Editor's note: This article was updated May 29, 2015.
Angola. Kenya. Zambia. Zimbabwe.
In recent years, Florida Conference churches have been plowing new mission fields in Africa, but few African-American United Methodists have journeyed there as part of a mission team.
Rev. Harold Lewis Sr., Justice & Multicultural Ministries director for the Florida Conference, is hoping that forging stronger ties to Africa University in Zimbabwe will change that.
“Mostly Anglo churches go in the mission field (outside the U.S.) because they have resources and a different take on the mission field,” Lewis said.
A group of young adults of color and Florida Conference clergy traveled to Africa University in March for the inauguration of the vice chancellor, Professor Munashe Furusa.
It was an effort to represent the Florida Conference in its partnership with the United Methodist institution, but Lewis is hoping it will lead to more. He sees opportunities for student and faculty exchange programs, as well as mission work.
He and others at the Florida Conference are working on a plan to help fund mission trips for African-American United Methodists, a program he hopes to have in place in the next year or so.
“We do not want money to be an issue,” Lewis said.
But perceptions about overseas mission work, particularly in Africa, can hinder participation as well. Fears about the spread of ebola and a negative reaction to the idea of visiting the site where ancestors were abducted and forced into slavery can make the idea of mission in Africa less appealing, Lewis said.
“I just discern that being victims in a culture may have played into some of their psyche,” he said.
But Lewis thinks that’s changing. The trip in March included two students from Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black Methodist school in Daytona Beach, and several other young adult African Americans. Three African-American clergy from the Florida Conference – Bill Bailey of Ebenezer UMC in Jacksonville, Juana Jordan of Harris Chapel UMC near Fort Lauderdale and JoAnn Brookins of Carol City-Opa Locka churches near Miami – went along, as well as Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller, a Caucasian pastor who championed diversity and cross-cultural training in her former role as Connectional Ministries director for the conference.
For most of the travelers, it was their first time setting foot on African soil.
“It was a great once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Desiree Austin-Holliday of First UMC, Lakeland, a recent college graduate who had met some Africa University students last summer, when she helped coordinate performances of the school’s choir in Florida United Methodist churches.
Reuniting with some of those students on their home campus in Zimbabwe was as much of a thrill as visiting a new land, she said.
“It was like we never separated,” she said. “I cried when we were leaving again.”
The only other time Austin-Holliday had been outside the U.S. was while studying abroad in England. She said she was struck by the similarities between American and African college students. The young people she saw at Africa University dressed much like others of their generation in the U.S. and listened to the same music. Like American students, they were learning to balance the rigors of higher education with desires to socialize and have fun.
“The funny thing was it was amazing to see how similar college students are, no matter where you are,” she said. “They are far away from their family and the things they know.”
A major difference she noted, though, was the Africa University students’ drive to make a difference in their home communities or somewhere in Africa.
“With these students, they understand how lucky they are,” Austin-Holliday said. “They are part of a few people across the continent who are going to college and university and getting a higher education.”
She added, “These are young people who want to change the world but are so unsure of what they want to do. … I was halfway around the world, but they’re just like me.”
Fear of the unknown probably has discouraged some people from pursuing mission work in Africa, Austin-Holliday said. She and Lewis said they perceive that today’s young adults might be more open to mission experiences there.
Austin-Holliday said that’s something else young Americans have in common with their counterparts across the globe.
“What I was hearing was a new generation of young Africans who realized the potential they had. … They have goals. They have dreams. They’re not just poor people in a field.”
Visitors from the Florida Conference sat in on classes at the university during their stay. They also visited an orphanage and hospital in the area.
Austin-Holliday and Fogle-Miller, who is senior pastor of Memorial UMC, Fernandina Beach, both said opportunities might unfold for exchange students and visiting faculty from the U.S.
The trip was Fogle-Miller’s second visit in Africa but her first look at Zimbabwe..
“I was so proud to be United Methodist,” she said of the experience. “There’s been a Methodist mission presence in that part of Zimbabwe since the 1890s. … I also came away with a sense of embarrassment and sadness at the depth of damage caused” by the colonial era.
She said she was impressed by how well the Africa University students she met explained the complex economic and cultural issues that face their homeland and how dedicated they are to making conditions better.
“I came away with the sense that it was really valuable to be involved in that,” Fogle-Miller said. “If our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, investing in the leadership in Africa is a good demonstration of that.”
Africa University• Founded and approved for funding as a United Methodist initiative in 1988 by General Conference.
• Chartered in 1992 in Mutare, Zimbabwe, as an institution for students from across Africa. The university has an annual full-time enrollment of 1,500 and strives to have at least 60 percent of students from outside Zimbabwe.
• The Florida Conference entered an official partnership with Africa University in 2013, and Africa University was a beneficiary of the 2014 Annual Conference offering.
The Florida Conference has a specific partnership role of raising money toward faculty housing near the university’s Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance. Currently, the nearest faculty home is eight or 10 miles away, Fogle-Miller said.
“Driving is crazy there. Travel is difficult and expensive,” she said, adding that married faculty and students often must leave their families behind and see them only once or twice a year.
Encouraging Florida Conference Methodists to invest in missions and share their experience with others back home helps cement the global connection, she added.
“I’ve got folks in my church who are interested in strengthening the ties,” the pastor said. Leaders of the church day care and after-school programs also are exploring pen pal opportunities between the children enrolled at Memorial and children in the hospital in Zimbabwe.
Austin-Holliday said she would encourage anyone who can to take a mission trip to Africa University.
“I would just say, ‘Give it a chance,’” she said. “You’ll never know unless you go there.”
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.