Michelle Zombos was on the mission field in Ethiopia, helping to restore hope and dignity to women who had turned to prostitution, when she realised that she was the one who was starved of hope that anything would ever get better.
The realisation came five years after Michelle and her husband took their five children to Ethiopia to work in an organisation that worked with orphaned children. They’d seen it as an opportunity to help those who were broken.
“What I didn’t know was that I was the one who was about to be restored,” she writes in her book, Into the Garden.
“It was there, in Ethiopia, that I discovered who I really was and just how much God loved me. God used Ethiopia to set me free, not just externally, but internally.”
Born in New Zealand to a Western Samoan mother and Australian-born Greek father, Michelle was brought up a Catholic but was put off God and Christianity by the abuse she suffered as a result of her father’s bipolar disorder. This lack of fatherly affection created in her a deep insecurity, fear of rejection and a thirst to be loved.
“God used Ethiopia to set me free, not just externally, but internally.” – Michelle Zombos
As a rebellious 16-year-old with low self-esteem, she used alcohol to give herself the confidence to talk to people. After she fell pregnant at age 18, she married and adopted a healthier lifestyle. Michelle also began to ask God for answers as to her questions about what was true and what was real, and God found a way to tell her.
“After I had my son, I had a dream that I was on a bus and it went down a big hole. And I just knew that I was going to eternity and I didn’t know where I was going to be. I wasn’t sure all my Catholic traditions were going to set me up for when or if I was good enough to go to heaven.”
Three months later, she heard a sermon at a Baptist church from John Chapter 4 that radically changed her life, quenching her soul with the living water of Jesus.
“He was talking about the woman at the well, and my sister was sitting there and here I was aged 19 with my baby. And he just talked about how Jesus wanted to be her friend and I thought, ‘Man, she’s just like me. And he would want to be my friend?’ Like, that was the missing thing in my life because I knew God in my head, but I didn’t think that he wanted to be my friend. So that was the day I gave my life to the Lord just went all in,” she tells Eternity.
That was when God reminded Michelle of her childhood dream of being a missionary to Ethiopia, sparked by a snippet on a children’s music album called A Heart to Change the World along with heart-breaking TV footage of the Ethiopian famine in 1984.
“I remember lying on the bed going ‘God, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it for you,’ and he reminded me of that call to Ethiopia.”
“I just fell in love with the country and the people and just saw how God had actually prepared us for that place.” – Michelle Zombos
About two years later, Michelle met an American couple who had been missionaries in Ethiopia for 15 years, but she had just had twins and she was too scared to act on her dream.
In 2009, with five children in the family, she took a short-term mission trip to Ethiopia, thinking it might get the idea out of her system.
“It was very scary for me to leave my five children to go that far, and I didn’t really have the finances, but God provided the finances. So I just followed his lead – and just fell in love with the country and the people and just saw how God had actually prepared us for that place,” she tells Eternity.
“So when I went home, I put myself into Bible college and I encouraged my husband to go. So he went on a short-term trip by himself and felt the same thing.”
But despite being in Bible college, Michelle’s husband continued to battle with alcoholism.
“This thing of alcoholism ran from the time I met him through to this stage, even though he was in Bible college, and he was just getting pulled up for getting drunk,” she recalls.
“But one morning he woke up, kissed me and said, ‘We have to go to Africa.’ And I was like, ‘what happened?’ And he said, ‘I had a dream. I was in Africa and all these children were around me and I was full of joy and peace.’ And then it was like he got sucked out of that and he was back in New Zealand and he said everything was going wrong.’ And so God spoke to him through the dream.”
The young couple sold their house and bought one-way tickets to Ethiopia, with their five children – who were aged 14, 10, 10, 8, and 6 – to do a year-long internship with an organisation that worked with orphaned children called Blessing the Children International.
When they left in August 2011, “There were varying emotions within the family about going. Some resented leaving our homeland, some were uncertain about timing, while others saw it as an adventure,” she explains in her book.
“God’s grace was on it and our children loved it.” – Michelle Zombos
But God’s grace was on their venture because they left New Zealand with no guarantee of income, no supporters and no visas, but they ended up getting visas through the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia and, against all expectations, she also received a student allowance and family tax benefit from the New Zealand government.
“I’d been told ‘we don’t do that for families that are overseas’, so God’s grace was on it and our children loved it. Most children do – they didn’t even go through a culture shock experience. They just embraced it. They loved the food. They were riding on horses. We didn’t have a car, so we walked everywhere and it was awesome.”
That first year was the best of their time in Ethiopia, mainly because Michelle’s husband didn’t drink.
“But then we had an incident where my daughters and I had gone for a walk and got confronted with three guys with knives,” she says.
“This was a trigger for my ex-husband, where he felt like he wasn’t there to help us. And he felt helpless. So he went back to his default setting, which was to drown his sorrows in alcohol and go and get drunk. And then when he would get drunk, he would be quite violent.
“I felt it was very unsafe for me to have conversations with men because I was worried that I’d get punished for it.” – Michelle Zombos
Michelle’s husband would also abuse her verbally, telling her she was a cheater, until she finally began to believe it.
“He was torturing me until I would admit it. And so, at one point in my late 20s, there was a young man that started paying me attention and I ended up kissing him because in my head at the time, I just thought, ‘Well, he thinks I’m doing it anyway.’ Silly, but that was what I started to believe about myself. And it actually took a long time for me to recover from that because even after my marriage ended, I felt it was very unsafe for me to have conversations with men because I was worried that I’d get punished for it.”
