Speaking up against oppression and injustice is not optional for a Christian, the head of the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe says.
“You cannot say you are preaching the Gospel if social justice is not part of your work,” Presiding Bishop Solomon Zwana said while in Melbourne last month.
Dr Zwana led a delegation from the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe during a month-long visit to Australia that spanned the country, taking in Perth as well as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
The visitors met with senior Uniting Church and UnitingWorld representatives, including Vic/Tas synod moderator Sharon Hollis, who learnt that the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe faces the enviable challenge of rapid growth.
“It is growing by leaps and bounds, every Sunday congregations are receiving new members who are joining. Even those who were not attending are coming back to be part of the church,” Dr Zwana said.
This has led to a shortfall in trained clergy and strained the church’s resources, especially in reaching out to disadvantaged and remote areas.
Among other projects, the church runs schools, is attempting to provide medical clinics in remote areas and ministers to street kids.
Dr Zwana said economic hardship was making it difficult “to mobilise the necessary resources for the work of God to carry on”.
Supermarket shelves are left unstocked as the country begins to experience the types of shortages it last suffered in 2008.
“The economy is being affected by bad political decisions,” Dr Zwana said.
“It is getting worse. Fuel is now an issue. There are now long queues because they can’t get foreign currency to buy fuel.”
Foreign currency is often hoarded in Zimbabwe because of increasing concerns over the local money and financial system.
“People are no longer banking their money because it is difficult to get it out,” Dr Zwana said.
“You can’t really go to a bank and get cash, it’s not really available. The system is being starved, people think it is too risky to bank anything.”
Dr Zwana said the church had no choice but to speak out in a country that has been ruled either jointly or solely by the ZANU-PF since 1980. Party leader Robert Mugabe has been Zimbabwe’s president since 1987, and before that prime minister.
“As a church we have expressed our concern on a number of issues with the government,” Dr Zwana said.
“We are saying ‘it is not enough to talk about shortages of commodities’ but we are saying we have to go to the source. A lot of our problems are at the policy-making stage, a lot of our problems are caused by bad governance.
“We have clearly stated we are not happy with the government’s issues. The corruption issue, human rights issues. We raise that openly, we are not timid about that.”
Dr Zwana said government officials sometimes ignore what the church has to say, but at other times they used what he call ‘unorthodox’ methods.
“You get strange phone calls coming to you,” Dr Zwana said.
However, the church was not easily deterred by the government.
“The government is aware of the numbers the churches command. Most of the time they want to be in the good books with the churches, so they try to avoid antagonising the churches,” he said.
“So they think twice before they do anything. So to some extent they do respect us. Some of them (government officials) remember they are products of our mission schools.”
However, not all churches in Zimbabwe are likely to discomfort the government.
Some new arrivals led by charismatic individuals have a much narrower and more materialistic focus.
“We now have new religious outfits preaching the prosperity gospel, so they (the government) are now trying to take advantage of that,” Dr Zwana said.
“Prosperity churches are saying just give your $10 and you will get back $1000. That is the new dimension that is coming in.
“These new outfits are not even interested in social justice issues, so they are not interested in what you might call prophetic action.
“They are easy to manipulate as far as the government is concerned.
“They don’t have structures like ours. If I am to speak I am accountable to my church in whatever I say. For those places, where the leader owns the church, nobody can really challenge them.”
The Methodist Church in Zimbabwe’s ability to speak about social justice issues is also strengthened by its international partnerships, such as with the Uniting Church.
“We do have a very strong relationship with the Uniting Church in Australia because they have also been supporting a number of initiatives and projects,” Dr Zwana said.
“For example we have the Methodist Development and Relief agency in Zimbabwe that has been receiving funding for community-based programs in disadvantaged parts of the country. UnitingWorld has been supporting that program.
“This synod has played a very key role through the coordination of Mark Edmonds. Mark Edmonds is an Australian who is very passionate about working at the Methodist Educators Homes.
“A lot of the funding he has received, which he has channelled to the Methodist Educators Home, has been coming from the Uniting Church in Australia, particularly this district. So we are very grateful for that and do hope that this cooperation will continue to grow. We can even explore more areas we can work together.”
During the visit Dr Zwana and his delegation also spent time visiting and fellowshipping with Zimbabwean Methodists and other expats now living in Australia.