MARYVILLE, Tenn. -- When Zach Tate was five years old, he sold his prize cantaloupe to buy socks for children in Zimbabwe.
Seven years later, the boy from Fairview United Methodist Church is at it again. With the help of his friends, family, and congregation, the former “cantaloupe kid” has raised more than $15,000 to build a church and dig a well in Haiti.
"Zach has that innocent, childlike faith that Jesus talked about," says the Rev. Jerry Russell, senior pastor at Fairview. "The Lord gave him a dream and a vision, and he believed it was going to happen."
Zach's mission started in March, after his parents, John and Kelly Tate, took their first overseas mission trip to Haiti with a Fairview team. John is treasurer for Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, based in Alcoa.
“It changed us,” says Kelly of the experience. “We felt it was important for our sons to realize that most people in the world don’t live like we do in Maryville. The people in Haiti are so great, even though they live in extreme poverty. The children still laugh and chase and play just like our boys. We wanted to expose them to that at an earlier age.”
When the Tates returned home to east Tennessee, they showed photos of Haiti to Zach and his brothers: Eli, now 11, and twins Sam and Wes, age 8.
They challenged the two older brothers to raise half their plane fare ($600 of $1,200) for a June or October mission trip to Haiti.
“I really wanted to do it after I saw the pictures,” says Zach. The images of children playing among trash heaps and broken buildings made an impression on him, his parents say.
Zach's concern for other children was evident when he was just a kindergartener, Russell says. While helping his family prepare a Hands-on Mission Kit for children in Zimbabwe, the little boy asked why there were shoes but no socks.
"He didn't think that was acceptable," Kelly says, smiling as she recalls how the child began saving money earned from household chores to buy socks.
Zach saved up $10.50 and took it to his pastor, along with the "first fruit" he ever grew in his backyard: a cantaloupe. He said he wanted to buy a pair of socks for every pair of shoes that his church sent to Zimbabwe.
The preacher looked at the boy's cantaloupe. "Well, let's sell that thing," he said.
The next Sunday, Russell brought Zach and his cantaloupe before the congregation and explained the child's goal. "I wouldn't do this under normal circumstances, but we're going to auction off this cantaloupe right now."
Zach's "first fruit" raised $1,500 within five minutes. When Russell went to Zimbabwe a few months later, his suitcase was stuffed with socks.
Zach is a 7th grader now, but he's still a bundle of motivation. After his parents returned from Haiti, he started raising money for his own plane ticket through a lemonade stand, mowing lawns, and doing chores. He wasn't shy about asking for donations, either.
"He's always been willing to give up his allowance or birthday money to help other people," says Zach's father, John. But both parents said they never imagined just how far their firstborn would go with this project.
Zach quickly raised the first $600 of his plane fare and decided to go for the entire $1,200. His mom helped him find new fundraisers: Selling cookie dough and "Pray for Haiti" bracelets. People were moved by Zach's passion and gave donations as well.
As the June mission trip approached, so did Little League baseball season. Zach had a tough decision to make. "I really wanted to go on the mission trip, but I really wanted to play baseball, too," says the all-star second baseman.
He decided to play ball and wait for Fairview's October trip to Haiti. Kelly went on the June trip and took Eli, who had raised half his fare through the lemonade stand and chores.
Fairview, a church with 1,100 in average worship attendance, is well-known for sending mission teams and spreading the Gospel to countries all over the world. The Maryville District church began focusing on Haiti after the country's devastating January 2010 earthquake, in partnership with ReachHaiti Ministries.
Fairview used part of their Christmas 2010 offering to dig wells and sent teams to rebuild an orphanage, train pastors, lead vacation bible school, minister to a prison, and provide medical care. Fairview also helped its sister church, Monte Vista Baptist, build a church in Haiti, Russell said.
By the time his mother and brother returned from Haiti in June, "it was pretty obvious that I was going to raise more than the money for my plane trip," Zach said. "My parents told me to pray about how I wanted to use the extra money."
Zach would soon tell his parents, pastor, and congregation where his prayers had led: He wanted to build a new church in Haiti. Following Zach's announcement, his 12-year-old friend, Lucas Blair, said he wanted to help Zach raise the money.
And, oh yeah: Lucas thought they should raise enough to dig a well next to the church, too.
"That whole age group in our church: They think that's what they're supposed to do," Russell said, explaining how Fairview's mission ministry is developing a new generation of peacemakers.
"It's in their DNA because they grew up seeing and learning about it. They trust God and they don't let the mountain blind them. They let the mystery of God work through them and over them," he said. "They think that's what they're supposed to do, and they do it."
Just like us
Zach and Lucas went to Haiti in October. So did their fathers: John Tate and Jason Blair.
"Pictures can't really catch how bad it is," says Zach, showing photo after photo of poverty and destruction: crumpled buildings, steaming trash piles, tent cities.
Yet, throughout the photos are images of hope: Mission teams at work. People in worship. Children at play. Smiling children. That's what Zach most wants people to understand about Haiti:
"The conditions are really bad, but Haiti is not far from the U.S. and the people aren't that different," Zach says. "The kids really enjoy playing, just like us. They don't let the situation keep them from being happy and having fun."
If people understood that about Haiti, Zach says, maybe they would be more willing to go and help.
With an anonymous donation of $5,000 and proceeds from a t-shirt designed by Lucas, the total raised so far is about $15,000, John Tate said.
Fairview will send four back-to-back teams in March to dig a well and build a church in Pignon, about four hours outside Port-au-Prince, Russell said.
Burks UMC and Hixson UMC in Chattanooga District and Munsey Memorial UMC in Johnson City District will partner with Fairview to build the church. Members from St. Paul in Knoxville District and Sycamore Tree in Maryville District have joined past teams to Haiti.
The two youngest Tate brothers, twins Sam and Wes, are in the process of raising $600 each for their plane tickets to Haiti.
The "cantaloupe kid" who started it all is planning to return to Haiti in March to see his latest mission come to fruition.
- Fairview UMC seeks clergy to help train pastors and others to join in their Haiti mission. Contact the Rev. Jerry Russell or Yvonne Shelgren at (865) 983-2080 or e-mail JohnTate@Holston.org.