What do a church, a school, a pizza parlor, an agricultural non-profit, and a brand-new coffee shop have in common? To most people, nothing at all. But to Brandon and Hannah Weidman, they are the beginning of transformation; building blocks in a small community called Masatepe.
“This place has so much to offer,” Brandon explains one afternoon while walking down a dirt road just outside of the small town tucked away in the rolling hills of western Nicaragua. Barbed wire fences line the road on each side, separating rural plots of land filled with palm trees, tin-roofed houses, goats, chickens and other animals. Just a half-mile away, the road turns to asphalt as forest and cropland melt into simple shops, churches, schools, and small houses. This is the rural community of Masatepe, and for Brandon and Hannah Weidman, it’s home.
“When I look at Masatepe, I see so much potential,” Brandon says, rounding the corner that leads toward the center of town. Ten months ago this walk to town became a part of the Weidmans’ daily life as they left the suburbs of Indianapolis in order serve with International Teams in Nicaragua. Masatepe is now one of the newest communities in ITeam’s 2020 vision which aims to see a new cycle of physical, social, and spiritual transformation take shape in 50 communities worldwide by the year 2020.
In a country like Nicaragua, the poorest nation in Central America, dramatic needs are never hard to find, and Masatepe is no exception. But for ITeams and the Weidmans, the strategy for ministry starts with exploring a community’s assets, not only focusing on its deficiencies. “I think it is easy to overcomplicate it when we talk about transforming a community and helping those in need,” Brandon continues. “For us, doing ministry in Masatepe starts with what is already here; the assets, the leaders, the little treasures that this community already has. Our first steps here have simply been about building relationships and learning what’s around us.”
The Weidmans may be relatively new to Masatepe, but you would never know it on an afternoon like this, as they greet neighbors, introduce friends, and explain the hidden gems of their community.
“Our friends who live here just opened up a new little Italian restaurant in town,” Hannah says pointing to a small house behind a gate. “We can’t wait to try it!” At the edge of town, Brandon points to a white building connected to a church called Centro de Fe, or Faith Center. “That’s the school where Hannah teaches English,” he explains. “It’s been a great way for us to get to know families and leaders in the community.”
But near the center of Masatepe, across the street from a friend’s pizza parlor and around the corner from the local super market, is the Weidmans’ favorite place in town. Three months ago, the large white-walled structure perched above the street was little more than an expansive, run-down, colonial-style building at the heart of town, quiet and largely empty. But now, after three months of renovations, it is the Weidmans’ home. And more than that, it is a brand new small business. On August 17, Brandon and Hannah opened the doors to “Pueblos Blancos Coffee Shop,” the first small café in town.
“A while ago, we started talking about the idea of starting a business as part of ministry,” says Brandon, who studied Business Management in college. “And the more time we spent in Masatepe, the more we felt like a small business could be a great way to connect with the community.”
But a coffee shop is only the beginning. Adjacent to the shop itself, within the same building, stand three currently unused rooms that the Weidmans are excited to begin offering to local entrepreneurs who are share their vision for using business as a means of ministry and community transformation.
“The idea of transforming a community can be a very overwhelming idea,” Brandon admits with a grin. “You look at it as a new person and say, I don’t think I’m qualified. So it’s important to realize that we’re not trying to do this over night. We want to go deep here, and as we do, to see small victories that start a new cycle. And for us it’s exciting to see how God has just opened doors.”
As with any community, the full picture of Masatepe, Nicaragua is a multifaceted mosaic of people and places, needs and strengths, struggles and potential. “I think it’s a very pocketed community,” Hannah says, describing Masatepe “You have pockets of schools, businesses, and churches here and there. They have a lot to offer but no one is really working together.”
“There’s definitely a lot of brokenness here,” Brandon adds. “Lots of broken families, poor living conditions, lack of health care, and quality education. But there are also a lot of people and organizations already here that want to help. The last thing we want to do is come here, reinvent the wheel, and do our own thing. That’s the beauty of bringing people together. We want to see all those local partners at the same table and to help cast a bigger vision for what God can do in Masatepe.”
One such partner is a local agricultural organization just outside of town, called Icidri, which aims to help underprivileged locals in rural areas turn unused land into profitable agricultural ventures. One muggy June afternoon, Brandon visits Icidri in order to learn more and meet the head of the organization, a congenial Nicaraguan man named Luis. Brandon and Hannah are also interested in working with Icidri in order to develop their own land as they encourage neighbors and others in Masatepe to do the same.
The following day, Luis drops by the Weidman’s house to give them a bag of locally grown coffee beans. “A lot of people and organizations seem to be really encouraged,” Brandon says, reflecting on Luis’s visit. “The fact that we’re here, not stepping over them, but saying, ‘hey, we want to help you’. It goes a long way.”
Another key partner for Brandon and Hannah has been a local church called Nuevos Horizontes on the outskirts of town. In fact, Brandon and Hannah first visited Masatepe over three years ago on a short-term trip because of a connection between Nuevos Horizontes and their own church in the U.S. What they saw on that and three subsequent trips was a genuine commitment to engaging the local community. “I want this church to be different,” says Rolando Mendoza, the Weidmans’ close friend and leader of Nuevos Horizontes who planted the church 10 years ago. “I didn’t want it to just be another church that sits and does nothing. The whole idea here is that this church is an active part of this community.” That sentiment is one Brandon and Hannah share wholeheartedly and the reason they are committed to walking alongside the church and it’s congregation.
One step at a time
There are no quick fixes to the many problems that exist in a community like Masatepe, but the Weidmans are encouraged by how they have already seen God moving. “We’re seeing doors opening and relationships forming,” Brandon says. “And that’s what it’s all about. One step at a time. In the end, the real goal is seeing a new cycle begin, it’s not some point where you arrive.”
“I think I see God working most beautifully in the little relationships,” Hannah adds. “Like with our neighbor. I feel like we get to go deeper in our faith each time we talk.” Hannah smiles as she says it. “It’s just amazing that we can connect with people on such a heart level here, through the language barrier and completely different cultures, and celebrate together that Christ is alive today.”
As the couple looks back on this past year of ministry, both are quick to say what a blessing it has been, and also, to encourage others to take a closer look at the communities around them. “Are you somebody who has relationships in a community?” Brandon asks. “Someone who is seeing the local potential and what could happen if that was resourced, encouraged, and given a bigger vision? If so, I think that’s a great place to start.”