By Brett Hetherington*
Willoughby United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District) has a strong commitment to global missions. The congregation has been partnering with other churches in the area since 2005 to pool resources in order to form a working ministry relationship with churches in the country of Zimbabwe. These churches have been dubbed the Zimbabwe Connection. Among the many benefits of partnering together is the ability to send groups to Zimbabwe. Those physical trips had to be put on hold because of the COVID pandemic – but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, thanks to creative thinking and a partnership between the Zimbabwe Connection, the East Ohio Conference, and ZOE Empowers.
The Rev. Janet Chilcote is both a retired UMC pastor and serves as the East Ohio Conference advocate for ZOE Empowers. “As ZOE staff we talked about how in-person mission trips had been cancelled because of COVID and we were saddened that people were not able to see the power of these amazing programs and the impact they have on orphan’s lives in amazing ways,” she shared.
ZOE is an organization that works with orphans to address barriers of extreme poverty. Rather than collect and redistribute money to millions of children in poverty, the organization seeks to utilize funds to help train children to teach themselves and become independent, avoiding the trap of becoming dependent of the handouts of others to survive. The program that ZOE offers lasts three years and is highly successful in empowering orphans. ZOE is currently operating in six African countries and recently began operating in India.
“Because of COVID and other reasons – such as travel limitations due to health or getting time off for work – the idea of virtual trips came about,” Chilcote said. “We have run 10 or 12 trips to this point and this East Ohio trip has been the largest so far.”
The Rev. Kathy Dickriede, director of Missions & Community Engagement for the East Ohio Conference has been overseeing virtual mission trips this year and is familiar with what ZOE has to offer. “ZOE does an amazing ministry of empowering orphans. There is strong evidence in outcomes that are real, sustainable and life changing. This was evident all throughout the virtual mission journey.”
“When we started talking about a ZOE trip for Willoughby UMC, we decided to open up to other churches in the Zimbabwe Connection,” said Lisa Richards, director of Christian Education at Willoughby UMC. After the invitation to the Zimbabwe Connection was extended even more churches outside that circle were welcomed as well.
“I have a connection with Kathy Dickriede, so why not let more people join and make it a Conference-wide experience? I contacted churches I had previously served and people I knew to invite them to be a part of seeing all of this first-hand,” shared Chilcote.
The virtual mission trip itself was a three-day experience. Participants were able to register for all three days or merely one day, with no requirement for full participation. Each day was hosted via a Zoom-style video connection. “The CEO of ZOE gave us an introduction to what group will see that day and then we would ‘leave the airport’ with animation from Google Earth. Akron Airport to Zimbabwe,” shared participant Tom Koop.
Once the group was “in country” they got to meet a group of orphans that ZOE is working with and interact with them, facilitated by a ZOE mentor. “There was no electricity in one of the Zimbabwe villages we were visiting, so they must have used battery power for their transmission,” shared Koop. “It was amazing to realize we could get into that small village.”
Hazel Partington had a surprise awaiting her early on this trip. “On our first day in Zimbabwe we got to talk to some kids our Connection has had connection with for the last three years.”
The orphans that the group was able to interact with and learn about, and from, are not living how you might expect. ZOE does not host orphanages. Instead, they raise up community-based, indigenous-led groups of orphans that are identified by their community and then placed into a network with a working group, so they then have social support. They are then linked with people in the community from whom they will learn a trade or with whom they can apprentice. The house each group lives in has one orphan, typically between the ages of 12-20 years old, who serves as the head of household. This head of household meets with the ZOE community mentor and is responsible for their household. “Mentors teach business skills,” shared Chilcote. “With no orphanages, ZOE only has one staff in the area who oversees roughly 1,000 orphans.”
The trip was popular, with 150 people registering and approximately 50 being able to take part each day, meeting the kids and asking questions, learning from the children in their own words and seeing life in their context.
“I loved hearing the young people talking about their profession. They choose what they are interested in – doing hairdressing, farming, sewing. One young man had his own convenience store,” Richards said.
“It is amazing to see this group that has been together for one, one and a half years, how they have gelled together, the organization, who fills what role in their family unit,” said Koop.
Chilcote was able to share some tangible numbers of just how the churches in the East Ohio Conference have helped children escape extreme poverty through ZOE’s efforts. Though some of the churches have been small in this Zimbabwe Connection, together they have raised over $300,000 and supported more than 1,000 orphans and vulnerable children to get out of poverty.
“It was so inspiring to see the orphans, to hear what they are doing, and to see the tremendous progress they can make with the little bit of money we raised through the Zimbabwe Connection. And you see that multiplied over and over again in the lives of these young people. After three years they are independent, they are part of the village, they are part of the churches, many of them. Many of them have already adopted orphans from the area,” shared Koop.
“Just giving money to these orphans and young people doesn’t work because they are worse off than before. But to teach them a vocation and have them take responsibility for themselves, then by the third they’ve got it covered,” said Richards.
ZOE kids were not immune to COVID’s impact on the economy. Many of them were forced to think strategically and had to come up with new ways to use their skills, pivoting their businesses into new sources of revenue.
“On our third day we visited India. One boy there had started a restaurant. During COVID the government shut down everything for one month. If you were to come out on street you would be shot,” said Chilcote. “This boy saw the police out on the streets, and he started selling coffee and tea to those officers on the street, successfully keeping his business alive during the shutdown, and helping his house as well.”
We do not know the long-term impact that this past year will have on traditional mission trips. Nor do we know how to plan for every contingency. But the participants in this virtual mission trip were able to get a glimpse of how the Kingdom work of the Church is being carried out around the world even with closed borders. Chilcote shared that she knows of a church that will be using the videos from this trip for their upcoming youth retreat.
“East Ohio just finished hosting a virtual mission journey to Peru that was filled with worship, cooking classes, learning about the Methodist Church in Peru, culture and social issues in Peru,” shared Dickriede. “Over 45 people participated in presentations and most importantly relationship-building.”
There are also plans for future virtual East Ohio journeys to Haiti, Cambodia and Guatemala to strengthen our partnerships in those places.
Chilcote shared with me that her life is impacted every time she hears the children that ZOE serves.
“Every time I hear a story from these kids, I am again renewed that I need to commit all my energies to getting the story out, to get more supporters so more children can experience this life-changing transformation. And it’s all done in the name of Jesus Christ and his love lived out.”
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.