Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in our “Women of Valor” series. For the next few months, we will be spotlighting courageous female reformers around the globe and throughout history. We pray that their stories will inspire you, dear reader, to boldly take up the mantle of gospel love and radical transformation in the name of Jesus.
“It felt like the life was sucked out of me, like I was under a spell,” says Devon Feldmeth. “My body went completely numb, and I was unable to travel or even leave my bed for a year.” For a globe-trotting, vivacious 20-something with dreams of changing the world, it was the stuff of nightmares.
When I met Devon four years ago, she was already two years deep in a mysterious autoimmune disease that compromised her entire wellbeing. Chronic pain and numbness was her daily reality. She had been tested for over 200 diseases, from Lyme disease to leukemia to leprosy, and still—no answers. But you would never know by interacting with her just how much she suffers; she carries herself with an infectious joy that colors every space she occupies. She speaks of her love for the nations—Uganda in particular—with such immediacy that you forget that traveling is no longer an option for her.
Despite living in the unknown, Devon’s faith in a known God activated her to dream of creative solutions to eradicate poverty. In 2014, Devon partnered with a Ugandan woman to create Artisan Apparel, a non-profit committed to empowering women artisans and creatives as a means to end extreme global poverty. That vision became something much bigger in 2018 when Devon co-founded Artisan Global, an NGO that develops sustainable jobs, strategies, and workspaces alongside international artisan businesses in post-conflict regions.
For her ability to fight adversity with an unshakable faith, to call out the gold in everyone, to alchemize her pain for something good, designer, entrepreneur, and reformer Devon Feldmeth is this month’s “woman of valor.”
How has living with a mysterious illness impacted your life and faith?
There will be times in our lives where we are tested and tried, struck down but not destroyed. We are not immune to everything—so I am learning, while living with an unknown autoimmune illness for over six years now. After working abroad in poverty-stricken areas around the world as a designer, whose focus was using design to eradicate disease and poverty, I came back from one of my trips and everything changed. I was limited. I was now the one with the disease, and I couldn’t solve this problem or write this story, I just had to just live it. I am now inspired to create as many opportunities for women in poverty as I can, with as many limits as I have.
I can continue to search for answers, but ultimately I know that while I endure this health hindrance, there is a profound purpose. While sick in bed and extremely limited, I started learning how to dream with an illness and relying on God every minute of every day. One step at a time, I began dreaming outside of my comfort zone. While it’s still challenging to live “undiagnosed,” if we position our hearts in a way that allows pain to point to a greater purpose, then we can redirect our pain as a pathway to healing, not just for ourselves but also for others.
Living with this sickness gives me permission to be my most authentic self. It allows me to abide in God’s love and present comfort every single minute of every single day. It makes me more childlike because I focus less on the future when I’m forced to stay present. I don’t worry about tomorrow, I just live every day as best I can, loving people as best I can. I’m choosing to see this illness as a ministry, a teacher, and an adventure.
How did you develop a heart for the nations?
The nations have been written on my mind and heart for as long as I can remember. Throughout my youth, I worked on outreach projects locally and globally and fell in love with advocating for cultures and communities, especially marginalized ones. Whether it was sitting with homeless individuals in Los Angeles and learning their stories, teaching art in remote villages and trash dumps in Latin American countries, or working in Mexico at orphanages since I was a teen, nothing ignites my heart more than connecting to cultures through acts of compassion. During college, I started volunteering and working with several non-profits that focused on addressing the challenges of poverty: malaria, hunger, polio, clean water, etc. I soon realized how much I loved designing awareness campaigns and advocating for causes and communities.
In 2012, my heart for the nations expanded in ways I still to this day have a hard time explaining. I spent the summer in Lira, Northern Uganda as an intern working alongside Children of Peace Uganda (CPU), a local non-profit whose mission it was to rebuild the lives of children and youth who have returned from being in captivity with the LRA. The children who have been abducted experience great levels of trauma and are in need of physical, psycho-social, and emotional support. CPU addresses these needs through trauma therapy, art, education, income generating projects and advocacy.
Led by an incredible team of Ugandan trauma social workers, my focus was to work alongside the team to develop creative empowerment programs for war-affected youth. I remember leading a workshop on “Dreaming for the Future” and I saw this bright spark in the kids that shifted their mentalities out of pain and into promises. These kids, in spite of the painful suffering of their past, knew they were meant for more and had vivid dreams for the future they were determined to achieve.
