BWC and Zimbabwe partners adopt ‘a spirit of safari’
BWC and Zimbabwe partners adopt ‘a spirit of safari’
BY MELISSA LAUBER
In Zimbabwe you see a different set of stars than the ones that shine above the Baltimore-Washington Conference. In Zimbabwe the average salary of a pastor is $300 a month; the minimum annual salary and housing allowance of BWC pastors is $59,262. In Zimbabwe the church is growing; in the Baltimore-Washington Conference membership and worship are in decline.
More than an ocean separates United Methodists on the two continents. But from July 12 through July 24, a diverse team of 33 people journeyed to Zimbabwe to deepen the partnership of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area and unite in common ministries.
Encountering God in the faces
The focus of the group was a pastors’ school at Africa University and a mission experience helping to build the sanctuary of Gwese UMC. However, it was often in the unplanned moments when the deepest connections were made.
For Bishop Marcus Matthews, episcopal leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, it was looking at the faces of the students who gathered for Sunday School at Hilltop UMC in Sokubva, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Africa. Some of the living conditions startle the soul and "you're aware of the overwhelming poverty. But there is so much more," he said.
For Matthews, and many of the members of the BWC team, spending time playing with children, at Hilltop and with two United Methodist-sponsored program for orphans, felt like an encounter with the living God.
But it was also a prompting to assist these children in overcoming obstacles and reaching the full potential God has in store for each of them, the bishop said.
For Matthews, whose ministry has a strong emphasis on education, living in the fullness of God often involves learning. As the vice chairperson of the Board of Directors for Africa University, he was excited about the potential the Pastors’ School has to ripple throughout churches and communities, shaping the life of a nation.
Pastors’ School offers learning, challenges
Every other year, leaders from the Baltimore-Washington Conference participate in the Pastors’ School, which draws Zimbabwe's 425 clergy together for a time of learning, worship and fellowship at Africa University in Old Mutare.
Members of the BWC team offered classes on such topics as sacraments, statistical reports, community development, Sunday School and retirement.
During one session, youth and young adults from the Baltimore-Washington Conference commanded the energy and attention of the clergy, challenging them to begin to embrace young people as relevant, enthusiastic, authentic and loving members, and even leaders of their churches.
Jordan Warner and Joia Daniels, 24-year-olds from Emory Fellowship UMC in Washington, unpacked the story in Acts 20 of Eutychus who was "preached to death" by the apostle Paul.
"As Christians, we're responsible for the spiritual death of our young people. As Christians, we must take responsibility for killing them and bring them back to life," said Warner. Their unusual interpretation of this story was applauded by the Zimbabwe clergy who are just beginning to create ministries for youth and young adults.
Another workshop that drew energy from the pastors was on sacraments, taught by the Revs. Laura Easto and Cynthia Moore, district superintendents in the Baltimore Region. Some of the clergy in Zimbabwe have not had the benefit of a formal theological education and others lack training in United Methodist polity.
A common understanding of the sacraments is elusive and many did not embrace the United Methodist principle of Communion being served to all, questioning whether the un-baptized, un-churched or others could participate in the sacrament.
Their presentations sparked discussion and debate. Moore was touched when a pastor who barred people from the Communion table approached her and shared that she was going to change her practices in worship to become more welcoming.
BWC pastors also preached during the Pastors’School. The Rev. Evan Young, superintendent of the Annapolis District, touched a particular chord with his sermon of encouragement and fanning the flame of the Gospel despite personal and societal hardships.
“The message was just powerful, contextual and relevant in assisting the pastor to respond positively to the socio-economic and political circumstances of our time...it is the word of the time,” the Rev. Togara Bobo, pastor of St. Johns Chikanga in Mutare, told the Zimbabwe church press.
“It’s critical that we be here,” said Greater Washington District Superintendent Joseph Daniels, who led the trip. “We live in a global world. The world is bigger than our country and God is much bigger than the world. Our role is discovering and responding to who God is and what God is up to.”
Daniels said he has learned a great deal about evangelism and effective small group ministries from his partners in Zimbabwe. But even more impressive to him is how the pastors “serve God with such joy. This rubs off on you,” he said. “I will take home some of that joy and hope.”
Passing bricks up a hill
The summer’s trip to Zimbabwe marked the first time that a large group of people from the Baltimore-Washington Conference accompanied those teaching at the Pastors’ School to serve on a mission trip. Twenty-four members of the BWC team worked over two days helping to build a sanctuary at Gwese UMC, a church in the countryside more than an hour by bus outside of Mutare.
