Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Harare: A Diocese in Exile: Its Bishop's Reflections

As one reads the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament), one is confronted by two very important themes of the Exodus and Exile that thread their way in the whole Bible. A large proportion of the Old Testament story is taken up by the Exile. The Exile experience is not the preserve of the Jewish people many centuries ago. It is an experience that is ongoing in many parts of our modern world. Using the words refugee and exile interchangeably, there are many millions of refugees or exiles living in different parts of the world. On the African continent we are all too familiar with the plight of refugees or exiles from countries like the Congo, Rwanda, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan etc. However, this is not an African phenomenon alone for there are refugees or exiles from other parts of the world outside of the African continent like Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kosovo etc. Although we tend to use the two words refugee and exile interchangeably there is a subtle difference between them. A refugee normally decides or is forced by circumstances to decide to flee one’s familiar surroundings be it home, country or region either because of war, political violence, persecution or economics for another country. An exile is either intentionally forced by victors or more powerful people to relocate elsewhere other than your own country or is intentionally banished, deported or expelled to another country by somebody else. You have no choice in the matter, you are literally cast out. There are cases of people who for religious reasons go into voluntary exile because of their spiritual quest – they are the exception. 
Christians belonging to the Anglican Dioceses of Harare and Manicaland both in the Church of the Province of Central Africa in Zimbabwe are exiles in the sense that they are literally intentionally banished from their Church buildings by former bishops Dr Nolbert Kunonga formerly of Harare Diocese and Mr Elson Jakazi formerly of Manicaland. The two former bishops with the assistance of the Zimbabwe Republic Police have driven all members of the Church of the Province from their Churches. We currently hold our church services in tents, school halls, and rented space from other denominations or under trees. We have been driven out of our familiar environment from which we draw both identity and meaning. This loss is both psychological and territorial. We see ourselves as being in exile and we pray fervently for deliverance and a return to our Churches. Our exilic experience is very painful for us as we have had to endure being tear-gassed, arrests, spending time in police cells, being ridiculed, having lies peddled against us such as being accused of being homosexuals and promoting the gay cause in Zimbabwe; of belonging to the opposition  political party (MDC) and therefore promoting the “regime” change agenda. We are harassed and threatened with no one to turn to for justice. Clergy have been evicted from rectories, some arrested, and church buildings have been turned into schools and others into brothels. The exile is both a place or state of banishment, loneliness and suffering as well as one of reflection, adjustment and renewal. Like the children of Israel in exile who had to make numerous adjustments in their community and spiritual life in order to maintain their faith in God while living in a strange land, our people in the Diocese of Harare have also had to make numerous adjustments in order to maintain their faith in God and participate in God’s mission despite their suffering in very strange places - in exile. We feel with the children of Israel of the past who lamented their loss as their tormentors demanded songs of joy from them. The Psalmist picks up the way they felt when he says;
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, 
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy; 
they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?   Ps. 137:1-4
As the exile period prolongs we have had to make adjustments and we realise and know that we can actually sing songs of joy - songs of the Lord even in a ‘strange land’ because we know that our Lord Jesus whose other name is Emmanuel is with us even in exile. He has not deserted us. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, “We have a God who does not give us advice, who does not write to tell us how to solve our problems; we don’t have a God who stands miles and miles away from us. Our God comes; our God enters the furnace of our suffering. Our God is Emmanuel – God with us!” (Tutu: ‘God is not a Christian’ p. 63, 75). The Jamaican reggae gospel singer Terrence Campbell has also aptly put it when he sang, “God is God in the fiery furnace; in the lion’s den and in the new creation.” God will be God! Not even the exile can change the nature of God. The stories of Daniel and Esther among others were proof enough for the exiles that God was with them in exile. Yes we can and are singing the Lord’s songs in exile because we are confident that God is with us right here in exile! Because God is with us, hope abounds among the exiles that in due course, God will lead us back home to our church buildings and other properties. Just as in the Book of Exodus we read that Yahweh “saw the misery of his people in Egypt; heard them crying out because of the slave drivers; was concerned about their suffering; he came down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians” Ex. 3:7-10. He is the same unchanging God who has also seen our misery, he has heard our cry and he is concerned about our suffering. Therefore he will come to our rescue. This is our hope!
Attitudes of an Exiled Diocese
The exile brings out both the good and the bad from people as they try to respond to it and also as they try to make sense of the experience. Like the children of Israel in Jeremiah’s time there are those who thought it would never happen in our church because of our Canons and Constitution, very clear structures and being an ordered church. When it started happening it was for some an unthinkable nightmare, one from which others have not woken up from. For Judah, the exile was regarded as both punishments for their stiffneckedness that resulted in refusing to follow God’s ways and for their idolatry as their prophets like Jeremiah pointed out to them from time to time. In the case of Israel the purpose for the exile was both penal (punishment for disobedience) and remedial (corrective thus providing an opportunity for renewal and dependency on God). What seemed to be the indispensable supports of the Temple, Priesthood ritual, and feasts were no longer available to them in exile. There, by the rivers of Babylon the exiles had to work out what had gone wrong that they were in that situation as well as try and figure out what was God’s purpose now that they were in that situation. To help them do this, prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel assisted them at their point of great need, weakness and vulnerability. It was also a point in their life when they were perhaps more amenable to receive God’s word.