Throughout my time in Uganda, I kept seeing this same pattern of resilience. The unlimited talent and creativity was evident in every individual I met, especially within the resilient hearts of the youth who were unjustly forced at age seven to carry guns, murder, and commit war atrocities.
What could I do? Break the chains of injustice (Isaiah 58:6). This is a clear command from God to us that when we see injustice, we should act. So I began to pray for a God-sized vision.
It was on that first trip to Uganda (I was 23 at the time) that I made a vow to God to live my life designing solutions to eradicate extreme poverty and injustices throughout the world. I began dreaming of starting an organization that would develop creative problem solvers within communities and allow for the transformation of places of poverty into places of prosperity.
How did that dream of starting an organization lead to your current work with Artisan Apparel and Artisan Global?
I became sick after returning from many international trips working in poverty-stricken areas. Forced to face hardship and unrelenting pain, I started recognizing the commonality between my pain and people who endure this kind of pain every day who live in poverty. I went back to the memories of the former child soldiers I had worked with just a year before and I knew that I could either give into the pain or make something beautiful out of it, just like the brave Ugandans had I worked with.
Out of my suffering, I finally had the courage to start the dream God had put on my heart in Uganda. In January 2014, I co-founded Artisan Apparel with a friend and talented business woman, Ketty Promise of Gulu, Northern Uganda. Without ever meeting in person due to this unexpected illness, we innovatively used social media, Skype and technology and worked across 9,000 miles to open a creative studio in Gulu, two retail stores in Uganda, and hired and trained dozens of artisans in fashion design and tailoring.
As we continued to develop the Artisan brand and business, God began assembling a team of committed citizens who shared the same vision and heart for post-war rehabilitation and entrepreneurship in Northern Uganda. People from Uganda, Australia, Europe, Canada, the U.S. and nations in between, united with us to grow Artisan. After creating new business programs with Lauren Shipley, a brilliant activist and strategist who had worked directly with the ArtisanApparel team in Uganda, we recognized the need to start an NGO to expand operations. In 2018, together we launched the non-profit and creative agency, Artisan Global. If Ugandans have taught me anything, it’s that it takes a global village.
What are some of Artisan Global’s core values?
Sustainability, entrepreneurship, and cross-cultural collaboration as a means to solving complex issues of poverty. Artisan Global is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that develops sustainable jobs, strategies, and innovative workspaces alongside international artisan businesses in post-conflict regions. We are working together with local artisan businesses to elevate entrepreneurs andreinvent charity. This year Artisan Global, led by a Ugandan architect, started designing and building the first Artisan Workspace in Northern Uganda to provide a multi-purpose space for impact, innovation, and entrepreneurship. We believe these Artisan Workspaces will rapidly scale employment, advance entrepreneurs, and accelerate rehabilitation efforts in post-war regions.
Was there a particular event or epiphany that led you into your current work?
I’ve always been inspired by the intersection of creativity and compassion. I am constantly compelled to love people in action and have always felt a huge responsibility to honor that God-given vocation in my life. However, it wasn’t until I experienced the redemptive love from the war-affected youth in Uganda that I realized how God’s love transforms mindsets and the world at large. If a former child soldier could forgive a warlord like Joseph Kony, that kind of love can literally bring Heaven to Earth. If I am loved by the same God as those kids, what love can I transform the world with?
What spiritual practices sustain you and direct your attention to God’s presence in the world?
My favorite verse in the whole Bible is Colossians 3:15 “And be thankful.” Staying thankful provides a constant peace to rule in my heart and reminds me to give everything back to the Lord. Other spiritual practices that sustain me are intercessory prayer and worship. Worship is communication not just through sound but also through spirit. By singing and reflecting on the incredible gift of this life, I am constantly directed to God’s loving presence.
In what unexpected places do you see God’s kingdom breaking into the world?
Locally and globally, I have witnessed the youth of this world breaking barriers and allowing God’s kingdom to enter into unreached places. They are the generation to see an end to extreme poverty and we can learn so much by listening to their holy ideas and dreams.
In the housing projects of Watts in Los Angeles, I’ve met young kids passionate about uniting their community and ending gang violence. In Uganda, kids who were forced to commit war atrocities are forgiving army commanders that forced them into slavery. Their vision of forgiveness and unity is setting a new standard of peace that is possible. The future is bright!
Photos by James Galt.