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Church Battles Zimbabwe's Worst Problems

United Methodist News Feature

Contact: Tim Tanton (615)742-5470 Nashville, Tenn.

Zimbabwe's economy is struggling and AIDS is ravaging the nation, but the United Methodist Church is growing in the Southern African country.

In increasing numbers, people are turning to the church as a source of hope, said Bishop Christopher Jokomo, who heads the denomination's Zimbabwe Annual Conference.

"In spite of all that is going on around us, the church is alive, but it has not been spared the economic hardship that has gripped the region," he said in an interview in Harare, the capital. "So the church is also struggling. Fortunately, in a time when there is so much a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness, the church is able to continue to inspire hope – hope that the Lord will intervene, because I think we are now at a stage where everybody is expecting divine intervention."

The United Methodist Church is the third largest Christian tradition in Zimbabwe, behind the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, said the Rev. Gladman Kapfumvuti, director of the conference's Council on Ministries. It has about 85,000 members and is growing about 10 percent annually, he said.

The church is active on many fronts, preaching the Gospel, providing education through its schools, and operating hospitals and orphanages. It is confronting Zimbabwe's worst problems, such as poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. However, in a land of great need, the church also is feeling financial strain.

"While the giving is going up, the church is going through a very difficult time in terms of financial support," Jokomo said. "There is no money in the church in Zimbabwe. We are just grateful that at the local level, the pastor support is manageable."

Out of 300 or 400 pastors, less than 20 are supported by the annual conference, he said.

The bishop expressed amazement that the church has seen "tremendous growth" in giving despite the poor economy. One reason is that people understand their responsibility to the church, he said. That sense of responsibility dates back to Zimbabwe's civil war, which led to independence from colonial rule in 1980. During the war, church activities were curtailed, and people began meeting in house churches, the bishop said. In doing so, they helped sustain the church.

"These house churches persist today," Jokomo said. "They have become a very important pastoral tool for us."

House meetings also provide an opportunity for educating people in the battle against HIV/AIDS. One out of every four Zimbabweans is HIV positive, according to the national director of the country's AIDS control program. The pandemic has driven the average life expectancy down from 68 to 45.

"This is where the church is under very serious pressure because we need to have the programs to help," Jokomo said. "One of the major problems we have is ignorance."

An awareness campaign is under way, using newspaper, television and radio to educate people. However, those media miss a large part of the population, according to the bishop. "If we continue on this trend, AIDS is going to be a disease for the poor, for the illiterate."

The church must reach those people, the bishop said. "It is only the church that can do that because we are talking about people meeting in their own homes, in small groups."

Basic technology is needed for developing material simple enough for illiterate people and children to understand, he said.

The conference needs a reliable car, equipped with slides, videos and other learning materials, to educate people about HIV/AIDS, he said. That "would go a long way to reach the ordinary people, to reach all the schools."

The conference recently opened the Home of Hope at Nyadire Mission Center, northeast of Harare. There, infants who lose their parents go to be supported in their early years by mother and father figures. Gradually, the child is introduced to relatives, with the goal of eventually returning to the family. A child who is not adopted by age 2 or 3 goes on to an orphanage.

"The idea was motivated by the increasing number of AIDS orphans," Jokomo explained. Zimbabwe is projected to have more than half a million AIDS orphans by the year 2000, according to the government.

The church receives strong support from United Methodists in the United States. The Board of Global Ministries, for example, provides missionary help, and the Zimbabwe conference either has developed or is in the process of forming partnerships with a number of annual conferences, such as Baltimore-Washington, Wyoming (which includes parts of New York and Pennsylvania) and Florida.

More resources are needed, particularly in rural areas, where churches cannot raise enough money to build sanctuaries and parsonages, Kapfumvuti said.

Visits to churches around Harare give some idea of the dramatic growth that is occurring.

The congregation of Warren Park United Methodist Church began as a small group of people meeting under a tree a few years ago. Construction began in 1996 for a church big enough for 450 people. However, since the work began, the congregation has grown to more than 1,200.

"Before we finish it, it is already too small," said the Rev. Thomas Muhomba, pastor.

The members have worked hard on the church, raising the money themselves and not seeking financial help from the conference, he said.

"They have faith in God, and they have faith in themselves," Muhomba added. "It's encouraging. People love God here."

In downtown Harare, Inner City United Methodist Church has three services on Sunday. Two of the services are in Shona, the indigenous language, and one is in English. The Rev. Phillip Mupindu, who was pastor of the church until being named district superintendent recently, said Inner City also planned on adding an evening Sunday service.

"The church is really growing," he said. Two years ago, it had 550 members and was very quiet and conservative. Today, it has more than 1,600 people, including 1,100 registered members, and the services are spirited.

More than three-quarters of the church's members are women, and they are an active part of Inner City's ministry. "We keep those women who are not working occupied," said Dorothy Mupindu, who was president of the organization. Since husband Phillip's job change, she now oversees the women's activities for the district.

Much of the Inner City women's work is focused on helping orphans, she said. "So many people are dying, and we have so many orphans. Most of them are being kept by their grandparents."

The Zimbabwe conference has 428 churches, Kapfumvuti said. In addition, it has three hospitals in rural areas, plus 10 clinics, 10 high schools and five primary schools. It also is the hosting conference for Africa University, which is supported by the general denomination.

Each school has at least one pastor, Jokomo said. "These young children need pastoral care as much as possible. … We set up these schools intentionally to bring Christ to the children."

Throughout its long history in Africa, the church has emphasized education as a means of empowering the people. Many of Southern Africa's current leaders were educated by missionaries, including Methodists.

The conference's schools have had some "exciting successes," Jokomo said. "The first African woman ever to graduate with a university degree came from our educational system."

Nyadire Mission Center is a major ministry for the conference. The center has an elementary school, high school, teachers training program, nurses training program, a hospital, agricultural training and the Home of Hope. At another church school, in Murewa, blind children are integrated with sighted students from first grade all the way through high school.

Much of the church's work focuses on young people because they represent Zimbabwe's future. "We need to prepare today's generation to become responsible citizens tomorrow," Jokomo said.

That work is occurring against a backdrop of declining morality among the political and business leadership, according to church leaders. Corruption and nepotism are problems, Jokomo said. He has urged the nation "to turn to God, or we perish."

"The church is calling on political leadership in the region to repentance," he said. And some progress is being made, he noted. "We see a shift from hard-line policies of socialism, Marxism, toward a concern for the real-life issues."

Though the church is struggling, its message of repentance in the region is clear, Jokomo said. "It is becoming louder and louder."

And people are listening. For many, the church offers their only hope.

"The answer does not lie in political power or economic power," Jokomo explained. "The answer lies in God."

February 12, 1999

See Also:

  • AIDS in Africa by Mulegwa Zihindula, GBGM, December 14, 1998
  • AIDS in Africa: UNAIDS Fact Sheet
  • The HIV/AIDS Ministries Network

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