Charlene, 37, was a successful saleswoman and DJ. She tells Alpha how sex, drugs and alcohol came with the job description, while happiness and a decent night’s sleep became hard to find.
Growing up, were you familiar with the Christian faith?
I had no Christian influence for most of my childhood. My parents were farmers. I was born in Zimbabwe and adopted at one week old.
I went to university in Stellenbosch, South Africa, to study biochemistry and genetics. I loved music and got into the party lifestyle: DJ-ing on the weekends and drinking so much that I would black out at least three times a week. I was experimenting with drugs: smoking weed and taking ecstasy.
What made you decide to leave South Africa?
On the one hand I was loving life, but I was also scared that I was getting out of control; my drinking was really bad. After graduation I was offered a residency as a DJ in a fancy club in Cape Town, but I knew it would be the path to my destruction as drugs were so freely available. Instead I moved to London and got a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep and quickly became successful.
How did you find life in London?
Moving to London was fun; everything was new and I was doing really well. But in 2002 I ended a relationship I was in at the time. I had tried sex, drugs, alcohol, money, success, but none of it made me happy. I was still drinking heavily and not able to sleep at night.
“I had tried sex, drugs, alcohol, money, success, but none of it made me happy.”
Why did you decide to try Alpha?
I had a friend who invited me on Alpha three times, but each time I just laughed at her; I wasn’t interested in church.
A few weeks later another friend called Tanya invited me to lunch. She started talking about this course she was doing saying, ‘It puts me back on track; it’s like a tune-up for the mind and the body.’ I thought, ‘That is exactly what I need!’ When she asked if I wanted to do the course I said yes – without even knowing what it was. When she then said it was Alpha my heart sank. I tried everything I could think of to get out of it, but Tanya was having none of it.
Was it what you expected?
I started Alpha at Holy Trinity Brompton in London and found it all very awkward. But I noticed a light coming out of the faces of all the people running it, and I wanted what they had.
Still, for some reason I had an irrational fear of the Holy Spirit. It just freaked me out, so initially I was reluctant to go on the weekend away. In the end, I decided to go to the Holy Spirit day. I was prayed for and it was amazing. I felt I was being washed with a beautiful wind that was flowing through my body. My mind had been buzzing – full of worries, distractions, fears and noise – but suddenly it went quiet. I felt completely loved by God and completely accepted. I had a peace that has never left. For the first time in years I was able to sleep at night and my addictions left almost instantaneously.
“I felt completely loved by God and completely accepted."
Things seemed to change a lot after that. How did your charity ZimKids start?
I was baptised and the following Christmas I went back to Zimbabwe to see my family. When I was there I felt God show me the need in the country, asking me to do something about it. I told him I could give him six to twelve months of my time to help in Zimbabwe, and then I would return to my life in London.
I ended up leading a group from my local church on a mission trip to Zimbabwe. On the trip we met a seven-year-old girl who was dying and needed care. All the Harare programmes were full so I found her a bed in a rural hospital. In the hospital I was taken to a backroom with sixteen abandoned dying babies. They had wet nappies and no one to care for them. I went out to go and buy them food but as I drove I was crying so hard I had to stop in a field. I said, ‘Lord I know this is not what you want for those babies, I am here, I am available. Tell me what to do and I will do it.’
After this trip, my church partnered with me and we started a child sponsorship programme. From that small beginning ZimKids was born and we now have six staff, support 120 children and are helping to get forty-nine families self-sufficient in the poorest area of Zimbabwe.
I am so grateful for Alpha; God used it as the tool to bring me to him, and because of him I am now able to help with orphans and the vulnerable in my country.
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Find out more about Charlene and ZimKids at zimkids.org