21st-century missionary

Medical assistant aids South Africans at clinic and schools
November 5, 2008

Twenty-six-year-old Jesse Zink considers himself a missionary; just not a traditional one.

"I have no interest in thumping the Bible over any poor people's heads in the middle of nowhere," he said during a recent visit to the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

God's work is "about reconciliation and bringing people together and to God," he said, but with the understanding that "it takes time" -- time that he will give as he returns to the Diocese of Mthatha in South Africa as a medical assistant to the Itipini Community Project.

"What I've learned this past year is that, for poor people, their timeline is: 'How do I get to tomorrow?'" said Zink, who grew up in Massachusetts. "My timeline is like a year, and God's timeline is inconceivable. And that's the challenge -- figuring out where God's plan fits into this."

In August 2008, Zink, a member of the Episcopal Church's Young Adult Service Corps (YASC), completed a year of service in Itipini, a community of nearly 3,000 just outside of Mthatha that grew out of a former municipal dump.

YASC offers one-year assignments to work with a local church (or church-founded institution or program) and includes guided reflection and mentoring. The program intends to bring young adults into the life of the Anglican Communion and into the daily work of particular communities; it also intends to bring the resources of the church into the lives of young people as they explore where their faith may be leading them. The emphases of YASC include cultural engagement, spiritual commitment and vocational reflection – all explored while engaged in ministry.

Medical assistance
Zink worked with Jenny McConnachie who founded the African Medical Mission (AMM) with her husband, the late Dr. Chris McConnachie, an orthopedist from Hendersonville, N.C. AMM provides the $100,000 per year necessary to operate the community project.

"We provide the preschool lunch, after-school snack, and we feed those with HIV," said Zink. "We also give out a nutritional supplement like enriched milk about twice a month and a lot of vitamins to people with HIV."

They encourage people to get tested for HIV, but resistance is high, he said. "Jenny and I have talked about getting people who have been tested, started treatment and are living their lives to speak with people who are hesitant about being tested."

The clinic averages 40 patients a day, he said, treating anything from headaches to complications from HIV and tuberculosis. In the last few years, South Africa has rolled out a "pretty good" anti-retroviral program for HIV, and medicine exists now to make HIV a chronic illness rather than the swift death sentence it has been, he said.

The clinic also helps with family planning and baby care, teaching HIV-positive mothers that they should not breastfeed.

They provide formula replacement that, in turn, acts as a magnet for patients.

"It's like the hook to bring them in because, once you have the baby and mother, then you can begin to check on the status of the other siblings in the family," said Zink.

Helping children
At the preschool, four teachers instruct 40 to 60 children ages 2 ½ to 6 in two classrooms. The after-school program operates a gym, game room, garden and a choir -- all aimed, Zink said, at keeping the children from "getting into trouble in town after school."

"I also work with a number of high school students, about eight girls, teaching them to speak English," he said. "We've been reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and we are now on to Charlotte's Web."

Zink said he also was proud of the progress of a micro-credit program on which he took the lead. It gives small loans to people so they can work their way out of poverty.

They began with a $1,000 loan dispersed among nine women to start a clothing business, convenience store and an operation in which chickens are purchased wholesale and resold in Itipini for a profit.

"So far, I understand that they have all made their initial repayments," he said.

Zink feels "good about being there," he said. "In terms of my own spiritual development, I believe service is at the core. In Genesis 12, where God says to Abraham, 'Get up and go, I will bless you, and through you all the nations will be blessed,' that's my core verse for mission because I'm blessed not to enrich myself but to bless others."

Since the beginning of his missionary journey, Zink, a former reporter for a newspaper in Alaska, has blogged about the experience. Visit http://mthathamission.blogspot.com/ to see pictures and learn more.