Renaut van der Riet: Redeeming Dark Spaces—Part 2

Don’t miss part one of our interview, where Renaut van der Riet talks about growing up in South Africa in the midst of apartheid, miraculously purchasing a $1.9 million building when the church only had 60 members and a life-changing trip to Axum, Ethiopia.

Were you considering adoption before meeting this girl?

At the time, we had four biological children. I don’t think adoption was on our minds at all. We had no idea the rabbit hole we were about to fall down, and the dangers and insanities headed our way. I think if God had given us even a glimpse of what was to come, we would have run for our lives. But that’s how he works. He just progressively unfolds the story for us in ways we could never expect.

We were initially told that the little girl’s parents were dead and she was alone. Through a series of events, we found out there was a lot of corruption in the orphanage. We learned the girl had three siblings and her parents were not dead, just very, very poor. The children had been released from their parents because they were starving. When I came back to our church, I preached a message. I remember telling our people, “As long as there are parents on this planet who have to give their kids away because they can’t feed them, I can’t go to bed at night and wake up in the morning and just live an ordinary life.”

How did the adoption change you?

The process took about three years and had a tremendous impact on our lives as well as our church’s story. Long story short, it meant we adopted four children instead of one. We knew it was going to be hard, but there was this beautiful romance to it; we’ve all read the books. But when it actually happens it turns out to be hellish and insane. I tell people it was like two tractor-trailers driving at each other at 100 miles per hour. When they collide, you think they would just turn into one bigger truck. Instead, it turns into a mess of blood and fire and insanity. It’s taken us two decades to quietly put out the fires, pull the tires and the bumpers and rebuild from scratch. That takes a lot of time and energy, and people die in that mix, spiritually and emotionally. The only way to survive is to see God resurrect.

Our story started with the reality that the problems in the world are very broad and big and interconnected. Adopting one child turned into four instead, which turned into caring for an extended family in Ethiopia, and that led to dealing with the issue of poverty. We wanted to move the family out of their little hut into a bigger city, but they didn’t want to move because it was the only life they had ever known. We quickly learned: Oh crap, this is going to be a lot more complicated than we thought.

What effects did that experience have on the church’s outreach?

The whole story of our church’s focus on orphans and the marginalized requires us to get involved in issues that are residual. We can’t come into vulnerable places and say, Here is how we are going to solve the world’s problems. You have to jump into things and discover as you go. And the journey never ends. It’s interesting how the whole thing travels around because now I have a family that’s mixed. I have four black kids and four white kids. That’s been an insane journey of how deep these issues really are and how much we have to fight to redeem these spaces.

How do those difficult and painful realities affect mission?

They shape our understanding of the words of Jesus, Take up your cross and go. We are called to redeem the dark spaces—which are everywhere—locally and globally. Wherever you can go, with whatever resources you have been given, invade those spaces. If we already know it’s going to be super hard, it creates a kind of fearlessness. Redemption is not easy, but God says, through his Spirit, it is possible. If we are willing to pick up a cross and go, we are blessed with incredible opportunities.

Learning as you go implies you may still make some terrible mistakes.

We kind of jumped into asking our people to adopt orphans. I think we killed a bunch of families here, who adopted many children, older kids, sibling groups and children with special needs. On the back end, we had to learn about wrap-around care, soul care and discipleship. We learned that monastic life fuels missional living. Without being with Jesus a whole lot, you can’t sustain mission.

You believe in partnerships to empower mission. Why?

Since that first trip to Ethiopia, God has continued to expand our global vision. We want to make a real felt impact in communities around the world. We have learned that this requires engaging in long-term global partnerships instead of short-term sporadic bursts of engagement and investment. So we seek out two types of longer-term partnerships: justice and mercy and church planting.

Our justice and mercy partnerships, both locally and globally, are focused on three key areas: caring for orphans and vulnerable children, the abolition of human trafficking and holistic poverty alleviation.

We also participate in the Acts 29 Network. Planting new churches is essential to seeing the gospel made known to more people and new disciples in every city, culture and context. In addition to training, supporting and coaching church planters locally in Florida, we have strategically placed a priority on supporting church planters in the Northeast region of the United States and throughout Latin America.

You are also engaged in local, neighborhood partnerships.

We believe we serve our city when we serve those serving our city—working with the poor, fighting human trafficking or mentoring in impoverished schools. Believers or not, we can serve and empower them to continue making a difference. But we also understand that Jesus came not only to redeem our temporal life but our eternal life. If we do not engage spiritually in the lives of people, then we’ve actually created a very weird loss for them, because what makes us lost is being infected by sin and being unredeemed. So we also work with a lot of organizations and people who know Jesus and are gospel-centric.

