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Zimbabwe celebration marks homecoming for once-exiled United Methodist bishop

1/5/1998 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: A photograph is available

A UMNS feature by Linda Green*

OLD MUTARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS)- Thirty-four years after being expelled from the country, a former United Methodist bishop returned in triumph to help celebrate the church's centennial here.
For retired Bishop Ralph E. Dodge, 91, the anniversary celebration of the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe represented a homecoming. Dodge, who returned Dec. 9-14, had been forced out of the country in 1964 for his work against the discriminatory policies of the former white-minority government.
"It's nice to be back," Dodge said. "To see the development of the church is amazing, and it's gratifying."
The church was founded in 1897 by U.S. Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell, who first preached here to 35 people. Today, the church's Zimbabwe Annual Conference has more than 100,000 members.
A former missionary to Angola, Dodge was elected bishop in 1956 by the Africa Central Conference. He was the only American Methodist missionary ever elected bishop by the African Methodist Church in the colonial territories of Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He served as bishop for eight years before being expelled from the country in 1964. He was re-elected in exile and served another four years before retiring. He now lives in Dowling Park, Fla.
Since 1968, the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe has been led by two African bishops, Abel T. Muzorewa and currently Christopher Jokomo.
Between his missionary service and his Episcopal election, Dodge served for six years as the executive secretary of Africa for the Board of Mission, predecessor to the General Board of Global Missions.
Dodge participated in the 100th anniversary session of the Zimbabwe Annual Conference by preaching the ordination service and helping ordain 13 pastors as elders. He asked the pastors to:
· install Jesus Christ in their minds as Savior and God;
· preach the Word; and
· realize that God through the Holy Spirit will be a guide in all of life.
Dodge also received an honorary degree from Africa University on Dec. 14 for his efforts to promote education on the continent during and after his tenure as bishop.
He was responsible for assisting many African students in receiving a college education in the United States. The Dodge Family Foundation recently established the Ralph and Eunice Dodge Memorial Endowed Scholarship to support a student annually in the Faculty of Education at Africa University.
When Dodge, accompanied by his son Ed, stepped off the plane in Harare to attend the conference and celebrations, he was met by Grace Cole Musuka. Through Dodge's efforts, Musuka received a scholarship to Drury College in Springfield, Mo.
The return to Zimbabwe to take a leadership role in the conference session was frightening for Dodge.
"I have never craved leadership," he said. "I'm not a natural leader and was forced into the things I've done. My whole contribution to Africa came at the right time for what I felt I could give. My contribution was in trying to encourage people to assume responsibility and leadership."
Called a revolutionary because he treated Africans as equals, Dodge was declared a political outlaw by the colonial regimes that ruled Zimbabwe. Throughout his missionary stints, he stirred controversy by setting aside tradition and accepting the hospitality of the people.
In Angola, he said, the practice among missionaries had been to take a cook and bedding along when they visited. Though he, too, had a cook, Dodge broke tradition by eating with the people and sleeping in their homes.
"My interchange with people was on an equal basis," he said.
"The reason I was expelled," he said, "was that I had written a book that criticized the church on racial matters and said the church should be preparing to take over or train people to take over responsibilities.
"The assumption was that if the church could prepare people to take over, then why couldn't the government do the same thing? There was the assumption there that the time had come for a transfer of authority . . . and the government did not like this."
Dodge said he was being true to the gospel by attempting to transform the country's oppressive social systems.
He described his expulsion in his book, The Revolutionary Bishop, which chronicled his experiences with family, friends, fellow missionaries and black nationals.
When asked in interviews about his political activity, he would say he was involved "only so far as religion overlaps politics," he wrote.
"Politics, economics, social life all interact with religion, and certainly religion, if it is vital at all, should influence each of the other phases of life. True religion has no bounds, knows no frontiers."
Upon his return to Zimbabwe, Dodge found that the pulse of the people had not changed.
"They've always been friendly and cooperative," he said. "I depended a lot on them, and they responded to the assumption that they had abilities to do certain things."
Dodge said he devoted his mission to helping the African United Methodist become independent and have indigenous leadership.
Today, he said, "I see in them responsibility and the ability to carry it through. They picked up the reins and have taken hold."
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*Green is the news director of the Nashville, Tenn.- based office of United Methodist News Service.

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