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"Pioneer" Missionaries See Zambian Church Flourishing

"Pioneer" Missionaries See Zambian Church Flourishing

Delbert Groves says that if he and his wife, Sandy, have learned anything about missionary service, it is that whatever you plan usually doesn’t mean much.

When the Groveses went to Africa 19 years ago, Delbert’s background was in printing and publishing and Sandy’s was in medical technology. Now, Delbert says, “that’s a small percentage of what we’ve been doing.”

The Groveses are longtime members of the Florida Conference who have been in Zambia since 2000, conducting church development and planting, evangelism, community development and several other outreach projects. It is work they took up there after being forced to flee the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire) due to political unrest. United Methodist Bishop Kainda Katembo of the South Katanga Annual Conference in the Congo sent them to Zambia, a country with almost no Methodist presence. It was like being pioneers, Delbert says.

“When Sandy and I moved to Zambia, we had no game plan. There was not a Conference when we moved. … There were five or 10 Methodist congregations in the whole country. We’ve started about 20 or more congregations, and now there are about 100 in Zambia. Our goal is to become an Annual Conference in 2012 with our own bishop,” he says.

Sandy and Delbert Groves (right) recently visited with North West District Superintendent Tony Fernandez and his wife, Maria, (left) at the home of the Rev. Armando and Icel Rodriguez in Tallahassee. In the center is the Rev. Charles Mulemena, director of the New Life Center in Kitwe, Zambia, where the Groveses are stationed. The Groveses and Mulemena have been visiting churches to tell about their work as missionaries. They will return to Zambia on April 13. (Photo by Icel Rodriguez)

The Groveses have been on furlough in Florida since January, visiting family and churches, telling about their work. They own a home in St. Petersburg, where they have been staying until they return to Zambia on April 13.

The Groveses first went to Africa in 1982 as volunteers in a work team from their church, Pinecastle UMC in Orlando. They returned on several occasions, and when they learned that there was a need in Zaire for someone to run a church printing operation, they sold their business and went to Africa in 1992 as independent missionaries. They were taken under care of the General Board of Global Missions a few years later.

In Zambia, the Groveses are based at New Life Center in Kitwe, a large city near the Northern border in the copper belt, a region known for the mining of metals and minerals. The New Life Center houses almost a dozen educational, medical and evangelistic programs, including ministries to youth, women and prisoners (see the website

Delbert Groves says it has been satisfying to see how people have embraced the gospel.

“It is the most rewarding experience to see men, women and young people take on the life of Christ,” he says.

A particularly notable ministry is PET Zambia, which builds simple hand-propelled tricycles, providing mobility for people who do not have the use of their legs.

“It’s a fantastic ministry. We build 50 a month, and we distribute them throughout Zambia, Malawi and the Congo,” Delbert says.

Recently the Groveses turned over the administration of the New Life Center to the Rev. Charles Mulemena, a Methodist pastor who started a successful congregation and has worked closely with the Groveses. Mulemena accompanied the Groveses to Florida in January and traveled with them to speak at local churches before returning to Zambia last week.

A woman rides one of the Personal Energy Transportation (PET) tricycles built at the New Life Center in Kitwe, Zambia. The center builds and distributes about 50 of the tricycles each month. (Photo courtesy New Life Center)

Delbert Groves calls Mulemena, who began New Life’s prison ministry after spending four months in jail due to a false accusation, “a great man of God.”

Icel Rodriguez, Director of Global Mission for the Florida Conference, says she talked at length with the Groveses and Mulemena about their ministry. She noted that the Groveses have successfully prepared the Zambian church to continue its ministries after the couple retires.

“It amazed me, their strong dependence on the Holy Spirit for everything they do. They have a very special relationship with the Lord,” she says. “A life of missionary service is very fulfilling but very challenging. They’ve been there many years, away from their family in a different culture.”

The New Life Center frequently hosts work teams from the United States, which help build the tricycles and work with children and youth. The Center receives assistance from numerous congregations in several states, and the Groveses and Mulemena have spoken to about 40 churches during their visit.

“I believe what the Lord has been doing in Zambia is really bringing something to the churches in Florida. It’s about allowing the churches to be in mission in a real way,” Delbert Groves says.

Rodriguez says the Conference is looking into the possibility of sending a team of volunteers to Zambia in 2012.

The Groveses have four adult children and four grandchildren. They have agreed to stay in Zambia for three more years before retiring.

“We are seeing God do things I never thought I would see in Africa. It’s a lot of fun,” Delbert Groves says. “Sandy and I can’t imagine spending our time anywhere else.”