SHOES FOR UKRAINIAN REFUGEES
By David Thomas
One on one with Daniel J Matea founder of Heart and Soles Ministry
1. What is Heart and Soles ministries and how did it come to be?
Heart and Soles Ministries is a Christian Charity that gives shoes to children and families in need all over the world. We do that here locally in Northeast Ohio, and also in Sierra Leone, Poland (with the Ukraine Refugees), and in the Philippines.
Heart and Soles started in 2018 when I was helping a young lady, and her family, in the Philippines through a difficult time. While on video chat with them I noticed her nieces and nephews were always playing in their bare feet. After making a passing comment about the kids always being barefoot, she gently explained they couldn't afford shoes. One of her nephews Rhyn is special needs and had a bad infection on the bottom of his foot. It was hard to keep him from running and playing so the infection kept getting worse. I figured I wouldn't get through med school fast enough lol, so I thought at least with a pair of shoes his parents could keep his infection clean, and all the kids could have a pair of shoes if they needed them. It was almost Christmas time so I got my mom and my friend Becky to help out and we sent them a box full of toys,chocolates, and a pair of shoes for each of them to open on Christmas morning. The kids were really excited on Christmas day and I got to watch via video chat as they opened their presents. The wrapping paper was scattered everywhere as they opened one toy and chocolate after another. They were singing, smiling, and laughing as they could barely hold their excitement. It made me so happy to see all the kids enjoying their presents, and at the end they all got to open up their shoes. I half expected them to see the shoes, say thanks, and then go back to their toys and candy, but instead something happened that changed my life forever. As they began to open up the shoes, they were more excited than ever. They started jumping up and down in excitement as if they had received the best gift ever.One little girl in particular named TinTin grabbed her shoes, sat on the chair, and started crying. She said she had been praying to God for a pair of shoes for a while, and as she continued to cry, she said over and over that she was so glad He answered her prayer. I never thought I would see a reaction like that from shoes, and in the weeks after the kids in the neighborhood found out about the shoes and started asking if they could get a pair too. I never realized shoes were such a big deal, but once I started looking into them, I found that millions of children all over the world go without shoes to protect their feet simply because they can't afford them. They will strap to the bottom of their feet tire particles, 2-liter bottles that they cut in half,and anything else they can find to give their feet some sort of protection from the ground. I have met kids that have driven nails up through the bottom of torn flip flops, wrapping the nails around their toes, just so they can have something to protect them. However, a lot of these kids don't even have the luxury of makeshift shoes, and instead have no protection whatsoever, and in a world where we dump trash, and broken glass, everywhere I knew I had to do something. Without even knowing what I was doing God put it on my heart to do something, and Heart and Soles Ministries was formed. My mindset from the beginning was if Heart and Soles could help just one child it was worth starting. A quote that always stuck with me, and motivates me to this day is from a pastor named Malcolm Bane who said "If you wait until you can do everything for everybody, instead of something for somebody, you'll end up not doing anything for anybody."
2. Talk about your journey to Christianity?
My journey is a long one with a lot of struggles. I was raised in the church, but was surrounded by people claiming to be Christians who did terrible things to me. My father, who claimed to be a Christian was extremely abusive to my family, and would sometimes do terrible things and say it was "God's will". Eventually my mom remarried and my step-dad, who used us in his traveling evangelism ministry, was also extremely abusive. I grew up listening to "church folks" tell me how wonderful my dad and step-dad were while all along they were doing horrific things to me behind closed doors. I began to hate God and despise Him because the only representation of God in my life were father figures who made my childhood a nightmare. I became so angry. I ended up in foster care, did drugs, ran around with local gangs, and did everything I could to get as far away from God as possible. Eventually I came back to church with the help of my uncle on my step-fathers side, and was baptized into Christ. In my late teens and early twenties, I went to church, got married, and tried to live a good life. However, a couple of years after being married I found out my wife was having an affair with my cousin (son of the uncle that led me to Christ), and my whole life began to fall apart again. The church I attended with the cousin (where his father was a deacon) was afraid the scandal would cause damage to their attendance, and refused to do anything but brush it under the rug. By this time my wife and I were separated and the church advised me to just accept it. My uncle refused to believe his son was doing that, turning a blind eye, and blaming me instead. I became so angry I left the church and did not step inside a church building again for over a decade.
It seemed like my whole life was surrounded by people who claimed to represent Christ, and yet continued to stab me in the back over and over again. I blamed God for years, falling back into drugs and violence, and I was in my late 30's before I had an encounter with God that changed my life. The problem during the time I was away is that I didn't understand it wasn't God that was hurting me. God loves us so much, and He wants the best for us, but the devil has a way of using people to destroy our faith in God. Hating God didn't make my life better it made it worse, but I was in so much pain I didn't understand His love for me.