Mission is costly, emotionally but also financially. How can the church fund a redemptive movement?

To do mission well you need a platform and money, just practically. These are lessons we learned that can also be traced back to Ethiopia. Sometimes going into dark places as the church doesn’t work so well. We started a nonprofit called Love Made Visible. We eventually ended up working with five or six partners before settling on Operation Rescue Ethiopia, which does a tremendous job of providing for physical needs and sharing the gospel. The development of Love Made Visible—the way we partner with partners—was sparked through mistakes made and lessons learned in redeeming that city of Axum. We did get fresh water to the city; we did get medical supplies into the hospital and trained doctors; we did find homes and programs to get orphans off the street, but not without a massive learning curve and lots of mistakes along the way.

You started a chain of coffee shops named Axum to fund your platform for engaging mercy and justice issues.

Axum Coffee started about eight years ago as one store in Winter Garden, Florida. We named the coffee shops Axum because our story of global mission really began in that city in Ethiopia. Axum is a business that gives 100 percent of its profits away. We decided against being a nonprofit for a number of reasons, but mainly because we wanted to compete in the business arena. We started with one location, but we knew that one coffee shop at its best might gross $1 million, leaving you with a net profit of $150,000. That will do some good, but not a whole ton of good. We knew we needed multiple locations. Our legitimate goal is to give away $1 million in the first decade, a million a year in the second decade, a million a month in the third decade and a million a day in the fourth decade. Axum is a business that starts businesses. Our goal now is to open both coffee shops and restaurants. Right now, we have five locations, all in the Orlando area. Those locations are all growing.

As a business, in order to compete, you have to do things with excellence. There’s motivation.

If a coffee shop is missional, like we are, it’s tempting to excuse that the coffee is kind of crappy, and the service isn’t great, but man, the mission is awesome! We wanted to reverse that. We tell our customers we have a great mission after they drive here for the best coffee in town. We do business full of integrity, and we care for our people really well. But, we also do business to make money because money is what we use to go and change the world. There’s a good deal of credibility in all of that.

On the church’s website, three words are emphasized: Rescue, Identity and Mission. Why did you choose these words?

That is the flow to how the gospel moves out. Ephesians 2:1–10 tells us God comes to his planet and enters our dark world; we hate him, and he redeems us. So it starts with rescue. That would have been enough, but then he redeems our future and adopts us. He gives us a new identity; we are the children of God. Since our future is redeemed, as sons and daughters we are invited through the Holy Spirit to participate in his redemptive work. We are on mission. Each of us gets to wake up every morning, engage the dark places—in our own heart, neighborhood, city and world—and make a difference for the good.

Jesus said you gain your life by losing it. Is that what the people of your church are learning?

We often think life is the pursuit of happiness, right? It’s built into our Western foundational mindset. We live in a culture that has abandoned maturing and missional living for comfort and convenience. When we live for our own selves, we miss out on a story God desires for each of us that’s extraordinary. It’s redemptive beyond our wildest imagination, but it’s an adventure with lots of danger. Jesus asks you not to waste your life by preserving it, but to give it to him. The story of the gospel is not what we get, but what we get to be a part of.

Give me an update on the little girl in the green dress. How does her life show the work of God’s redemption?

Our encounter with the little girl in the green dress changed absolutely everything. It created unthinkable challenges and unimaginable beauty. That little girl, Rahel, is now 14, and is dedicated to the pursuit of a career in the FBI to become an agent of justice, doing good in the world. My two adopted boys, who showed up seven years ago with less than a first-grade education, are both in high school with good GPAs. My 18-year-old adopted daughter is finishing high school and plans to step into YWAM and go into a life of missions or teaching.

Our journey of mission in our home cost our biological children a great deal, but it turns out those trials and tribulations have resulted in some incredible maturity, though it didn’t come easy. All eight of our children are living a life on mission for the kingdom of God. By God’s grace, the brutality of living on mission continues to create the beauty of redemption.


Winter Garden, Florida
Founded: 2002
Affiliation: Nondenominational
Locations: 2
Attendance: 3,177
Growth: +897 (39%)
Fastest-Growing: 8

Rob Wilkins
Rob Wilkins

Rob Wilkins, an Outreach magazine contributing writer, is the co-founder and creative lead for Fuse Media in Asheville, North Carolina.