Members of the Pétévo United Methodist Church in the Central African Republic.
Central African Republic is New United Methodist Mission Focus
By Elliott Wright*
New York, NY, October 6, 2015—The United Methodist Church is putting a new mission focus on the Central African Republic (CAR), one of the poorest, most conflict-ridden nations on earth.
The country was designated as a Mission Initiative by directors of the General Board of Global Ministries, holding their annual meeting in New York City, October 1-3.
“We have a mission start in CAR through the work of United Methodists in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now we will slowly, strategically work with local church leaders to extend the Methodist movement and ministry,” said George Howard, the Global Ministries deputy general secretary for Mission and Evangelism. “Our hope is to support local efforts that strengthen the spiritual and material welfare of the people and witness to peace and concern for human welfare.”
“The United Methodist Church continues to follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in places that have been characterized by poverty, conflict, and hopelessness,” said Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba, episcopal leader of the East Congo Area, responding by email to the designation of CAR as a Mission Initiative. CAR geographically falls within the bishop’s episcopal area.
Three Congregations, Two Pastors
The Central Africa Republic currently has three United Methodist congregations, two pastors, and some 275 members. Several other congregations disbanded in recent years because of political and social turbulence.
The Rev. Lucien Dockpa and the Rev. Cesar Gazza, both Central African nationals educated with Global Ministries’ assistance in the DRC, are providing pastoral leadership and trainings on foundational principles of The United Methodist Church, according to the Rev. Dr. Mande Muyombo, an executive with the Africa office of Global Ministries. “The two local leaders are holding seminars on United Methodism for youths, women, and lay evangelists. They teach church members about the importance of stewardship and service; in response, one member donated 65 chairs—(the equivalent of $500)—to a congregation.”
“Mission Initiative” is an operational—not a theological or legal—term for new or renewed United Methodist presence in a country or area. Mission Initiatives often develop into sustained units within the church’s system of connections.
“Mission Initiatives are our way of celebrating the vibrant work of the Holy Spirit as Christ's mission flows from everywhere to everywhere,” explains Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of North Carolina, president of the Global Ministries’ agency. “In the region of Central Africa, we look forward to increased partnership, vital ministry, and compassionate mission as we serve Christ together through The United Methodist Church.”
Conflict and Displaced People
The Central African Republic, a former French colony that became independent in 1960, has a population variously estimated between 4.7 and 5.4 million, a turbulent past, vast poverty, and a staggering rate of HIV/AIDs deaths. Despite enormous mineral resources, including diamonds, over 60 percent of the people in the 240,000 square mile territory live in poverty. Landlocked, north of the DRC, south of Chad and Sudan, east of South Sudan, and west of Cameroon, CAR was the French colony of Ubangi-Shari. Bangui, the capital city, has a population of more than half a million.
A history of civil conflict has led to almost 500,000 displaced persons within the country, and 400,000 refugees in adjoining nations, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. CAR has some 80 ethnic and language groups, with French being the official language and Sangho the most common indigenous tongue. The fragile current coalition government is backed by peacekeepers from the United Nations. Armed conflict between Christians and Muslims has been frequent in the past few years but not historically based. Statistics on religions vary greatly from source to source, with perhaps 50 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim and the remainder adhering to traditional religions.
Reflecting on its Mission Initiative designation in his email, Bishop Unda recalled the commitment of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, to the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and those affected by violent conflict. “Christ considers these challenges as opportunities for mission and ministry,” said Bishop Unda. “Strengthening existing worshiping communities in CAR and creating new ones will bring hope to many who have felt abandoned for a long time.”
Twelve Mission Initiatives over the past 25 years have resulted in hundreds of new Christian communities in such places as Russia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, Central Asia, Honduras, and, in Africa, Malawi, Cameroon, and Senegal.