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River Falls church members make 'family' connections in Ecuador

The team from First Covenant Church took a photo together in the village of Lote Tres. Shown are Melissa Ertsgaard, Nicole Ekstrom, Krista Majerus, and Sarah Johnson. Standing are: Lanny Neel, Jim Harsdorf, Helen Usiak, Bob Usiak, Sue Kimball, Sarah Smith, Pastor Todd Ertsgaard, Danielle Ertsgaard, Angie Branum and Mark Kimball.

Members of the First Covenant Church, 1374 N. Main St., have left behind a little of River Falls high up in the mountains of Ecuador – left dairy farming knowledge, a new church floor and definitely some of their hearts.

Sue Kimball, a retired special ed teacher and team member,said she feels like the people of the village they visit are family.

“We have seen our relationships and trust build with each visit,” Kimball said. “On our first trip, they were quite suspicious and didn’t understand what we were hoping to accomplish. Now we embrace each other like old friends.”

This is the fifth time since 2008 a group from the River Falls church has made the trek to the Covenant Church in Lote Tres where the Quichua people live 13,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains.

The local group of 14 people -- all ages and with varying skills -- got back from their most recent trip March 7.

The Quichua are dairy farmers. Three of the River Falls group members happen to be dairy farmers too: Jim Harsdorf, and Mark and Sue Kimball. It’s turned out to be a good match.

In previous visits, Mark said Quichua farmers asked the the River Falls farmers how they can get more milk out of their cows.

“They have a huge hunger for information about how to do dairy farming better,” Harsdorf said. “By bettering their skills and improving facilities, they’ve been able to boost production.”

Mark and Harsdorf helped the Quichua farmers with the pasturing and nutrition of their cows -- that led to increased milk production.

Last year, the Quichua, with assistance from the international Covenant Church, built a cooperative milk collection facility with refrigeration and quality-control capabilities. These improvements have led to higher prices for their milk.

It’s also led to some healing in the community.

There has been some level of persecution from the non-church villagers toward Christians -- they’ve been beaten, rejected by their families, sometimes their water is shut off.

In one extreme case, a Christian was doused with oil to be set on fire. At just the right moment he was rescued by a group of soldiers.

The milk coop brings the Christians and other villagers together to work on the improvement of their entire community.

It’s going so well, the Quichua want to tackle another endeavor -- one that’s near and dear to the hearts of Wisconsin folks: They want to make cheese.

“They‘ve been wanting to make cheese for a while but the milk refrigeration had to come first,” Mark said. “But now they’re clearing out a room in the church for cheese production and they already found a cheesemaker to help.”

The First Covenant group also worked on various construction projects. They helped build a two-story church building with a worship center upstairs and classrooms and a kitchen below. Together with some of the villagers, they poured a cement floor.

Mark said when the group from River Falls visits, the goal is to get projects launched so the Quichua people can continue working on them during the two-years between visits.

“These projects are born of their dreams and desires,” Mark said. “That’s the most important thing. We come alongside them to help them with their dreams. We create a partnership.”

For the complete story, see the April 21 print issue of the River Falls Journal.