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African churches want to harness power of unity

12/8/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

See UMNS story #576 for related coverage. Photographs are available.

By Carol Fouke-Mpoyo*

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Religious leaders take a break during the All Africa Conference of Churches’ assembly in Yaounde, Cameroon. From left are the Rev. Samuel Kobia, new top executive of the World Council of Churches; the Most Rev. Kwesi Dickson, president of the All Africa Conference of Churches; the Rev. Mvume Dandala, chief executive of the conference; and the Rev. Konrad Raiser, outgoing top executive of the council. A UMNS photo by Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, National Council of Churches. Photo number 03-512, Accompanies UMNS #584, 12/8/03.

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An African band enlivens the opening worship service at the All Africa Conference of Churches’ 8th Assembly in Yaounde, Cameroon. A UMNS photo by Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, National Council of Churches. Photo number 03-513, Accompanies UMNS #584, 12/8/03.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Cameroonian dancers welcome delegates from some 40 countries to the All Africa Conference of Churches’ 8th Assembly in the capital city Yaounde. A UMNS photo by Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, National Council of Churches. Photo number 03-514, Accompanies UMNS #584, 12/8/03.
YAOUNDE, Cameroon (UMNS) - Africa's ecumenical movement is getting new wind.

Church leaders are intent on harnessing the potential of pan-African Christian unity for the well-being of the continent, judging from the All Africa Conference of Churches' 8th Assembly in the central African capital city of Yaounde.

"This may mean speaking out to those in power in ways that will not always make us popular, but we have a responsibility to God and to the continent to do so," said the Rev. Mvume Dandala, the group's new chief executive. Dandala, a Methodist pastor, drew a standing ovation after giving his report to the assembly.

The Nov. 22-27 meeting of delegates from the conference's 169 national member denominations and 27 national ecumenical councils was part business meeting and part family reunion. The event drew representatives from 39 countries. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, the 40-year-old organization is Africa's largest ecumenical body.

Drawing on Nehemiah 2 for its theme, "Come, Let Us Rebuild," the assembly committed to a 10-point plan of action on HIV/AIDS; set in motion a restructuring of the organization aimed at making it an example of integrity, prophetic witness and self-support; and resolved to promote good governance by Africa's nations.

Dandala said churches must hold the new African Union accountable to its own commitment to ensure that member countries are "governed democratically, responsibly and transparently." Religious leaders also must examine the values and strategies employed in the union's New Partnership for Africa's Development to make sure those are accompanied by values and principles that the church believes should guide stewardship of the world's resources, he added.

"The church must ... constantly subject capitalism to the values of the Kingdom of Christ, where caring for and sharing with the weak are the operative maxims," said Dandala, the immediate past presiding bishop of the Methodist Church in Southern Africa.

The years since the conference's 7th Assembly in 1997 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have been rocky ones, marked by management and budget problems. However, staff reports show much ongoing work, including advocacy for an end to Liberia's long-running civil war. But funding from members and international donors declined, partly because of their own financial struggles and partly out of concern about the effectiveness of the conference's management.

One general secretary stepped down and an interim was appointed, serving for 18 months until Dandala took office. The organization undertook a wide-ranging process of reflection and consultation, summing up its recommendations in a "concept paper" titled, "The All Africa Conference of Churches We Want in the 21st Century."

Agnes Abuom from Kenya, the World Council of Churches' vice president for Africa, presented the paper to the assembly, which approved the plan to restructure and reorganize the conference.

The Nov. 22 opening worship drew some 8,000 - including delegates and the wider Cameroonian Christian community - to Yaounde's broad May 20 Boulevard. Worshippers included Mozambique's President Joachim Chissano, chairperson of the African Union, who that afternoon gave the keynote address opening the assembly.

His words were both harsh and hopeful. Chissano said the assembly theme, "Come, Let Us Rebuild," prompted him to ask, "Who destroyed Africa?" for the continent to need rebuilding. He asserted that Africa is responsible for its current woes and should not put the blame on past colonial governments.

Chissano, a Roman Catholic, affirmed the importance of the church, with its capacity for mobilizing people from the grass roots and its experience in providing services such as education and health, both crucial for development.

As the assembly proceeded, speakers and resolutions addressed a wide range of issues under four sub themes: health and healing, Africa and democratization, human rights, globalization and poverty, and the "selfhood" of the African church.

African Americans and Africans engaged in an evening of dialogue, and the outgoing and incoming general secretaries of the World Council of Churches - respectively, the Rev. Konrad Raiser and the Rev. Samuel Kobia - spoke about the worldwide ecumenical movement and African churches' place in it. Kobia is a Methodist from Kenya; Raiser belongs to the Evangelical Church in Germany.

They challenged Africa's churches to make ecumenism real "on the ground" in local communities and to join forces for radical structural change in the living conditions of Africa's working poor.

A full day was devoted to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, ending with a candlelight vigil and service of commitment to a 10-point plan of action.

The Right Rev. Nyansako-Ni-Nku, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon, was elected as the conference's president for the next five years. He had harsh words against corruption and greed in both church and state, and emphasized the importance of a strong voice from the churches.
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*Fouke-Mpoyo is media liaison for the National Council of Churches USA and served on the communications staff at the 8th Assembly.

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