On a recent Sunday in June, in a celebration attended by the Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie, the Zion Children’s Home was dedicated on Current Island. The beautiful white buildings with expansive porches from which to view the Bahamas island landscape, is the culmination of years of work that began as a dream in the hearts of many.
The small island – that stretches for seven miles and is only about a mile wide – sits off the northwest tip of Eleuthera, one of the more well-known in the collection of islands known as The Bahamas.
Also in attendance at this joyous event was the Rev. Gene Zimmerman, a resident of The Fountains at Orlando Lutheran Towers for six years and a retired United Methodist Minister. A former pastor at First United Methodist Church Orlando, he retired from the ministry full-time in 1992 but has never stopped ministering or working on good causes.
It was in 1961 that he first connected with the United Methodist Churches in the Bahamas.
“The Bahamian church has always been understaffed. Very few Bahamians were ministers so most ministers there came from elsewhere, like England and Ireland. They had the circuit system where one minister would be in charge of four or five churches. An English missionary invited me and another fellow to come for our vacation and do some services while there. He invited me back the next year,” he said. “Back then there were about 35 churches scattered around The Bahamas. I moved to Miami in 1963 and the ties became stronger.”
In 1995 the ties became yet stronger when he served a five-year stint as pastor of the Trinity Methodist Church in downtown Nassau. At that point, discussion about the need for a children’s home on Current Island became more focused.
It all began because there are almost no child-care facilities in The Bahamas except in Nassau, he said. So, when social workers on Eleuthera removed children from a home, they had nowhere to take them. Rev. Zimmerman describes the society of Current Island as “matriarchal” and it was these women who would step forward and take over the care of children in need.
“I remember going there at times and seeing the matriarch of a family with three or four children following her around in her home,” Rev. Zimmerman said. “The ladies finally said ‘We need a children’s home.’ They called a meeting and said they would give the land to build it on.”
The people of Current Island set ten acres of land aside, the United Methodist Church became involved and got the cooperation of the government, and the project gathered speed. And, Rev. Zimmerman played an active role from the very beginning. Among the groups who got involved, he noted, was the Bahamas Methodist Habitat and an American counterpart called Bahamas Habitat – a volunteer group of private pilots who fly supplies to places in need. Most of the materials were purchased in the U.S. and then shipped out of Miami or flown there by these pilots.
A majority of the funds for the $500,000 project was raised in the United States. Orlando Lutheran Towers also participated by making many in-kind donations, he said, such as wardrobes, tables and chairs. The First United Methodist Church of Orlando also helped to furnish the buildings.
“One of the main sources of income for the Bahamian government is the duty it charges on goods brought into the country. For this project they allowed anything we brought in to come in duty-free,” Rev. Zimmerman added.
A Winter Park architect – Robert Miller of R. Miller Architecture, Inc. – donated plans for the building, and the local contractor worked without pay and his construction crew took half-pay, Rev. Zimmerman said. The initial meetings for the project were in 2009; the plans were donated in 2010; construction began in 2011; and the building was dedicated on June 23, 2013.
“There are two cottages – one for girls and the other for boys – and 8 to 10 children can be in each cottage,” Rev. Zimmerman said. “The people and the government child service agency are working out the particulars of staffing and administering the home and then it will begin taking children.”
When he spoke to the several hundred people who attended the dedication ceremony, he said, he looked around at the people and all that had been accomplished and felt a sense of gratitude and accomplishment. But, the words that resounded in his mind, he said, were: “It’s done!”
Not completely, however, as there will need to be a continued fundraising effort to keep the home operating. For now, until the next challenge appears before him, Rev. Zimmerman is content to bask in the feeling of a job completed. But the work never ends, he said, because this is only a drop in the bucket.
“There are abandoned and abused children everywhere,” Rev. Zimmerman said. “There are needful children everywhere and we have to take care of them. If we don’t do it, who is going to do it?”