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.

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The Letter of Tapera Nkomo ‘to you all who are in Johannesburg, friends believers in the Lord’

This morning I am invited to speak to the Synod of the Igreja de Cristo Unida em Mocambique. It’s been a challenge to decide what to say, since neither I nor, I am sure, they want me to summarize the entire story of their pre-World War II history. Doing a sketch of the high points doesn’t appeal to me, nor does choosing one event and dwelling on it. How to keep it short is another challenge, since I will be interpreted into two languages.

                             With Rev. Dr. Lusas Amosse

I finally decide to say something about their story and how it connects to the universal story. I emphasize that it is their story. True, Fred R. Bunker, a Congregationalist missionary from New England, comes to Beira first in 1892, and tries to establish a mission of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions here for a few years from 1905, but on his departure they are the ones, young men mostly, who begin to establish small Christian communities up and down the Buzi and Sabi (now Save) rivers, at places like Mashanga and Mambone, Sofala and Chiloane, Gogoi and Machemeje. This is, I say, your story.

I try to suggest that though they may have felt forgotten from time to time, they are part of the church universal, and can claim their rightful place in the one Body of Christ.

Their story – like the stories of churches everywhere – is not always a noble one, and I remind them that the Church is a very human institution. We sometimes, often, must disappoint God. Kamba Simango – he is my key figure in their story – surely must have done. And yet, I say, God works through us nevertheless. God works through Simango despite his failings, he a critical figure who continues to intrigue me. And so does Tapera Nkomo.

That’s what leads me to what reads like an epistle from Paul. It is written by Tapera Nkomo, in 1942, to young men from the region who find themselves working in Johannesburg. ‘I your brother,’ he begins, ‘let you know… that, in the town of Beira in the country of Manica and Sofala, there is a house of prayer to the Lord Jesus Christ. Dear friends, the door which has been shut many years is now opened. I say: Rejoice in the Lord because the gospel is now spread and preached in your country.’

Pastor Nkomo makes an appeal to these young men, then challenges them: ‘Get up young men. The sun is up, the day has come. Let us walk faithfully…. Love avoids doing any wrong to those who are staying with him, to one’s fellow man.‘I am asking for your prayers. I am also recommending you to the Lord our Saviour. Amen.

‘Good bye, dear friends. I am your brother who loves you.’

At the mornig break a lay leader comes up with a copy of the book for me to sign. ‘Take a photograph of us and send it to me,’ he asks.

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From Botswana to Mozambique

One guide book describes Beira, Mozambique, as ‘drab, dirty and chaotic.’ Not very charitable, and I find it a good and energizing place to be, but it is quite a contrast to Gaborone, which I leave four days ago.

A flurry of activity precedes that departure: A few lunches with people I have wanted to see but never did, preaching a final time at the Holy Cross Cathedral, packing, a couple more classes to be taught, a kind farewell at St. Augustine, turning over keys to school and flat and car. Fr. James sees me off at the airport.

It is a brief less-than-two-hour flight from Johannesburg to Beira, situated on the Indian Ocean at the mouth of the Pungoe and Buzi rivers, close to the north-south center of this long country. I am here to attend the Annual Synod of the Igreja de Cristo Unida em Mocambique – the United Church of Christ in Mozambique – being held in Chamba, a short distance outside Beira. I am invited because I have written a book about their church – Toward an African Church in Mozambique – and they want to meet me and talk about it. The feeling is mutual.

Comparing and contrasting countries is unproductive and often unkind. Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest countries – although its recent economic growth rate has been impressive and the discovery of oil offshore is promising – and Botswana is considered a ‘middle-income’ country. Thus the fine Botswana roads yield to potholed and patched Mozambican ones; and the modern Gaborone shopping centers, to myriad shops and stalls along the side of the road. That’s what we drive along, and see, as we head to Chamba.

The church building is small, so they have erected a large tent and set up plastic chairs and tables. It’s hot and humid as the synod proceeds with reports from regions and parishes, read in Portuguese by someone, then comments invited, either made in Portuguese or in Ndau, interpreted into the other, then the person whose report it is responds, again in a bilingual fashion, and the delegates decide to ‘accept’ the report, or not. All are apparently accepted. It’s very systematic and organized, but also a bit of a strain for one who knows neither language, despite the best efforts of my faithful interpreter to keep me informed.

Some months ago I send 30 copies of my book to the church here, for them to give away or sell as they see fit. I imagine there is limited demand, as it’s written in the wrong language. But there is interest, and I wonder about it. Theirs is not an especially large church. It is a church that has managed to work out its own identify, largely without missionaries, from the early years on; has faced all sorts of adversity, from colonialism to civil war; and has been left alone to its own devices for many decades. All of those are reasons their story fascinates me. But I suspect my version of their story interests them in part because someone ‘outside’ cares enough and considers it important enough to tell.

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