Years later I was messed up inside working at a factory. I had just broken up with a girl, and a guy she used to date got her hooked back on meth. The guy was going around bragging about how he was getting her high, taking her over to other guys' houses and passing her around. He started talking about how he was going to do the same to her young daughter. This enraged me and I started looking for his guy to kill him. One day I was at work, sitting on a tow motor, and I had a breakdown. In my head I started saying to myself how I have always tried to help people, and do good by people, and I would give people the shirt off my back, but time and time again people just continued to use me and then stab me in the back. I remember being so angry I could scream, and over and over again in my head I kept telling myself all I ever wanted to do was help people but they just use me when they need something and then toss me aside as soon as they get what they wanted.
As I was thinking about these things, I heard a loud voice that seemed to be coming from all around me. It simply said "and now you know how you've been treating me your whole life". I sat there looking around in shock and not knowing what to do. My blood went cold, I got shivers up my spine, and without any explanation I knew in my heart it was God. The voice explained if I would just follow His path He had for me, my life would be so much different than what it was. I made a choice that day to dedicate my life to God, and see where He wanted me to go. I spent so much of my life hating people for hurting me that I had ruined everything around me with my anger. I decided right then to do what God wanted instead of what I wanted, and made my life a testimony to Him rather than me.
Since that day I have tried to be the example of Christ that was never shown to me. The example that Christ asked us to be. I'm not perfect, and I continue to slip and fall, but every day I try my best to live for Christ and show others the peace He can bring into our lives. I went from a drug addict to a missionary who travels all over the world helping people. I am in such a better place now than I ever have been, and I look forward to seeing where God will take me in the future.
3. You were recently in Poland working with Ukrainian refugees, how did that come to be and what was that like?
I was sitting there watching the news, and in the background I saw a Polish woman with her children. The reporter talked about how this woman had walked hundreds of miles to get to safety, and as he was talking, I saw their shoes were in tatters. I felt God tell me to go and help, so without questioning I started making phone calls and raising support for the refugees. In less than 2 months God allowed Heart and Soles to plan a trip, raise $5200, and team up with a wonderful ministry on the ground in Poland called Polish Christian Ministries. With their help Heart and Soles was able to supply 427 Ukrainian Refugees with brand new shoes for their feet. There were so many heartbreaking stories of families getting split up, children never seeing their fathers again, and wives learning their husbands had been killed. I spoke to people who had walked for days from deep within Ukraine all the way to Poland to escape the horrors of war, and I saw women sobbing in front of me just because we gave them and their children a pair of shoes. It was an emotional experience that I will keep with me the rest of my life. When you travel to places like this you see how good you truly have it here, and the privilege we all take for granted by being born an American citizen. My time in Poland was a lot shorter than I wanted it to be, but it made such an impact on my life. I have observed first hand that when we learn to go when He says go, God can do amazing things.
4. Do you feel that many churches are forgetting that Jesus served the poor and just focusing on themselves?
I see the Church on the frontlines helping so many in need all over the world. There are so many unbelievably amazing Christians who are selflessly giving of their time and money to help so many in need all over the world, working together as the Body of Christ, but their constant effort is just not noticed by the masses. I understand why they are not noticed. We have modernized Christianity in many "churches" to the point where sin is accepted, and God is not present. People go to a building on Sunday to get a "feel-good" sermon, worship, and then go home and live like they are going to hell the rest of the week. In a lot of places, the body has become a business and has lost all connection to what we are here to do. Instead, they distort the Gospel, and lead people away from the God they've come to seek. Just like the countless "Christians" in my life that gave God a bad name, these people give a poor representation of Christ to the world, and because they are the majority it seems like the "church" has lost its way. However, Scripture has already said these things would happen, and even say that "wide is the gate that leads to destruction." It took me a long time in life to see past the facade, and understand this is not the real Church. The real Body is working tirelessly to do the work we have been given to do, and are trying hard to show the real Love of Christ to the people around us.
5. What is the future for Heart and Soles ministries?
Heart and Soles Ministries will continue to expand as far as God wills it to. We are hoping to expand into even more countries over the next few years while we also expand out of Ohio into other states. We want every child who needs a pair of shoes to get the protection they deserve. No child should have to worry if their next step could bring devastating injuries to their feet just because they want to play. When I visited the Philippines to hand out shoes and sandals, I met a small child who couldn't walk. A few years earlier he had stepped on a piece of glass and it severed the ligament on the bottom of his foot. To think a pair of sandals that cost $1.50 could have saved him from a life of struggle breaks my heart, and motivates me to try and reach those kids before something like this happens again.
We do this for adults as well. We are kind of like a wholesale distributor of shoes (without the sales) where we supply shoes for Pantries, Homeless Outreach Centers, and other organizations established on the ground. We supply them with not only kids' shoes, but also work boots, dress shoes, and sneakers for adults that need them as well. Foot pain is the worst, and nobody should have to go through life with that kind of pain on their minds.
Also, a little side note. Do you remember the original family we helped that started Heart and Soles Ministries? The young lady whose nieces and nephews needed shoes now operates our Heart and Soles branch in the Philippines. Over the years of working together, and constantly communicating grew us very close, and we are now getting married soon.
Global Human Rights Journalist