God was calling. It was an undeniably big feeling, something swelling up inside, impossible to ignore that insisted on a life-changing response and a pull from the norm.
Feeling a divine inspiration, Holdeman Mennonites Tim and Shelia Koehn transplanted their Durham family 9,000 miles over the Atlantic Ocean to Africa, where they traded a comfortable Midwestern life to do missionary work in Murombedzi, a small town in the impoverished district of Zimbabwe.
After petitioning the Church of God in Christ mission board in 2010, the Koehn’s and their three children became part of a congregation situated in what’s sometimes referred to as “the bush.”
Tim, now 33, said that even though they knew the area could be chaotic, he and Shelia had no safety concerns because of their faith in God.
“We felt God would take care of us because He was calling us there,” he said.
The Koehn family spent four years immersed in the culture.
Like many local families in Chegutu, they lived in a cement house with bars on the windows. From there, it was a 45-minute drive over rolling wooded hills, situated on a plateau known for its diamond, gold, chrome, and platinum ores, to Murombedzi for worship on Friday and Sunday mornings.
Their work was to spread the gospel and lead church services, but they also made humanitarian efforts.
Tim helped repair “bush pumps,” the source of most peoples’ potable water. Sometimes he aided in drilling pump boreholes with modern equipment.
Shelia taught children at Sunday school, worked in the fields and homes with native sisters, and supported Tim and their children. She also gave birth to a fourth child 21 months ago while they were still in Africa.
There was a medical facility in Chegutu, but the closest hospital with modern equipment was an hour and a half away in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.
“Our children loved it there,” Tim said, “They regularly played with the neighbor children. For our son — who was two when we arrived — it was the only lifestyle he knew. He doesn’t remember anything about the U.S.”
Living free of judgment also helped with their work.
Moreover, as missionaries, their work was not without competition. The idea of Jesus and his story is well known within the area.
The dominant religion in Zimbabwe belongs to Christian denominations, the largest being Roman Catholic.
Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, and the Salvation Army, among many others, also have a presence there.
In his congregation, Tim took turns leading services, but each week he researched Bible questions for inquisitive and concerned members. He called himself a “lay-missionary” and stressed he was just a normal man given an opportunity to do something big.
Over time, he discovered some people were open to his evangelism where others were not.
“The father of one of our members was a witch doctor,” Tim said. “He was a blind and frail old man who was friendly to us and thanked us for what we were doing, but he believed he was chosen by the spirits to represent the spirits. He said they would kill him if he converted.”
In general, people were more likely to listen to Tim’s philosophy because they knew he would be to lean on long-term.
The Koehns made themselves easily available and maintained a consistent connection with their congregation.
Tim thought he might have received more help than he administered.
“When you share your spiritual burden and make heart-to-heart and day-to-day concessions, you really connect with each other,” Koehn said. “It deepens your faith and understanding of God’s plan.”
A way of life
Estimates of unemployment ranged from 10.70 to about 60 percent in 2011.
While exact numbers are hard to solidify, Koehn said, men typically pick up odd jobs to earn extra money and many families live a subsistent lifestyle.
Families farm by hand during the growing season just to produce enough food to survive the year.
“Zimbabwe receives foreign aid that many use,” Koehn said. “A crop failure means some people will die.”
Fields are planted near rivers, so crops are easier to irrigate with buckets.
White corn is a staple, as are sweet potatoes, pumpkins, squash, and soybeans.
If there is a surplus, crops are fertilized with compost from the previous year.
Weeding is by hand or done with a two-foot hoe people bend over while using.
Plowing with oxen helped Tim connect with locals on a deeper, more spiritual plane.
“Anytime you meet someone on their level, there is more of a personal connection,” he said.
It took at least two men to run the oxen — one man on the plow and the other to control and lead the oxen. He said oxen were rowdy, which made for hard rewarding teamwork.
Tim’s mother, Wanda Koehn could tell the experience affected her son.
“Tim left a part of his heart there,” Wanda said. “He and Shelia found it very hard to leave.”
Although the Koehns can correspond with the friends they left behind through email and cell phone, there was a tinge of melancholy to the joy of homecoming.
It was easier for Tim to leave Durham than to return because he isn’t sure if they will ever see their Murombedzi friends again.
Reconnecting with old friends, starting a new job as a teacher in his church’s private school, driving on the other side of the road again, and returning to their old house gave Tim an uncanny feeling.
“It’s funny to come home and see some things have changed and some are still the same,” he said. “Our modest house feels like a mansion and it seems like we’re visitors here yet.”