I just learned last week that a longtime ministry partner, Simon Mkolo, has died. Simon was 81 years old and left behind six children and a wife. I met Simon in Zimbabwe, where he lived, in 1999. I had the privilege to go back in 2007, at Simon’s invitation, to speak to a church leaders conference in the village of Manjolo. Here are some memories I wrote down about that journey.
Its name means “the big house of stone.” Zimbabwe is bordered by two rivers and boasts one of the largest waterfalls in the world. “Smoke that Thunders,” known as Victoria Falls, is a sight to behold. The wildlife reserves of Zimbabwe draw tourists from all over the world. The breathtaking beauty of this country’s landscape, however, stands in stark contrast to the bone-crushing poverty of its people. Nearly 75% of the people live in chronic poverty.
I did not go there to try and fix the economy or to confront the political landscape. Nether did I go to address the AIDS epidemic, though more than one-fifth of the nation then was infected with HIV, and more than 500 adults and children were being infected every day. One doctor said, “People are dying of AIDS before they can starve to death.” I did not go to try and help the orphan problem, though there were more orphans per capita in Zimbabwe than anywhere else in the world.
I went to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He alone has the power to change a nation. I went to serve alongside Simon Mkolo. Simon met the Lord Jesus as a young man while serving a prison term for being a political rabble-rouser in the 1970s. He came out of prison with a different message and life purpose. Instead of trying to change Zimbabwe from the top down, Simon began to work from the bottom up. He went to the common people, the laborers, the farmers, the merchants. He told them the story of how his life was transformed by a Galilean carpenter, and he invited them to meet the Savior. His message took hold in the hearts of thousands, because the gospel of Jesus Christ “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Since he became a Christian, Simon has planted over 300 churches, and each of those churches is making a difference in the towns and villages of a suffering nation.
There were hundreds of people in attendance at the conference in Manjolo, many of whom had walked for four or five hours to get there. They slept on concrete floors in cinderblock school buildings during the week. They gathered under two huge trees and sat from nine o’clock in the morning until nine in the evening. They ate sadsa, the staple food made of maize “flour” and water.
And they worshipped God in the most exuberant and refreshing way I have ever experienced. Singing at the tops of their lungs, they leapt and danced in such a way that huge clouds of dust rose up and danced with them. When we stood up to speak, they applauded wildly, not for us but for the opportunity to hear someone preach the Word of God. They listened patiently as the interpreter spoke our words in their native tongue, Tonga. They took notes, flipping through their Bibles to every passage mentioned. And when the message ended, they bowed their heads to pray.
There was one moment during the week that made me tremble. Dozens of church leaders were standing at the front, having responded to an invitation by Simon Mkolo and the local pastor. Simon turned and asked me to speak a word of encouragement to them, and my mind went to the book of Esther, the story of a young Jewish woman who became Queen of Persia at the same time there was a plan to destroy all of the Jewish people. Mordecai said to her, “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” I challenged them that God has brought them to a place of leadership at such a time as this, when the stability of their nation stands on the brink. As I spoke, some of the people began to weep and then to wail. They were crying for their country and they were crying out to God for strength and wisdom and for help.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives. It changes hearts. It gives hope where there is none. It changes sinful and deadly health habits and calls people to repentance and faith. It changes sexual behavior and calls people to biblical marriage. The Gospel moves people to have compassion on the hungry and to provide shelter for the orphans.
Zimbabwe is in dire straits, and I don’t suggest for a moment that we need to stop giving money and medical supplies to organizations like the Red Cross and others. But money and supplies are temporary solutions that improve the quality of life for a day or a week. It is the church in Zimbabwe, led by men like Simon Mkolo, that is changing lives for eternity.
That’s why I traveled to the “big house of stone.” I went to help Simon tell Zimbabwe about the rock of ages.