United Methodism in Africa

July 24th, 2019

A kite in Burundi

I hadn’t expected the kite. I was standing outside a United Methodist church near Bujumbura, Burundi, with the Reverend Jean Ntahoturi, the legal assistant to the bishop of the East Africa area, who was showing me a school that the church was rebuilding for children in the neighborhood. As I looked at the school, a young boy with bare feet came running around the side of the building on a dirt path. Behind him trailed a string that was attached to a kite fashioned from sticks and a black plastic trash bag. As it lifted off, I felt a little of the boy’s obvious pleasure as he watched the wind lift the kite into the air.

Signs of material poverty were everywhere, but there were also signs of hope in this field. In addition to the school, there were crops for a cooperative farm, and the church had plans for community development. Later, inside the church, Paroisse Rubirizi, I was invited to participate in an hours-long worship that included vibrant singing and dancing, prayers for healing, and a message of hope. I took particular notice of the many youth and children who were involved.

After the service, a group of older women met me at the door. A translator told me that these were the women who had begun the cooperative farm. Many of them had suffered from food insecurity after their spouses had been killed during Burundi’s genocidal war in the 1990s. The church’s farm provided them with enough corn, sweet potatoes, and cassava for themselves and even more to share.

A hopeful reunion

In February 2018, the Burundi Annual Conference celebrated its reunification after 12 years of division. At a special annual conference session, nearly 1,500 people overflowed the sanctuary where the reunion was formalized. According to the United Methodist News Service (UMNS), Ntahoturi told the gathering, “God has accomplished His mission in Burundi. We have been praying for unity for 12 years and it was elusive, but God answers prayers at His time. We persevered.”

Bishop John K. Yambasu, representing the Africa College of Bishops, told the session, “It appears all over the world people are building walls. I am delighted the walls that divided the church in Burundi have been pulled down. As an example to the whole world, Burundi UMC shined beyond Burundi.”

Even during the time of division, however, the church was growing. Some 400 pastors, ordained during the separation, are now going through a course of study program to better serve their churches. Ntahoturi added that the Burundian church has learned during this time to trust in God as it has begun and supported new mission efforts on its own.

What I saw in Burundi is just one example of United Methodism flourishing across the African continent. Even as membership in the United States has continued to decline, the African church has grown to about 5.4 million United Methodist members, according to figures cited by the United Methodist News Service.

A university for all of Africa

In addition to the numerical growth of The United Methodist Church in Africa, a UM-affiliated, world-class educational institution has taken root and is helping to equip leaders throughout the continent. Africa University was established thanks to the vision of two African UM bishops, Emilio J. M. de Carvalho of Angola and Arthur K. Kulah of Liberia. Their challenge to the larger church in 1984 led to General Conference action supporting the school in 1988 and the university’s first class of students in 1992.

In June 2019, 526 students from 22 countries around Africa made up the university’s 25th graduating class, joining more than 9,000 alumni who have studied at the institution. Africa University offers degrees in a wide variety of fields, including agriculture, health, government and theology. According to statistics quoted by UMNS, the school boasts a 97 percent graduation rate, and more than 90 percent of graduates remain in Africa to pursue careers. Most of the students in the 2019 class are first-generation college graduates, and 54.6 percent are women.

UMNS talked to one of these women, Claudine Migisha, who came to Africa University despite many hardships in her home country of the Congo. Of her experience she said, “When I think of Africa University, I see a powerful institution where young women and girls are given the room to thrive, where they develop a sense of self-worth because they realize that so many people care about them and are cheering them. . . . There is no amount of time I could be given to articulate what this university has done for me.”

Talking with, not about

African United Methodists were a significant presence at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis, which narrowly adopted provisions that strengthened prohibitions against same-gender marriages and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. African speakers at the General Conference were generally supportive of the Traditional Plan, and in the wake of the conference, some centrist and progressive leaders have wondered aloud at the impact of the African vote since African United Methodists made up about 30 percent of the total delegates. The African share of the delegation will grow by about 18 persons at the 2020 General Conference.

However, looking at the African church only through the lens of the denomination’s debates on sexuality neglects the broader relationship between the African church and United Methodists worldwide. A healthier relationship that emphasizes conversations with, rather than about, African United Methodists allows us to focus far more on the emerging signs of vibrant growth. In a postcolonial world, African United Methodists have a story to tell about the centrality of worship, the power of community development and connection and the ability to trust that great things can happen with limited resources.

As I prepared to leave Paroisse Rubirizi, one of the older women began dancing. Beyond language, I sensed the power of just being present to one another in the light of our connection in Christ. I found myself dancing with her, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw another homemade kite climbing into the sky. It’s amazing to see things dance and soar when we expect the wind to blow.


Origins of Methodism in Africa

The earliest mission efforts by American Methodists began with members of The Methodist Episcopal Church, who worked in Liberia after the colony was established in the early 1800s. A few decades later, United Brethren missions began in Sierra Leone. However, according to UMC.org, the most extensive missionary efforts were focused on sub-Saharan Africa and date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Methodist missions primarily focused on education, health, and the proclamation of the gospel.

Two seminal figures in the introduction of Methodism in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, where United Methodism is now flourishing, were John and Helen Springer. John Springer was a Methodist Episcopal minister who began his mission work in Old Umtali, now known as Mutare, Zimbabwe, site of Africa University. In 1905, he married Helen Rassmusen, a fellow missionary skilled in language and relationship-building. The Springers established new missions in the Congo in 1910, opening mission stations staffed by U.S. missionaries and Congolese workers.

Despite being a controversial figure known for defying his bishops, in 1936 John Springer himself was elected bishop and assigned to serve the Africa missions. He retired in 1944 but continued to travel between the United States and the Congo until his death in 1963 at the age of 90. Helen died in 1946. The Springer Institute, an early Methodist-related educational institution in the Congo, was named for them.

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