Tuesday 28 June 2011

To the Laos - To the People of God, June 2011

Dear People of God

I am writing to you on my return from a visit to the Diocese of Niassa, in northern Mozambique. Having had the privilege of working in the mainly rural diocese of Grahamstown, where I encountered both the rawness of poverty and the generosity of people, in many ways it felt like coming home.

Bishop Mark and I travelled around the three Mozambican provinces of his diocese. In some places the roads were non-existent, and at one point we had to find a route across a river, with no bridge, to get to the Cathedral! We began my visit by going to the grave of Bishop Charles Mackenzie, who was first Archdeacon of Natal, and then consecrated in 1861 as a missionary bishop to the peoples near the Zambezi river. He died within a year – and yet today people still speak of his faith and his courage for the gospel. His grave is in a marsh, on a fertile banana plantation between the Rue and Shire rivers. We celebrated the Eucharist under a plastic yellow tent hoisted on sticks, and I felt deeply conscious of the joy of being ‘made one with all God’s people of every age’ (both the living and the departed), and, indeed, ‘all the company of heaven’, as we say in the Eucharistic prayer

After 2 hours’ drive we met parishioners who praised God, with many testimonies of church growth; and then after 4 more hours reached the coastal town of Quelimane, where we ate and slept, after sharing messages of encouragement with the faithful, in a church built by a couple from Nigeria. This small bicycle-filled town has lots of potential to grow beyond the current single parish.

We then flew in a 4-seater plane to Nampula, a more developed town, where, as indeed was so everywhere, we were greeted with joyful singing and dancing. Our theme at the Eucharist, held in an indoor sports hall, was ‘Developing the Journey’, and we focussed on our unity in Christ, building peace, and courage in the face of poverty, disease, and syncretism (being sucked into local, non-Christian, cultures). You may remember that the Mozambican wars of liberation began in the north, and many are still scarred, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, by those times. Yet this is an area of high literacy, forward looking, and with a vision for growth – not only numerical, but growth that is ever-more deeply rooted in our Lord (without which any church risks becoming merely some social organisation).

We then flew to Lichinga, the northern province’s capital, and Bishop Mark’s home. The church is larger and more established here. Near the airport, we visited the diocesan farm (much in need of development), and drove in convoy with truck-loads of parishioners singing joyful songs of welcome, to see two churches currently under construction. We held a service to celebrate St Bernard Mizeki (himself a Mozambican) in an indoor sports stadium. The theme was hospitality, courage and love, reflecting both Bernard Mizeki’s example and the readings of the day. The local mayor – a Muslim, married to a Mothers Union member – and the Provincial President, who is a parishioner, brought greetings, and praised Bishop Mark and the Diocese for their involvement in social justice issues. We had supper with the local clergy and the mayor, and I realised that like Christ and his disciples, so much of the deep fellowship of the visit was experienced through sharing meals together.

On Sunday we took a 2-hour drive to the Cathedral at Messumba. The beautiful lake-side region reminded me of parts of South Africa’s Wild Coast, and areas around Port St John in Mthatha diocese. The vast lake appears much like the sea! It was an amazing day, starting with crossing the bridge-less river, and then we walked – hundreds of us – in procession to the Cathedral, walking fast to avoid the dust and the scorching sun. When we arrived the large Cathedral building was already packed to capacity. We celebrated Trinity Sunday with four exhilarating hours of joyful celebration, singing and dancing, with radio and TV to witness us. Among the overwhelmingly generous gifts that were given to me were 2 doves, 2 fresh eggs, rice, and many crafts. The Bernard Mizeki society sang while we shared lunch. Driving home (accompanied by a bakkie-load of singing, praying, members of St Agnes’ Guild), we saw more churches under construction, and I thank God for the good land with which the diocese is endowed.

The next morning I flew to Lilongwe in a tiny 4-seater, with just the pilot, whose chatty conversation dispelled my great nervousness at being in such a tiny aircraft. He let me sit in the co-pilot’s seat, and it was an amazing experience to cross the vast lake at 20,000ft. Even so, it was a relief to land in Lilongwe and transfer to a larger plane for the next leg of my journey home!

Though the Diocese is 150 years old, I found Niassa to be, like Mozambique itself, full of the vibrant life of a very youthful population. I saw how critical is the role of catechists, in evangelism and building up young congregations so that they learn how to mature and stand on their own feet. Music and storytelling are key in communicating who Jesus is, all that he offers, and the life to which he calls us – which people are hungry to learn. I was also struck by the poverty of the diocese, reflected in the Bishop’s elderly Toyota that I feared might break down at any point and leave us stranded! Yet I saw how great God’s grace is, in challenging circumstances, and came home feeling refreshed and enriched by my visit – feeling the paradox of the kingdom that is, and is yet to come, as I both saw 150 years of history, and felt so much new life that is on the point of being born afresh.

‘Youth’ seems to be my theme this week, writing between meetings of the ANC Youth League and our own Provincial Youth Council. I returned to find the press full of Julius Malema’s statements on reforming land, mines and the whole economy. What he has raised is not new and we should not be alarmed. We need to engage him, and all young people, on what it means to make democracy work. As I discussed in a telephone conference with SACC church leaders, we must have educated public debate on today’s very different sort of ‘struggle’ – the commitment to rightly-focussed hard work that delivers economic justice, and tackles the needs of poverty, education and opportunity which (and Malema is right on this) particularly affect young people so adversely. There is hope, but we must not be afraid of rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. As my visit to Niassa showed, dedication and perseverance, even in very difficult and uncertain times, can deliver new life. So we must go forward with joy and resolve, and speak up for the poor, the fearful, the despairing, in the true hope of Jesus Christ.

Yours in the service of Christ

+Thabo Cape Town

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