By Jerry Harris
KORE’s story begins with three Indian children.
In 2000, Dennis and Brenda Bratton were finishing their first short-term mission trip and getting ready to head back home to Mandarin Christian Church in Jacksonville, Florida. They were standing on a missionary’s front porch, about to leave for the airport, overloaded by the experience of witnessing India’s extreme poverty firsthand. They saw three Indian children walking down the road; the children were albino, diseased, sight-impaired, malnourished, and their hair was infested. They were dressed in rags. The sight of these children was too much for the Brattons. Dennis told the missionary, “We can’t help them all, but we can help these three!” The children were Seema, Suraj, and Chonda. We’ll get back to them later.
In his early years, Dennis’s family was fully engaged at Young’s Chapel Christian Church in southern Illinois. Missionaries who visited the church stayed at their home and enjoyed many meals at their family table. After high school, Dennis followed his older brother to Cincinnati Bible Seminary, where Dennis met Brenda, his future wife and ministry partner. Dennis wanted to be a high school teacher and a football coach, but a phone call from Rossville, Illinois, changed that. The church was looking for a preacher and wanted Dennis to try out. His first sermon was the trial sermon at Rossville; he must have done all right because he was hired on the spot. It wasn’t until their truck was loaded and he and his wife were journeying to Rossville, Brenda pregnant with their first child, that he learned the church had just gone through a split. It was to be a characteristic of every church the Brattons were called to—the church was in pain and needed healing.
After three years as a full-time pastor, Dennis got to experience his original dream; he accepted a high school teaching position and became a football coach in Rossville. He did this while serving in three separate interim ministries. The tiny school won its first conference championship that year with seven preacher’s kids on the roster. After two years of teaching and coaching, a Springfield, Illinois, church in need of healing called with a new preaching assignment. The young family moved and served there for four years. That’s when Marion Henderson of Central Florida Bible College called Dennis about a church in Jacksonville that needed help.
Mandarin Christian Church at that time was a country church of about 135, and country was the operative word. Under Dennis’s leadership, the church grew, but it also experienced challenges often associated with growth. One challenge occurred when the church reached 400 in size, and issues of vision and direction tore at its fabric. When that happened, Ben Merold and LeRoy Lawson stepped in with encouraging words for Dennis. Encouragement through tough times came regularly from Ben, LeRoy, Cotton Jones, and Floyd Strater. Others also offered support.
After Bob Russell invited 17 leaders to sit down and share about their ministries, a group of them continued to meet regularly. John Russell, Steve Wyatt, Steve Reeves, Tom Ellsworth, and Dennis became great friends; these ministers became sounding boards for one another, spurring the growth of all their churches. “I could just pick up the phone and they were there for me,” Dennis said.
The years passed. At 65, Dennis experienced health issues that made continuing at Mandarin (now Christ’s Church) unworkable, so a succession plan was implemented. The little country church had grown from 135 to 5,000 in the 32 years under Dennis’s leadership, making it the largest Christian church in Florida at that time. The church had launched two additional multisite locations (which now reach 1,000 and 1,800, respectively). After retirement and succession, a trip to the Mayo Clinic and a subsequent surgery corrected the health issue. Dennis was faced with a reversal of fortune that forced him to contemplate what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Those three children from India stirred something in the Brattons’ hearts before their retirement from the church in 2010. It helped revolutionize how the church saw and interacted with missions. Before that trip, Dennis and the church saw missions as an exercise in giving and sending, but that trip changed them. “From that time on, we were involved,” Dennis shared. The congregation was committed to short-term mission trips, and those trips changed the hearts of the people.
Dennis assessed his gifts and felt he could be most effective in development—raising money for missions. The Brattons had already done work in India to create sustainable solutions for children, creating a Christian environment with housing, aquaculture, and fruit production. The KORE Foundation was the next step.
KORE’s first project was raising money for diesel engines to power a medical boat in Brazil. Earl Haubner of Central Brazil Mission told Dennis of the need, and the money was appropriated and put to use. The second project developed from an architect’s idea of using shipping containers for shelters, water reclamation, offices, and storage. The finished product—displayed at the North American Christian Convention and then given away on closing night—was filled with school supplies and shipped to Kenya. After that, Edsel Redden invited Dennis to a conference focusing on extreme poverty (defined as a person existing on one dollar per day or less).
As the conference at the University of Florida progressed, this question haunted Dennis: “I hear about relief, but what about solutions?” When he asked the question, he learned about successful small-holder poultry production in Bangladesh. But would such an idea work in India? Some investigation uncovered that large growers of poultry had already taken over the India market. So, if not India, where? Haiti also suffers extreme poverty nationwide. Would small-holder poultry production work there? Some research indicated it could. KORE had found its purpose.
