Parting meanderings

Erik Free, a recent mission appointee from Global Ministries of the UCC/Disciples, takes me to the Beira airport. It’s a simple rather old-fashioned airport. I check in, then go upstairs, where there is a long porch overlooking the runway. Africa, in my view, makes some of the finest beers in the world, so I treat myself to a cold Manica, the local beer (happily ordering it just before the electricity goes out), and sit and watch the inactivity around me. There is a single-engine plane in the foreground, and its pilot comes out and looks at it from time to time, and at some point an anonymous larger plane lands, nothing on it but the numbers. That is all.

 The Catholic cathedral in Beira, with stones from Sofala

We take off to the east, out over the Indian Ocean, then bank southward. I watch the coastline, trying to guess where the ancient ‘city state’ of Sofala used to be. Located on the Buzi estuary, Sofala dates all the way back to around 700, and in the following centuries Arabs, Somalis, Swahili and even Persians trade there. It’s controlled by the Sultanate of Kilwa, in Tanzania, for awhile. They buy gold from the interior, from the Kingdom of Mutapa (Monomatapa, it goes under differing spellings). Then the Portuguese show up in the early 1500s, a bit late for the gold trade. They end up building a fort. The stones from its remains are taken to Beira a century ago, used in the building of the Roman Catholic cathedral.

There is apparently little to be seen of the remnants of Sofala’s glory days. I certainly see none as our plane leaves the coast and heads inland.

Remnants of our histories are still to be found, of course. That is one of my themes when I speak to the Annual Synod of the Igreja de Cristo Unida em Mocambique. The story I have tried to tell in Toward an African Church in Mozambique is their story, not mine, and I urge them to remember it, and pass it on. Those who have gone before us have left us with a legacy, some good, some not so, and it is part of who we are, defines who we are.

                The 'evangelistic hall' in Beira, 1938

In Beira, I visit the ‘new’ church in Esturro, and I ask about what was once called the ‘evangelistic hall,’ built in 1938. It is still there, now divided into a couple of largish classrooms. At the time, its building is a major event, and in addition to Sunday services, several hundred men come to an evening school. Title to the building and property change several times in those years, in a search to respond to Portuguese xenophobia by becoming legally Portuguese.

Another legacy that reminds us from whence we have come, and what we have faced.

I enjoy teaching about the Pastoral Epistles – 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus – in my course on Paul’s letters at the St. Augustine Theological School in Gaborone. There is wide agreement among scholars that Paul never wrote them, that they are post-apostolic, but I feel the need to cover them nevertheless, as it is still a widely-held perception in our churches. What intrigues me – and it is why I am talking about it here – is that the author, often known as the Pastor, is concerned with how we pass on the message, the truth of the gospel, from generation to generation. The Pastor speaks of how leaders are chosen, and how the centrality of our faith is to be shared, and protected.

I suggest to our students that we are still doing this, doing what the Pastoral Epistles say. We – the Church – are carefully choosing leaders to be ordained, and we are preparing them, and teaching them that they too will passing on the tradition to a new generation. The way we do this, in part, is by reminding them, and all of us, from whence we have come.

What we know of our heritage, of course, depends upon what we are taught. That is why quality theological education and ministerial formation – under threat by a lack of will on the part of church leaders – remain so critical. What is at the center of our faith? What is our tradition? What comprises the life of the church universal?

That is why teaching the history of our cultures and nations is so important too. Pastor Lucas Amosse tells me that when he is in school he is taught the history of Portugal, not of Mozambique. And I wonder what children in Mozambique are taught now. Much of the country is surely born after the liberation struggle. Do they know the stories of their parents and grandparents? Do they know of their ancient history, the story of Sofala?

We pass these stories on. Or not. And then we leave.