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Into Africa

April 30, 2012 One Comment

by Mathew Block

“We can see that our lives have changed significantly; they are better than they were before. And so our people say thank you.”

These were the words which greeted participants of Canadian Lutheran World Relief’s (CLWR) “Global Encounter” program at a small village named Chipape in Mozambique. CLWR—through its national partner, the Lutheran World Federation in Mozambique—had helped construct new latrines here and built a well. They had educated the people on the dangers of drinking contaminated water and helped improve the general health of the village. The residents of Chipape were eager to express just how thankful they were for the work CLWR has done in their community.

Their message of thanks was a recurring theme in the villages we visited throughout Mozambique. Whether it was teaching the people better agricultural practices, building infrastructure, or helping them organize themselves to more effectively look after the needs of their own communities, the reaction was always the same: you have changed our lives, and for the better.

Not that social ministry replaces Gospel proclamation. Far from it. While many of the villages we visited had large Christian populations, the spectre of traditional religious beliefs hung heavy—visibly demonstrated by the brightly coloured flags overhanging the homes of local shamans. In fact, one of the Mozambican villages we visited decided to greet us with entertainment which included dances by the local shaman—a palpable symbol of the continuing need for evangelism ministry.

We were fortuitous enough while in Mozambique to meet up with a group involved with exactly that type of ministry. The Kappaseni Project—a ministry with Lutheran Church–Canada connections—has a dual focus on evangelism and social ministry. Two of its members joined us for a few days while we visited villages in northern Mozambique. They explained to us how traditional religion continues to hold destructive sway over large segments of the population. One particularly devastating problem they face in their work is opposing “purity rituals.” In such rituals, recently widowed women are pressured to have sex with their deceased husband’s brother (or some other willing participant) three times a day, for seven days. During these periods of ritual sex, groups of people stand guard around the home. Failure to take part in such rituals, widows are told, invites oppression from the spiritual realm, and could even result in the death of family members. And these purity rituals don’t just occur at the death of a husband. Any major life event can qualify—including rebuilding after a fire destroys a home.

While there is obvious spiritual evil at work in such rituals, they have negative physical consequences as well. Beyond the psychological damage it causes the women involved, it also contributes to the spread of AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases. Much of the Kappaseni Project’s social ministry involves preventative education on AIDs, caring for AIDs orphans, and tending to the needs of those who have already contracted the disease.

Loving our neighbours

It’s difficult work, to be sure. But it’s also exactly the type of work Christ tells us his followers will do: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…. Truly, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36, 40 ESV).

James says something similar when he exhorts us thus: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). In fact, Christ says that the second greatest commandment (after loving God) is loving our neighbour (Mark 12:28-34). And, as our Confessions explicate the fifth and seventh commandments, we are to “help and befriend” our neighbour “in every bodily need,” and further to “help him to improve and protect his property and business that his means are preserved and his condition is improved.”

Just as Christ took pity on the countless sick, the mourning, the poor, and the hungry, we too are called to show compassion to those less fortunate than us, and to share with them the blessings God has bestowed upon us. Indeed, it’s in acknowledging how good He has been to us that we find the impetus to love our neighbour. God first loved us—without our ever deserving it. That selfless love inspires us by the Holy Spirit to love others. As Rev. Dr. Leonardo Neitzel (Lutheran Church–Canada’s executive for missions and social outreach) explains, “Once we believe in Jesus Christ, we want to pass on His love in word and in deed.”

Through CLWR’s work in Africa, that’s exactly what many members of Lutheran Church–Canada are doing: sharing with neighbours a world away the blessings they have themselves received from God. Consider, for example, the Mozambican village of Mwanjete. Through CLWR’s support, this community has seen substantial growth, both in population and in standard of living. The community has tripled in size and become a model to other villages in the area. Some of this has come about because of material support—like the construction of a permanent market. But much of the change in the community’s situation has been the result of less tangible efforts, primary among these helping the village organize its own leadership. Today, Mwanjete has teams of leaders—both men and women—who look after specific areas of the village: agricultural, community development, health, and many more.

Lest we think this is simply bureaucracy without action, it’s helpful to recount one of the projects the community of Mwanjete is working on. During their presentations, the villagers explained to us that they were planning a new initiative to help orphans in their community, of which there are many following the deaths of a number of parents during an outbreak of infectious disease. After outlining the details of the work, the villagers estimated the cost would be several thousand dollars in Canadian currency—a fortune by their standards. But they did not ask for more money from CLWR to support the project; they explained that, through the agricultural knowledge they had learned from CLWR and the economic growth made possible by the market, they would raise the money themselves. The community would work together to look after its most vulnerable.

It is perhaps telling that this particular village has a much larger Christian population than some of the others in Mozambique visited by CLWR’s Global Encounter participants. A worker for the Lutheran World Federation in Mozambique explained that the villages which embrace Christianity are also the villages which take responsibility for their community’s well-being (rather than merely relying on outside support from relief agencies). Perhaps in knowing that they themselves have been blessed beyond measure by God through the death and resurrection of Christ, they understand that they ought to share their blessings with others. They come to realize, as Martin Luther teaches, God does not need their good works; but their neighbours do.

Keeping the Gospel central

While thanks for salvation may motivate Christians to care for and love others, that shouldn’t be the only role the Gospel plays. “In doing humanitarian work, we must do it in such a way that the world knows that the aid does not just fall from the sky or come out of our pockets,” Dr. Neitzel explains. “We must be clear that there is Someone who is the provider. And this Someone is the Creator who created us, sustains us, and gave His Son to die for us and save us.” Loving our neighbours means caring for them in both body and soul. And caring for the soul means proclaiming the Gospel.

We see a striking image of that joint physical/spiritual care when Christ heals a lame man. Christ sees the paralytic and, in compassion, forgives his sins. Then, to demonstrate his authority to forgive sin, he also heals the man’s broken body. “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He announces to the scoffers, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home” (Matthew 9:6). And the formerly lame man does just that. The story is a powerful reminder that the same Jesus who is capable of caring for people in their bodily needs is the same Jesus who forgives them of their sin.

As Christians, we too must care for people in both body and soul—caring for them in their physical needs, yes, but not stopping there. We need to share with them the Gospel, presenting the greatest gift of all, a gift that proves God loves them even when their earthly situation is difficult. Whether starvation or disease or abuse threaten, the fact that Christ died for them is Good News. And it’s news worth sharing—be it with neighbours here in Canada or with those far away in a little mountain village in Mozambique.


Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran.

Photos: Paul Schultz (Board of Directors, LCC East District).

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