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News :: Human Rights
Zimbabwean Bishop takes the gospel to the West
09 Feb 2004
Zimbabwean Bishop Nehemiah Mutendi of the Zion Christian Church is turning things around. He is taking the gospel to the West.
Zimbabwean Bishop takes the gospel to the West

By Charles Rukuni

His followers still pray under sheds of trees, even in the metropolitan cities of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital and Bulawayo, the second largest city. The leaders sit on chairs or benches, if the tree is near the house of one of the better-off followers.

But in most cases, men sit on stones while women sit on mats or rags. Some men bring their own portable stools. Doctors, lawyers and managing directors, with their latest four-by-fours (SUVs) parked close by, have to kneel on the hard earth together with their poorer colleagues, all clad in cheap, blue uniforms similar to those won by security guards, who rank among the most poorly paid workers in Zimbabwe, where the church headquarters is.

Yet Bishop Nehemiah Mutendi, leader of the largely black, independent, Zion Christian Church (ZCC), has decided to take the gospel to the West. His mission is to show the world how God has manifested himself in Africa. This is a mission he has to fulfill. It was his father, Samuel Mutendi's, death wish. "He told me on his deathbed that I should go and spread the word of God to those countries which he had not been able to visit."

This was a tall order because Nehemiah, then only 37, was not the eldest son. He was the sixth in line. Though his brothers had known way back in the 1960s that Nehemiah was the anointed successor, there was a battle for succession when Samuel Mutendi died in 1976. But Nehemiah won the vote.

The former schoolteacher has not rested since he took over the mantle. The church has been expanding. It now has close to 300 000 followers in South Africa, over 400 000 in Mozambique, close to 100 000 in Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo and about 50 000 in Botswana.

He is now taking the gospel to Britain and the United States. The number of followers in Britain is still small. There are now five tabernacles with about 100 followers. The core following is in London. In the United States, there are only 10 to 20 followers in Boston. But last year, Bishop Mutendi visited his followers in the United States twice and those in Britain three times.

With about one million followers in Zimbabwe, Bishop Mutendi thinks it is time to spread the gospel outside the country. He has managed to transform the church from one that was mainly associated with poor, uneducated blacks to one that has managing directors of multi-national companies, medical doctors and nurses, senior civil servants, bankers, business tycoons and university graduates.

While one could count the number of cars belonging to church members during his father's era, today it is almost impossible to do that. Some are driving the latest Mercedes and Toyota 4-by-4s. The church even has a fleet of buses of its own. But like his biblical counterpart, Bishop Mutendi is a builder. He wants to build his church and expand its activities, especially to the West.

He has a clear vision. Besides spreading the gospel to the West, he intends to use their strong currencies to develop the church in Zimbabwe. At the moment, the church has fewer than five church buildings in the country, but it already has nine full-fledged schools, four primary and five secondary, two of them high schools.

"We have the gospel and the West has the money. So why not give them the gospel and get their money to develop our church and our country?" he says.

His approach is simple. He is targeting Zimbabweans that have settled in Britain and the US first. "Once we have converted them, they know what to do," he says. "The gospel travels through the culture of the individual. This is the reason why missionaries did not make such an impact in Zimbabwe. They didn't want to go through our culture. They wanted to impose their culture on the people here through the gospel. That is why independent black churches sprang up"

Professor Inus Daneel who has written four books on black independent churches in Zimbabwe supports this view. "At the heart of this whole movement, directly or indirectly, will be found the sin of the white man against the black. It is because of the failure of the white man to make the church a home for a black man that the latter has been fain to have a Church of his own."

Bishop Mutendi says after Zimbabweans, the next target are other Africans because "our culture is more or less the same". He says black Zimbabweans and other Africans who have stayed abroad for years, know the culture of the societies in which they live. Once they have been converted, it will be easier for them penetrate their own communities and convert locals.

But there is more to it. One of the major attractions of the Zion Christian Church is the healing. The church specializes in exorcising evil spirits and treating incurable diseases such as feats and mental illnesses.

