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Church can do more to help poor in Africa, commissioners find

Members of the Commission on Communication give porridge to primary school students. A UMNS photo by Linda Green.

By Linda Green*
Jan. 23, 2007 | MARANGE, Zimbabwe (UMNS)

The daily life of a rural African woman is heavy-laden, and the governing members of United Methodist Communications experienced that firsthand.

Arnold Rhodes and Gary Henderson, members of the Commission on Communication, pass out mahewu, a fortified beverage, to children at Mt. Makomwe Primary School. A UMNS photo by Linda Green.

Members of the Commission on Communication spent hours doing what is known in rural Africa as "woman's work." They hauled water, broke wood and built fires, cooked meals for schoolchildren over an open flame and made drinks. They also unloaded tons of staples and delivered foodstuffs to homes in the countryside.

The commission was in Zimbabwe Jan. 4-11 for its first board meeting outside the continental United States. The members observed the living conditions of people in the Mutare area, and saw the impact that the Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor - a United Methodist-supported ministry - is having in helping children orphaned by AIDS. Some of the commissioners held a two-day communications training for pastors and lay people at United Methodist-related Africa University.

Commission member Gary Henderson, pastor of East Shore United Methodist Church in Euclid, Ohio, got a firsthand taste of the hardship many people experience.

Zimbabwe is a country in economic turmoil, and Henderson wanted to know how the people coped with hyperinflation "at rates that we as Americans would not even begin to understand."

As he moved through the countryside, he saw "a lot of need but also people who were willing to share in the midst of their own need," he said. "... There is a sense that people are in the struggle together. They are doing what they can to be a community, to be a family and work together."

Henderson said he was carrying a message back to his Ohio congregation and network of friends and acquaintances that there is something for them to do. "We have to do more ... and challenge people to make a difference."

Poverty and its effects have been identified by the church's African bishops as the most significant issue in daily life, but "poverty" is not a term the people use to describe their circumstances. "It does not define who they are nor define their communities," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive at United Methodist Communications.

Americans think of poverty in financial terms, but it is bigger than that, Henderson noted. "Poverty is the absence of basic, essential kinds of things. In so many ways in our own country, we are missing some basic kinds of things." People have become anesthetized to violence and "how we really love each other," he said. "(We) have become a nation of the living dead. We have become numb."

ZOE makes a difference

Elnora Hamb builds a fire for making porridge for schoolchildren. A UMNS photo by Linda Green.

Commission members visited two mission centers outside Mutare that are operated through the Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor. ZOE is an advance special program of the North Carolina Annual Conference that seeks to embrace and assist children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic through providing school fees, purchasing uniforms and feeding them. The program is supported by partners from across the United Methodist connection.

Every 14 seconds a child is orphaned in Africa because of AIDS, and 6,000children become orphans every day, according to ZOE literature. Africa has 12 million orphans, and that number could reach 40 million by 2010.

As the commission visited with orphans and people suffering from AIDS, "I felt that I walked to the very brink of suffering and despair," Henderson said. "But I also found it a holy time to be present with people who were living with that kind of suffering that would be hard to imagine in America."

The nearly two-and-a-half-year-old ministry is led by North Carolina clergyman Greg Jenks. He was introduced to the plight of AIDS in 2001 by a 15-year-old girl who said her calling was to help AIDS orphans in Zambia.

In 2003, "I sensed that Christ was calling me to offer leadership in The United Methodist Church in caring for these suffering children," Jenks said in a testimonial. "I am convinced that this is the hour that the church needs to respond to the devastating suffering of the little ones in southern Africa.

"As God has begun opening doors, ZOE Ministry has responded by offering care to thousands of suffering orphans," he said. "Hungry children are being fed, eager children are being educated, and little ones are finding hope in our Lord Jesus Christ."

The ministry's infrastructure in Zimbabwe is under the leadership of the Zimbabwe United Methodist Church. ZOE is also branching out to assist AIDS orphans in Kenya through the Maua Methodist Mission, and it is involved in an inner-city ministry in Zambia.

The vision of the ministry, according to its Web site, includes:

  • Establishing care for orphans and vulnerable children in cooperation with United Methodist and ecumenical ministries in Africa.
  • Equipping orphans with essential life skills.
  • Linking churches with ministries caring for orphans in Africa.
  • Reaching children for Christ.
  • Coordinating work teams from the United States.

'The work of God'

Devin Mauney and Chase Bannister, members of the Commission on Communication, haul a container of water to make porridge. A UMNS photo by Linda Green.

At United Methodist-related Marange Mission Center, the commission members arrived for the first day of school and assisted mothers of the schoolchildren attending Mt. Makomwe Primary School in preparing the noon meal for 500 children. Nearly 40 percent of the students have been orphaned by AIDS.

Across Zimbabwe, nearly 15,000 children are fed daily through ZOE. For some of the children, this will be the only meal they receive on some days, Jenks said.

"This is the work of God," he said. "When I look at what is going on, I do not ever sit back and say, 'Look at what I have done.' It is more of feeling like an observer of something that God is doing. It is a calling, and it is a lot easier than being a pastor." Before he was appointed to lead ZOE, Jenks was pastor at Christ Community United Methodist Church in Clayton, N.C.

Commission members arrived early in the morning, like the mothers do, to begin the process of making porridge. While some broke wood for a fire, others hauled water to fill a large cast-iron pot.

In sweltering heat, they stood over the fire, stirring the porridge until it was done. They also carried water to fill a large barrel to make mahewu, a vitamin-fortified, cereal beverage that is served to students ranging from 2 to 14 years old.

A different way

Elnora Hamb, the pan-Methodist representative to the commission from Chicago, is no stranger to circumstances in Africa. A member of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, she is involved in ministries across the continent and supervises 380,000 women in Africa, Haiti and Jamaica.

She came with the commission, she said, "to do outreach ministry that would strengthen the people in this area." She was impressed by the warmth and hospitality of the people, she said. "Although they may be deprived by our standards, I saw joy in them because they do not know the other side."

"The trip for me was about finding something different, a different culture, and a different way of doing things." Upon returning home, she will convey her findings so that her women's organization can become even more mission minded.

Greg Jenks, director of ZOE ministries, stirs a pot of porridge. A UMNS photo by Linda Green.

Hamb, who participated in the "life of a rural African woman" experience, said "it is a hard day for them. It is a hard way of living."

Richard Mawondo, headmaster of the primary school, said ZOE provides funding for student uniforms, medicine, stationery and other necessities. More than 1,500 children across Zimbabwe have received school fees and uniforms from ZOE, and the ministry has donated more than $500,000 in medical supplies and served at least 3,000 children in the past year.

ZOE is establishing sewing projects to empower local communities as they are paid to produce the uniforms. It provides sewing machines for the women at these projects, and they are expected to train orphan girls to participate in the endeavor. The commission visited a cooperative while in Mutare, and members distributed uniforms to children at the Marange center.

"ZOE assists orphans within the school who would otherwise not come to school because they don't have fees and things needed for learning to take place," Mawondo said. Last year, ZOE helped 197 orphans from around the area to attend school.

United Methodists can assist AIDS orphans by contributing to the "ZOE Advance Special S00148." Checks to can be mailed to North Carolina Conference/Raleigh Area, The United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 60053, Charlotte N.C. 28260-0053.

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


News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Interviews

The Rev. Greg Jenks: "40% of the children have lost a parent."

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