Testimony of TechMission
TechMission is a story of God’s work in many lives. Each of us is a thread in God’s tapestry where our lives are woven in and out of the lives of others to make the most beautiful creation that ever was—the Body of Christ throughout history. But in telling the story of the portion of tapestry that makes up TechMission, I have to start with my own story as the lead founder of TechMission. Many of our staff and board members also serve as co-founders of TechMission and also have amazing stories of God’s work weaving them into His greater movement of Jesus, Justice and Technology. You can also read a Christianity Today Profile on Andrew Sears and two testimonies of former staff: Bil's Testimony, Michael's Testimony.
Testimony of Andrew Sears, Founder & Executive Director
I grew up in poor and working class communities in the ‘hood in Kansas City. While no one thinks of themselves as poor while they were growing up, I remember stories of “oatmeal month” where all we had to eat was oatmeal for a whole month. The first place I can remember living was in one of the worst parts of Kansas City where my brother said that even the police were afraid to go.
While some teens might dabble with sex, drinking or drugs in high school, by the time we got to high school, we were all driven to try to absolutely lose ourselves in them. Some of us got pregnant, some got addicted, some got in abusive relationships and some went to jail. For me, my wakeup call was when I was 17 and my girlfriend got pregnant and had a miscarriage. Growing up in an abusive, guilt-driven religious environment, I think I took on all the blame for the miscarriage, and unconsciously vowed not to make any mistakes again. So that is what I tried to do for the next six years—I made straight A’s, became student body president and valedictorian in college, and won a wall of awards that told me how great I was. I was trying to follow God, but my demons often got the better of me because I was still running from the pain of the abuse I experienced. I had a binge-purge relationship with God where I would spend the summers working with Christians serving the poor and get so close to God. Then I would go back to school and do stupid things and run from God out of guilt.
I went on to MIT and co-founded the Internet Telephony Consortium with one of the fathers of the Internet, David Clark. On the outside, everything looked perfect, but the problem was that I was completely miserable. I had worked 100 hour weeks for the past six years to achieve all these great goals, and then once I got them I realized that they were completely meaningless—just paper on a wall.
It was during this time that God broke me and my life collapsed. In addition to my workaholism catching up with me, I also found out my mother was dying of cancer, and a relationship I was in turned really destructive. I had been running from my past, but the problem was that I had to keep running faster and faster for it to work. Finally I couldn’t go any faster and it all caught up to me. I went from being a complete overachiever to being completely depressed, crying every day, barely able to get out of bed and had to drop all my classes except for one. At the time I was so miserable, I remember that my prayer to God was for Him to either help me or to kill me because I couldn’t go on living like that.
God did help me, and I saw the direct answers of one prayer after another. I asked for God to help me find a church knowing that it would be hard for me to get the energy to search being so depressed. Because I had experienced abuse in churches as a child, the only church I had found in the past that I could handle was a Vineyard church because it didn’t feel like church.
I prayed specifically that God help me find a Vineyard church, but I knew that the only Vineyard in the area was too far for me to attend. So I took my last bit of energy to attend a campus Christian small group later that week. At the end of the group, I asked for prayer that God would help me find a church. The guy who prayed for me was one of a handful of people who knew about a new Vineyard church plant in Cambridge. I knew it was an immediate answer to prayer. I joined the Cambridge Vineyard when it was still only one small group, and saw it grow in the next few years to have over 600 members.
My next prayer was that God would give me direction in a relationship that I was in that was very destructive. That Christmas (in 1996), I went home to Kansas City to spend two months with my mother who was dying of cancer. I was looking for a church in Kansas City and came across the Kansas City Metro Fellowship. I remember when I walked into the worship service, I immediately started crying. I came from a very non-expressive religious background, so I had no concept of the Holy Spirit and thought I must just be losing it emotionally. It was only later that I realized that I was crying because I felt God’s Spirit. That Sunday they announced that the following weekend there was going to be a conference for the “Relationally and Sexually Broken,” which was a direct answer to prayer.
I went to the conference, and for the first time in my life I experienced deep forgiveness. I felt such a release that the next couple of months I must have journaled over a hundred pages. Suddenly things that had been blocks to my faith were resolved as I journaled through the strongholds and hang-ups that I had with God. I didn’t have a charismatic background, so I had no idea what was going on. I just knew that I had a spiritual clarity like I had never experienced before. As I wrote, I had ongoing tingling sensations on my skin, kind of like what I’ve felt before when I was in the “zone” or heard a powerful song. It was only later that I realized that what I was doing was praying and getting a sense of answers. I had no concept that prayer could be two way communication. I later learned to recognize that the tingling I felt was a sign God gave me that the presence of His Spirit was on me intensely.
