Zimbabwe: We Ask You to Pray for Us

Zimbabwe: We Ask You to Pray for Us

When I was on the plane three weeks ago today, traveling to be with our partners in Zimbabwe, I felt like I sometimes used to feel as a local church pastor when driving to the hospital to make a pastoral call on someone who was very, very ill and might not make it.

Homily for Amistad Chapel service, 5-13-09

James 5: 13 – 16

When I was on the plane three weeks ago today, traveling to be with our partners in Zimbabwe, I felt like I sometimes used to feel as a local church pastor when driving to the hospital to make a pastoral call on someone who was very, very ill and might not make it.

I knew about the complete betrayal of hope that the presidency and government of Robert Mugabe had given the people over the last ten or fifteen years.

I knew about the failure of the government to provide many basic services; I knew about the cholera epidemic because of contaminated water; I knew about the terrible drought they’ve been having; I knew about the unbelievable inflation rate which, over two years, had knocked something like 27 zeros (or more) off the currency, two or three at a time, so that what one earned one day was worthless the next.  In fact, I had hoped to bring back one of the famous 50 billion Zim dollar notes – which I did – here it is! –  but by the time we got there on April 23 it would have taken almost thirty of these 50 billion notes to simply take a short one way bus ride within the city limits of Harare, the capital city. 

By the time we arrived, Zim dollars were no longer being used at all –  only bartering or US dollars and South African rand were in use to buy groceries or water or anything at all – no credit cards even for tourists – and where would ordinary people get US or S. African currency? 

I knew that the unemployment rate  is 94%.  And although Zimbabwe has long had one of the better literacy rates – somewhere around 90% of the people can read and write – it is an educated society – the schools are mostly closed now because the government can’t pay the teachers at all; the universities have been closed off and on for quite some time.  The rate of HIV-AIDS is way too high and because of that, the female life expectancy is officially 34 although the World Health Organization says it’s probably really closer to 30.  There are more HIV-AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe, per capita, than in any other country.

If there ever was a “critical presence visit” by Global Ministries, this was going to be it!  Simply “presence” – pastoral presence – caring presence – there was really nothing we could say or do to change the situation; no right or wrong things to say or do – just to be with our partners, the clergy and lay leaders of the United Church of Christ of Zimbabwe, a church which traces its roots to missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Mission (an earlier name for what is now Wider Church Ministries). 

And yes, people really did appreciate our coming – person after person said, “I bet your friends and family warned you not to come, aren’t they worried about you?  Thank you for coming!”  (In fact it wasn’t so much my family as some former missionaries who called the week before the trip to warn against going – and spoke of the danger of abduction on the road between Harare and the mountain mission station where we were headed – because of the conflict over who controls the area where diamonds have been found near our mission station at Mt. Selinda.

But, once I got there it didn’t feel like a hospital visit any longer – it felt like gracious hospitality with such a warm welcome by the President of the UCCZ, Rev., Edward Matuvunye who will receive an award of affirmation on behalf of that church at General Synod this summer, and his wife Memory (and their three young adult “children” named Remnant, More Blessings, and Wisdom). 

And, at the annual assembly of delegates from the churches, we were escorted right up front to sit in honored seats for their version of a conference annual meeting or even a General Synod – where, to our surprise, (but why couldn’t we have predicted it?) – they debated some issues which sounded very, very familiar – like “how can we stop this renegade pastor from taking a whole congregation right out of the denomination, he’s even trying to keep the property!?”

And,  “what does this line item in the budget mean?”  and, “please don’t read your written report verbatim, just give us the highlights” and,  “we have to call a youth minister to the church staff to reach out to the younger generation!”

The next day we were off for our three day adventure of eight to ten hours per day spent in the little Toyota truck on the bumpy unpaved pot-hole-filled winding roads  (at one point with nine people onboard) to visit mission stations like Chikore Mission in the mountainous areas – with its schools and extremely humble “clinic”, as well as the even more well-known mission station at Mt. Selinda with its church building that’s would seem more appropriate in New England or Europe rather than Africa, its hospital – here’s a picture of the TUBERCULOSIS building which lost its roof in a recent storm – and which One Great Hour of Sharing is providing funding for repair.

Mt. Selinda also has a large and much appreciated boarding school – where the teachers continue to teach even without being paid any salary by the government, as well as our special Global Ministries’ Child Sponsorship Center at Mt. Selenda where these precious children welcomed us with much love but with only the barest necessities of everyday life, and these two boys had taken it upon themselves to provide loving care to these three week old twins whose mother had died at childbirth.

We visited churches of both southeastern Zimbabwe and northwestern Mozambique who hold very dear their historical relationship with WCM’s predecessor body the “American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission” which will turn 200 years old next year.

The young pastor and his family of one of the churches hitched a ride with us part of the way, returning from the church’s annual assembly.  I couldn’t resist taking this wonderful photo of the houses and women across the street from that particular church.

We ate and slept in the very modest homes of church and hospital staff part of the time.  In the midst of their own struggles, our hosts were so eager to share with us, to make us comfortable, to give us tea and bread, and to wash our hands before each meal with a pitcher and basin – this was both an ancient African custom before every meal and also a very good idea in that cholera-infected country!  These wonderful people gave up their own beds for us and even boiled water for a bucket bath for us.  We also stayed in an even MORE “modest” hotel with no electricity one night. 

In the really very humble home of the hospital administrator there was a small sign that summed it up:  “The Little That I Have, I Share.”

On Sunday we made our way across the border into rural Mozambique – perhaps you could call what we were on a road, but it took three hours to go about 30 miles.  It is an area that was especially caught up in the violence of the more than twenty years of civil war.  There’s still a danger of land mines in the fields.

Our destination was a place pretty much “beyond the end of the road”, the old mission station of the American Board, called “Gogoi” – where only the chimney and a few bricks still stand from the original mission buildings, but where the people from the church have reclaimed the land and plan to rebuild a school and to find ways to encourage local families to send their children – especially their girl children say the church leaders, in a country where female literacy is only 26% in the whole country so it must be in single digits in that rural area. 

We expected a request for funding for their project.  The leaders of the United Church of Christ of Mozambique had driven 300 miles to meet us at Gogoi to worship under the trees.  We expected a request but instead we were offered hospitality – we moved to the nearby settlement to feast on “sadza” (a kind of heavy corn meal pudding) and goat meat, and to meet  the regional officials who came to greet us as well as the district teacher and the highest military official.  Again, we expected a request for funding for their school.

But they took us to see the borehole that the government put in for them so that there would be water at the site of the school.  The government official we met also promised roofing material for the school.  And we expected a proposal for funding.  The church folks showed us the homemade bricks they were making to build the school.  And we expected a proposal for funding.

I was privileged to get to preach, but my favorite moment was dancing with the young adults and some of the women! 

Finally, they got down to it – they said to us, quite seriously, “we ask you  ———  (pause) to pray for us and for this school we want to build.”   

They didn’t ask for dollars, they asked for prayers!  They really believe in the power of prayer! 

Here, instead of a government bleeding the people dry, there was a government and a church both wanting to work on behalf of the poorest of the poor.  And they wanted us to see what they were already doing – they wanted us to appreciate their desire to continue the ministry of education begun there almost a hundred years ago. 

And they wanted to ask us to join them in prayer for this new project, that lives would be transformed, as their own lives had been transformed by the power of the love of God in Jesus Christ, and yes, by the power of education!

Let us, indeed, pray that their lives AND our lives will be transformed by the power of the love of God in Jesus Christ!  Amen and amen!