By Simon Mafunda
November 5, 2021
Hearing the Rev. Louis Loma Otshudi’s harrowing story initially sounds like a wild piece of fictitious entertainment. Unfortunately, it is not.
At a recent meeting in Kenya, I had the opportunity to hear this Central Congo clergyman narrate his ordeal. In August of this year Otshudi narrowly escaped being thrown into prison. Warned by friends that police could detain him at any moment he realized going to the airport for his flight back home was impossible.
Instead, Otshudi set out on a 2,544 kilometer (1580 mile), seven day journey using all sorts of transport modes: a motor bike, buses, a canoe and walking when necessary. My jaw kept dropping as he told his tale.
However, it was hard to decide what was more amazing: his incredible trek or the reason why he had to flee. The police were seeking to arrest him at the instigation of United Methodist Church leaders in the Central Congo Episcopal Area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was obvious to Otshudi that the conference leaders wanted to keep him from visiting local churches to tell them about the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. He had already been jailed once for talking about the Protocol, so he knew the risks for him and his family were serious if he did not find a way home as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, Otshudi’s story is not unique. Other pastors and lay people have been threatened and harassed in various countries for talking about the Protocol, whether in person, via virtual meetings, phone calls, emails, or texts. And sadly, we have learned that some United Methodist sisters and brothers in Europe, the Philippines, and in the U.S. have also experienced various forms of harassment for talking about or hosting meetings about it.
In Africa, we have to acknowledge that the spirit of peace the Protocol was intended to model is too often met with suspicion, fear, and hostility. While it calls for freely, fairly, and fully sharing information about its terms, some African leaders want to control any conversations about those terms, or they do not want any conversations at all. The harassment of those who try to share information has harmed our public witness and undermined our central mission: bringing people to Christ. Now is the time for United Methodists leaders to stop harassing people and allow clergy and laity to freely discuss the terms of the Protocol.
I give credit to Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa of the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area who leads the annual conference where I live. He decided to make the Protocol a matter his people are entitled to learn about and to debate. To that end, he organized workshops and invited guests to make presentations on not just the Protocol, but also the Christmas Covenant. Key conference leaders first had the opportunity to participate in these listening and learning sessions, and I am confident the information shared and the questions asked in these sessions will cascade right down to the grassroots level. For me that is the spirit of fairness and openness we must foster in this critical time. Bishop Nhiwatiwa avoided any temptation to control, manipulate, or intimidate others by withholding information or keeping them from learning about the Protocol.
I have been in conversation with many African leaders both clergy and lay across the continent. As they learn more about the Protocol and consider it in light of all the other challenges we face in Africa, they believe it is imperative that the General Conference convenes as planned in 2022. We are fully aware the pandemic is still with us, but we must find ways to move forward rather than just standing still. The deep divisions in the church and the debilitating state of its structure are alarming; we must make critical decisions as soon as possible for the sake of local churches in Africa and all around the world. Levels of anxiety and uncertainty are very high. The denomination is in a crisis that only the General Conference can and must resolve.
With the roll out of vaccines the world over and the increasing levels of activity at border posts and international airports, we are increasingly confident the General Conference will physically meet in August 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
At a recent meeting of Africa Initiative leaders and partners in Kenya, it was encouraging to learn that already more than half of African General Conference delegates have been fully vaccinated and other annual conferences are working flat out to join them. We trust the UM Church will do all in its power to help delegates in Africa, Eurasia, and the Philippines complete the necessary medical and visa requirements so all delegates can attend the conference and vote on the Protocol.
Most African leaders, clergy and laity, fully support it. We do so because it is the only proposal that would amicably bring an end to the irreconcilable differences that have divided our denomination for decades. The beauty of this proposal is that it is a dignified and friendly way of resolving the conflict. It frees groups to do ministry in the best way they feel called to do. It is no secret that the majority of Methodists in Africa are conservative and so support the passage of the Protocol. Its passage would allow us to move forward with other theologically conservative United Methodists in other parts of the world. We are aware that there are others who are not theologically conservative, and we truly wish them well.
We African Methodists envisage a new traditional denomination that holds fast to Scripture, the creeds, and the doctrines of the Christian faith. We yearn to see a denomination that is truly global in connection, equality and fairness. It is time for the church to move forward, and so it is time for the General Conference to meet and take action.
Mr. Simon Mafunda is the Conference Lay Leader in the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference and a member of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. He also a member of Africa Initiative, a clergy and lay movement that promotes strong Bible teaching and fidelity to the great confessions of the Christian faith.
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