It was during that time that God gave me a vision of a community of radical Christians that were using technology to serve and bring transformation to the poor in Jesus’ name. It wasn’t an audible voice or anything like that, it was just a vision for a life calling that was so emotionally powerful that it is hard to describe. The only analogy I can use is how people meet someone they fall in love with and instantly know that this is the person they want to marry. God gave me a vision for Christian community technology that I fell in love with as a calling on my life. My pastor once told me that when you find what it is that God has called you to do, it is like you are in a sailboat, and God’s wind is behind you moving you forward with a power you can’t describe. That has been the story of TechMission. While some people may think it’s weird to feel like you have a “divine call,” I’m not sure how else to describe what happened to me.
About two years into dealing with my past, my pastor asked me to lead the outreach ministries of the church. I thought he was crazy because I couldn’t even help myself, how could I help serve the poor? But I decided to pray and ask God about it, and I was shocked that God gave me double confirmation that I was to do it. That got me thinking about how to step out into my calling. While two years before, I felt an overwhelming call to use technology to serve the poor in Jesus’ name, at this point I felt so broken that I was very hesitant to step out. I started to do research on the Internet about how others were using technology to serve the poor.
I learned more about the “digital divide” which is the gap between those who have access to and training with computers and the Internet and those who don’t. Since I had computer skills, I thought maybe I could help teach computer classes in an urban community. I had grown up going to Black churches, so I knew enough about the Black community to know that a White guy coming into the ‘hood to “help” is not a good model. I realized that I needed to learn from Christians who understood community development and I needed to be under the authority of people indigenous to the community I was serving.
So I prayed that God would raise up a partner for me in launching a Christian computer center to provide computer classes in the ‘hood. Within a month, Angel Halstead came to give a talk at our church. Angel (who is African American) was actively involved in Christian community development at Bruce Wall Ministries. At the end of her talk, without even knowing my interest or background, she said that the next program they wanted to offer was one providing computer training. She had seen her brother-in-law’s life really helped by getting computer training, and knew the impact it could have.
So together we co-founded the PREP Community Computer Center in Bruce Wall Ministries. From there it was one answered prayer after another. We needed computers, so we prayed, and someone (Kevin Chien) got their company to donate 10 laptops the week before classes started. The next semester, we had twice as many students, so we were desperate for space for a computer lab in the church, so we prayed. Within a month a guy shows up who was wealthy because someone had given him computer training, so he had vision to help the computer center. Not only that, but he was a construction contractor, so he both funded and supervised the construction of two rooms to house the computer lab in a previously unfinished part of the church basement. Next we needed staff to run the center, so I prayed, and within a month someone called me about a grant that was due the next day. We got the grant which provided us with two full-time staff. God continually moved through my experience in running the PREP Community Computer Center which provided computer classes to over 1,000 urban youth and unemployed adults in a few years.
As I met other people doing similar ministries, I realized that there was a much larger movement of God of Christians using technology to serve the poor. The problem was that, each group was “reinventing the wheel” and not learning from each other because they were not connected with each other. So together with a few leaders of other computer centers (Rudy Carrasco, Marcus Thorne), in 2000, we started up TechMission and its first program the Association of Christian Community Computer Centers (AC4). AC4 quickly gained about 50 members, so in 2002, I felt like God was calling me to switch my focus from the local computer center and move toward the national ministry of TechMission.
I decided that I would spend that summer working long hours to write grants to get funding for TechMission. Rather than allowing me to regress into my workaholic tendencies, God gave me double confirmation that I was to spend most of my summer praying and He would provide. So that summer, I probably spent at least 20 hours a week praying. At the end of the summer, I got a phone call from an organization that was the secular counterpart to AC4. They wanted to apply together for a Compassion Capital Fund grant, which was the main funding vehicle of President Bush’s faith-based initiative. We got the grant with very little effort on my part, and I realized it was another answer to prayer. There were 21 grantees nationally, and I know they picked 20 of the top Christian organizations, and us. We were only there because God had provided.
AC4 quickly grew to have over 500 members. We also got a $500,000 grant from the US Department of Education to replicate the computer center at PREP at five other sites. It was around that time that Matthew, who had just got us that big grant, said that someone had given him a job offer paying a salary many times above what we could pay him. He said that he was willing to stay, but when I prayed about it I felt like God told me to bless him to go because I knew he had some debt and he was going to get married soon.
It was only a few weeks after that, that I hit a crisis of faith. I realized that with Matt leaving as a very effective grant writer, it was a little like losing the goose that lays the golden eggs. We had six staff, and I realized that I had to raise money to continue to pay them all. I remember a specific morning where I was freaking out to God in prayer. I felt like God told me to trust Him. Later that morning, I had a divine encounter while I was looking at a webpage of a funding opportunity that was completely obscure and was really something that I had never considered. While I was looking at the webpage, I got a call from the staff of a partner organization. Before he could even tell me why he called, I asked him about this funding opportunity. He was completely startled, and said, “Who told you? How did you know that was what I was calling about?” I knew it was from God because the funding opportunity was so obscure that it was a 1 in a million chance that something like that could have happened otherwise.