“We had no money, no not-for-profit designation, not even a checking account,” Dennis said. “I could always tell that God had his hand on us by looking over my shoulder up to that point. But with KORE, God has let me see him connect the dots right in front of me! People whom I had no relationship with came out of nowhere to support us. They just asked how they could help. Our first gift was for $1 million from people I didn’t even know. . . . I didn’t even have a checking account to put the money in,” Dennis said. “I started crying and so did they.” Along the way, Eric Dellenback, executive director of the Tim Tebow Foundation, heard Dennis share about KORE’s plans. That led to more critical partners for the new mission venture.
The business model is simple: KORE provides a loan to small business owners to start their business. The owners buy day-old chicks from a chicken-production company, along with feed, and later sell the full-grown birds back to that company at wholesale costs. As the loans are repaid, KORE can make more loans.
KORE’s first 20 chicken coops went to Haitian pastors and leaders. The sense of entitlement ingrained in that culture impacted those first 20. The leaders missed their training sessions and had others manage their operations. The mortality rates for the chickens in those coops were high and the farmers failed to make their loan payments.
KORE stepped back to review its model. Moving forward, it focused on two criteria: anyone getting a loan must (1) be active in their church, and (2) exist on one dollar a day or less. The coop owners could be men or women, young or old.
This has been much more successful. In just a few years, an additional 160 coops have been deployed with a repayment rate of more than 90 percent! Several of the first 20 coops have also been redeployed with good results. It’s working!
The Haitian farmers are now producing 3,000 to 5,000 chickens a week. KORE’s goal is a self-sustainable operation, and although it is much closer to that goal, Haiti’s 60 percent inflation rate isn’t making it easy. Neither is USAID, the government agency that still subsidizes imported U.S. food for relief (so an unintended consequence of relief is that it makes it more difficult to start self-sustaining food production operations).
Other countries have invited KORE to locate operations on their soil, but the Brattons want to establish a fully sustainable model in Haiti first. There is no shortage of people who desire to be farmers; a larger market is what is needed—and KORE is actually creating that market.
An economy is being produced as KORE seeks to establish a Haitian middle class in the church; this is one of the best things the Brattons see happening. Imagine a church with 10 decent wage earners with a heart for generosity where no one was earning a good wage before. Bratton said he dreams of a day when Haitian churches pay their own preachers and care for their own orphans. KORE has helped bring that dream much closer to reality.
KORE operates a retreat center called “The Coop” for those who are invited for vision trips to check out the ministry. Throughout the year, KORE also hosts short-term impact teams from the United States. A Jacksonville Jaguars football player who went on a familiarization trip sponsored by KORE was skeptical of the operation; he wondered if Haitians were too lazy to succeed at such a venture. Afterward he remarked, “They’re not poor because they’re lazy, they’re poor because they have no other option.” About 40 of the 185 loans for the chicken coops, chicks, and supplies have already been repaid. KORE is now able to self-insure its farmers.
KORE operates water testing and nutrition programs in partnership with the University of Florida and North Carolina State University, and these programs are yielding dramatic results. Studies show that protein deprivation contributes to cognitive development deficiency in children the first five or six years of life. KORE’s 6.25 feeding program is reversing that. (The program seeks to add protein to the diets of malnourished children; the cost is $6.25 per month, per child.)
To help minimize poverty exploitation, KORE works with many outstanding ministries like Soles for Souls, actually going to orphanages and replacing worn-out shoes with new ones, and taking the old shoes with them. KORE’s feeding program involves delivering food, watching the children eat, and then taking leftovers with them. KORE now feeds 3,000 children a month; those children are getting the minimum requirement of protein in their diet, and that protein is from chicken purchased from KORE farmers. Historically, Haitian ministries have resisted collaboration, but KORE is now working cooperatively with more than a dozen of them.
“If we’d known that being a missionary could be so much fun, we’d have done it a lot sooner!” Dennis joked. A Peruvian proverb says, “If you say you love the poor, name them.”
“It wasn’t until we met Seema, Suraj, and Chonda that we could do that,” Dennis said. “Today, we can name all of our Haitian partners and farmers.”
By the way, Seema, Suraj, and Chonda found committed sponsors in Dennis and Brenda. With a stable India home, a caregiver, a tutor, and medical care through provided funds, they grew healthy, graduated from school, and have entered into mission work. It’s amazing what a little bit of opportunity can do to change the course before us.
Learn more about KORE’s ministry at www.korefoundation.org.
Jerry Harris is publisher of Christian Standard Media and senior pastor of The Crossing, a multisite church located in three states across the Midwest.