It works, when Jesus is the focus
Fittingly, the first sign of Liv Village we encountered as we drove through the rural township of Cottonlands at the end of a long Gateway News team road trip, was a tall, blue, illuminated cross shining in the darkness.
LIV Village manager Chester Koyana, a former Sharks Academy player whose promising rugby career was cut short by a freak foot injury, welcomed us warmly as did other village employees we bumped into as we were shown to our cottage in the staff section of the orphan village near Verulam, north of Durban.
Showing our three-member team around the impressive village the next day Koyana explained that years before it was established in 2010 God had given founder Tich Smith a vision of a village on a hill with a cross at the summit, bringing hope to resident children and the surrounding community, and pointing visiting government officials to Christ.
Presence of God
Certainly we sensed the tangible presence of God in the joyfulness of the staff, children and interns we met, and in the excellence of the facilities we saw — including 96 houses, early childhood development centre and school campus, health centre, sports facilities, 2 000-people capacity multipurpose hall, culinary school and other satellite training and business centres and gardens.
Chester explained that the thriving project which is currently home to 160 children who came out of situations of extreme abuse and abandonment was a prototype of villages that God had called Tich to establish all over South Africa to provide loving homes headed by house mothers and a bright future for millions of orphans in the country through partnering with the Church, government and business.
One hundred and sixty children out of an estimated 3.7 million orphans in South Africa may sound small. But there is an unmistakeable supernatural dimension to everything about the LIV story that inclines one to share the faith vision of its leaders. The centre could accommodate several hundred more children and at full capacity will be able to house a thousand orphans. The relatively slow growth in children numbers is due to official red tape. LIV has bought an adjacent farm where it plans to establish another village and at the time of our visit, Tich was in Cape Town, negotiating land for another proposed village — one of a number of villages planned around the country. Meanwhile the satellite business projects which are integral to the growth and financial support of the orphan villages vision are expanding and currently employ 1 200 people. The businesses are owned 100% by LIV village, a registered non profit company. The surrounding community is also being massively impacted by various business and outreach projects.
I had a telephone chat with Tich Smith at the weekend. Now 65, he played rugby for Natal in the 70s and cricket for Natal and South Africa in the 70s and 80s. But he says at the age of 35 he found himself in a home for alcoholics, with millions of rands of gambling debts. He turned to Jesus Christ but his marriage ended and he could not find work as “nobody wanted to hire a drunkard and gambler”.
But then Sanlam gave him an opportunity. He began selling life assurance, which he said was probably the last job in the world that he would have wanted to do.
“But when I look back, I marvel at who God is,” he said. “His plans are so far ahead of our plans.”
Paid off debts
Within eight years he had paid off all his gambling debts — something that no other job would have enabled him to do.
Meanwhile he married Joan who had recently been widowed. In 1997 while driving back from a mission trip he did something he had never done before. He prayed in tongues for two and a half hours and he cried out to the Lord, saying: “Surely there is more to life than this.”
Then for six hours he listened as God downloaded a vision. He said I should build a village for orphaned children, that the children would come to know God as their Father, that he should create jobs for rural communities so that they could sustain their families, and so that government will come to see why it worked and he could point them to the cross.
He said the vision seemed crazy because until then he and Joan had never given the poor or rural communities a thought. Twelve years passed before they began to build that village God had called for. They learned more about God in that time. First they began in their own strength, starting a building company which they believed would be necessary to build the village.
Tich also approached government trying to get land from them for the village but they were not interested.
He said they had to close the non-performing building company after two years. “By the grace of God we didn’t lose any money but all 17 people who worked for us came to know Jesus — so, through His eyes it was a successful business.”
In 2001 while they owned a guesthouse, employees drew Joan’s attention to the plight of children who were starving in the Amaoti informal settlement. She began to feed them and initiated a back-to-school project.
Tich said that during this time God broke his heart for the poor and orphans who were being raped and abused. Their feeding project grew to reach 2 500 children daily and they planted a church in the community.
In 2007 God told him to pitch a tent and preach the gospel. They pitched a tent, invited Angus Buchan and other prominent preachers, and for 28 nights the gospel was preached and thousands of people came to Christ.
Responding to God’s directing, he left the corporate world to work fulltime alongside his wife. His business interests were moved into a new company which is run by his son, Greg.
In 2009 he heard God say they must stop everything and go away and listen to him. After some initial hesitation they did that. “And on the 9th of January 2009 I heard God say: ‘The time for the village is now’.”
Buying a farm
They set out to buy a farm. As “city slickers” they knew nothing about farms but when he first set foot on the farm where LIV stands today he knew it was the place. God told him how much to offer for the land. The seller wanted twice that amount but two days later accepted Tich’s offer. Meanwhile the seller’s circumstances changed and the Land Bank became the seller and said Tich could have the farm for R700 000 less . But he insisted on paying the price that God had given him — a decision which he said later paid dividends in his relationship with the local community.
“I have learned so many times along the road that all God wants is for us to be obedient to Him even when it sounds crazy to man. He is looking for obedience, humility and total surrender.”
With the land secured but no money to develop the village he heard God say he should bring business and government and churches together. So he planned a fundraising banquet for 4 000 guests at the Durban ICC. By faith he raised a bond on his house to finance the banquet. The banquet in April 2010, with speakers including Dr Zweli Mkhize, Premier of KZN, John Smit, ex SA rugby captain, Shaun Pollock, ex SA cricket captain, was a success. Soon thereafter all 13 departments of the KZN government agreed to support the project and contributed R97-million.
“That’s when I realised that God owns all things. He is all things.
“He continues to tell me: ‘Don’t limit me. Just walk in humility and obedience and watch what I will do,” said Tich who says he truly believes that the Church in South Africa working together in partnership with business and government can house every orphan in the nation to the glory of God — and change the nation forever. He says currently about 30 to 40 churches are involved with LIV.
Much has happened in LIV village and in the lives of Tich and Joan since they embarked upon building the village according to God’s blueprint of providing a place where vulnerable and parentless children can experience a family environment where they receive unconditional love, spiritual discipleship, care and nurturing, their physical needs are met, and they are equipped to become tomorrow’s leaders.
For a season of three years God told Tich and Joan to live in the village. Then last year He told Tich the village had become an idol and he should hand it over to younger managers and return to spending more time listening to Him.
Listening to God
“Since I have begun to spend more time with Him all these things [prospects for initiating new villages around South Africa and further afield in Africa] have started to open up,” he said.
With the breakthroughs there have been many problems and difficulties but God makes a way for those who trust and obey Him.
The cross in the centre of LIV village has always been a part of the vision that God gave him. But since erecting the cross 18 months ago there has been an increase in opposition from various quarters in the local community and beyond.
The village’s uncompromising Christian stance has also led to big companies refusing support.
“It’s a spiritual battle,” he said.
But he says he will not compromise.
“We just try to bring children to the feet of Jesus and get out of His way as much as possible.
“Anybody can build a village. But it is only Jesus by the power of His Spirit who can transform lives. And I pray that in years to come He will remain the focus of everything.”
He said a key to the success of LIV was the people God brought to manage it and to serve in professional capacities. Among them were a successful London doctor and a financial director who had turned down lucrative careers to be part of “what money can’t buy” at the village.
And the cross. Just as God had showed him many years ago, government officials do come to the village and say: “Tich, why is this working? What is the ingredient?”
And he points to the cross, and says: “Do you really want to know? There is only one ingredient. It’s Jesus. When Jesus is the focus and the centre of everything it works.”
Visit www.liv-village.com for more info about LIV Village