So I decided to investigate the funding opportunity, which I would have never done without that divine encounter. I met with a consultant in Washington DC who could help us pursue the funding opportunity. He suggested that we try to get funded a new program protecting kids from pornography and other dangers on the Internet. At first I was skeptical, because I didn’t see how it would tie in with our other activities. But as I was driving back to the airport, God reminded me of my childhood—how my friends and I became fully sexualized as young as age 4. I saw how us becoming sexualized at such a young age helped to destroy our lives. I realized that while our neighborhood was unusual at the time for being so sexually charged, now with pornography on the Internet, that was starting to become the norm, especially among the poor. I realized that as we were getting families across the digital divide, we weren’t helping them much if we were just opening them up to online victimization. As I was driving, I started crying and I felt God’s presence on me so intensely that I almost had to pull over on the side of the road because I was afraid I would wreck. I realized that I had heard the next step of God’s call. I told the consultant that we could only pay him ¼ of his usual rate, but he was willing to work with us. That connection turned into two grants that provided a total of over $1.8 million dollars to TechMission over 5 years.
As God had given us resources to expand, he also called people to staff positions in TechMission. Many of these callings had elements of the supernatural, but they all had God’s hand in them. With Harriet, God gave her a dream before her interview and told her to take the position. He also gave her a dream which included knowledge of a crisis in TechMission that she could not possibly have had otherwise. Christine was looking for a position in an urban ministry, and God told her specifically to wait until just the time we happened to be hiring for a position. Harriet became our Director of Operations, but more importantly she covered us in intercessory prayer. When we were looking for someone for our online safety program, God brought Bil, who not only had a background in both technology and justice, but he also had a powerful testimony of God delivering him from pornography addiction (and by chance he also grew up in the house across from our office). Diana had worked as senior management in secular nonprofits, but had recently had powerful encounters with God and was looking to work in a Christian nonprofit right as we were hiring. Brittany studied at MIT, but had a heart for addressing global poverty, and came to TechMission where she is able to use her skills to fight poverty. Before coming to TechMission, Ali had wondered why God lead her to get a degree in Computer Science when her heart was more for people. At TechMission she is both a computer programmer and everything she does is directed at helping people.
For some staff, TechMission is a calling. For other staff, TechMission is one step in a great journey that God has called them to. We have had many interns and short term staff that God has brought to us just for the period of time that we needed them, and so that they could grow in the ways God wanted them to. Quite a few of our staff were former students from the PREP Community Computer Center. They saw how God was using technology to help the community, and they wanted to be a part of it.
The faith of our staff was built up by this and many other encounters of seeing God move. TechMission has become a spiritual refining fire, where people see God move and they can experience intense personal growth. While it is often very difficult, and we have encountered intense spiritual attack, for most of our staff they either grow or leave (and many also grow and leave toward God’s next step for them). Unlike many work environments, there is very little middle ground.
Having seen all this, I believe that TechMission is called to be a part of a major movement of God. There is a spiritual battle going on for our cities, and we are engaged in the fight to take our cities back from the strongholds of poverty, addiction, violence, abuse, injustice and oppression. Often Christians are fighting a battle against injustice, but are using antiquated tools. It’s like the other side has tanks and jet planes, and Christians are fighting with sticks.
We view ourselves as the “tech special forces” in God’s army to fight this battle. Just like in the spy movies, where there is always the gadget specialist that provides just the right spy gadget for them to defeat the bad guy, God has called us to play that role in the Body of Christ of providing the tools to fight injustice and bring the good news of the Gospel.
Pursuing God's Movement
So, now where are we going? Some of that comes from a lesson I learned from my work at a shelter for street children in South Africa during the summer of 1993. The shelter where I worked housed about 10 children, and while it was doing great work with them, I kept thinking about how there were over 10,000 children sleeping on the streets every night and only a few hundred could be housed in shelters. I came back 14 years later in 2007, and I found out that every child we worked with at the shelter had died, and most had died violently. It made me feel like we were losing the battle. But I met with the Executive Director of the organization, and he told me that a few years after I left, the organization changed its approach from just focusing on children one at a time, and instead they focused on addressing the systemic causes of children being on the street. They saw that it was a losing battle if they could only house 10 children, but thousands were being added to the streets each year. By changing their approach on the systemic causes, over a ten-year period, they were able to reduce the number of children on the street from 10,000 to 1,800. Rather than having a program for 10 children where they all were dead in a decade, they kept 8,200 children from going on the streets or found families for them.
As another example of God’s provision, we were given an accredited college that is the leading online school for people in urban ministry. In the next ten years, we hope to provide classes to 6,500 students and provide funding to place over 700 full-time interns in urban ministries. While this may sound crazy to some, God has provided for us in the past, and we believe that he will continue to provide. God is desperate to bring a transformation to our cities, and we know that He has called us to be a part of a movement that brings transformation to our cities. The harvest is rich, but the workers are few. Seeing how God has provided for us supernaturally in the past, I am confident that He will continue to provide for us again. While the vision may change, the heart of it is the same, and as it happens we can only say that it was God that did it.