New Mission in Life

My parents are moving to Geneva…Nebraska that is. No where near the Alps. As we sorted through the stuff of our 30-year family home recently, I came across this article that was written about me in 1998 (gasp!) in the Hastings (Nebraska) Tribune.

See for yourself. Personally I have so many reactions…Forget race and class? Underwear tree? Sunglasses? Ugh. Though there are some glimmers of hope in the article, I’m not even sure where to start in my launch of criticisms about the woman featured, that is, umm…me.

Sharing moments of humility among aid workers is all too rare but I think also important. (Kudos to Aaron Ausland for his recent post, which gave me the nerve to share this one.)

The only thing to do is to offer up thanks and praise for the experiences over the years that have shaped, re-shaped, and will continue to shape my perspectives, attitudes, and approaches to aid work and philanthropy.

We all start somewhere. To serve the poor is an endeavor of the privileged. But if we’re open and we’re lucky, we will find people along the way who will challenge us to expand our hearts and minds.

And in my case, clearly, thank goodness for that!

Ah that there would be someone to give us

Eyes to see ourselves as others see us

~Robert Burns


New mission in life

Volunteer trip inspires Bruning woman to help orphans in Zimbabwe

By Beth Bohling, Hastings Tribune

MINDEN – A mission trip to Zimbabwe a life-changing event for Jennifer Lentfer. As a result of that visit, helping orphans there has become a priority for the young woman from Bruning who graduated recently from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln with a degree in political science.

Me with kids at Fairfield Orphanage (in my college daze)

Two summers ago, Lentfer was one of 10 Nebraska Wesleyan students to spend three weeks as volunteers at Fairfield Orphanage in Mutare, Zimbabwe. The orphanage is part of a mission and hospital run by the Methodist Church there.

In July, Lentfer plans to return to Mutare where she and three other women will work for six months helping to enlarge the capacity of the orphanage. At present there is room for up to 40 children.

The number of orphans in the African country is a rapidly growing problem, Lentfer said. There were 67,000 orphans in 1994; at the present rate of increase, it is estimated there will be 620,000 by the year 2000.

Lentfer said one reason for recent changes is the increased incidence of AIDS deaths. Another is the economy.

“We just can’t understand poverty so sever that people can’t take care of their children,” she told an audience of Nebraska Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America meeting March 28 at Bethany Lutheran in Minden.

Lentfer said her first journey to Zimbabwe changed her life. Previously she had intended to work in government. “Now my heart is in relating human to human,” she said. “Forget class, forget race, this is the reason God sent me here.”

The Fairfield Orphanage is limited to children ages 1-5. When children enter school, they are transferred to another orphanage.

“They have no home base,” she said. “[Our] long-term goal is to give them more permanency.”

When Lentfer came back [from Zimbabwe] in 1996, she and other students organized the Fairfield Orphanage Student Association (FOSA), of which she is co-director. To date they have raised more than $3,000 to help the orphanage. They have contacted companies to donate vitamins and medical supplies. Her own congregation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bruning had an underwear tree for the kids at Christmas last year.

Lentfer said FOSA is organized under the Nebraska Annual Conference of Methodist Churches. Groups from the Methodist Volunteers in Mission program will assist the four FOSA members in building the orphanage addition.

Lentfer said the land and supplies for the addition have been obtained. The FOSA members will be in Zimbabwe for six months but others will go for a shorter time.

At the orphanage, Lentfer said, she learned not to jump in with “American solutions.”

“There are so many cultural differences,” she said. “So many things we take for granted the orphans do not have.”

For instance, the first time the children had ever seen themselves was when they were reflected in the Americans’ shiny sunglasses.


Please note: Today I am in no way endorsing expansion of orphanage infrastructure as a response to the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. I have become an ardent proponent of family- and community-based care for orphans and other vulnerable children throughout my career. In fact, the organization I worked for created a publication specifically to address the phenomena of faith-based groups building orphanages for children affected by AIDS in Africa. It is a great resource and can be found at: It offers a guide for Western-based groups and individuals seeking to contribute resources of time or money to support vulnerable children in Africa.


Related Posts

Barefoot in Church

Got ‘Em: An Evaluation Story

Confessions of a Recovering Neocolonialist

Pity, Pictures and Poverty

Aid Worker: First, Know Thyself


  1. Tanya Cothran

    Thanks for sharing. It is always good to take a look back to see how much we’ve matured and to remind ourselves that we are continually changing and learning, and incorporating that learning into our lives.

  2. Jennifer,

    Thanks for sharing. Thanks also for the nod – glad I could shore up your resolve to share this. It is actually quite beautiful and I think you’re a bit hard on your younger self. I see an extraordinary amount of hope in the article and I would take extreme care about launching criticisms at such a young woman were I to meet her today. I wonder what paths you might have chosen instead had the future you come in disguise with the full force of the criticism you could (justifiably) launch at her? Yes, we grow and learn and sometimes there is a bit of embarrassment wrapped up in our early efforts, but it is these kind of experiences and early reflections and inchoate dreams that make for the beginnings of a rich life in this line of work / mission. (yes, I still – perhaps idealistically – see this line of work as mission rather than industry despite some recent postings of our fellow aid and development bloggers.) the reason I see hope is this: we can always learn the better practices, but it is hard for a heart to be right once hard. That you have continued to nurture your heart as you have your mind is your strength. Let’s remember to nurture with grace and patience those young volunteers whose hearts are broken for all the right reasons and whose minds may be receptive to learn better ways of expressing compassion and care for the world around us as actively engaged global citizens.

  3. Thanks Aaron. A friend who was on that first trip to Zimbabwe with me also pointed out how hard I was being on myself (alas, a defining characteristic for me in many aspects of my life).
    Mission, rather than industry, nurturing each other and ourselves – that is indeed the point.

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