Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Touching Them: Zimbabwe

It's been nearly a year since my last trip to Zimbabwe. I must admit I'm really feeling quite sad that I'm not going this fall as I have for the past two years. Though the trip is a hard one, my heart is so enmeshed there . . . and the situation so much worse for the people now . . . that I'd love to hug on them and encourage them at present.

This month Action!--a bi-monthly published by World Bible School--published an excerpt of my article below. Keep scrolling down to read the full story that highlights, in part, the incredible feeding work managed by Alvaro and Debbie Dos Santos.

And please pray for the men, women, and children of Zimbabwe.



The aged man with sunken cheeks and rheumy eyes was too weak to walk into the church building. He sat in the dirt, sun glistening on his chocolate skin. My friend Justin Nash, an American photographer and Christian, snapped photos of the man while the old fellow muttered something in Shona, the native language of most Zimbabweans. Another interpreted.

“I am just waiting to die,” the man mumbled. “I am so tired of being hungry.”

Compassion twisted Nash’s stomach as he and his traveling companion, Alvaro Dos Santos, were led inside to a scanty feast prepared especially for them. Zimbabwean Christians surrounded the perimeter of the one-room structure, faces pressed to the windows to watch their honored guests.

“I can’t eat this,” Nash whispered, his throat tight.

Dos Santos understood. For years he and his wife, Debbie, have lived the compassion of Jesus among the starving people of Zimbabwe. “Take a bite to show your gratitude,” he instructed in the strong accent of a man who learned English late in life, “then pick up your plate and come with me.”

Nash did as he was told, following Dos Santos into the midday heat. The photographer stooped down, offering his meal to the elderly African.

The man dipped his head in thanks. Immediately, he passed the plate to a small girl beside him. They shared a few handfuls together then passed the dish to the next child. And so it went. The man who longed for his suffering to end did not think to hoard his rare meal.

Alvaro Dos Santos says that’s the African way. “If you have one apple and twenty people, the apple will be passed around, and each person will take one bite. Not a big bite—not more than their share—then it will go to the next person.”

Dos Santos, Portuguese by birth, a shoemaker by trade, and a passionate man of God by faith operates a network of feeding centers throughout Zimbabwe, his home for many years until August 2005 when government threats forced his family to flee the country. Officially, the centers provide more than a 100,000 meals a month.

“But it isn’t enough,” Dos Santos says, running a hand through his hair.

Indeed, practicing true religion among the widows and orphans in Zimbabwe is a daunting task. The country, situated on the northern border of South Africa, is ruled by a dictator condemned by the international community for his crimes against humanity. The people live under the burden of a violent and oppressive government, a collapsed economy, and rampant HIV/Aids. They are starving, diseased, and often homeless.

I first met the Dos Santos family (the author with Debbie and Alvaro Dos Santos in 2008, at right) through World Bible School teacher Paula Leverett and her husband Lynn. In 2006, and again in 2007, I accompanied the Leveretts to Zimbabwe to witness the incredible and selfless work being done to touch the lives of hurting people in the Name of Jesus Christ.


Dusty gravel crunched beneath my sandaled feet when I stepped out of the truck at the Rukweza church and orphan feeding station in the heart of Zimbabwe, but I hardly noticed for the pounding of my heart. Joy and deep compassion crowded around me along with 117 children who, one-by-one, offered their hands in greeting (photo below). It was my first visit to a feeding center.

And it took my breath away.

The sweet young ones wore ragged clothes and tattered shoes—many wore no shoes at all. I was struck by how calloused and rough their little hands and feet were. Though they smiled, their eyes were somber, holding too much heartache at such tender ages.

A woman named Loveness oversaw the work there. We were officially introduced to the children under a fig tree, then they prayed and lined up to have their hands rinsed with cool water. They bowed their heads and clapped their hands in appreciation before receiving a plate of sadza—the cornmeal staple of Zimbabwe.

After they ate, the children served the men and women—several area preachers and a town official had joined us. We shared, too, eating rice, sadza, and a small portion of chicken with our fingers. The children sang for us and put on a humorous play about the importance of education. Apparently we will end up dead on the side of the road if we don’t do well in school! One boy in particular was quite an actor. His strong, bold voice made it easy to imagine him as a preacher some day.

To be honest, I’ve been enchanted by this land of beautiful scenery, beautiful people, and beautiful spirits. Every bit of it is fascinating to me—from the eucalyptus gum trees and flat-topped acacias, to the monkeys darting across the road, to the precious dark-eyed children outrunning our vehicle over rough terrain.

But everywhere, there is need.

And the church is responding.

Not only do the Dos Santoses oversee the feeding stations, but their ministry provides blankets during winter months and medicines in a country lacking even basic health care resources. The Leveretts have also mobilized WBS workers and other compassionate Christians to generously answer the pleas coming from our Zimbabwean brothers and sisters.

Every time the Leveretts visit the country, church leaders come to them with requests on behalf of the neediest in their congregations. School fees for orphans. Medicine for epileptics and asthmatics and a man with meningitis. Glasses for a legally blind boy and his sister. Wheelchairs for the disabled so they don’t have to drag themselves along the ground as I’ve seen so many do. A thatched roof for a widow who lost her home in a fire.

Through the coordination of the Leveretts, HIV testing and medications have been provided in one region to more than fifty infected Christians. Bibles and songbooks in the Shona language have been purchased for a dozen churches. Zimbabwean Christians have received shipments of cornmeal, training and equipment for drip-irrigation, and bales of clothing for distribution.
In 2002 the Leveretts initiated a correspondence-course for training vocational preachers. Thousands have been converted to Christ through the efforts of the nearly one hundred men who have been trained. These evangelists have planted churches in scores of villages far out in the bush, so bicycles have been provided to assist them in their ministries.

The Leveretts don’t meet these needs on their own—they simply share the stories with caring Christians, many of whom take it upon themselves to help in big and small ways.

Two years ago I met a young orphan at a feeding center who boldly approached to tell me he was an artist and needed supplies. He proved his claim by sketching in
my notebook. I think Joseph touched my heart because he dares to dream in a place where dreaming is impractical. Because he yearns to create in a time when priority is placed on simply surviving. I provided a modest amount of money to meet his request—and last year joyfully hand-delivered a box of supplies donated by an artist friend. It doesn’t take much to become the hands and feet of Jesus, touching the lost and hurting with His love and compassion.

Please pray for Zimbabwe and her people. God is already at work intervening—I see it in the many Christians stepping in to feed and clothe the people and treat the sick. I see it in the faith expressed by Zimbabwean men and women who have little more than faith to live on. I see it in the smile of an orphan who's treated with gentleness by an old woman dishing up sadza.

If you would like to touch those served by the ministry of the Zimbabwe feeding centers, you may send a check earmarked “Zimbabwe Feeding Fund” to the Southwest Church of Christ, 4515 Cornell, Amarillo, TX 79109. For more information on how you can help, call (806) 352-5647.

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