I have a dream for Africa
Editor’s Note: At the 2019 General Conference, the Traditional Plan was passed by a vote of 438 to 384. While each delegate’s vote is confidential, the African delegation and others from the Central Conferences outside the United States are presumed to have formed a majority of the 438 votes cast in favor of the Traditional Plan. We reached out to Rev. Nancy Robinson, a UMC missionary who served in Africa, for her reflections on the state of the church as we prepare for the 2020 General Conference.
When I was young, I used to have a recurring dream of standing across a chasm with one foot on each side. It was a nightmare. These days I find myself in the same place, but in lived reality, the schism is our church tearing us apart and breaking my heart and causing so much pain.
I was born and raised in South Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in African community. There my spirit was formed by the Shona, a gentle and resilient people. Their way of life is UBUNTU. I am well only if you are well. Where are these voices? I find it shocking that they are silent. The Shona culture moves with a quiet, deep grace and respects authority to their own disadvantage it seems. I am certain there are many of them who would express a different viewpoint from the one we hear as the voice of the Central Conferences.
As an adult I have lived and worked as a missionary in the Central Conferences. The longest period was in Sierra Leone where I appreciated and experienced this same community mindedness, the extravagance of open welcome, caring and support. I was invited into community and discovered the blessing of letting go and receiving in a very vulnerable place.
I don’t accept bullying or oppression, resisting evil. I have seen it in all contexts and I am hurt by the attitudes of superiority and exclusivity I hear on both sides. I appreciate and am encouraged by what Walter Brueggeman recently said: “The crisis in the US church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common US identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”
Central Conferences are not in the same place that we are in the United States. Our society has advanced scientifically, and it will take years of cultural shift to be at the same place. I am not surprised at the strength of the vote from the Central Conferences. Something that also really disturbs me is how little understanding the traditional voices in the west appear to have of context, using power to forward their agenda, and taking advantage. There is traditional hierarchical power in Africa which is just as uncaring.
The voices of those who disagree are silent, a possible majority who have learned not to challenge the authority of the leader. What is needed are leaders in the Central Conferences who have the ability to cross cultures and lead with conscience. Where there is patriarchal and hierarchical leadership, where the chief has the final say and the community holds each member accountable to the whole, the individual who thinks differently will usually submit to that voice. Perhaps for their very survival. This is a rhythm that is understood, a consciousness that avoids causing a person or the community to lose face. I feel that this is part of the reason we have come to this impasse. These patterns of interacting are deeply imbedded and affect the outcome of decision making.
The ability to change long-held taboos is there, but it will take a generation or more to do so. The tendency to not openly disagree may explain why outsiders don’t always hear the nuances, or realize that there ARE feelings of frustration with the outcome. People I deeply respect and with whom I have served in generous loving community are on both sides of this, both being demonized. Matters of sexuality in Africa just aren’t discussed. Courageous, open, vulnerable, respectful listening and conversation are called for as God’s healing wholeness works love into our midst, a very long season of patience and tension as the Spirit works.
Standing in this place of tension one gets hit from both sides. What has happened to our ability to love each other, especially those who disagree with us? Why do we insist on judging and hurting each other? Where is God in this, transforming grace that accompanies truth? Where do we let go of controlling the outcome and come to a new place together? This is the question at the very core of my being.
I don’t see a way to MAKE unity happen. For the wellbeing of all God’s children at different seasons and places on the spiritual journey perhaps we MUST go in different directions for the short term. Nothing can truly ever separate us from God’s great love. We are interconnected, one in Christ in our differences, growing into fuller understanding. Out of respect, we always need a willingness to listen.
I am reminded that love is always a personal choice, not forced. Love is an invitation to a relationship of trust and respect, not judgement and shame. God is near the brokenhearted. Perhaps this IS the place of a powerful newness God has planned if we can hear it, recognizing each other’s pain and calling out power structures where needed. Let’s use our imaginations and see a bigger picture.
My prayer is that we are guided from this place of deep brokenness to humility and strength, where the good of all in the very best sense is upheld, where there is faithful theological reflection and communication, and the light of Christ who died that we might have life shines brightly.
Nancy Robinson is a full time United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries Missionary currently serving as Mission Advocate for the Southeast Jurisdiction. As an ordained Deacon in the Virginia Conference, she has served the local church in Discipleship ministry and in full-time mission work, most recently in Sierra Leone, but also as a volunteer in mission in Kenya, South Sudan, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Brazil. As the daughter of Methodist missionaries, Nancy was born and raised in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), a country ruled by apartheid and from which her family was deported her final year of high school.