St. Luke's United Methodist Church


4851 S. Apopka-Vineland Road
Orlando, FL 32819
Emergency Hotline Info


ZOE Empowers Recap | Trip to Zimbabwe – April 2024

Posted on May 1, 2024 at 1:00 pm in .

Have you ever had an experience that, by encountering people very different from you, helped you better understand yourself and the world?

It’s been a little over a week since I returned from Zimbabwe, along with three other St. Lukers, where we got the privilege to visit and meet many of the children and youth who have been part of the ZOE Empowers program. I’ve known of ZOE for many years, as a part of multiple United Methodist churches and conferences, but this was my first opportunity to see ZOE in action, really and truly. And, it was my first time on the continent of Africa at that!

As I have been reflecting and sharing stories with folks in the last week, I just want to share a few snapshot highlights from the week. If you aren’t familiar with ZOE Empowers, you can click here to learn more about how the three-year program for orphans and vulnerable children works, helping them find empowerment in the midst of challenging life and cultural circumstances.

Because of COVID-19, we were actually the first group to visit ZOE in Zimbabwe since 2019, and we felt that welcome heartily –  both staff and groups alike seemed over the moon to receive a visit from their American “family!”

My first snapshot is from the first group we visited – which is a group we sponsored that actually graduated from the program in March of 2023. The welcome we received with singing and dancing felt overwhelming – but we learned as we visited every other group that this wasn’t unique – this was part of the Zimbabwean culture, to welcome visitors with a song of welcome! Each group we visited sang as we approached, and each time I found myself emotional at the pure joy and celebration that seemed so natural to them.

It was particularly special to meet this group: they are ZOE graduates, so there was no requirement or even expectation that they would still be willing, or even able, to gather. There was nothing they owed us, and nothing that we expected from them. And yet, nearly every member of the group was present. They still identified individuals in their group as officers (chairperson, secretary, treasurer, and “pastor”), and even those ZOE graduates who were unable to be present usually had a sibling there to represent their household.

This was one of the greatest highlights of the week – while we did get to visit two group members” businesses (a shop and a lumber mill), the real highlight was hearing that ZOE for them was not just life-changing individually, but it had given them a group that they would continue to do life with, a year after graduation, and, in their words, “we will be friends forever.” They still also share a couple of businesses as a group, which allows them to also support one another in new business ventures and supporting one another in moments of crisis or challenge.

We visited two other of our groups in their second and first years, with the same warm, musical welcome. We heard more testimony, often with the following themes: “ZOE allowed me to send my siblings to school,” “ZOE means we can afford to eat three meals a day instead of one or fewer,” “ZOE has taught me that I have rights,” “Before ZOE, we weren’t welcome in the community, and now we are,” “Since ZOE came, I now go to church and am even able to tithe.”

I could continue, but those snapshots are all the result of a $150 grant, and empowerment education. These teens are serving as heads of their households, entrepreneurs, business owners, and community members. At our home visits, they were proud to show us the homes, toilets, and kitchens they had built themselves, or been able to hire someone to build.

We then visited one of our  second year groups, where we had the same warm welcome, as we marched with them through potato and tomato fields, to the place they had set up for us to hear their presentation, literally setting a table for us.
Like the other groups, we heard about incredible business success, both individually and collectively (including the fields we had just walked through). We even got to visit one of the kids’ homes where we saw how he uses aluminum scrap to make kitchenware, including making his own molds, which he learned from his father before he passed.

But this group included in their presentation something we hadn’t heard before. They wanted to show us their “cards,” which were posters they had had printed at a local print shop that had slogans on them, some in Shona and some in English. When they go into town as a group to participate in community service together (did I mention they go into town and participate in community service together?), they carry these signs of advocacy with them. Because they learned about their rights as a part of ZOE, they also want to advocate and educate other children and community members about those rights.

