Beautiful Discoveries Await When You Drop Your Expectations

By Bonnie Wellensiek, Child Champion, U.S.A., with Danette Kertz, Child Champion, U.S.A.   |  Photos courtesy of Danette Kertz and Bridge of Life

When members of Bridge of Life Church took a Discovery Trip to Zimbabwe, parts of the trip didn’t turn out as expected. But what they discovered instead was something even better.

On a Bridge of Life Church Discovery Trip to Zimbabwe, the travelers gather together, with Pastor Dixon, left, from partner Celebration Zimbabwe, and Danette Kertz, OneChild’s Supporter Experience Manager, center in a white jacket.

Anyone who has gone on a short-term cross-cultural trip has probably heard this piece of good advice: “Leave your expectations at home.”

But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?

We know we’ll be entering another culture and meeting new friends who may not speak our language.

We’ll likely encounter hard places that will test our flexibility and maybe break our hearts a little. We’re excited, nervous, and trying to imagine what the experience will be like.

So, we double-check our passports, sit on our suitcases to wrestle them shut, and don’t notice that a few expectations have slipped into our bags.

Zimbabwe Bound

That was the experience of a small group of travelers from Bridge of Life, a multicultural, multigenerational Assemblies of God church in St. Augustine, Florida.

Pastor Eliut from Bridge of Life church in Florida and Pastor Dixon from Celebration Zimbabwe visited homes and prayed with people in the community.

“We’re not a megachurch,” says Pastor Eliut. “We’re a small church. A growing church.” They are also a church with a heart for reaching out both physically and spiritually wherever there’s a need.

“I believe the church’s role is always to have a heart of compassion and to provide a hand up,” says Pastor Eliut.

“To provide the resourcing that may be lacking and then to provide the hope as we are able to openly share the gospel with the kids and give them a sense of meaning, of hope for the future.”

Bridge of Life church held their first OneChild sponsorship event in February 2023, connecting sponsors from their congregation with children in Zimbabwe.

Then Pastor Eliut said, “Why don’t we try to do a trip out there and actually see what’s going on in Zimbabwe?”

The following July, Pastor Eliut and nine other travelers boarded a flight to Zimbabwe to meet some of the sponsored children and get a firsthand look at the hope their partnership was bringing. They were joined by Danette, a OneChild staff member and longtime sponsor of a little girl in Zimbabwe.

When Expectations Differ

Once known as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe in recent decades has faced catastrophic inflation, unemployment, and food insecurity.

In the midst of these challenges, OneChild partner Celebration Zimbabwe has been faithfully serving children living in poverty for years. They now have satellite churches in several locations near Bulawayo and operate nine Hope Centers in partnership with OneChild.

The Discovery Trip group visits the fishpond project.

As part of their trip, Bridge of Life was funding two important projects at Celebration Zimbabwe: putting up a safety fence around an income-generating fishpond project and building bathrooms at a satellite location.

Several of the team members also assumed they would do the work of building the fence and bathrooms.

“That’s the culture of our church,” says Pastor Eliut. “We roll up our sleeves, we get our hands dirty. We do things in a community that most other churches aren’t willing to do.”

But they were in for a surprise.

Just hours after the funds for the building projects arrived, several thousand bricks were delivered to the location needing bathrooms. The Bridge of Life team visited the location and by the time they left, Zimbabwean workers had already built the walls. Local workers also erected the fence around the fishponds in record time.

A Bridge of Life Church Discovery Trip to Zimbabwe funded the construction of bathrooms at a Celebration Zimbabwe location. Zimbabwean workers built the bathrooms quickly once materials were provided.

“It wasn’t a disappointment, it was an adjustment,” says Pastor Eliut.

But Robyn, a church administrator and women’s leader who was on the trip, admits she experienced some disappointment at first.

“I think we all expected a little bit more work, construction wise,” she says.

“And when we shifted to less of that and just visiting, at first, I was like, why are we doing this? When are we going to get the work done? But then then I realized … there are bigger things at work here.”

