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Zimbabwe leader was man of the people

 
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6:00 P.M. EST May 20, 2010 | MUTARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS)

United Methodist Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa (left) leads the funeral procession for Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa in Mutare, Zimbabwe. A UMNS photo by Tafadzwa Mudambanuki.
United Methodist Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa (left) leads the funeral procession for Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa in Mutare, Zimbabwe.
A UMNS photo by Tafadzwa Mudambanuki.
View in Photo Gallery

Thousands of people lined up for a kilometer along the gravel road leading to Old Mutare Mission to pay their final respects to a United Methodist leader who lifted up an entire nation.

United Methodist women in their signature blue dresses with red sleeves and white headgear stood in the tall grass next to churchmen wearing red-trimmed blue sashes across their chests in honor of the late Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa, who died last month at 84.

Children with shorts and bare feet mixed in with women and men from other faiths dressed for a formal service, each jostling for a glimpse of the funeral cortege at it drove down Hartzell Drive to Erhnes Memorial church at Old Mutare Mission.

Throughout the procession, United Methodist women led mourners in singing a Shona song, “Muvige, Muvige, Jesu Muponesi Muvige,” translated to “Protect him, Protect him, Jesus our Savior protect him.” Some 5,000 people clapped their hands and swayed from side to side in rhythm with the song’s pounding, asking Jesus to care for his faithful servant.

The multitudes who came to celebrate Bishop Muzorewa’s life represented the Zimbabweans cared for in life by the servant leader who ministered to the poor and the downtrodden irrespective of their religion or political affiliation. In life and in death, Muzorewa, also a former prime minister, was the public face of the nation.

“Bishop Muzorewa’s strength was absolute humility,” said William F. Marina, a former Zimbabwe conference lay leader. “That humility made him accessible. That gave him the natural mandate to lead rather than follow.” 

Call to ministry

More than 40 years before his April funeral, Zimbabwe United Methodists also lined up along the road to Old Mutare Mission to greet Muzorewa. Then, it was to receive him as the first elected indigenous bishop.

United Methodist Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa addresses supporters during a celebration of 60 years in ministry at the Old Mutare Mission in August 2005. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.
United Methodist Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa addresses supporters during a celebration of 60 years in ministry at the Old Mutare Mission in August 2005.
A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.
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The mission, famous for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 1917, was a central part of Muzorewa’s life.

It was at Old Mutare Mission that Muzorewa was born April 14, 1925, to parents passionate about preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At 19, Muzorewa became a local preacher. He taught in United Methodist Church schools across the annual conference. Bishop Muzorewa dowsed the flame of wanting to become a farmer and answered a call to pulpit ministry. In 1950, he entered Old Mutare Biblical Institute to train as a pastor. While in seminary, he married Maggie Chigodora Muzorewa in 1951 and the couple had five children.

Upon graduation from seminary at Old Mutare, Bishop Muzorewa served as assistant conference director of evangelism. Bishop Muzorewa earned degrees at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo., and at Scarritt College for Christian Workers in Nashville, Tenn. In 1963, he returned to Zimbabwe, where he served as the conference youth director, annual conference secretary and traveling secretary for the National Student Christian Movement.

In 1968, at an Africa Central Conference session in Botswana, delegates from Angola, Congo, Mozambique and the former Southern Rhodesia elected Muzorewa as first African bishop of what was then the Rhodesia Annual Conference.

A leader of nation and church

In 24 years of Muzorewa’s leadership, church institutions like hospitals, schools and farms established by American missionaries continued to grow.

Some 5,000 people gather for a celebration of Muzorewa’s life. A UMNS photo by Tafadzwa Mudambanuki.
Some 5,000 people gather for a celebration of Muzorewa’s life.
A UMNS photo by Tafadzwa Mudambanuki.
View in Photo Gallery

“One of the determining factors that led the United Methodist Church to select Zimbabwe as a site for Africa University was Bishop Muzorewa's leadership and the gift of land he proffered for the establishment of a new university for Africa,” said James Salley, Africa University’s vice chancellor for development.

His influence extended beyond the church.

In 1978, Bishop Muzorewa was elected the first black prime minister of Zimbabwe, serving as a symbol of self-sacrifice, love and genuine compassion that touched many disadvantaged Zimbabweans.

Some say he played a pivotal role in the country’s transition to independence.

“If it was some other power-hungry prime minister, Zimbabwe would have plunged into a bloody civil war”, said Ernest Muzorewa, his youngest brother. “Thank God for giving us a compassionate and peace-loving first Prime Minister Bishop Muzorewa.”

In his homily at the funeral, retired United Methodist Bishop Felton May referred to the David and Goliath story from the Bible to place Muzorewa’s achievements in context.

“Some may have called Bishop Muzorewa a ‘little bishop,’ but God has declared him a giant of a man,” May said.

“The despised and ignored in Zimbabwe, the maimed, the ill, and the poor, found a champion in the mold of a biblical David in Bishop Muzorewa who destroyed the Goliaths of his time and whose death left a vacuum for such leadership,” May shouted to a thunderous “Hallelujah” from the gathered mourners.

A life remembered

Spirited prayers and words of comfort for the Muzorewa family flowed from United Methodist churches in Zimbabwe as well as other parts of Africa, Europe and the United States and from the ecumenical community in Zimbabwe.

“Bishop Muzorewa’s life and ministry was not to champion causes of the privileged few or those connected to the powerful,” said West Angola Bishop Gaspar Domingos. “He had a heart for faceless people just like Christ had for common people. He was able to connect the Gospel to the reality of the common people”.

The bond remains.

At his funeral, a recording of Muzorewa singing a favorite hymn, “God Be with You till We Meet Again,” was played as his casket was lowered in his grave.

“God be with you till we meet again;
keep love’s banner floating o’er you,
smite death’s threatening wave before you;
God be with you till we meet again.”

*Mudambanuki is director for Central Conference Communications for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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