If there's any doubt about the Florida Conference’s mission “to connect and equip congregations in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” just ask Wayne Slockbower what it means.
An American who managed to get past language barriers to teach African teenagers how to build and repair essential structures, Slockbower surely knows a thing or two about how to translate lofty ideals into action.
|Wayne Slockbower of Cypress Lake UMC works with boys in Quéssua, Angola, to repair a war-damaged building. Photo courtesy of Icel Rodriguez.|
The retired builder and member of Cypress Lake UMC was among dozens of Florida Methodists who traveled to Quéssua, Angola, last year as part of the Florida/East Angola partnership. He was so touched by the Angolans' desire to improve their skills that when his mission teammates departed, he stayed behind for two weeks with no interpreter so that he could teach orphans how to repair their boarding house.
“They don’t want you to do it for them,” he said, explaining that he communicated with pantomime and a few words he learned in the boys' native tongue.
“They want you to teach them. They want to learn.”
As the Florida/East Angola partnership marks its10th anniversary this year, those involved are celebrating the hands-on demonstration of transformation occurring for Methodists on both sides of the ocean, said Icel Rodriguez, director of Global Missions for the Florida Conference. She is hoping others will see the results and join in.
“There is something spiritual about this relationship,” said Rodriguez, who was a host missionary in Quéssua with her husband, Armando, in 2009-10. “If you go to Angola, you’ll see the miracles and wonders God is doing there and you [will] have been transformed.”
|Among Quéssua buildings repaired through the Florida/East Angola Partnership is the high school, show here before (top) and after reconstruction. Photos from Icel Rodriguez.|
Maybe that transformation occurs when visitors see how far the mission has come and still has to go, suggested Kim McCloughan, a physical therapist and Sunday school teacher from Harvest UMC, Bradenton. She visited Angola for the first time in June and decided to go back in October.
“When you have very little, you realize the one thing you can rely on is God,” she said.
“In Quéssua, The United Methodist Church is very strong and there is a community of strong Christian believers who don’t have a lot but who have such a strong belief in God.”
Angola has been rebuilding since 2002, when a 27-year civil war ended. The nationwide devastation – an estimated 1.5 million lives lost and 4 million people displaced – is keenly felt in Quéssua, which was once a thriving center for learning, health care and Methodism a few kilometers from the larger city of Malange.
During the war, government opposition forces targeted Quéssua for destruction because the country’s president was a Methodist. The Florida/East Angola partnership, founded in 2003, has worked to restore some of Quéssua's key structures. Those include a theological seminary, the church, a boarding house and a high school that provided education for hundreds of students, including many government and business leaders, said Rev. Armando Rodriguez Jr., pastor of John Wesley UMC, Tallahassee, and partnership chairman.
Currently, the focus is on repairing a dormitory. To see more photos of progress, click here for the conference's Global Missions blog.
“In our next decade of partnership, it is my hope that we can continue doing the reconstruction that we have been doing to expand the capacity and meet the need," Armando Rodriguez said. "Right now, 45 boys live in one four-bedroom house that has been repaired.”
|Above is the School of Theology gutted by the Angolan civil war that ended in 2002. Below is the same building, restored through efforts of the Florida/East Angola Partnership. Photo from Icel Rodriguez.|
Because the war kept generations from attending school and learning a trade, there is a shortage of skills, knowledge and leadership, said Rev. John Brown, a retired minister from North Naples UMC who serves on the East Angola/Florida committee.
Brown led a mission team to Angola in October and plans to return in April with a General Board of Discipleship representative to facilitate a meeting with members of the East Angola Conference.
“The social, political, economic and health problems this country faces are solved only through the Holy Spirit,” he said.
“The transformation can only occur if the church is there providing a Christian environment where education can take place. The Quéssua mission provides an opportunity for future leaders to grow and learn in a faith-filled environment.”
Rev. Dr. Leonardo Garcia and his wife, Rev. Dr. Cleivy Benitez, of the Methodist Church in Cuba have been serving as missionaries to the East Angola UMC since October 2011. Their responsibilities range from teaching theology and coordinating visits from Florida UMC volunteers to overseeing a feeding program for 60 boys and girls in the orphanage/boarding house. They are fully supported by Florida United Methodist churches through the partnership.
Having onsite staff helps reduce obstacles faced by visiting mission teams, such as transportation from Luanda, Angola’s capitol.
“It's a major factor that we have someone at the airport to pick us up and take us to the place,” Icel Rodriguez said, adding that visas have become relatively easy to get.
She said her office is scheduling several teams to visit Quéssua this year, and the opportunities are open to anyone in the conference.
"We still need covenant churches to support the missionaries," she added. Churches can do this primarily through funding, but some churches have sent clothing and other items. For more information, visit www.flumc2.org/pages/detail/942.
The gratitude of the people of Quéssua tends to touch visitors and bring them back, the Global Mission director said. She noted that the last American Methodist missionaries before the 2003 partnership left Quéssua in 1962. She remembered the reaction of one of the residents when Florida Methodists began visiting again.
"He started crying and saying, 'For so many years, I prayed that God would send back the missionaries … and He finally heard my cry.' It was just very moving."
* Colleen Hart is a freelance writer based in the Cocoa area.