The signs included statements about children’s right to a birth certificate, as well as for gender and violence advocacy: “Stop Gender Based Violence,” and the one that really hit us all hard: “It shouldn’t hurt to be a girl.” Whew. Church, if we say we don’t have capacity for advocacy in our lives and all we have going on, these kids took away any excuses I could possibly have for not participating in advocacy work for those who are vulnerable in our communities. Truly an inspiration!

We also got to participate in worship with a local United Methodist Church, where the pastor invited me and the other clergy-person with our group to be part of the processional, and to offer prayers in the service. We got to be led in song by their children, and it was helpful to hear what the concerns of the church and community were at the time: hygiene and a cholera outbreak, help with harvesting one another’s fields, and access to water as the result of a drought. They spoke often of the effects of climate change on their communities and farming capacities.

To know we are a connectional, worldwide church has always even meaningful to me. But getting to actually worship together with other United Methodists from a different continent and culture brought even deeper meaning to our connection. Even though we did not speak the same language, the familiar tune of the Gloria Patri and the rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer was a sign of unity, and the choruses that were so familiar to them that they repeated highlighted the diversity of what the expressions of worship and church can and should be.

Our final day visiting groups, we got a privilege that not many visitors do. We visited a newly-forming group that we will be sponsoring. The day we visited, they were meeting officially as a group for the first time, and their ZOE program facilitator was sharing with them what the ZOE program is and what it will be teaching them. Particularly impactful was the skit that he asked them to prepare showing what their life was like. While they worked on planning it, we heard testimonies from some of the other kids to what they were facing. This was the first time we were hearing testimony of “before” without the presence of “after.” It was helpful that we had seen so many examples of “after” during the rest of our trip.

The drama began with a family of three sisters who were caring for their ailing, elderly grandmother, who could not stand or walk on her own. It was up to the children to feed the family, and to find medicine for their grandmother. We saw a series of scenes that depicted the rejection of neighbors and family because of their poverty, and the difficulty getting work, after which they were exploited by their employers. It was a grim scene to watch, while sitting among children and youth who were currently living these realities.

The program facilitator asked if any of the group members would volunteer to allow us to visit their homes, and one of the girls who had been part of the skit quickly volunteered. After a rocky drive and a long hike, we arrived at her home, where we saw there, two siblings alongside an ailing grandmother who was not able to stand or care for herself. The “stage” was certainly reflecting life.

I was conflicted during this visit: all our other home visits were to “after” stories, and it felt invasive to me to visit this girl’s home at their lowest point. And yet, as she shared more of her story with us, she said “I am so glad you are here. No one ever visits us.”

Which speaks so much to my overall feelings on this trip. While there was no question for me about the efficacy of ZOE’s work, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see it firsthand, the justice seeker in me wondered if our visit would be in any way helpful, or even appreciated, by the kids and we have sponsored. So often in the past the Anglo world, particularly white Christians, has imposed itself on African nations and communities, both in systemic oppression like the British colonial rule that was still in effect until 1980 in Zimbabwe, as well as in attempts at “relief work” that can at times create neo-colonial structures and perpetuate the challenges faced.

The welcomes we received, the stories shared so freely, the selfies that the kids wanted to get with this on their phones, and finally this young woman’s statement, with no preparation and no prompting by anyone, let me know that the connection we feel with our groups, wishing big dreams to come true for them, they also want to share life and their dreams with us. We get to be part of something that not only improves the lives of individual children, but also transform entire communities and begins to heal the broken structures that colonial imperialism put in place for decades.

And on a less dramatic note, we got to meet some really cool and inspiring kids. I wanna be like them when I grow up! And I hope you know, St. Luke’s, that each of you is part of something that is life- and culture-transforming in Zimbabwe, and Rwanda, and in so many other places around the world. We have much to learn from them, and I look forward to going back to see those “before” kids and getting to see what God does in their “afters” and beyond!


Pastor Melissa

Click the button below to learn more about ZOE Empowers and to read more testimonies from the team:

Scroll for
More Content