Adventists Urged to Organize, Seize
BY RAJMUND DABROWSKI, Director of Communication, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
aul Ratsara couldn't hide his enthusiasm when speaking to Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders in Maputo recently. His face beamed and he gestured with excitement when talking about the church's coordinated outreach opportunities in the southeastern African nation of 20 million.
Ratsara, president of the Adventist Church's Southern Africa-Indian Ocean region, said Mozambique was the church's focus for that region of the world. But some of the opportunities have yet to be planned and implemented.
"We are doing evangelism, building new churches, fighting malaria and digging wells for the community," Ratsara told church leaders. "Isn't this a testimony that Mozambique is in focus for our church in this region?"
MOZAMBIQUE’S HOUR: Paul Ratsara, left, president of the church's Southern Africa-Indian Ocean region with Zeca Xavier, leader of the church in Mozambique. Ratsara recently urged local church leaders to coordinate with government programs to relieve malaria, which may cause more deaths in the region than AIDS does, some health experts estimate.
[Photo: R. Dabrowski/ANN]
He encouraged church officials in the country to work together with those coming to build churches, to prepare digging wells, and to continue commitments with local anti-malaria initiatives receiving international support. "This is a great time for us. We must show that we are united with others," Ratsara told church leaders. "This is our time in Mozambique."
In order to act, and be seen acting, Adventists in the country must be well organized, he said.
Church officials have said that a lack of infrastructure in Mozambique made outreach a challenge as recently as one year ago. Now the church's efforts have cast the Adventist faith community as a vital contributor to the country.
Last year, when Ratsara announced a challenge to provide new church buildings in Mozambique, he received an endorsement from participants at the annual convention of Maranatha Volunteers International, a lay organization that builds houses of worship and schools for the Adventist Church.
"Most of our people in Mozambique worship under [trees]," he told the convention.
A recent visit to Machumbutane, one of the congregations on the outskirts of the capital city, Maputo, confirms the challenge and underscores the region's needs. The preferred vehicle to reach Machumbutane is one with four-wheel drive as the roads provide a natural obstacle course. Thatched-roof houses, barren trees and an odd goat roaming the dried-out terrain are typical sights along the road.
Simple churches are common sights, too. Approaching the village, one's attention is drawn to children singing. Ratsara's description of church comes alive -- about a dozen children are meeting for their Sabbath School class under a tree with two cows watching the group from the nearby bushes.
A few yards away, a shack made of bamboo reeds and sticks with half a roof is home to a congregation of 30 believers discussing their weekly Bible passages.
A nearby construction site displays their hope -- a new church building.
"We are almost ready to bring in the steel trusses and these believers will have a modern house of worship they can be proud of," says David Woods, Maranatha's country manager. "And they will fill this church very fast." He adds that most churches undergoing construction might have small congregations now, but will overflow with believers within months.
Among the dire needs of each congregation are Bibles. In Campuane, which was the first of the 1,001 churches built in Mozambique, Serge Casemero, 26, tells how he enjoys reading the Bible. But he doesn't own one. He shares a Bible with his father.
"Look, someone has torn the Book of Ruth out of it. But the rest is still there," he says, showcasing well-worn pages of the Holy Book.
"We are lucky to have a Bible in our church. Most members of our congregation rely on readings in the church or as we pass it around the families. Many of us can't afford them," Casemero says.
As Woods predicted, membership has tripled since the official opening of the new church in February.
PRIZED POSESSION: Bibles, considered by some a luxury in Mozambique, are often shared by a family or congregation. Even copies missing sections, such as Luis Casemero's, are treasured.
[Photo: R. Dabrowski/ANN]
Having new, well-built churches has changed the way some in the community view Adventists, says Miguel Simoque, communication director for the Adventist Church in Mozambique. "People see our new church buildings and how they stand out in the neighborhood. They consider these places important assets to their community," he said.
