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Bishops ask assembly to make Africa a missional priority

11/11/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph and video piece are available with this story.

By Ginny Underwood*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - United Methodist bishops have unanimously called for a four-year effort to help African nations address issues of famine, floods, drought, disease and malnutrition.

"How many television programs, how many newspaper headlines, how many statements from bishops and leaders will it take to motivate us to say to our people: 'Let us give out of our surplus to care for the horrendous plague that is covering a portion of the world and will consume us if we don't address the issue?'" asked Bishop Felton Edwin May, chairperson of the Holistic Strategy for Africa Task Force. May gave a report to the denomination's Council of Bishops during its Nov. 2-7 meeting.

With little debate, the 69 active bishops voted unanimously to ask the 2004 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, to establish a coordinating committee and assign a bishop to focus on aid to Africa during 2005-08. If Africa becomes a missional priority, church agencies will be asked to prioritize their program work to support a holistic approach to ministry there.

The Holistic Strategy for Africa task force is also calling on churches to commit to giving 100 percent to apportioned funds. Such a commitment in 2001 to 2004 would have resulted in an additional $61 million for ministry in Africa, according to May. The group is not asking for additional money in 2005 through 2008, just that churches give the full 100 percent.

"For the first time, we as bishops in Africa can be as one body," said Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo of the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Holistic Africa is the first time that we can see all agency general secretaries at the table with all African bishops to deal with problems facing Africa."

In addition to worship and Christian education, the church offers food distribution, schools, health clinics and hospitals, economic development programs and tools for cultivation.

For example, the Mushroom Project, headed by Africa University graduate Margaret Tagwira, teaches Zimbabwe children how to grow and cultivate mushrooms to eat and sell. The project enables Lineah Mazambuka to feed her family. Lineah, who lost both her parents to AIDS at age 7 and was forced to become head of her household, is now able grow and sell mushrooms, making a profit equivalent to US$16 a day.

Other projects enable hungry children in West Africa to receive a meal on a makeshift rooftop restaurant in Dakar, Senegal. In Malawi, East Africa, a pastor is teaching men and women how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Bishop John Innis of Liberia says this kind of presence in Africa, where life hangs in the balance, is crucial. He recalls the words of Methodism's founder as he emphasizes the need for the church to work together in addressing the continent's problems.

"John Wesley said 'the world is my parish,' so the church in Liberia, the church in Angola, the church in Mozambique, the church in the Congo belong to the people called United Methodists. It is our duty for people to gather here in America and in Europe to work to stop disease and suffering of the people."

Innis himself is a success story. He attended a Christian school in his village, and today he is one of the leaders in the denomination. "We need to continue with this kind of love for God's people," Innis said.

Other African bishops affirmed the work of the church's agencies and looked ahead to a better day for their continent. "We have been given the fish, (but) we want to learn how to fish," said Bishop Jose Quipungo of the Eastern Angola Area, speaking through a translator. "It is possible for us to cease being a poor continent. When we are able to do that, all of your efforts will have very positive results."

The United Methodist General Council on Ministries, the agency responsible for recommending missional priorities and special programs, is proposing that General Conference adopt two special programs as missional priorities for 2005-08: "the Holistic Strategy for Africa" and a "Holistic Strategy for Latin America and the Caribbean." General Conference meets April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh.

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*Underwood is director of United Methodist News Service.

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