United Methodist Church Makes Difference in Rural Zimbabwe
by Tim Tanton
Yellow brick walls stand in the middle of a field off a rural highway near Mutare, Zimbabwe.
The walls are the shell of what will be, not of what has been.
The United Methodist Church is growing in this area, and when completed, the new sanctuary overlooking the Vhumbunu Valley will have the capacity for 800 to 1,000 people. The building will be the home of a congregation that now worships at nearby Mandisekwe United Methodist Church.
"The (existing) church is too small now for them," says the Rev. Givemore Chimbwanda, superintendent of the denomination's Mutasa-Nyanga District. He says people "are coming in abundance."
But construction, which began three years ago, has hit a snag. Money has run out. "It may take us four, five or six years" to finish, Chimbwanda says.
He estimates the church building will cost roughly US$50,000, though pinning down a cost figure for the project is difficult in a country where inflation exceeds 1,000 percent. "Nearly on an everyday basis, things are going up," he says.
That is not stopping Chimbwanda and the people of his district from moving ahead. They have something that keeps them going even when money is scarce.
"Normally we talk of not having enough funds to build such a sanctuary, but with Africans, we have what you call spiritual capital," he says.
In an area where money is tight and some pastors haven't been paid for many months, spiritual capital is all important. And that power is growing. People flock to churches, driven in part by poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but also by the need to know peace and hear God's word, he says.
The United Methodist Church is making a difference in Chimbwanda's district. A daylong tour around his area includes stops at primary and secondary schools, a feeding program, a mission farm and a site for a future skills-training center.
The Mutasa-Nyanga District is a microcosm of other rural districts in Zimbabwe, says Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa, who leads United Methodists in this southern Africa nation. Pastors often have to walk because of the lack of transportation.
With Zimbabwe's economic and social problems, "the church is playing a very vital role," he says. It is ministering to people with HIV/AIDS, caring for orphans, providing feeding programs, paying for school fees and meeting other needs.
"The church is doing tremendous work with its ministries, but it is always a drop in the ocean because of too many problems," the bishop says. "But you always do what you can do."
"Getting jobs in Zimbabwe today is a thing of the past," Chimbwanda says. The skills-training center will equip people to earn money on their own, through such trades as carpentry, woodwork, knitting, sewing, candle making and even engineering.
"The issue we are suffering a lot is brain drain," he says. The political climates in African countries have resulted in many educated young people leaving the continent.
The skills-training center will provide a next step for young people orphaned by AIDS as they leave the Fairfield Children's Home at Old Mutare Mission, another United Methodist ministry. The home cares for children ages 2 to 18.
When the orphans leave the Children's Home they will be able to live on the campus of the new training center. Sixty percent of the students at the center will be from the home; 40 percent will be other local people who do not go on to a university or college.
"This is our dream," Chimbwanda says. "We are doing this as an exit point for them to get into the world. . . . Education is power."
"You want the individual young people to be able to stand on their own feet," says Bishop Nhiwatiwa.
When completed, the center will have an administration unit, a chapel for the students, and hostels or dorms. Local people are molding the bricks and donating door frames and window frames, says Chimbwanda. The administrator's house will be completed by 2007, followed the next year by dorms. He expects the training center to start in 2010.
As Chimbwanda drives visitors down Nyakatsapa's bumpy main road, he stops his small truck to talk with Winfilder Chiinze, an elderly woman accompanying a family member carrying sugar cane up the roadside. Speaking in Shona, Chiinze expresses gratitude for the work of the church.
"We are so grateful for this mission farm, starting from the time of our forefathers," she says. Her forefathers attended the church service and experienced the presence "of the Holy Spirit, which saved us from the webs of sin."
Nyakatsapa is known as a place where people don't smoke or drink alcohol or do promiscuous things, she says. "It is a holy land to us."
The motto on the sign of the Nyakatsapa Primary School is "No Sweat, No Sweet."
On the same grounds, a new building is being constructed at the 25-year-old high school. "Currently, we have 600 students in the secondary sector," says Principal Jack Chipfiko. A large quantity of the materials has been donated for the building, and many students' parents work alongside the construction crews in doing the hard labor.
Ninety percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in Mutare are grown at the mission farm, Chipfiko says. The farm has 103 tenants with about 500 acres apiece.
The support of United Methodists from outside Zimbabwe is evident everywhere. One U.S.-based United Methodist ministry in particular, Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor - or ZOE - is present in most of the country's 12 church districts. The program was founded by the Rev. Greg Jenks of Clayton, N.C.
"ZOE is one of our biggest funders right now," says William Sauramba, headmaster of Nyakatsapa Primary School. Among its projects, ZOE started building tables for a library at the school, which has 488 students.
ZOE also has helped with feeding school children, some of whom come to school hungry. "You can't work when you're hungry," Sauramba says.
"Most of our people right now are worshipping under trees," he says. "Others are worshipping in classrooms." The United Methodist Church has negotiated with local schools to provide meeting space for congregations.
One pastor walks to four churches within a 30-kilometer radius. Two of the congregations meet under trees; two gather in small sanctuaries.
Paying salaries is a problem in Zimbabwe. "With the hyperinflation right now, the rural and small churches are finding it difficult to pay salaries," says Bishop Nhiwatiwa.
Inflation rose from an annual rate of 32 percent in 1998 to a high of 1,204 percent last August, according to official figures.
The church pairs urban congregations with rural ones to help alleviate the problem.
"I feel for them because I also am in the same shoes with them," Chimbwanda says. In July - before the currency was devalued - he was drawing a salary of Z$5 million a month. School tuition for his 17-year-old, who is in high school, is Z$37 million for three months. In addition, he and his wife, Ruth, pay Z$2 million in tuition for their 13-year-old. Ruth also brings income into the home through her sewing and other projects.
The church is growing in new areas, and it needs evangelists, Chimbwanda explains. "For me to send those evangelists, I need money."
Individual churches and annual conferences, particularly in the United States, are "lifting us up," Nhiwatiwa says. He names several U.S. conferences that are helping the church in Zimbabwe different ways, such as building clinics and funding communications efforts. The church's HIV/AIDS office in Zimbabwe is staffed by a coordinator funded through the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, and a Pennsylvania congregation is working on supplying doctors for Zimbabwean hospitals.
"This is where we experience the global nature of the church," the bishop says.
"It's great to know that you are part of a great church like The United Methodist Church," he says, "and these extensions of help give us hope and sustain us when we face these numerous challenges."
*Tanton is managing editor of United Methodist News Service.
Date posted: Oct 25, 2006