On August 19, emotion ran high as the Mulamate Church, the latest in the building project, was opened on the outskirts of Maputo. There are 120 members in the congregation, but 150 people attended the service. Among the dedication participants basking in the excitement of day was Delphy Chissano, a teacher and children's ministry leader who said she had waited 33 years for such an occasion.
"I was dreaming all these years. Before, I was ashamed to invite people to come to the church with me. Now, I don't know how to say thank you," she said with a beaming smile.
The 1,001 church initiative is a four-year, $30 million project. High building infrastructure costs in the country add to the challenges Woods faces every day. "Our staff is highly competent in making things happen with limited means. They have done it in other parts of the world and they are doing it in Mozambique, too," he says.
Drinking water is among Mozambique's ever-present challenges. "Look at this land. It's dry and barren. The tree where these children are singing -- it has no leaves. No drinking water is available in this or the next village," explains Don Noble, Maranatha's president.
The lack of wells became a part of Maranatha's concern. Noble's team decided new wells accompanying new churches should serve the entire community, not just church members.
Noble explains the government requires a source of drinking water wherever schools are built. Apart from church buildings, the Mozambique Maranatha project includes constructing eight church schools. Maranatha officials said some church buildings would also be used as elementary schools, depending on teacher availability.
The group is ordering special equipment for the project, according to Gary Berndt of Salem, Oregon, United States, and the drilling is scheduled to begin before the end of the year. Maranatha's objective is to place 1,001 water-wells throughout the country.
The construction team is a multi-national group of professionals, proudly representing Brazil, Honduras, Mexico, Canada, the United States, as well as neighboring South Africa.
About half a million Adventists worship in more than 1,000 congregations in Mozambique. Most church members now live in Zambezia -- an area along the Zambezi River made popular by legendary Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone. The scourge of malaria affects the entire population there.
Nearly 6 million cases of malaria are reported each year in Mozambique, and the disease is a major cause of death in the country. Malaria also contributes to the country's high level of poverty by reducing productivity, especially in rural areas. According to some estimates, malaria causes more deaths than AIDS. Nearly 20 percent of children five years old and younger in the country's Zambezia province have malaria, according to health officials.
"Malaria kills everyone, no community is spared," Ratsara said, expressing the urgency of involving local Adventist congregations in dealing with the situation alongside other religious groups.
"There may be doctrinal differences between the people of different religions, but we are brought together to fight the enemy," Ratsara said. "It's our challenge and our opportunity."
Referring to the overarching efforts of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Mozambique, Ratsara pointed out that the anti-malaria efforts by Adventists are part of the church's presence in the community.
UNDER THE TREES: A children's Sabbath school class is part of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation outside of Mozambique's capital, Maputo. [Photo: R. Dabrowski/ANN]
Currently, ADRA is launching an anti-malaria implementation plan in the Province of Zambezia. The project, Together Against Malaria, represents an integral partnership between ADRA, the Inter-Religious Campaign in Mozambique, the Washington National Cathedral's Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, the Mozambique Ministry of Health and the United States government, according to Darcy de Leon, ADRA country director for Mozambique.
"We must show ourselves involved on a national level, and on a local level. It's our duty to be there, everywhere the church is active," Ratsara said, challenging church leaders to support the inter-religious campaign.
The project received a nearly $2 million grant funded by the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative announced during a visit by U.S. first lady Laura Bush to Mozambique. (See Adventist Review, July 26, 2007, page 18)
"Defeating this epidemic is an urgent calling -- especially because malaria is treatable and preventable," Mrs. Bush said to a group of about 250 participants of the Inter-Religious Campaign against Malaria on June 27 in Maputo.
"Faith communities exist in every village in the country; therefore, faith leaders can reach their members and impact their attitudes and behavior related to malaria," she added.
Ratsara echoed the assertion that the diverse faith groups have well-defined and active networks of local congregations, institutions, as well as trusted relationships with millions of people.
"Our church is well-placed and is rich in human resources for developing a course of action, including training and distribution of aid. We must be leaders in such an effort," Ratsara said. "Our strength is in the Lord and in knowing that the Adventist lifestyle has much to offer."