Monday, November 17, 2014

Confessions of an African Mennonite

I am an African Mennonite. It happens that I am also White—my grandparents moved to Zimbabwe in 1921, and my parents moved back to Zambia in 1946. I grew up in Zimbabwe and was baptized into the Brethren in Christ Church (the part of the Mennonite family I come from) in 1964. I went back to Zimbabwe in 1972 as a young man just out of college, and then again from 1988 to 1992 with my family. I have lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe for about 22 years. It is the place I came to faith in Christ and the place where my heart is at home. We have Paraguayan Mennonites and we have Mexican Mennonites in our church—many of us now Canadian. Well, I am an African Mennonite, white skin and all. This morning I speak on behalf of my Mennonite brothers and sisters across Africa. My experience is limited to Zambia and Zimbabwe, and even there I speak from only my perspective; but I will say what I can as clearly and honestly as I can.

1) To be an African Mennonite is to come from the largest Mennonite family in the world. A few examples (taken from Mennonite World Conference’s web page):
·         The BIC in Zimbabwe has roughly 50,000 members and the BIC in Zambia roughly 20,000.
·         The Mennonite Church in the Congo (DRC) has about 235,000 members.
·         The Mennonite Church in Ethiopia has almost 240,000 members.
·         Not to mention East Africa (another 100,000)
Compare these numbers to Canada (just under 140,000) and the USA (about 390,000).  There are roughly 530,000 Mennonites in North America and roughly 700,000 in Africa. We are certainly a major part of the Mennonite family.

2) To be an African Mennonite is to be proud of my African heritage. I remember listening to the wife of our bishop in Zimbabwe after she attended Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg in 1990. She described many good things about Canada and the USA, and then said, “But those poor people. Their old people have to move to special homes because their children cannot take care of them. I am so glad that God has blessed us so much in Zimbabwe that we can take care of our old people until they die!” This sense of community is captured in the well-known proverb: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” A person is only fully human in and with and through community. 

3) At the same time as we rejoice in our heritage, to be an African Mennonite is to be profoundly broken.  This is what most people think of when they think of Africa. That’s why I mentioned my pride in Africa first. We are more than our brokenness; but we cannot escape from our problems. In Zimbabwe about six years ago, the economy had become so bad that prices in the shops doubled from one day to the next. Finally the government abandoned our currency, and today shops use whatever international hard currency the customer has, most often US dollars. 

The roots of such dysfunction include corruption and tyranny. To be an African is to know that my people have done and continue to do such things. As a White Zimbabwean in my roots, I know how the Whites set the stage for the problems of the present government. So deep are our problems that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring the depth of change needed to overcome them. 

4) To be an African Mennonite is to know that the whole of life is completely integrated. Physical and spiritual always go together. So we know that when there are physical or political problems, the solutions include the spiritual as well. And we know that when there are spiritual problems, the solution includes physical changes in the way that we live with each other. Life is an integrated whole, not compartmentalized the way that we often do in Canada.

I remember a youth gospel team from Lobengula Church. They travelled into the Matopos to preach to people in the villages. The people refused to listen, saying, "we have to plant our fields!" The young people agreed and helped them cultivate the ground and plant their fields; then the villagers were ready to listen. Life is a whole, physical and spiritual together.

5) To be an African Mennonite is to belong to the larger body of Christ represented in many different churches. When Mennonite World Conference was held in Zimbabwe, we invited the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Matabeleland to greet the assembled body, because we know that Catholics and Mennonites, Methodists and Baptists, Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans and Pentecostals are all part of the body of Christ. 

That same Archbishop visited the University of Winnipeg shortly after Mennonite World Conference, where he was invited to address the university community on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. I was invited to have lunch with him, and when he learned I was BIC, he said, “I could have been a BIC minister, but the Catholic school was about a mile closer than the BIC school.” As I listened to his presentation after our lunch together, I realized he was right: He could have been a BIC minister! African Mennonites are very much part of the whole church of Jesus Christ. 

6) To be an African Mennonite is to be deeply grateful for God’s work in and through our part of the global Christian family. Just as we connect with other churches in Zimbabwe and the whole of Africa, we connect intentionally with the worldwide Mennonite family. The current president of Mennonite World Conference is Danisa Ndlovu, my bishop from Zimbabwe. Twenty-five years ago, the then bishop from Zimbabwe, Steven Ndlovu (no relation to Danisa) was the Vice-President of MWC. We are proud to be Mennonites, at the same time as we are one part of the whole Christian family. 

7) Perhaps most importantly, to be an African Mennonite is to be deeply committed to following Christ in this world. Because we live in a broken world, we carry our cross daily, even as Jesus called us to do. Although we have not always lived up to it, our commitment to peace and justice is firm and unwavering, rooted in the very nature of the Christ who saved us. 

Bishop Danisa Ndlovu has written up the story of his own father’s death. As he visited his father in the hospital, where he lay dying from wounds inflicted by Mugabe’s soldiers during the early 1980s, Ndlovu tells how he was filled with a desire for revenge on his father’s tormentors. His father, lying on his deathbed, managed to whisper his last words to Dan, “Don’t, Dan. Don’t.” Don’t hate; love. Don’t seek revenge; seek peace and justice. Don’t be overcome by evil; overcome evil with good. 

Often we have failed; the stories of our failures are there. But at our best, we witness to the power of God to transform everyone. Africa gave me my own gift when we left Zimbabwe in 1992. I was struggling to come to terms with leaving, as I attended my last conference at Wanezi. Shadrack Maloka preached the closing sermon at the conference, calling on us to follow God’s will in our lives always. Then he started to sing, “Mayenziwe intando yakho.” Soon the whole congregation was singing with him, and I sang along: “Let your will be done.” Africa’s parting gift to me was to embrace God’s will on that day and always, so that I am grateful beyond words to God for his good gifts to me through my life as a White African Mennonite.

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