By Bellah Zulu, ACNS
Need people to help construct your church? Ask the Mothers' Union.
“The Mother’s Union is the mirror of the church,” reflected Judite Minofo, a long time member of the Mother’s Union (MU) in the Diocese of Niassa in Mozambique. “That the MU in Niassa is strong, growing and active is an indication that the church is too. Look how the Sunday schools are growing and bringing so many children; that’s the example of the MU.”
It is undeniable that the Anglican Church in Africa has grown over the years, but for Mozambique in particular the recent growth is nothing less than astronomical. In the Diocese of Niassa, located in the northern part of the country, Church membership has almost doubled since 2004. From 36,000 members, membership now stands at 64,000.
The numerical growth of the church over the years has not only triggered growth and expansion in the membership of the Mothers' Union but also its roles and responsibilities.
“All our members know that our mission is primarily to pray, and to visit the sick and needy, but our members do far more within the ministry of our churches,” said Helen Van Koevering, the Diocesan Director of Ministry and past MU president.
“The MU of our church has been the backbone of the voluntary labour needed, in building our new church – carrying water, supporting the builders with clearing and cleaning. But much more importantly, our women lead services, encourage with their singing and prayer, present at baptisms, weddings and even funerals.”
The MU's impact across Mozambique has also extended to the area of relief provision during times of disaster. During the recent devastating floods in Mozambique, they encouraged new members and the youth to help with the distribution of seeds, clean water medicine and other basic necessities to those affected. They also helped teach the victims farming methods that can help mitigate damage during a severe flood.
Church numbers doubled
The quick growth of the Church in Mozambique has necessitated the building of more church buildings. The Diocese now has 420 churches from an initial 240 in 2004. But for the district of Lichinga, which has also seen it’s share of the increase in the number of smaller chapels, it has become necessary to build a bigger church to act as a co-ordinating centre and hub in the area.
“The idea to have a new church started around 18 years ago,” said the Director of Ministry, who is also the parish priest. “It’s been a long time coming, to fruition. The building...began around 5 years ago, and I am the third parish priest to carry this work forward. I am glad it will finally be officially opened on July 21.”
Unlike in other dioceses where you would expect people to hire a construction company to build infrastructure, the Diocese of Niassa looked among themselves to address the need for a new church building. I asked Helen Van Koevering what she thinks the winning strategy is, for the Diocese and the Mothers' Union in particular.
“Perhaps it is that they simply get the principles of Umoja,” she said. “We have promoted this concept as a new way of mobilizing and uplifting communities to find solutions within themselves and bring transforming change.
“The MU in Niassa has a habit of seeing their work as ‘what you do’ as a member of MU,” emphasised Helen. “They are community makers and sustainers, or to give it the church title, pastoral carers.”
Change begins with the community
Umoja is a Swahili term that means togetherness and has been a method increasingly adopted by the Anglican Church in many parts of Africa for finding home-grown solutions to common problems. In Niassa Diocese the approach has been used for over eight years and continues to help Christians attain various goals.
The Diocese recognises that real, sustainable change begins and ends with the community, and that community mobilisation for resourcing, developing and improving lives together is the key.
The Diocese of Niassa now has about 3000 MU members from an initial 1100 in 2004. To build such a large arsenal of members, the Diocese opened the doors to other forms of membership by having ‘friends’ of MU who are usually those that are not yet married or baptized.
“They are a movement of women of the church, and where we have had new churches planted, establishing new groups of MU has been prioritised,” said Helen Van Koevering. “This has been especially important where pastoral care has been limited by inadequate clergy."
The Umoja concept has been fully embraced by the Mothers' Union here such that when a few selected members were asked about what they considered their major challenges, they could not find any. This is because to them MU work is about using whatever they have at their disposal to “help others in time of need, pray for and with the community, be together to provide support, example and teaching to each other”.
A love of the work
Amélia Namaumbo, the Vice-President of Johanna Abdullah parish in the district of Lichinga, said she feels that through MU she has learnt so much about Jesus, the church and its growth since 2008 when she became a member.
“I now know that I have been called to serve God,” said Amélia. “I have enjoyed the exchanges that we have had with Mothers' Unions in other countries such as Malawi and Tanzania, as well as around our diocese.”
“I especially love the all-nighters when we give counsel to other women in the area of marriage. I have seen so many women’s lives changed – and we just want more....” For many other members, simply belonging and participating in the Mothers' Union by itself has brought about great changes in their lives. They are delighted with the growth they have seen in their church and in their own lives.
Cecilia Chilapula has been an MU member since 1988. She said she has witnessed so much change, and that as MU women they are now very secure. She sees the frequent meetings with other members as the major key to the change. “It’s great to be a part of something out of here in Lichinga.”
Despite their many success stories and examples, the MU in Niassa, and the Diocese as a whole, has had it share of challenges. The lack of adequate finance to sustain certain full-time positions has made them think 'outside the box'. It seems that what they do not have in the area of finances, they have tried to make up for with their large membership and skills.
For instance, they have recognised that on reaching the end of their six-year terms, some of their presidents have developed good leadership and speaking skills that they could continue to use within the church as catechists.
While poverty remains a challenge for many of their members, the Diocese still tries to finance most of their projects. “The finances for the building have come from ourselves, with the help of our diocesan and parish links such as the Diocese of Natal in South Africa and a parish link in Southall, London,” explained Helen Van Koevering.
The membership of the Mothers' Union anywhere in the world can only be sustained if young girls are well trained and nurtured in the ways of the Lord. Enrolling young girls to St Agnes, a Church group for girls from the ages of 9 to 16, has mostly been spearheaded by MU members.
“We, as diocesan leadership, were drawn to encourage it around the diocese as a good means to reach girls before maturity, especially sexual maturity, as our mission work has a largely health focus,” revealed the Director of Ministry. “St Agnes provides participation in local churches for girls, and we have around 60 in just two churches in Lichinga, so it is attractive to the girls and their parents too.”
Whether expressed as fundraising, brick making, or encouraging prayer and Bible study, it's clear that the Mothers' Union members in Mozambique are working together as a community. Their spirit of Umoja, togetherness, is evident to all, and something to be admired and replicated.