There were those among our flock who believed very strongly that our exile like that of the children of Israel was caused by the sins of its members and God was punishing us all because of those sins. The remedy as they saw it was simply “to repent and turn away from our sinful ways”. Prayer and fasting became very common practice. Numerous representations were made to the bishop pleading with him to call for Diocesan days of prayer and fasting so that the period of our exile may either be removed or shortened. Although they could see the perpetrators of the evil causing suffering among them they associated it with their unnamed sins. All-night prayer meetings are common amongst the various guilds in the Diocese. Many believed that the exile would be short lived. But as months turned to years the attitude changed to one of acceptance of the reality and that we may be in exile for a little longer.
As it became more apparent that there were “invisible hands” in our government giving support to Dr. Kunonga and that until those people changed their minds nothing was going to move. The exile was now viewed as something that had very little to do with religion but had everything to do with politics. After all we were being accused of being members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and therefore advocates of regime change in Zimbabwe. Therefore, in addition to prayer and fasting political engagement was encouraged and sought in particular the president of Zimbabwe (but were never given an audience until the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury), the vice presidents and other top ZANU PF people. A lot of people both Anglicans and non-Anglicans were and are very concerned and angry with government for what they perceive as the State orchestrated persecution of Anglicans. The State police made it very clear to us that they were expelling us from our churches because of “Orders from above”. They risked being cited for contempt because of following “orders from above” that gave them the powers to disregard Court Orders. Today many believe that we are in exile because of those “orders from above” which must be rescinded from “above”. The attitude to exile is now both political and religious.
Patrick Whitworth says, “exile is the church’s best friend” He goes on to say that if a review of church history has shown us anything it is that: 
 “… exile has often been the price of change, renewal and at times revival. In the early centuries of the church’s history it led an exilic life, it fully lived out the call in the New Testament to be exiles and strangers in the land and therefore to look elsewhere for its home. Down the years of church history men and women of exile provided the change that was necessary to uphold truth, to defy powerful systems, to challenge human-made philosophies and declare the gospel message in its essential form against the accretions of the church and to espouse a spirituality that was capable of reforming, or if necessary discarding, worn out and corrupt rituals that so easily take root. The thread from the history of the church over the past fifteen hundred years is that exile is often the price of renewal and of substantive change” (Whitworth, 2008).
Our exile has provided us with opportunities to re-examine our relationship with God both individually and corporately with astonishing results. Comments like “I used to go to church as matter of mere routine but now I know why I go and I choose to go to church and no one will stop me”. Or, “they can prevent me from worship God in our church building but they will not prevent me from worshipping God”. Seeing the bravery and commitment of our congregations they were preventing from going into their church buildings, one policeman remarked “this is the church to belong to”. Some of my friends who are ministers in other denominations in Zimbabwe have often commented that “there is a revival going on in the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe” because of what they see happening in our church. The church is growing both numerically and spiritually. The exile has reawakened the insatiable hunger for the word of God. As a diocese we have responded by making theological studies available to the laity by introducing a Bishop’s Certificate in Theology. We also produce Bible Study Series at least twice a year for the whole diocese to engage in the same study in order that we grow together as diocese. In addition there is now a very strong emphasis on teaching at all levels of the parish and diocese. A conference system has been introduced where members of the diocese are encouraged to attend for a weekend of teaching on selected topics. For the clergy, continuing education programmes have become quarterly occurrence. As a result of us not having access to our “temple”, the usual rituals that go with “temple worship” have had to be transformed as we adapt to strange environments.
Participating in God’s mission has not stopped because of being in exile with its numerous financial challenges. As a diocese in exile we have played our part in feeding the hungry, caring for orphans and widows, caring for those in prison, advocacy work, participating in environmentally friendly  agriculture (Farming God’s Way or Fundamentals of agriculture) etc. in addition to the usual parish ministries. Although it has been very challenging financially, it continues to be a great joy, honour and privilege to work with God in God’s mission.
Among some of the astonishing things happening in exile is the generosity of the people of our diocese. In the midst of economic turmoil in Zimbabwe, the financial burdens caused by having to find accommodation for all our clergy when they were evicted from rectories and the costs involved in renting space for worship every Sunday, our people have continued to give sacrificially to keep the diocese running, meet all our obligations to our clergy and the parishes etc. Their generosity is truly amazing. They have offered to help take services in a neighbouring sister diocese which has less clergy than us with our diocese meeting the travel costs. One can definitely say that the exile has contributed towards bringing the best out of a diocese in exile. 
We are exiles, a pilgrim people who continuously find “grace in the wilderness”. We will defiantly sing the Lord’s songs jubilantly and even triumphantly in ‘this strange land’ of our exile! For God is God, Emmanuel in the fiery furnace and the lion’s den of our exile.
The Rt. Revd. Dr. Chad N. Gandiya
Bishop of the Diocese of Harare CPCA, Zimbabwe. 
June, 2012.