Team Inspired, Energized by Zimbabwe Immersion


When members of Western Pennsylvania’s Zimbabwe Immersion Team met at the Nyadire United Methodist Mission after living with families in different areas for nearly five weeks, none of the stories they shared seemed the same.

“We even joked, wondering if we were all on the same trip,” said Ruth Ann Varrato, lay leader of the Kane District. As they talked more, though, Varrato said they all realized there was something common to all their experiences—love, kindness and relationships – and learning to worship God at a whole new level. 

 “The kindness and love shown to me while I was there (in Masvingo) was from not only my host family, but also the surrounding  communitity members. Somewhere along the trip I became a part of my family, not just a visitor from the USA. Most of these people have little or nothing, but they know that God will see them through their many trials.”

Tori Konopasek, a student at Rochester Institute of Technology from Faith UM Church in Fox Chapel, stayed with a family in Seke in Chitungwiza. She said she not only learned a new way of life, but found a refreshing approach to faith. “Life in Zimbabwe is not on your time, it is on God's. There are no worries for what has to get done, what's to come. The focus is just on the here and now and thanking God for all that the day has brought,” she explained.

Victoria Moody, a student at Edinboro University of PA and member of Asbury UM Church in Erie, put it another way.  “Letting go and giving God control is really what I learned being immersed in Zimbabwean culture.,” she said. “Sometimes things don’t go the way they are planned, but we must let the Holy Spirit have control and lead us because His plans are way better than ours.”

Moody, who stayed with the Marima family in Gweru, explained that the lesson she learned is found in the Shona word “Svakanaka” , which means everything is okay.

“The people of Zimbabwe are much more relaxed compared to Americans when it comes to planning.,” she said. “At first, this was difficult for me to understand and put into practice, but by the end of the trip I was going with the flow just like a Zimbabwean.

“Now that I’m back in America, I find that I actually have less stress because I was taught by the Zimbabweans that God will work everything out for His glory.  And when I do begin to become anxious, I whisper the word “zvakanaka” to myself and the stress seems to melt away.”

Jessica Speer, a clinical social worker and member of First Bethel UM Church, also was struck by the spirit of the Zimbabweans.  “There is happiness and joy that you see everywhere and it doesn’t come from what you have, it comes from your relationship with God and your relationship with others.” She said. “You want to talk about faith….”

Speer lived in Harare Central District and visited several projects and ministries there. The included the Highglen Homebased Care program where members of the church go to visit those who are sick, orphaned or experiencing some sort of challenge in their life; the Kambuzuma Creche program “where I spent the morning playing with the kids teaching them how to play “Duck, Duck, Goose” and “Simon Says”,  and the Nyamacheni  mission project to improve the education of the children in the community and build a bore hole so that people there can have water.  “Behind each of these projects,” Speer said,  “are people who are passionate about making a difference and helping those within their community as well as doing God’s work. 

“As I traveled around to the various ministries, the idea of the chabadza partnership really came to light,” she added. “People looked to me for the answers on how they should be doing their ministry, but one of the things that I saw over and over again was how we need to adapt our way of thinking to be more like them.  It is my hope that I can share my experience in a way that will help people to think less about and find less joy in the material items of our lives and to strive to have more of that ‘African’ happiness.”

Donna Doutt of  First UM Church in Rochester was received into an entrepreneurial family that lived in the country on the family farm, but owned several profitable businesses in the city.  "My host home was unique and reflected the financial advantages of the family," she said. "In the spirit of chabadza (a community spirit of helping someone already at work), I was encouraged to participate in most aspects of the family businesses.  I was also embraced by the family and community and included in family events, the good, the bad, and the sad; local church activities and celebrations, as well as the Mutare District Conference and RRW (UMW) events.

"I was also honored to witness the amazing work of the Gwese Orphans Trust, the district project of the Butler and Mutare districts," she added, "and meet the motivational and inspiring pastor of the Gwese UMC, Rev. Godknows Risinamhodzi."

The Rev. Erik Hoeke, the lone male and only clergy member of the team, said he has always loved John Wesley’s words, “I look upon all the world as my parish.” Now though, the new associate pastor of Chippewa UM Church said he has come to understand the meaning  more deeply.  

“I spent the majority of my time in Mutare, a city nestled in the mountains on the eastern border of Zimbabwe, where I stayed with the Rev. Dr. Gift Machinga and his family. While there, I expected to simply observe pastoral ministry and reflect on what I saw. However, my Zimbabwean colleagues frequently thrust me into the practice of pastoral ministry whenever they saw an opportunity,” said Hoeke.

“I preached three sermons in two churches. I made dozens of home visitations, singing and praying with people in the slums of Sukubva, the suburbs of Dangamvura, and the wealthy mountain homes of Bvumba. I served Holy Communion, both in worship and with our Immersion team. I even assisted in a wedding ceremony. And at choir festivals, worship services, and weeknight programs, they always seemed to ask me to give the benediction!”

Wesley’s words, he said, remind us that he did not limit pastoral ministry to one particular congregation. “He would not limit himself to one community. Instead, he insisted on being a preacher and pastor wherever he went, with whomever he encountered.  My immersion into Zimbabwean life and ministry forced me to live this phrase more than ever before. I can now boldly proclaim that I look upon all the world as my parish - from Chippewa, PA to Mutare, Zimbabwe, and everywhere in between.”

Another member of the team, which returned to Western PA in late August, was Ruth Sabo, a retired secretary from Greenock UM Church, who lived with a family in Gandanzara, Rusape in the Makoni Buhera district.

Team members are willing to speak at local churches or gatherings. Contact Zimbabwe Partnership Coordinator Sandra Matoushaya for more information at