Prompted by a melding of minds at General Synod 28 last summer, the United Church of Christ’s executive minister of Wider Church Ministries traveled to southern Africa in May to meet with 20 global partners representing a dozen church bodies from the sub-Saharan segment of the continent.
“Our meeting focused on partnerships,” said the Rev. James Moos, “and it’s something that has not happened in the past 20 years. Although these partners know us very well, they really don’t know each other very well. If we are the hub, they are the spokes, running out every which way.”
Reasons for the estrangement within their own region of the world transcends colonial factors, said Moos.
“There are financial, linguistic, social and political reasons, too,” he said. “Instead of a spoke and hubs, we want to build a web of relationships in which we work with all our partners equally and in communion with each other.”
Traveling in South Africa and Mozambique, meeting with global partners and visiting churches, two phenomena struck Moos most –– the relationship between joy and suffering, and the healthful balance between “sending” and “receiving.”
“In the American context, ‘joy’ and ‘suffering’ tend to cancel each other out,” said Moos. “If we’re joyous, it must mean things are going well in life. If we’re suffering, we can’t rejoice. In the African church, suffering people –– people who suffer in ways we can’t imagine –– are also joyous in ways that we can’t imagine.”
“We have this mistrust of joy in our traditions,” said Moos. “We’ve been pretty cerebral, seeing joy and suffering as polar opposites.”
Similarly, Moos suggests that Americans would do well to move to a “place of humility” in receiving the gifts of others.
“It’s going to be a process, living into that,” Moos said. “We’ve got 200 years of seeing ourselves as solely a sending agency. That’s not mutuality. That’s not equality. We still need to send. But we also need to receive.”
Moos cautioned that “receiving” and “taking” are not to be confused. “We can’t treat the spiritual wealth of Africa the way we treat their mineral wealth, as something to be mined for our own benefit,” he said.
Moos praised the predominately poor population –– especially the women of southern Africa –– for using “microcredit” to literally help rebuild lives. Microcredit is the extension of very small loans to impoverished borrowers who typically lack collateral, steady employment and a verifiable credit history. It is designed not only to support entrepreneurship and alleviate poverty, but also in many cases to empower women and uplift entire communities by extension.
“A group of women used money to build interior church walls at the United Church of Christ in Mozambique,” said Moos. “They’re not giving out of their abundance; they’re still giving out of their need.”
Moos also lifted up the Theological Education by Extension College in Johannesburg, which supports a student body of more than 3,000 with a staff of 13.
“It’s an accredited institution, and they have mentoring and tutorial programs,” said Moos. “They do community organizing and offer instruction in five languages.”
The college sends out course material, then partners with churches and church bodies to find mentors who handle the practicum, said Moos. “They even go into prisons. This is progressive stuff, and there is a lot of diversity in terms of race, age and nationality.”
Moos said he was bowled over by the reception that awaited his group when it visited the UCC church in Mozambique. “We were just going there for greeting, not for worship, and we were an hour and a half late,” said Moos. “But they sat around and waited for us to come.”
Dozens of chanting, clapping and dancing people of all ages provided an overwhelmingly spirited welcome, he said.
“When was the last time somebody was that happy to see you come to church?” said Moos. “We have something to learn about joy and hospitality.”