"I know there are already some people in the United States who are conducting healing sessions. But our sessions are different. We want to show the West that the battle Samuel fought in this country (Zimbabwe) against things like feats, evil spirits, mental illness, barrenness and other inexplicable ailments can be fought in Europe and America, not on the pill, not from the medical front but from the spiritual front, simply by praying and using holy water and papers."

Under the ZCC, any ailments diagnosed by church prophets can be cured either by using holy water, salt, coffee, tea or an injection- not the hospital injection, but the church one that looks like an ordinary needle.

The few church followers in Britain and the US are already praying for the sick including whites. Bishop Mutendi says this is not a new phenomenon. In the 1960s, his father prayed for one Frenchwoman, Jacqueline, who was barren and she gave birth to a baby girl who she named Chipo (Gift). He says Jacqueline is still alive. He last saw her three years ago.

His biggest handicap, he says, is that at the moment he has not been able to travel with his senior prophets, Abmereki Chikumbo and Nelson Manyanye because the British and United States governments will not grant them visas.

Visa requirements for Zimbabweans traveling to the United Kingdom and United States are very strict because of the exodus of skilled and semi-skilled Zimbabweans to look for jobs.

Those applying for a visa to the UK, for example, are required to pay a non-refundable visa fee of Z$280 800 (about US$80 at the current auction rate, but US$350 at the official rate). They should have evidence that they have the funds to pay for the trip and living expenses. The cheapest airfare to London is Z$2.7 million (about US$776).

They should also produce tenants agreement or gas or water bills of where they will be staying during their visit, as well as proof of employment in Zimbabwe. They are also required to produce proof of assets owned in Zimbabwe such as title deeds, car registration book, marriage certificate, children's birth certificates and the immigration status of their sponsor in the UK.

The requirements for the United States are more or less the same. But in the case of the US, applicants are required to pay Z$420 000 (about US$120) just to get an application form. If they have a business, they are required to produce a profit and loss account for that business.

Bishop Mutendi says the church has the money to sponsor the two senior church people, but officials insist that they present their own personal bank accounts to show they have money.

"This is a simple, peasant prophet. Where is he going to get the money? " Bishop Mutendi asks. "We are engaged in God's work. We are not generating money to get rich. We are being discriminated against zvinototyisa (the kind of discrimination we face is frightening) just because they do not know our church."

But Bishop Mutendi considers this a minor setback. It is nothing compared to what his father went through. Samuel Mutendi was converted in 1913. Though his church, the Zion Christian Church, was registered in South Africa in 1924 and he was given a written letter to preach in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe as it was known then), he was jailed on several occasions for preaching the word of God simply because he was black.

But he never gave up. Bishop Nehemiah Mutendi believes the time for Zion to show itself has come. "What the British and Americans are doing is simply denying their people the gospel. We have something new to offer. People are tired of the monotonous type of worship from the so-called established churches. But more importantly, we want to show the West how God has manifested himself in Africa and is talking to us in our own language, Shona."

Harare lawyer, Simplisius Chihambakwe, who is not a member of the church, but is on its board of trustees, says the ZCC is currently at its strongest point.

Church songs are in the top 20 on commercial radio stations. The church brass band won the top award for mass choral group at the National Arts Music Awards for 2003. It had a cash prize of Z$2 million.

The biggest break, however, was the invitation of Bishop Mutendi to officiate at the funeral of vice-President Simon Muzenda at the national Heroes Acre in Harare in September. This baffled everyone because Muzenda was Catholic.

David Nyama, a strong follower of the ZCC says: "The man-of-God, (as Bishop Mutendi is popularly referred to) does not just pop up anywhere. His presence at the funeral of Muzenda at the Heroe's acre is loaded with meaning. People will live to tell that in the future."

But for now, Bishop Mutendi is focused on one thing. How to get his key lieutenants into the UK and US. "If I can only get them there for a month or so, I know this will be a major turning point."

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