by Wendy Bodnar
“We are greeted with hugs, songs, and dance….”
We set off to meet our first group of Orthodox converts at St. Nektarios. We were greeted with hugs, songs, and dance. This was probably the most humbling experience of my life. I was in awe of their smiling faces and the way their bodies swayed with the uplifting Shona songs. They were sincerely happy to see us and to receive us as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the way we were received at each and every indigenous Orthodox and non-Orthodox location throughout Zimbabwe.
His Eminence Bishop George smiled and spoke to the people with love, and he managed to say something that spoke to the heart. This is one of his many gifts. He is a dynamic leader, and those around him want to follow his kind smile, the twinkle in his eye, and his love of Jesus Christ’s Church.
The Church was beautiful, a tall stone structure with benches and wonderful iconography. There was not only a Church but also a Medical Facility and a two-story school. His Eminence really addresses the whole person: the spiritual healing of the Church, the body’s physical needs, and the education of the children – the future of Zimbabwe. This is what impressed me the most. I had only witnessed this holistic Orthodoxy once before, and that was at the Hogar Raphael Ayau orphanage in Guatemala, where Church, physical health, and expanding the mind were crucial in healing the hearts and souls of the children there.
This holistic approach was the taken in all of the villages and cities we visited. The Orthodox Church is there to heal the souls that endure so much and the physical ailments that plague the people and to teach them how to be self-sufficient and productive.
With the lesson plans we had prepared. we spoke to the adults and then held separate lessons for the youth and young children. Our topics were wide and covered the History of the Church, the Role of Women and Youth in the Church, the importance of a prayer life, Salvation, the Lives of the Saints, Orthodox Marriage, and the many ‘on-the-spot’ topics that sprang up. The people were engaged at each and every session; they listened, took notes, and asked profound questions. They were very curious about the Coptic Orthodox and the split with the Eastern Churches, and they wanted to know the differences and the similarities between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. They were hungry for the truth and to learn how to share their faith.
One thing that really stood out for me was the knowledge-base and the amazing job that the indigenous priests have done. We were attending a Sunday school program at St. Nektarios. We began with some open questions about prayer. I asked the group what it means when we make the sign of the cross. “What do the three fingers together represent?” I asked. First of all, they all showed me the correct technique and said that it represents the Holy Trinity – right! Then I asked a tougher question, “What do the two fingers bent down mean?” There was silence, and then a young girl raised her hand. ”It means that there are two persons in one; Christ is God and Man!” she said. Wow. I gave her a special reward and am still amazed.
We were learner-servants; we were brothers and sisters in Christ. We taught in all of the locations where there were Orthodox Churches and future mission sites. We traveled the cities and the remote villages, and we witnessed the same love and sincerity at every turn. The holistic Orthodox Church is healing Zimbabwe, both the indigenous Africans and the warm-hearted Greek community. We will all continue to pray for this healing.
We experienced many special moments on this mission. We witnessed God’s great plan in action as we saw women growing peanuts and making organic peanut butter to survive. We were in the midst of the land of a modern day saint, Saint Efterpi, and we witnessed the beginnings of a new Church in a small, poor northern village. I pray to return one day to see the Church here in its totality.
How do you sum up a Mission Team experience? By the Grace of God is all that comes to mind. To go on a Mission Team is to leave the world you know and immerse yourself in another, to trust in God’s plan and know that you left a piece of you there and that you have returned with Africa in your heart. I will never forget the love that the people revealed to me, the love of His Eminence for all the faithful and seekers, and the true power of Africa, its history and its future. Keeping holistic Orthodoxy alive in Zimbabwe is the key for each and every person who wants it.