What Robyn, Danette, and the rest of the team quickly realized was how many Zimbabweans were hungry for the chance to work.

Eager to Work

“The people there want to work!” says Danette. “If there’s anything to do, they are on it. And so our mindset had to do a huge pivot to say, ‘OK, what we thought we were going to be doing is not what is needed here. These people want to work, they need the work. And so we’re not going to stand in the way of that. We’re not going to do this for a photo op.

“And that’s one of the things that I loved about this group,” she adds. “They had that mindset.”

Robyn agreed.

She asked herself, “Am I coming in for an experience for me? Or am I going to go and minister and bless the people? And how is that best going to happen? Can we as Americans come in, not to ‘save’ them but support them — support their economy, give them the tools that they need in order to make a business or build a building?

“As far as being able to support the Zimbabwean culture and the people, that meant a whole lot more for me,” she says. “I’m not the one who has the look of pride saying, ‘I built that.’ I’d much rather them have that [sense of] accomplishment.”

Pastor Eliut helps distribute backpacks filled with school supplies to the children.

“Everyone has a side-hustle,” Danette adds, describing how eager the people she met were to work — from the small fruit and vegetable stands she saw everywhere to people collecting secondhand items for resale or sewing handmade clothes.

When an unexpected cold snap left the visitors shivering without coats, one of the women who worked in the kitchen at their guest house said she had a friend with a shop.

The next day the group blessed the owner of the tiny shop (where tourists don’t normally go) by purchasing good secondhand coats.

At the end of the trip, they left the coats behind for the church to distribute to anyone in need.

A Deeper Way of Helping

The group did have the chance to “roll up their sleeves” as they helped assemble bunk beds for seminary student housing and fill 50 backpacks with school supplies for children.

But their most significant ministry came through relationship and learning.

Robyn helps serve up a meal for the kids.

“What we did was we went out to the community,” says Danette.

Accompanied by their Celebration hosts, they visited and ministered to some of the poorest members of the community.

“Widows. People sleeping on floors,” says Danette. “And we prayed with them, and we took them supplies.”

She recalls visiting an 84-yr-old widow who lives alone in a one-room block house with no family nearby.

“Her children, whose photos are proudly displayed on the only shelf in her house, have moved away to South Africa to find work,” Danette recalls.

She says the room was filled with wall-to-wall places for visitors to sit and a table where several family Bibles, clearly read daily, sat among her notes. They brought the elderly woman a gift of soap and groceries.

They also visited an ailing couple and their daughter, in her early 20s, who had left her studies in the city to return to their rural home and care for her parents. Her mother had been experiencing chest pain, and her father’s symptoms suggested lung cancer.

By design, the firepit inside the house had no ventilation hole in the roof because, over time, the smoke waterproofs the roof thatch by coating it with tar.

They brought the family supplies, and the daughter asked Danette to pray for her because she feels her life is passing her by.

“She knows she’s doing the right thing by her parents,” says Danette. “But she doesn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t enjoy praying aloud, but I gave that sweet girl my all that day, and she sobbed her gratitude.”

Which Child?

Robyn’s openness to changing expectations also led her to the child she would sponsor.

She and her husband Harley are involved with a ministry that provides food and medical support to children in a deeply impoverished area in the U.S. So, they had waited before sponsoring a child in Zimbabwe. But Robyn went on the trip with an open heart.

Robyn meets with some of the youths at the Hope Center.

“If God puts it on my heart to sponsor a kid while I’m there, then that’s when I’ll do it,” she thought.

During a visit to the Hope Center, one little girl singled out Robyn and clung to her.

Robyn felt that connection that she had been hoping for and asked about becoming her sponsor, only to discover the child already had a sponsor. With that disappointment, Robyn could have given up. But instead, she remained open to God’s leading.

On a Saturday, she had the chance to meet with a group of 10 children who were all waiting for a sponsor. As they visited, with the help of an interpreter, the children told her about themselves and their families.

