artists produce crafts, which the ministry buys and then ships to America to sell. The money raised from the program covers the ministry’s administrative costs, and is reinvested to provide new services. It’s also reinvested back into the village’s economy, which is how economy gets created, Mike Gilbert said.
This year, the program shipped two tons of goods to be sold, he added.
The Africa TrAID Marketplace last November at the Museum of Science & Industry featured thousands of unique items made by more than 200 artists. They included woodcarvings, recycled metal sculptures, hand-painted cards and colorful textiles.
Besides helping the artisans, the ministry is also teaching farmers more effective methods for growing coffee. The ministry wants to create a co-op to help farmers get a better return on their crops by streamlining the processing, shipping and selling of the coffee.
Besides helping people become economically self-sufficient, the ministry aims to set a good example by refusing to pay bribes to local officials — a very common practice in Africa, Mike Gilbert said.
It also is working to create Light Village, an economically self-sustaining community that can serve as a model for others.
Although they live in Uganda, the couple comes back for about a month each year, staying with local families to defray their expenses. When they come back, they sell goods and share stories about the work of One City Ministries, which help generate support to expand its programs.
“What drives me there is just the injustices they have to endure,” Deb Gilbert said. She and her husband want to help the villagers have greater opportunities, so they can build better lives for themselves.
For more information about One City Ministries, visit OneCityMinistries.org.