Mozambique’s United Methodist churches specialize in welcoming

March 23, 2005

NOTE: This story is the second part of a six-week Close Up series, "Mozambique: A Land of Contrasts." Related reports, photographs and audio are available at http://umns.umc.org.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

MACIA, Mozambique (UMNS)—As soon as the white vehicle comes into sight, people start singing.

Members of the John Wesley United Methodist Church in this remote village have been waiting all morning for "brothers and sisters" from the United Methodist Church in the United States.

In a traditional welcome, women beat grain in a big black pot with tall wooden poles in rhythm to the singing. Hands are clapping and feet are stomping.

"We thank the Lord for having opened the door to take us to this place," the translator whisper-shouts to the visitors as the welcoming singing soars. "We know he is listening and giving his strength because you are here."

Making a tighter and tighter circle around the bewildered, road-weary travelers, the Rev. Tito Nhancale, his wife, Ecineta Nataniel Nhancale, and members of the congregation lift the writer and photographer from United Methodist News Service and carry them around the churchyard like two prize-winning sports super stars.

The "open hearts, open minds and open doors" of this small bamboo church in the African bush are overwhelming.

Beneath a corrugated tin roof in a shelter made of sticks, more than 180 people gather each week to hear about God, teach Sunday school and learn about the traditions of the United Methodist Church.

Nhancale is a retired "but not tired" pastor who leads the congregation. The church is two years old and growing. With the help of a church thousands of miles away in Missouri, the congregation is slowly raising the funds to build a more permanent structure. Proudly, they pose beside the 660 concrete cinder blocks behind their bamboo shelter—blocks that will someday form their new church.

Covenant partners

John Wesley church is one of more than 170 United Methodist congregations in Mozambique, which include some 180,000 people in 23 districts. Each of the churches in Mozambique has a covenant partner in Missouri through the Mozambique Initiative. Rich Hill (Mo.) United Methodist Church is John Wesley’s partner in the United States.

The initiative has many ministries, but the heart of the program comes from the covenant partnerships. Churches, groups and individuals in Missouri commit to a church, district or clergy staff person in Mozambique for three years. They pledge to establish communication with their partner through e-mail, put the name of their partner on the church or personal prayer list and pray for them weekly, write at least once a year, support the partner financially ($990/year for a church and $1,320/year for a district) and send five or more e-mail addresses to the initiative to receive information from Mozambique firsthand.

Ezequiel Nhantumbo, the Missouri Initiative’s representative in Maputo, Mozambique, is the lifeblood of the covenant partnerships. He makes it a point to visit each church in the episcopal area as often as possible -- a formidable task since most churches exist in places without roads or landmarks.

"Where there is no road, I make a road," he says, laughing.

The official language of Mozambique is Portuguese. Native languages abound but the most common denominator in the south is Xitswa.  Nhantumbo translates communications in both directions.

Sitting at lunch provides the hard-working Nhantumbo an opportunity to translate some letters. The work is tedious and takes up any "spare time" he might have to sit and relax and enjoy his food. A graduate of Africa University, he never thought he would be able to learn English. "I was just tossed into English-speaking classes and had to learn," he says.

An example of what he struggles to translate into English is a letter from the Rev. Benedito Faduco at Xitandane United Methodist Church in the Morrumbene South District: "We at Xitandane are fine through the guidance of our heavenly father. We want to thank you for your immense help of giving us the living water that we have today. We thank you so much, we really don't have enough words to describe our feelings and our appreciation - words that can make you feel touched in your soft spot. Our vocabulary is too limited, we can only say ‘Thanks much.’"

The Missouri Mozambique Initiative came about after a conversation between Mozambique Bishop Joao Somane Machado and the Missouri Conference’s then-leader, Bishop Ann Brookshire Sherer, during the mid 1990s. That conversation led to a relationship that has supplied life-giving gifts of wells, bicycles for pastors and district superintendents, financial support for pastors and retired pastors, funding for education and lifelong friendships. Since 1998, the initiative has sent more than $1 million to support various ministries.

Since 1990, the Troy Conference has been in relationship with the church in Mozambique. Other conferences have also established relationships there, including New York, Virginia, Alabama, Sweden and Germany.

Under tree cover

Veering off the paved road, Nhantumbo heads down a dirt trail to visit the Rev. Salvador Antonio at Guilundo United Methodist Church.

Antonio has been pastor at this church for six years. His chapel is half-sheltered by tree limbs and has three partial walls made of sticks. Soon the little chapel will be traded in for a new brick church built with funds from the Stover United Methodist Church in Missouri. Guilundo has two covenant partners in Missouri, Sunrise and Stover United Methodist Church, O’Fallon, Mo.

Behind Guilundo is a well also built by funds from the Mozambique Initiative. Nhantumbo points out that the well is an evangelizing tool for the church.

"They come here to get water and see that the United Methodist Church has provided the well, then they come to church," he says.

Guilundo was moved to its current site after the old site was discovered to be on a landmine field. More than 180 members worship at this church. When the congregation moves into its permanent structure, Antonio hopes the membership will increase.

"Many people don’t come because we worship under tree cover," he explains.

In fact, most of the congregations in Mozambique worship "under tree cover," Nhantumbo says. "Mozambique is a huge country, and every province has a United Methodist Church presence."

Visitors to Mozambique come back changed. Martha Sutherland, a member of Laurie (Mo.) United Methodist Church, wrote this after she returned:

"The Lord is hearing the prayers of Mozambique. When we drink from the well that never runs dry, covenant partnerships are made with parishes in Mozambique, and we give that others might physically drink. We are God's hands in service and are helping to perform miracles in this war torn country. ‘I was thirsty and you gave me drink.’ Matthew 25:35."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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