In a rural nook of east Alabama where there aren't enough bright lights to blot out the stars at night, missionaries and community leaders from foreign lands are learning to save lives in the Third World not just with Bibles, but with mud, sand and leaves.
Located off a winding highway, an organization called Servants in Faith and Technology has offered training for three decades on how to use common items to improve and extend lives in underdeveloped nations.
On a recent day in October, 19 trainees from 10 countries learned how to make efficient, clean-burning cook stoves from mud bricks. The small, boxy structures replace open fires that the World Health Organization blames for 1.6 million deaths annually in the world's poorest countries.
On other days they'll learn how used tires can become the foundation for gardening systems that use only a little water. They'll find out how sand can be used as a filter to rid drinking water of dangerous parasites. They'll see how the ground-up leaves of some tropical plants contain enough nutrients to save the life of a malnourished child.
Raphael Ogbole, 42, says low-tech solutions like the mud-brick stoves, which cut back noxious smoke, can have an enormous impact in his native Nigeria, where he works as a Christian missionary on the Mambilla Plateau in the northeastern part of the country.
"My mother cooked on a three-stone stove and every time she came out of the kitchen she had tears in her eyes" from the smoke, said Ogbole.
Jean-Eles Denis said simple water purification systems can save lives back home in Haiti, where some 250,000 people died in an earthquake in January and more than 1 million still live in tents or other temporary shelters. Millions lack access to clean water, particularly outside the capital of Port-au-Prince.
"People who live in the city can go buy water, but people who live in the country don't have the ability to do that," he said.
Hundreds of people from about 85 countries have come to rural Alabama for training in the 31 years since the opening of Servants of Faith and Technology, or SIFAT (which is pronounced SEE fat).
It was founded by Ken and Sarah Corson, a missionary couple who moved to Bolivia in 1976 and were inspired to come up with a way to improve life for residents of the world's poorest areas. They returned to America three years later and founded SIFAT in east Alabama near Lineville for a simple reason: Sarah was from nearby Wedowee, and they got a good deal on the land.
Today, SIFAT operates on a 186-acre campus that includes classrooms, gardens for research and demonstration, outdoor training labs and a "global village" area where American visitors can visit and stay in mud huts and open-air houses like those that are common in much of the world.
SIFAT is Christian, but anyone is welcome and people of other faiths have been trained. While it's not part of a denomination, the organization has ties to the United Methodist Church.
Many U.S. denominations and schools have training programs for missionaries that commonly teach Americans to go overseas and perform tasks like starting churches. SIFAT's training program is different because it brings international missionaries to America and provides them skills for serving in their own countries.
At SIFAT, the focus is more practical than evangelical.
A vital part of the operation is the 10-week training sessions, where people come to America to learn how to use appropriate technologies to improve living conditions. Back home, they can spread the knowledge as teachers or even help set up small businesses to provide both jobs and needed items, like stoves.
The program primarily trains missionaries, but graduates include government officials, teachers, doctors, business people and agricultural experts like Denis, an agronomist in Haiti.
"These people are learning basic ways where they can have a good quality of life even though they don't have the resources we have," Sarah Corson said.
Training for one person is $3,750, and scholarships and fundraising typically help cover the cost. Participants also must pay for their transportation to and from the United States; similar training is provided at satellite locations in Africa, Asia and South America.
The cost is worth it for many. One of the students in Alabama this fall, Cynthia Navarro, said something as simple as a stove made out of mud bricks can save lives in the Philippines, where she works as a missionary. The stoves use as much as 75 percent less wood than an open fire, and the design reduces noxious smoke emissions drastically.
"The smoke from fires is a huge problem where I work," Navarro said. "It kills people."
The training has another effect, too: It helps some participants rethink their entire purpose as missionaries.
Before he met a SIFAT graduate in 2007 in Cameroon, Ogbole thought of himself almost exclusively as a preacher. He came to Alabama for the first time in 2008, has since returned twice for additional courses, and now sees himself in a more holistic role.
"It was kind of an eye opener to me about Christian ministry," he said. "It gave me a balance. We don't just need to measure ourselves in preaching and proclamation, we need to meet physical needs, as well."
Servants in Faith and Technology: http://www.sifat.org