Zimbabwe event offers treats for the palate and the heart

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By Stephen Knapp

The Lord said to Jeremiah: “Buy a farm at Anathoth ee it will have houses, fields and vineyards.”

— Jeremiah 32:8

When she returns to her adopted continent later this month, longtime Evergreen resident Pat Stephenson will bring her faith, her optimism, her unflagging commitment and — with a little help from her neighbors — enough wholesome, nutritious and desperately needed food to keep 1,000 African schoolchildren at their books for a solid year.

“About a month ago we were given 275,000 meals by a group in Minneapolis/St. Paul called Feed My Starving Children,” says Stephenson, a gentle-spoken, decorous woman of 82. “But I have to pay for shipping, and that’s probably going to cost about $15,000.”

That’s a tall order, but Stephenson has faced her share of challenges during the 23 years she’s spent bringing help and hope to some people who need all they can get of both. Truth be told, her involvement with Africa began even earlier, though it took her awhile to recognize it.

“The Lord started telling me to go there in 1972, but I rationalized it away for 13 years,” says Stephenson, surrounded by the pictures and mementoes of her charitable labors in her Yankee Creek home. “In 1985, I just bought a ticket and landed in Johannesburg, South Africa. I didn’t have a hotel reservation, I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. But the feeling I needed to go was so strong that I couldn’t resist it anymore.”

She spent the next two months touring Africa’s southernmost republic, visiting the native homelands, absorbing the varied cultures and developing an appreciation for the complexities of the region’s thorny social, political and economic woes. And, more importantly, she discovered that her need to be in Africa was amply matched by the need that existed there.

“It seemed like nobody really understood what was going on there, and I was always encouraging people to go and see for themselves,” she says. “It occurred to me that if I had a place for them to stay, they might be more apt to go.”

In 1996, she acquired a little over 11 acres of dilapidated buildings and unproductive vines in the rolling wine country around Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, and people did go. Today, it’s the Anathoth Christian Renewal Centre and Stephenson’s home and charitable headquarters for nine months of the year. In Hebrew, Anathoth means “answers to prayers.”

“It’s a place where religious leaders can go when they’re facing burnout. Religious leaders in Africa face many challenges, and burnout is a growing concern. We can sleep 48, and it’s open to anyone.”

Stephenson’s helping hand reached north in 1994, when a friend invited her to Sidakeni, an impoverished village in the hinterlands north of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Her heart went out to the struggling villagers immediately, particularly Sidakeni’s 1,000 schoolchildren, and she’s made improving their lives — and their odds — a top priority ever since.

In the last decade, and with no small help from her fellow congregants at Evergreen Fellowship Church, Stephenson’s dug six wells that supply safe and abundant water to citizens in the Sidakeni area. She’s also provided the schoolhouse with critical upgrades, including permanent floors, toilets, a kitchen, teacher housing and school supplies. But there’s still one grave problem facing the village’s children that can’t be fixed with lumber and No. 2 pencils.

“Malnutrition is the single biggest threat to their future,” Stephenson says. “Now that we have the food, we just need to get it to them. We’ll need to buy a shipping container, which could cost anywhere from $400 to $5,000, although we’ll probably go on the low end, for that. Then it will take about $13,000 to get the food to Harare, and another $2,000 to get it up to Sidakeni.”

To that end, Stephenson and some local supporters are inviting the community to Congregation Beth Evergreen at 2 p.m. Sept. 21 for a distinctly African good time. Besides an in-depth account of African life by somebody who knows it well, guests can sample an assortment of Zimbabwean delicacies like peanut butter stew and wash everything down with brimming cups of Rooibos tea. And for dessert? Mapopo candy, of course.

“It’s going to be fun, but it’s also a chance for people to learn about Zimbabwe’s people and culture,” she says. “I hope that other people will see what I see and want to help. I do it because my heart’s there.”

To learn more about the free event, call Pat Stephenson at 303-674-6118.