HARARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS) - Facing desperate social conditions, 121 United Methodist church leaders in Zimbabwe studied the church's Social Principles as an instrument for change in a nation burdened with systemic economic, medical and political challenges.
"Overwhelming social conditions in Zimbabwe have forced the church to reevaluate how we do our mission and ministry from top to bottom," said Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa, leader of the denomination's Zimbabwe area. "We can't continue in the old model."
United Methodists in Mississippi and Zimbabwe are partners in the Chabadza Covenant.
The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church speak to human issues in the contemporary world based on biblical and theological study.
In Zimbabwe, the human issues include 80 percent unemployment and skyrocketing inflation. A confusing "para-economy," or street economy, pays 3,000 Zimbabwe dollars for every one U.S. dollar while the official exchange rate used at hotels and banks is 250 Zimbabwe dollars to every one U.S. dollar.
One in four Zimbabweans have AIDS or test positive for HIV, while the health care system is overwhelmed by a large number of medical professionals who have left the country because of horrendous working conditions.
Meanwhile, the African nation is struggling to repay a massive debt on International Monetary Fund loans. Many people identify "good governance" as the major challenge facing Zimbabwe today. Frustration is rampant and the administration of President Robert Mugabe recently began forbidding political demonstrations in areas around Harare.
Training and dialogue on the Social Principles was provided during two three-day sessions in February near Harare and also near Mutare. The event was facilitated by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which is planning similar training events on the Social Principles this year in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
During the Zimbabwe consultation, participants discussed the rich Christian tradition of social engagement demonstrated in the Bible by Moses, Esther, Nathan and the prophets. Also addressed was the liberating ministry of Jesus Christ for marginalized people and the church's rich history of reaching out to embrace the least, the last and the lost.
Exercises allowed participants to share personal opinions about a number of the Social Principles, which have been established by the General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body.
Even in the midst of tremendous national challenges, the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe is thriving. A visit to Streamview United Methodist Church, a rudimentary wooden structure, found 1,200 dedicated worshippers and hundreds of children, with membership growing and vibrant worship services.
"The United Methodist Church is well known in Zimbabwe for Africa University and its many other educational institutions, community clinics, children's homes and ministries of emergency assistance," said the Rev. Lloyd Nyarota, who helped lead the training sessions.
"Still we must move on to imagine responses that carry us from ministries of mercy to ministries of justice; we must move on to address the root causes of our problems," said Nyarota, coordinator of special projects for the Zimbabwe area. Nyarota visited the Mississippi Conference in the fall of 2006.
"We also must engage the government and do this at all levels," said Gabriel S. Manyangadze of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches.
"As church leaders you need to get to know your government officials. If you work with youth, find out who in the government also works with youth. Go see them. Talk to them about what you see as the greatest needs in your community. See if there are ways you can collaborate," she said.
Participants pledged to pray for Zimbabwe, lead dialogues on the Social Principles in their home communities and work through their local churches to make a difference.