Zimbabwe's oppressed Anglicans embody hope and courage, Massachusetts bishop says

June 8, 2008

The Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE, bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts says it was "a privilege" to spend a week with Anglican Zimbabweans in the Diocese of Harare, which encompasses the nation's capital and outlying areas. "Zimbabweans are a gentle people of tremendous resilience," Shaw reports, and he contends that those who are being oppressed for being Anglicans have much to teach us.


Shaw returned to the United States June 4, after a week-long visit during which he met with 49 priests, 40-50 laypersons, human rights attorneys and U.S. Embassy staff. He describes a grim situation: "One million percent inflation, 80-90% unemployment, empty shelves at the grocery stores, long lines for fuel, short lifespan, high HIV-AIDS rates, and oppression of those who are not aligned with President Mugabe, including Anglicans."

Shaw noted that "amidst all this suffering, it was when their lives were upended that they [Zimbabwe Anglicans] stood up and said, ‘Nobody's going to touch my relationship with God or my community of faith."

Shaw visited Zimbabwe on behalf of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and at the invitation of Bishop Sebastian Bakare of Harare to witness the ongoing religious and political violence among the people of Zimbabwe.

"It's not just food people don't have access to, it's not just political brutality they face, it's an assault on their faith -- and that can be very lonely," says Shaw. "The short answer to why I made the trip is that the presiding bishop asked me; the longer answer is that since a program between our dioceses years ago, I've been friends with Bishop Bakare and his wife for a long time and I wanted to offer solidarity and return to tell the story of Anglicans in Zimbabwe."

Shaw -- who first visited Zimbabwe in 1995, when "it was considered the bread basket of Africa and a relatively free and open society" -- explains that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's land confiscation benefited political cronies and not indigenous Zimbabweans as promised, which led to food shortages, unemployment and political corruption.

As previously reported by Episcopal News Service, Mugabe has been censured by the international community for Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis, failing economy, and for manipulating the country's recent electoral process.

The former bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, an ardent supporter of Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, was excommunicated on May 12. According to Shaw, Kunonga "was closely aligned with Mugabe, even saying he was ordained by God to be president. He also wanted to take the diocese out of the Province of Central Africa."

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams terms Bakare, who was appointed to replace Kunonga last November, "a deeply respected and courageous elder statesman of the Zimbabwean Church." Bakare, who recently issued a statement condemning the continued persecution of Anglicans, hosted Shaw.

Shaw says believes that the effects of the June 27 run-off presidential election on life for Anglicans as well as for Zimbabweans as a whole are "unpredictable, because it's such a volatile situation." Thus far, Anglicans are singled out for religious persecution in this vastly Christian, fiercely church-going nation, where the major denominations are Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist.

Shaw tells many stories of government persecution of Anglicans. During one incident, which occurred about four weeks ago, "Riot police -- 80 or 90 of them -- told Anglicans they couldn't hold services in a church," he said. "They started by beating on the pews with their batons and ended up beating people, including a nine-year-old boy and a widow with five children. Yet the worshippers sang hymns and prayed throughout the ordeal."

Elsewhere, says Shaw, "A priest was jailed along with 20 or so of his parishioners."

Furthermore, he reports that "recently, there's been a rash of clergy vehicles being stolen or confiscated by the police. Without their cars, which are owned by the churches, the clergy have no access to their far-flung parishes. The Diocese of Harare stretches several hundred kilometers outside the city, so no car can mean the end of ministry. Of the 49 priests I interviewed, 11 or 12 had had vehicles stolen or confiscated, and another 10 or 11 had vehicles in hiding."

"They asked only for prayer, and they expressed only gratitude," Shaw says, his voice softening. "At one meeting to discuss the diocese's future, they took up a collection for a parish in our diocese. Here they are, with inflation one million percent, mostly unemployed, but they took up a collection and had it translated into American dollars so I could bring it back to a parish in our diocese. They have the generosity of God."

Shaw says the biggest lesson he learned came from the diocese's clergy, "who said that it is laypeople who are leading the resistance. So they teach those of us who are clergy to let laypeople lead the way. All we have to do is nurture them."

This insight is one of the gifts Shaw believes he'll take from Zimbabwe to the Lambeth Conference of bishops, scheduled for July 16-August 3 in Canterbury, England. "So much deeper than our differences are our connections that span continents and oceans and theological differences. That's what I can now bring to Lambeth: an openness to relationship and a better ability to listen to what life is like as a bishop elsewhere and to tell my story of being a bishop in the northeastern United States."

Asked what he thinks he'll remember longest about his trip to Zimbabwe, Shaw doesn't hesitate. "The first image that comes to mind is a worship service for 400 people the Sunday I was there. They were risking their lives just by gathering, and yet there were women between the ages of 20 and 75 dancing, the drums were in full swing, and there was incredible joy. I felt like was in back in the early church because there was all this, this life despite persecution."

-- The Rev. Lisa B. Hamilton is correspondent for Provinces I and IV. She is based in Sandisfield, Massachusetts and Venice, Florida.

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