Gwese has about 300 members and 150 in worship. Created in the 1920s, the congregation worships in an open air pavilion with stone benches and a stone pulpit, said Mutare District Superintendent Daniel Chitsiku. The members worship from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday and during the rest of the week care for 82 orphans who live scattered throughout the village. They also operate a modest grinding mill to raise money for the orphans’ food and school fees.
While most of the people in the village have cell phones, electricity is limited and people bring the phones to a hut where there is solar energy to be charged. It’s a simple life, said the Rev. Caleb Rubando, the church’s pastor. But it can also be a bit difficult and tricky. His members respond with faith, he said. “They have zeal.”
It is that zeal that enables the church’s United Methodist Youth Fellowship to crush stones to make the sand needed to make bricks. The bricks are being used to build a one-room sanctuary on top of a nearby hillside. Money to build the church is being provided by the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s Hope Fund.
“This new structure is a dream come true,” Rubando said. “The new church will mean new life.”
Old women and young men from the congregation worked side-by-side with the BWC team. While some in the group did plastering, most joined in a line that wound up a hillside.
“From hand-to-hand we passed the bricks,” said Angelica Stewart of Emory Fellowship UMC. “Hand-in-hand, we’re building a church. If our church connects like that brick line, we’ll get to the top.”
Amid shared songs and sweat, the bricks went up the hill, and then the group took time for worship and fellowship.
“What struck me was that with just simple pews and a pulpit they had everything they needed for worship. It was all about Jesus,” said Sharon Milton, of First UMC in Hyattsville. “They have something money can never buy. There’s a peace about Africa. It’s overwhelming, I just love it. This has been a life-changing experience.”
Partnership bears fruit
“The partnership between the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area and the Baltimore-Washington Conference was forged 16 years ago by the Holy Spirit,” said Daniels, who now leads the Africa Initiative Project for the conference. It was “designed for long-term learning and spiritual blessing.”
One of the remarkable successes of this partnership has been a focus on HIV/AIDS education at Africa University and throughout the nation that has dramatically raised awareness of the causes of the disease and helped stem its spread.
“It’s one of the greatest things I’ve observed,” said Bishop Matthews, who gives credit for the dramatic changes to the leadership of the late Bishop Christopher Jokomo. “When we started the partnership, it was almost taboo to use that word. As partners, we helped to influence their educational process about the disease and today we’re privileged to see the results of it.”
In recent years, the conference has also raised $600,000 through the Hope Fund for mission projects at churches, parsonages, schools, orphanages and clinics. Volunteers in Mission teams from throughout the conference have been active throughout Zimbabwe assisting with the Hope Fund’s projects.
With the completion of the sanctuary at Gwese and the Mutasa-Nyanga District Parsonage, the Hope Fund projects will be complete and much of the ministry efforts of the Baltimore-Washington Conference in Zimbabwe are expected to shift to supporting Africa University.
The dream continues
“Africa University is the ultimate connectional story. It is the church at its best,” said the Rev. Jim Salley, Associate Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement at the school. Africa University, which now has more than 4,000 alumni and 1,399 students in six courses of study, draws together students from 25 African nations.
AU was started 20 years ago by an action of General Conference with 40 students in old farm buildings. The university receives funding from every annual conference through apportionments and other giving.
In the recent “hard years,” that hit Zimbabwe between 2007 and 2010, hyper-inflation was at more than one million percent. “It’s hard to imagine today,” said the school’s Vice Chancellor, Fanwell Tagwira. “You would walk into a shop and price an item and then come back in two hours and the price would have gone up by five times. … Food was hard to get and planning was impossible because money wouldn’t work anymore.
“The journey has been eventful, but God was there for us,” Tagwira concluded. “We paid our staff through food, but through it all, we never lost a day of learning, not a single day.”
“The Baltimore-Washington Conference has been involved with Africa University from the very beginning and you still are,” Salley said. “That is a God-given gift to us. We can’t say thank you enough for being the church, not only in the U.S., but in the world.”
“This is a spiritual thing for me,” said Bishop Matthews, “because every time I see the students I see the face of Christ in them. Their stories are stories that touch the heart. Many of them have lived lives that have been broken. But the university helps put them back together. This is a place of transformation – for the students and for the continent.”
The Spirit of Safari
During the opening sermon at the Pastors’ School, Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa called on all those present to adopt a “spirit of safari,” traveling on a journey of faith together with urgency, expectancy and an openness to wonder.
Adopting this safari spirit, Daniels then called on the people of Zimbabwe and the Baltimore-Washington Conference “to do new things, do transforming things and do things we never thought were possible.”