Bishop Joaquina NhanalaThe first female United Methodist bishop in Africa, Bishop Nhanala preached at the South Congo conference the same sermon on church unity that she preached at the 2012 General Conference in May.
LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo --The annual conference session of the South Congo Conference of The United Methodist Church began July 15 in Lubumbashi. I'm on my way to attend the annual conference sessions of the Tanganyika Conference in Kalemie and the North Katanga Conference in Malemba as the Director of Connectional Ministries of both of those conferences. In South Congo I have no responsibilities, but many friends.
So, on a sunlit Sunday morning I put on a suit and walked over to the Jerusalem United Methodist Church to attend the opening worship of the South Congo Conference session. The Jerusalem Church was built in 1928 and has held up well. It stands as the flagship of the United Methodist Church in the Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It holds over 2,000 and was packed out yesterday, maybe 3,000.
I'm glad I put on a suit. My intent was to sit somewhere in the back and just observe and enjoy. However, I was caught by the chief of protocol and ushered up to the visiting VIP section. I sat with the PhDs, feeling a bit underqualified with my measly Doctor of Ministry in Practical Theology. Bishop Katembo went off script and picked me out for an introduction during the greeting time. He reminded the conference of my preaching back in 1995 and 1996. I'm thrilled that he remembers those sermons, because I haven't been able to preach a decent sermon since. Bishop Katembo is the one who said to me back in 1995, "You understand our issues." Even though my work has been with Bishop Ntambo in North Katanga, Bishop Katembo is the one who convinced me that I had a role to play here. He also told the conference that [our children] Taylor and Stuart were key in building the relationship in Zambia with the American Embassy that smoothed the way for general conference delegates to get visas to the U.S. It's nice to be known for what your children have done for the good of the planet. (I am aware of the many hours of work that Jeff Hoover put into getting visa applications filed. So, Jeff if you are reading this, "Wish you were here to enjoy this.")
Of course, the music was grand! There were four large choirs and several wonderful soloists. Music styles ranged from traditional African, to high church anthems, to old familiar hymns, to original fusion compositions, one that included a Claptonesque guitar bridge. The music here is participatory with sing-alongs and dance-alongs. Every offering is an opportunity to get up and dance.
Lest you think this is all jungle primitive, the number of iPads in the congregation was amazing. Suits for the men, fine dresses for the women. Lots of lapel pins from General Conference. Scouts in uniform. Lay leaders in yellow blazers with stoles adorned with patches of previous conferences. The United Methodist Women were in their exclusive UMC-patterned kikwimbies, with green blouses and yellow head scarves. The clergy were in clerical collars. Those clergy leading the conference were in white robes, with green stoles. (no second hand stuff) There were twenty acolytes in white. Nothing second class about this gathering.
In the middle of the episcopal address, the Bishop broke off and invited the Pilot, Rukang, forward to present an offering opportunity. An offering was held to raise money for the aviation program. South Congo wants to buy a new, larger airplane, just as North Katanga is doing. This plane will be a game changer. District pledges were announced.
The keynote preacher was Bishop Joaquina Nhanala from Mozambique, the first woman UM bishop in Africa. The worship celebrated women in leadership. Sitting in front of me was the Minister of Women and Families, a national cabinet level government leader. She was introduced with pride as the picture of leadership for the future of Africa. Women clergy were celebrated, and it was clear from the visual, that women were in key positions in the conference. All of the acolytes were girls. You couldn't miss the message.
Bishop Nhanala preached in Portuguese translated into Swahili. At General Conference in Tampa in May, she had preached this same sermon in English. The text was from Acts 2:1-14 and the message was about preaching in languages that the people understand. She lifted up many other places in Africa where The United Methodist Church is strong and used the word "unity" a lot. She insisted that we preach words of love and not of discrimination and that this love is for all people.
Following the sermon, the choir sang, "This is My Story" in Swahili, first in the tune that I know from my childhood (I cried.), then in a new African tune. (Everyone danced.)
The worship ended with a series of competitive offerings. Take your worship seriously, but don't forget to have fun. And don't forget to take an offering, or two, or six.
PS I don't want to spoil this blog by going political, but I was the only non-African in the crowd of 2 to 3 thousand in a gathering of one of the largest conferences of the global United Methodist Church. Seems to me that those who were troubled by the "invasion" of African delegates upon the General Conference, or those who are serious about restructuring the UMC for growth, or those who want to understand and be understood (on social issues) by the African delegates, would have wanted to be here. No guilt intended; after all, I just happened to be in town.