Brechin-Iowa-Swaziland: Walking together in companionship

December 16, 2007

Every Sunday friends on three continents pray for each other. They have done so for nearly 20 years as partners in a three-way companion relationship that brings together the dioceses of Brechin in Scotland, Swaziland in Africa and Iowa in the United States. The places and people on the Joint Intercessory Prayer List become real as companions visit one another in Dundee, Mbabane, and Des Moines.

The Scots and Iowans were already partners when Walter Righter, then Bishop of Iowa, and Edward "Ted" Luscombe of Brechin met Bernard Mhkabela of Swaziland at the Lambeth Conference in 1988. A three-way partnership took shape with emphasis on person-to-person contact, laypeople as well as clergy. Arrangements were finalized the following year when the three bishops visited Des Moines for the consecration of C. Christopher Epting as Bishop of Iowa. The partnership was reaffirmed in 2004 when Bishop Alan Scarfe succeeded Epting with new bishops from Brechin and Swaziland participating.

Although their dioceses are disproportionate in size, the Scots and Americans have much in common. Both are concerned about small churches and urban life. In 2006, Brechin Bishop John Mantle came to Iowa to compare notes.

Hospitality plays a big part in the exchanges with the Scots. Throughout the years of partnership together, a variety of family visits and youth-group pilgrimages have been organized. One included young people from Swaziland. The travelers frequently stay in private homes. Enduring friendships develop and clergy exchanges often occur.

The Men and Boys Choir from St. Paul's Cathedral in Dundee have made three tours in Iowa. Besides singing their way across the diocese, the choristers experienced a Native American powwow at St. Paul's Indian Mission in Sioux City and hunted geodes, those plain rocks with the sparkling crystals inside, near Keokuk. In 2000, the choir from the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Des Moines toured England and Scotland.

The first Iowa-Brechin trip to Swaziland in 1998 brought a team of 21 from Iowa and four from Brechin to help build a house. The group included women clergy, a new experience in that African diocese. However, when the 2006 diocesan convention in Iowa celebrated 30 years of women's ordination, two female Swazi priests and a seminarian joined in.

Between trips, fundraisers support feeding programs and school fees for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. After General Convention in 2000, Iowa designated .7% of income for International Development Grants. Swaziland receives a portion of these grants.

The current drought in Swaziland raises extra concern for availability of clean drinking water. In one three-week stretch congregations raised almost $40,000 for immediate relief and named a student scholarship after Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

An Iowa company, International Water Management Systems, has developed simple, affordable water purifiers. A team that recently returned from Swaziland distributed 22 of these devices. More will be available after the "The Waters of Hope Project" in May 2008 -- during a 10-day bicycle trip circling Iowa riders will raise money for clean water in Swaziland and Sudan.

In July 2005, Swaziland Bishop Meshack Mabuza and his wife, Lucy, joined Scarfe and his wife, Donna, in a 10-day healing mission at eight locations across Iowa. The mission spawned healing groups in many churches in Iowa, and brought a new appreciation of God's powerful ministry of healing for the Mabuzas to take home, and for the Scarfes to develop in their own visitations.

"While the ongoing projects fulfilling the MDGs are vital to our relationship, it is most important that we work together in those direct actions of the Spirit which brings about new birth and reconciliation with God and one another," said Scarfe.

He described a three-year plan recently developed with Mabuza for joint mission work. In 2008, a team of Iowans will be trained to go to Swaziland to join in a door-to-door evangelism effort alongside Swazi Christians. The following year a similar team of evangelists would spend Ascension through the Day of Pentecost in Iowa.

"Our ministry together is never a one-way street, but mutual," said Scarfe. "I find Bishop Mabuza's integration of spiritual responsibility with the passion for social justice a great encouragement to grow in my own civic witness for Christ and Christ's people."