It was nine years ago in February that I took the red-eye flight to London in route to Zimbabwe, Africa. There were four of us on the plane that night. Our preacher, Al, who had deep ties to the mission in Zimbabwe. My buddy, Darold, who had been to Africa before and who, with carefully crafted south Alabamian slang, conned a local warrior in Nairobi out of an arrow from his quiver. And my other buddy, Rick, who, from a life of military deployments to foreign countries, knew how to pack everything he needed for a year into a rucksack the size of a small microwave.
I was the only one who had never traveled outside the good old US of A. I had been across the Canadian border once upon a time to go fishing in the back country of Ontario. But I would hardly call that international travel.
We ended up with about an eight-hour layover at Heathrow. Al was feeling nauseous. So, while he curled on a stiff chair trying not to hurl, the three of us jumped a train and headed for downtown London. We gawked at Buckingham Palace with its massive wrought iron gate and the gold and bronze crest of lions. Across the plaza inside the gate at the entrance to the palace stood one lone member of The Queen’s Guard in his tall bearskin hat.
I wasn’t in Georgia anymore.
We walked a few blocks to The Shakespeare Pub. I ordered the Cod Father Basket because I was told, “If you have time when you’re in London, you have to try the fish and chips. They’re to die for.”
The food was alright, but I’d put fried catfish filets up against that basket any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Like the catfish we used to eat down at High Falls. Like the night we were down there with a table full of friends. Melton Greer was sitting at the end of the table.
My Dad asked him, “Melton, how come you’re not eating any hush puppies and coleslaw?”
And Mr. Melton answered with a slow drawl, “Cause I come here to eat catfish. I can get hushpuppies and coleslaw at home.” He made sense.
It was dark when we lifted off from Heathrow. I remember seeing Paris from my window and thinking how odd it felt to see a place I’d only ever seen on TV. When we crossed over the Sahara Dessert, it was like crossing over a black hole. I spotted a small group of lights. I was told they were campfires. It was an 11-hour flight to Johannesburg.
We ate breakfast in the airport restaurant. Eggs are pretty much the same anywhere. I didn’t understand the money, though. Based on the menu, I paid about $356.72 for eggs, toast, juice, and coffee. Al assured me, the rookie traveler, that it was okay.
We then hopped a small plane for the two-hour flight up to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. It was in this small airport that I met Zebedee for the first time. He was like the big chief of the mission work. We still had about a three to four-hour drive ahead of us to our destination. Maybe it was six. I was travel weary and had forgotten how to tell time.
My first impression of Zebedee was that he was a stately man. Almost regal. Maybe it was because Al had been referring to him as the Bishop of Zimbabwe every time he talked about him. Maybe it was because of the accent. Maybe it was the way he handled himself under pressure.
When we went through customs at the airport, our baggage was flagged. We were bringing gifts to the students at Zimbabwe Christian College. As many books as we could carry. Probably a couple hundred caps. NASCAR caps. Crimson Tide caps. Nike caps. These were all seconds that were given to us. And ties. Dress ties. The folk in Zimbabwe wear a lot of ties.
The Customs Agents were accusing us of bringing contraband into the country for profit without the appropriate permits and fees. Zebedee stood toe to toe with them for over two hours trying to convince them that we brought gifts with no intention of selling them. For a while, I didn’t think we were going to get out of there.
I started writing a note to send home. An explanation as to why I was in jail in a foreign country and why I might not be home by next week.
The Bishop handled himself well. Firm but respectful. I had no idea what was being said, but they let us go for about a $300 fine. The cost of mission work. I thought it was a good trade for not going to jail.
Zebedee was one of 26 children in his family. In other words, he was born fending for himself on the rural plains of what was then Rhodesia. Chasing cows. Milking goats. Learning to read and write. He was basically raised by the Hippo Valley Christian Mission. The mission he served as Director for the last 15 years.
He was the first graduate of Zimbabwe Christian College. The first preacher sponsored to come to the States to earn a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies and Ministry. He returned to the US years later to earn his Masters. But Zimbabwe was always first in his heart.
He planted churches. He helped establish the orphanage at Chiredzi. He was a leader in the development of mission schools that, at the time I was there, provided for more than 17,000 students. He was instrumental in building the hospital we visited. He served on the board of Zimbabwe Christian College in Harare.
We stayed in a house that once belonged to the founders of HVCM, which was comfortable by most any standard. The electricity didn’t always work. We only had running water at certain times of day. But we cooked and ate and rested well during our stay.
Aside from our mission assignments, Zebedee made arrangements for a couple of men to drive us a few hours south to the Malilangwe Elephant Reserve. Where, upon spotting our first bull elephant, CSM Rick (retired) proceeded to taunt this “bully boy”; whereupon said elephant kicked up a storm of dust and chased our vehicle. I may have squealed a little right before I wet my pants.
We all took our turns with small speaking opportunities before schools and churches. A sea of children all dressed in matching uniforms. We ate the local food, often cooked on fires outside the house. Lots of rice and chicken and sudza, which is a ground meal served like mashed potatoes but with the consistency of masonry mortar. A little tomato gravy on top and you’re good to go.
We were changed by all of this. I know I was. And Zebedee was the central figure of all we experienced.
His good friend and companion, Al, said of him, “Zebedee was a remarkable man. A man of distinction.”
I use the past tense because Zebedee passed from this earth two days ago. I want you to know that because his story deserves to be known.
I don’t think any of us want to leave this world without leaving behind some mark of distinction. And by distinction I don’t mean honors and plaques and awards given by men. I mean leaving a mark on the people we meet along the way. Leaving behind an unselfish legacy that matters, if only to a handful of people on this earth.
Zebedee’s influence was monumental. He will be missed.
“Monguananee” my friend. Until next time.