by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Millions know him as the actor who plays Jesus in the TV series “The Chosen.”
But to a 12-year-old boy in Tanzania and a 6-year-old girl in Rwanda, he’s a friend who’s helping them achieve a brighter future.
“I think any time you have an opportunity to step into somebody’s shoes and literally experience their life firsthand,” said Jonathan Roumie, “you become more empathetic to their struggles and their trials.”
A desire to make a difference for families living in poverty led Roumie to become an Unbound sponsor four years ago.
He recently became the sponsor of an additional child and the nonprofit’s one millionth sponsored friend.
“We were excited to learn that Jonathan came to us on his own, led by his personal connection to faith and desiring to support an organization that aligned with his values,” said Ashley Hufft, interim president/CEO of Unbound.
As for Unbound reaching the milestone of one million sponsored friends?
“It’s a big achievement,” said Hufft, “and it’s only the beginning.”
Roumie visited Unbound’s headquarters in Kansas City, Kansas, on Nov. 14, where he met with team members and learned more about the organization’s history and mission.
Originally founded as Christian Foundation for Children and Aging in 1981 by three Catholic brothers — Bob, Bud and Jim Hentzen — and their friends, the foundation was deeply rooted in Catholic teaching.
“It really fills out the impression I had that they were an organization of people that were deeply committed to improving the human condition in other parts of the world,” said Roumie.
“It has made me more proud to be a pre-existing member of the organization,” he added, “even before anybody knew my name.”
Four years ago, Roumie was working steadily and wanted to help others.
“I started looking for different charities that reflected my values and my faith and the things that I wanted to do,” he said.
A CharityWatch search drew him to Unbound.
“I looked into them, and I thought, ‘This looks like a pretty awesome way to help give back,’” said Roumie.
At Unbound, sponsors choose a child or aging person from one of 17 countries to support with a monthly financial gift.
The $40 a month is intended to lift that person and their family out of poverty.
“We are very insistent that the family’s path out of poverty has to be a self-directed one,” said Pritha Hariharan, vice president of international programs for Unbound.
The family is set up with a bank account, and the sponsored child is given immediate access to education.
Because of the purchasing power of the dollar in countries where Unbound serves, families are sometimes able to send an additional child to school, purchase medicine, make home repairs or buy groceries with part of the sponsorship funds.
“It puts the purchasing power in the hands of the family that they’ve probably never had before,” said Hariharan.
In addition, families are assigned a dedicated social worker who accompanies them on a self-directed path out of poverty by budgeting funds and setting goals.
Those served by Unbound also build a relationship with their sponsored friend by exchanging letters and photos.
Roumie tells his Unbound friends “a little bit about my job,” he said, “not so much the specifics, but I tell them what I do and what I like to do and my hobbies.
“I like to draw and play music and things like that. They tell me about their studies and their chores and their work, the things that they do at home.”
When Unbound reached out to Roumie asking him to sponsor an additional child — a young girl from Rwanda — and their one millionth friend, he was humbled.
“And I was surprised and excited to hopefully bring a little bit of my growing profile to spread the word about the good work that they’re doing in hopes of attracting more people to do the same,” he said.
The ability to give back wasn’t always possible for Roumie.
Before he booked “The Chosen,” he was juggling multiple jobs, trying to make ends meet.
“It got to a point where they all sort of dried up,” he said. “One morning in May, I woke up and was 80 bucks overdrawn, and I had 20 bucks cash in my pocket, and I was thousands of dollars in debt.”
Roumie, a Catholic, turned to his faith.
“I literally had no choice but to get on my knees and start praying,” he said.
After surrendering his life to God, he left his apartment, spent his last $20 on a meal and, upon returning home, discovered four random checks in his mailbox.
Three months later, he was cast as Jesus in “The Chosen.”
“I realized I was experiencing basically an answered prayer — a miracle if you want to call it that,” said Roumie.
“I said, ‘OK, this is how I have to live — just complete, total, utter reliance on God,’” he continued. “And I’ve never approached my life in the same way since.”
Gaining fame by portraying Jesus on screen has been “strange and surreal” for Roumie, who calls himself an introvert.
“I think playing the character has made me want to be a better person, a better version of myself,” he said. “I’m obviously not Jesus and have no divinity whatsoever.
“But I strive for holiness in my life.”
One way he’s achieving that is through his involvement with Unbound.
His newest friend is one of more than 3,000 children being served by the program in Rwanda, which was launched there in 2020.
Rwanda was chosen by Unbound because nearly 50% of the population lives in extreme, multidimensional poverty, said Hariharan.
“In addition to the need,” she said, “Rwanda is also welcoming to nonprofits, and its government is motivated to lift its people out of poverty.”
Families served by Unbound, including the newest one in Rwanda, often work seasonal jobs in agriculture and construction, so their income is unpredictable, and their homes are modest.
“It’s either temporary settlement or a makeshift shelter of some sort,” said Hariharan. “Homes are often one room — a shared space with cooking, sleeping and everything happening in the same small space with multiple children.”
Receiving support makes all the difference for a family’s success.
“It unlocks the potential they already have within them,” said Hariharan.
“We’ve been in existence for over 40 years,” said Hufft, “and I would like to see us reach 2 million sponsored friends in a fraction of that time.
“While we’re looking back at all that our sponsors and sponsored friends have accomplished, we know there is more to be done, and we look forward to continuing this work to help so many more people on their path out of poverty.”
Hufft hopes Roumie’s sponsorship will inspire a younger, faith-based generation to get involved.
“Without a doubt, we’ve had tremendous support from parishioners in the Catholic Church,” she said, “and their support has been our bedrock.
“We believe deeply in the dignity of the people we serve and allowing them to lead the way, which aligns with Catholic social teachings and speaks to many others who want to make an impact.”
Those who choose to sponsor a child or aging person can be assured their support will change that person’s future.
“It can make an incredible difference in someone’s life for them to know that there is someone there walking alongside them on their journey and believing in them,” said Hufft.
Hariharan said that more than anything, sponsors give their friends hope.
“They’ve lived on the margins of society,” she said, “and all their lives, they’ve been told they can’t.
“Unbound comes in and tells them, ‘Yes, you can.’”
To learn more about Unbound, visit the website at: unbound.org.