But one little girl named Nomagugu didn’t have much to say. The interpreter helped Nomagugu feel more comfortable, telling her to only share what she wanted to.

Slowly it came out that her father had left the family, and she was grieving his absence.

Pastor Eliut prays with local residents.

Robyn says, “I don’t even know if she understood me when I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that that happened to you.’ But you could tell that she understood the sentiment in my voice and the tone in my voice.”

Robyn could see it was hard for the little girl to hear other kids talking about their mom and dad. It was obvious to Robyn that the family was also in financial straits, and she felt her own heart breaking along with the child’s.

Some of the other children were more outgoing, and Robyn sensed that if she sponsored one of them, they would be more likely to build a deep relationship through letters. She talked it over that night on the phone with Harley.

“It’s a decision that we both have [to make,]” Robyn says. “And he’s my sounding board.”

There were two children in particular that Robyn felt drawn to. They were both in need, and she described everything she could recall of the two children.

Danette passes out gifts to the family of her sponsored child, Noku.

“I really needed the Lord to tell me who — right now. And the more I talked about it with Harley …  I said, ‘But [Nomagugu’s] story just broke me,’” Robyn recalls. “That’s how I was able to just say, OK, this is where I feel the Lord leading me.”

She also loves to tell her friends the meaning of Nomagugu’s name: “mother of treasures.”

“And that’s really what I want to be able to help her know, as much as I can,” says Robyn. “Even from across the world, even if she doesn’t remember that some crazy lady from America came over and met with her. It doesn’t matter.

“As long as I know that I can bless someone who is a treasure and can continue to be a blessing to others around her. That’s really what I’m after.”

To Meet At Last!

While Robyn became a sponsor during the trip, Danette, a longtime sponsor, experienced a dream come true.

Danette had sponsored Noku in Zimbabwe since 2018, and loved her dearly, sending letters and birthday gifts regularly, and delighting in watching her grow.

But she had never expected to meet Noku face-to-face.

Not long ago, Danette would have told you, “Let’s get one thing straight — I don’t travel.” She’s terrified of flying and doesn’t sleep well in strange places.

Working with OneChild for seven years, Danette was very familiar with stories from the hard places but never thought she could go there. Then life took an unexpected turn when she was asked to attend a conference in the Philippines. With much trepidation, she agreed to go, and the trip changed her life.

Read the story of Danette’s adventure in the Philippines.

“Once you see and smell and touch the hard places, you can’t think of much else,” says Danette.

Danette shows photos to Noku.

With a newfound passion for travel further stoked by a trip to Kenya, Danette had her heart set on making her way to Zimbabwe to meet Noku. When she heard about the Bridge of Life Discovery Trip, she asked to join.

Danette knew she would be there for Noku’s birthday, and she had sent a gift in advance so they could celebrate with a party for all the kids at the Hope Center.

As excited as she was to meet Noku, Danette didn’t want to overwhelm the child or assume Noku would be as excited to meet her. In a letter, she had written that she would love to give Noku a big hug one day and hoped that would be OK.

The group visited the Hope Center for the first time on the day of Noku’s birthday party — a day Danette will never forget.

“When we walked through the door of her classroom for her birthday party, there were people in front of me and people behind me, and we’re all shuffling in,” Danette says. “And Noku is at the front of the room at the table of honor with the balloons and the cake, and her sister and a friend are sitting next to her.

Danette cuts birthday cake with Noku, center, and Noku’s sister, Miriam

“She looks over to see people coming in — and when she sees me, our eyes lock. She climbed over her sister and friend and ran to me and threw her arms around me. I lost it! She held on to me, arm around me, hugging me.”

Even after years of letters and photos, meeting Noku in person still held surprises for Danette.

“She’s a lot smaller than I had anticipated. She’s very tiny. I have side-by-side annual photos of her on my fridge. I think in one of them she’s 8 years old and in one of them she’s about to turn 12, and you can see how she’s grown. But oh, she’s so much smaller than her sister. Her little arms and legs are just so thin.”

