WWU Student Missionaries Experience Life Transformations

The Walla Walla University student missions program is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. We caught up with two students — Kristen Zollbrecht and Martessa Davis — who shared inspiring stories about serving the Navajo Nation in Arizona during the 2020–21 school year.

WWU: Where are you working this year?

Davis: We are doing children’s ministry in Chinle, Arizona, right in the heart of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo culture is unique and beautiful, and I feel privileged to have such a diverse opportunity even in the United States. We live at 5,500 feet above sea level, so our winter months are not Arizona’s stereotypical mild weather. My duties include leading in-home Bible studies, planning and leading addiction prevention programs at kids’ homes, teaching kids’ Sabbath school, and cohosting weekly kids’ addiction-prevention radio programs.

Kristen Zollbrecht: Every week we write, record and edit a six-minute radio segment that is aired across the reservation on Sunday. Three days a week we have kids’ meetings at the church, where we do music, stories and crafts. On the other days we visit several families at their homes and do Bible studies.

WWU: What are some of the highlights so far?

Davis: Many here are slow to trust because of painful pasts. Like closed rosebuds hugging themselves tightly for protection, these souls ache for sunlight. When I let Jesus shine through me, a transformation takes place before my eyes — their petals unfold. I witness a little girl join our meeting with a scowl and no desire to sing or play. She ends up dancing, singing and laughing with the rest. I listen as a controlling and defiant young girl opens up about what is really going on behind the scenes. I hold her as tears spill over the tragic loss of her beloved puppies and horse. I rejoice as a little boy in my Sabbath School class, who seems to hardly listen, pipes up saying, “I want to be baptized!” Somehow, I get to watch Jesus warm their rosebud hearts and open their petals to His love. I am honored to be Jesus’ heartbeat to the hurting.

WWU: Are there any Bible stories that have really come alive for you this year?

Zollbrecht: Yes, when Nehemiah was rebuilding the wall, his enemies tried to get him to come down from where he was laying bricks and stop working. But he said, “I am doing a great work so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (Neh. 6:3, NKJV). God has given each of us a great work to do. It might be kids’ ministry like I am doing here or simply finishing a degree in school. Satan tries hard to distract us. Nehemiah had the focus and guts to give a straight “no,” and that has inspired me to narrow down what my focus is and be OK with saying “no” because it allows me to say “yes” to my great work.

WWU: Has there been anything that surprised you?

Davis: I think it’s safe to say there is a surprise awaiting me every day. One particular surprise is how westernized many Navajos have become. Few speak fluent Navajo anymore, and sighting someone in traditional clothing is rare. It is also shocking how poverty-stricken this area of America is. Our neighbor friends live in a small shack with no running water. Many literally freeze to death without adequate heat. Another surprise is the plethora of wild horses. It is not uncommon to spot a herd galloping past our church. There are also many shepherds. Sometimes we are stopped on the highway due to a flock of sheep crossing.

WWU: How has this experience affected your personal walk with God?

Davis: Something that has really impacted me is how often everyone around here prays. More than that, people here really believe in the power of prayer. We pray before we drive anywhere. We pray before knocking on doors to share Jesus. We even pray with random addicts in the grocery store parking lot. All of this is inspired by the pastor and his wife who truly live their faith. I used to be so uncomfortable praying with strangers, but now it is a habit. People here welcome prayers. I am learning to ask God for more in prayer and lean more on His strength. The more God answers my prayers, the more my faith is strengthened.

WWU: How have you seen God working?

Zollbrecht: There is one lady who Martessa and I study with every week. She had her son taken away from her about two years ago. She has been praying he would be able to come home. Just a few weeks ago her prayers were answered, and that little boy is now back at home. God really does answer prayers. My time here has challenged the way I pray and how much I trust that my prayers will be answered. Prayer has become more of a first go-to rather than a last resort. I’ll be working with an uncooperative kid or with an adult who shared some heavy problems with me, and I don’t know what to say. Now I know that a quick plea to God can fill in where I am lacking.

WWU: What advice would you give students looking into a year as a student missionary?

Zollbrecht: Martessa and I have been so much stronger working together than we would have been separate. Reach out to a friend who you would like to work with and invite them to apply. You never know if they will come along too!

Davis: Slow down enough to cherish and inhabit each moment — engage. People are more important than tasks. Prioritize people. Show that you care genuinely by listening without an agenda. Expect that you will learn something new in every conversation, even from little kids. Be a humble learner. Don’t try to fake your faith; people will see right through that. Learn to say “no” to less important tasks so you can say “yes” to important ones. Don’t neglect “you time.” Most of all, take time to pray. Connection time with Jesus is what fuels every other interaction. Find a spot, find some time, find tea and settle down with Jesus every day. I promise it will make a difference.

Read the complete interviews at wallawalla.edu/news.