Out of Africa: Mulemena finds mission in Amazon




BELEM, BRAZIL—As a youngster growing up in Zambia, Africa, becoming a pastor or missionary was at the very bottom of Charles Mulemena’s list of career goals.

Representing the Council of Christian Churches leadership, Charles Mulemena holds a cross as a symbol of solidarity with minorities in the Amazonia region. The march was part of Brazil's recent independence celebrations.

“My dad was a pastor. After seeing his great sacrifice and hard work for no monetary benefit, I knew this was something I did not want to do,” Mulemena said. “I wanted a much better life for my kids and family. I wanted to be a lawyer.”

Mulemena, however, was destined to confirm the accuracy of film director-actor Woody Allen’s famous quote: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

“At the age of 12, when I received Christ as my Lord and Savior, I began to have a great passion for serving others,” he said.

His passion for serving God and his neighbors grew stronger while his desire to pursue a high-paying job began to wane.

Instead of attending law school, he entered the seminary. “Before I knew it, I was in full-time ministry as a pastor,” he said.

He went on to serve as a pastor in the Zambia Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“Eventually, I decided to become a missionary.”

Growing up in the landlocked South African country of Zambia, Mulemena was aware of the great need for both spiritual and physical help in the region.

Although Zambia is officially a Christian nation, its population of more than 16 million people includes 73 ethnic tribes, most of which speak the native language, Bantu.

Nearly 60 percent of Zambians live below the national poverty line. Unemployment and underemployment are epidemic problems in the urban areas. Most rural Zambians labor as subsistence farmers.

As a result of the poverty, Zambia faces an epidemic of AIDS and other diseases, as well as a high mortality rate among birthing mothers and newborns.

Hoping to help his countrymen, Mulemena applied to become a missionary in either Zambia or nearby Angola, where last year the worst drought on the continent in 25 years doubled Angola’s malnutrition rate.

Charles Mulemena participates in an annual retreat that joins Anglicans with Catholics. He shared the importance of Ecumenism and the need for the Church as the Body of Christ to dialogue and unite.

"When my missionary position was approved (in October 2015), I was told I would be going to a Portuguese-speaking nation,” Mulemena said.

Mulemena was convinced he had been assigned to Angola, a country once colonized by Portugal.

“I was so excited,” he said. “I knew it was Angola they meant.”

Instead, they informed Mulemena that he was headed to Brazil, a country more than 5,000 miles from his homeland.

“I was like, ‘Wow.’ At that moment, I knew that (Brazil) was exactly where the Lord was calling me,” he said. “It was all part of God’s design and wonderful plan.”

So, Mulemena, his wife, Barbra, and their four children set foot in a strange, new country halfway around the globe June 16, 2016.

Belem, Brazil, which is Portuguese for Bethlehem, is known as the gateway to the Amazon rainforest. With an average of 115 inches of rainfall annually, its climate couldn’t be more different from Zambia.

In addition to facing a language barrier, the Mulemenas found themselves adapting to constant heat and humidity, exotic foods, an unfamiliar culture and alien education and health care systems.

“The list of challenges was endless,” Mulemena said. “We are still struggling with the hot weather of the Amazon rainforest, understanding the deep cultural issues, trying to know when it’s appropriate to laugh and when it’s not during a conversation, understanding medical prescriptions and many other things.”

Shown are two precious Amazonia artifacts given by the Presbyterian Church community to Amazon villagers. The top item is a bowl used to serve food to large gatherings. The other piece is an Amazonia drum.

He jokes about the fact that his children had fewer problems adapting than he and his wife.

“Our kids were so quick to throw themselves into Brazilian life, but for my wife and I, the process continues,” he said.

The challenges, however, are balanced by the excitement of embarking on new adventures through his missionary work, he said.

As a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, Mulemena serves as coordinator of the Council of Christian Churches in the Amazon Rainforest. The council is an ecumenical organization consisting of several Christian denominations and other faith-based organizations working in the multicultural and multiracial Brazilian states of Para and Amapa.

“This region of Brazil is said to have the highest levels of poverty,” said Mulemena. In both the urban and rural areas, problems range from lack of educational options to inadequate health care.

In addition to providing hands-on survival skills to struggling families, Mulemena spends much of his time meeting with political leaders to brainstorm ways to ease the struggles of the people in Para and Amapa.

“My official role is to mobilize and coordinate the activities and resources of our organization,” he said.

Unofficially, Mulemena believes it’s the God-given duty of missionaries to provide a prophetic and evangelistic voice for the underprivileged and disenfranchised.

“Both the Church and the government serve the same peoples, communities and society,” he said. “Therefore, what the Church does with the society affects governments and what the government does with the society affects the Church. So, if the Church carefully plays her role,” he said, “the whole society is positively transformed to the extent of having the right people in government, and the society is dignified.

“On the other hand, if the Church does not play her prophetic and evangelistic roles,” Mulemena suggested, “the result is miseries in society and corrupt governments.”

On a more practical level, Mulemena has been busy establishing a life-skills training center to build healthy family relationships and help the poor become self-sustainable.

A little more than a year after arriving in Belem, Mulemena said he’s amazed at how much they’ve accomplished.

“We’ve been received with such amazing love and grace,” he said. “I have such a supportive community of co-workers. Right now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance journalist based in Valrico.

Editor’s Note: To support the work of UMC missionaries, go to flumc-missions.org and click on the “Missionaries” tab or contact the Office of Missional Engagement at irodriguez@flumc.org.


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