But, Danette adds, “Her eyes are just smiling eyes. Her smile is just beautiful. And the sweetest voice you have ever heard.”

Watch another sponsor meet her sponsored child in Zimbabwe for the first time. 

Why It’s Called a Discovery Trip

Seeing how realities differ from expectations, dispelling myths, and learning about the world the children live in are some of what travelers experience. Which is why it’s called a “Discovery Trip.”

“I really was impressed by being able to go in and see our sponsored child and hear about their involvement in the Hope Center. That really impressed me,” says Pastor Eliut. “I think that’s incredible that we’re actually able to interact with our kids and really see them through life.

“Talking with all the other sponsors who have been doing it for a while, they say they get to see their kids graduate. They get to see their kids move on, go into university, and excel in life. So, excited about that!”

The Women’s Empowerment Project features two large gardens on the property, which are run by local women.

The Bridge of Life visitors also discovered the many ways their new partners at Celebration Zimbabwe are serving the broader community.

For example, the church owns a piece of land they call the Oasis. When Celebration bought it, they had no idea there was an aquifer on the property — an abundant water source in a thirsty land.

Now people from the community can come with as many containers as they like and collect water.

They also started the Women’s Empowerment Project with two large gardens on the property, which are run by local women. And they installed five fishponds where people can pay a small amount to catch fish. People can keep the fish they catch for food or donate them to others in need.

Pastor Eliut says that after the trip, he was able to share with his congregation how much a relatively small investment can accomplish in a country like Zimbabwe.

The Malathini Facilitators and Danette stand outside Noku’s home.

And Danette talks about how much she learned simply by visiting Noku’s home.

Like so many Zimbabweans desperate for employment, Noku’s parents had to go to the neighboring country of Botswana to find work, leaving Noku and her siblings in the care of an older sister and an aunt.

When she visited, Danette was surprised to see both a refrigerator and a washing machine in their small home. But she was confused, because it was clear that there was no electricity in the house.

Then Jeanel from Celebration Zimbabwe explained that these items were likely purchased by her parents during better times. But now, there was not even enough money to pay for electricity in the house — a testament to the staggering inflation that has plunged so many families deeper into poverty.

Danette also discovered how much the Child Champions appreciated her sponsorship of Noku. She found herself walking beside a Child Champion named Idah, who knew that Noku’s sponsor was coming, but not what she looked like, and they hadn’t been introduced. Idah turned to Danette and asked, “Do you know Miss Danette?”

“I am her!” Danette responded.

Idah gasped and immediately stopped walking to envelop Danette in a huge hug.

The Gift of Unmet Expectations

On a personal level, Danette and Robyn were delighted with a couple more unfulfilled expectations.

Robyn plays with potential kids to sponsor.

When Robyn first learned about the trip, she wanted to go. But she didn’t expect to be able to raise the funds. As a young couple with a toddler, just paying the monthly bills can sometimes be a stretch. In her prayers, she told the Lord, “I’m not going to do this. It’s too much.”

But to Robyn’s surprise she sensed the Lord asking her, “Do you think I’m not able?”

“All right,” she said, a little taken aback. “I’ll go. I’ll do it.”

Just as surprising, most of the people who helped her fund the trip weren’t even believers.

“I had to pay the deposit, and that was it,” she says. “God provided the funding through all of these different people.”

Danette also shared a story of happily unmet expectations.

An admitted introvert, Danette loves people but needs time alone to recharge, and she had not expected to have a roommate.

But God gave her a roommate anyway — Robyn.

“She was so great!” says Danette. “We got along swimmingly. She’s just really caring, really sweet.”

Open Minds and Open Hearts

The team from Bridge of Life have a lot to teach us about getting the most out of a Discovery Trip — and giving of themselves to the community they visit.

Despite our best efforts, it’s inevitable that a few expectations will slip into our luggage.

But if we remember to also bring open hearts, open minds, and a lot of flexibility, those expectations can be transformed into beautiful discoveries.

You can enter into the life of a child in poverty by becoming a sponsor today.

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