Michelle realised it was a lot simpler to give up things like smoking and drinking than to conquer unforgiving thoughts or escape a co-dependent relationship where she was the rescuer and he the rescued.
“Once again, I found myself in the midst of a pattern that kept repeating itself: Lies and deception, manipulation and defensiveness, repentance and change. I was always ready to forgive a changed person, yet the cycle continued, and I was frustrated that I was always the one that paid for his actions,” she writes in her book.
“I was frustrated that I was always the one that paid for his actions.” – Michelle Zombos
Michelle had lived for so long in church bubbles – where people just urged her to pray and her husband would get better – that she couldn’t recognise the dynamics of blame and shame that revolved around addiction.
While attending a church that had been planted in the red-light district of their town, right next to a brothel, she finally faced her moment of truth.
“As I drove down the street one night, it was really heartbreaking to see the children running in and out of the brothel while the women were servicing these men,” she recalls.
“After there were two deaths, one of the babies on the street and another lady, we decided we needed to do something and started a rehabilitation home where we could get them off the street. We partnered with an organisation I had visited in 2009 called Women at Risk … and we were able to give the women some hope – because all of their stories were that they got into prostitution because they had lost hope that anything will get better.
“The vision statement of Women at Risk was renewing hope and we saw that their hope was renewed and they got back into society with dignity and kind of a new vision for their lives.”
“I was going ‘God, why am I still in this situation?’ I was on the mission field in my late 30s and still dealing with the same issues as when I was 16 and 17. And definitely after 20 years of dealing with the same issues, you start to lose hope that anything’s going to get better.”
“I started to grow and be restored and my husband stayed the same.” – Michelle Zombos
At this point, God intervened in the shape of American psychologist Dan Allender, author of Healing the Wounded Heart, who ran a train-the-trainer course at Women at Risk.
“He talked about when you’re dealing with trauma, we shouldn’t compare our trauma stories to other people’s – we should compare our trauma with the garden and how God originally intended us to be,” says Michelle.
“So I went to Wisconsin in the States and did another conference with him and that was where I started my restoration journey because I started to find healing for my childhood issues.
“As I was finding healing for that, I started to grow and be restored and my husband stayed the same. And as I grew, I started to become strong enough to detach from him and see that we had an addictive relationship or narcissistic relationship where you don’t have boundaries.”
She began praying to God to give her eyes to see what she was not seeing. And he did. Discovering that her husband was drinking again while he was in Australia and Michelle and four children were in Ethiopia, Michelle found the courage to tell him their marriage was over. That same week, she had coffee with a woman who kept crossing her path in every ministry she put her hand to in Addis Ababa, where she was then based.
“She was Ethiopian, but she had just come back to Ethiopia after spending six years in the States, specifically studying psychology around addiction,” she says.
“And so I was like out of 80 million people God put this one lady in my path who knows everything about addiction and recovery, and she helped me to name his addiction and she could see the dynamics that were happening that revolve around addiction that I didn’t really know about and she helped me to go through my recovery.”
In 2016, Michelle moved with her children to Sydney, where her mother was living, and found emotional release in an Al-Anon support group for families of people struggling with addiction.
She also joined Hillsong Church where she connected with a pastor who ministers to women who have come through domestic violence relationships in a program called ShineWomen. She also started serving in the addiction recovery ministry One80tc.
Michelle was really struck when she came upon the phrase “a crown of beauty instead of ashes” in Isaiah Chapter 61 and she began to see how each line of the first three verses of that chapter speaks to a different part of our being.
“We need to be awakened to the importance of the whole of our being because God cares about every part of our being.” – Michelle Zombos
In Michelle’s eyes, “good news to the poor” addresses our financial health; “bind up the broken-hearted” speaks of our mental health; “freedom for the captives” appeals to our social wellbeing, “release from darkness for the prisoners” creates a connection to our spiritual health while to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” appeals to our vocational health. When Jesus quotes this passage in Luke 4, he adds “recovery of sight for the blind” which Michelle believes represents our physical health.
“Why was it necessary for God to send Jesus to restore every part of our lives?” she writes in her book.
“Because in the garden, every aspect of humanity was affected by the fall! Financially, blessing was stripped from Adam and Eve as they were displaced from the garden, their place of abundant provision. Physically, Eve had to now bear children in pain. Socially, the relationship between these newlyweds became strained under the pressure of blame and brokenness. Psychologically, before the fall, their minds were free of condemnation and shame, yet this one act caused them to clothe themselves and hide away because of shame for the first time. Vocationally, Adam’s life became more arduous as his hobby of tending to the garden became a sweat-breaking chore. Spiritually, their relationship with God was fractured and resulted in a death of what was, which created the framework for what now is and forever will be.”
She tells Eternity: “In my journey, I saw the church only deal with things spiritually and I wanted to share the message that we’re not just spiritual, we’re in relationships that are real, that deal with psychological issues or financial issues. And, we need to be awakened to the importance of the whole of our being, because God cares about every part of our being.
“We can’t pray and read the Bible and everything’s going to get better. He’s actually given people all over the world strategies to help us improve and to grow in these areas … A lot of my story forms parallels with the different areas that I address through the book and how I’ve found restoration and others can too.”
Michelle’s personal restoration includes a new healthy relationship, children working in youth mission and a job with Mission Aviation Fellowship, a role that fulfils her heart for mission.
She says her life verse has always been Psalm 37: 4 – “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
“God has given me the desires of my heart. He has seen my heart and been able to restore it.”