Sometimes God seems to work in mysterious ways. For example, when Christopher Sylvah flew to Sierra Leone in the fall of 2018, he did so as part of a Solar Oven Partners (SOP) Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) team. In February 2023, he'll be flying back to Sierra Leone, his homeland, not as a volunteer but as SOP's new director.
Christopher is leaving his banking position at Wells Fargo and taking over for Marj Evans-de-Carpio. Marj, who is returning to English/Spanish interpreting. Marj has served as director for the past six years. She is also the one who introduced Christopher, and his wife, Winifred, to SOP. So when they happened to walk by her SOP display at the Minnesota Annual Conference earlier in 2018, the map of Sierra Leone—one of the countries SOP serves—caught their attention. It led to a discussion about Solar Oven Partners.
Five months later, the Minnesota couple was in Sierra Leone, assembling ovens and cooking with the sun alongside people in the country where both had grown up. Since coming to the U.S. separately in the late 1980s, they had married, had a son and daughter, become U.S. citizens, and both had degrees in business administration. They also became involved in Operation Classroom—a ministry that provides school supplies to the West African country. But they never had an opportunity to work alongside the people they were serving.
The empowerment of solar cooking
What attracted them to Solar Oven Partners was the ability to have a face-to-face volunteer experience. "It was so satisfying to be hands-on with the people we were serving—teaching them to use the oven for alternative cooking and showing them how it will impact their finances by having more money in their pockets rather than spent on charcoal or wood," explains Christopher. "Solar cooking gives them empowerment. I can still see the joy on the women's faces when they took their ovens home. They had been part of the process of assembling the oven and cooking with it, and they had pride in their accomplishment. They took ownership in that oven."
Being asthmatic, he also appreciated that solar ovens allow people to cook without the damaging smoke from charcoal or wood cooking fires. And he understood the destruction that can happen when deforestation is made worse by cutting wood to make charcoal, pointing to a massive mudslide in 2017 in Freetown, where he grew up. More than 1,100 people were killed.
This past March, their daughter Idella, joined an SOP mission team in the Dominican Republic. So, when he saw that the director position had opened up, Christopher says he researched the mission and values of Solar Oven Partners. "That's when," he explains, "I felt this would be a good fit for me."
Sensitivity to cross-cultural relationships
SOP's Advisory Board agreed. Phil Lint, the board's president, says he's excited to see Christopher's impact on the SOP ministry. "We were impressed the first time we met him," says Phil. "He is very thorough and very aware of the need for this ministry to be sensitive to the various cultures we serve, whether it be in the Dominican Republic, Sierra Leone, or the Navajo Nation in Arizona. That was very important to us as we looked for someone to fill this role."
He added that Christopher's connections in Sierra Leone are also timely as SOP works to help develop a viable program there, and his background in banking will be beneficial in continuing the financial integrity of the ministry. "Marj has been a Godsend and a blessing to this ministry," added Phil. "She taught us to be more culturally sensitive. She had a connection to the Dominican Republic and helped the program there take hold. Being able to speak Spanish fluently was also a big plus. Christopher's connection to Sierra Leone and his gifts and graces can grow the ministry in new ways. Maybe the Lord is sending these people to us exactly when we need them."
Christopher will get his feet wet quickly, taking a VIM team to the Dominican Republic in January. Then it will be off to Sierra Leone in February, followed by another Dominican Republic trip in March. There are also scheduled visits to SOP's three South Dakota workshops in Raymond, Rapid City, and Montrose.
Starting January 1, Christopher will be directing SOP from his home in Otsego, a suburb northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. "For the next year or so, I will be working from home and will travel to the Dakotas when needed," he says, adding that being in Minnesota will provide an opportunity to do more outreach to churches in Minnesota and possibly expand SOP's reach into Iowa and Wisconsin."
This is another new chapter in Solar Oven Partners' 22-year history—and Christopher's career. One, he says he's excited to begin. Perhaps God truly does work in mysterious ways!