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'Walk With Us,' African Ecumenical Leader Tells U.S. Churches
New All Africa Conference of Churches General Secretary Visits NCC, CWS

(Pictured: Bishop Mvume Dandala, General Secretary, All Africa Conference of Churches (left) with the Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director, Church World Service (center) and the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, General Secretary, National Council of Churches (right).

October 10, 2003, NEW YORK CITY - Determination to equip Africa’s churches to respond powerfully to the continent’s pressing needs characterizes Bishop Mvume Dandala, the new head of Africa’s leading ecumenical organization.

Dandala, McCullough and EdgarDandala, 51, a South African who in September became General Secretary of the Nairobi, Kenya-based All Africa Conference of Churches, does not mince words when he describes Africa’s daunting challenges of "tragic poverty," "HIV/AIDS and other killer diseases" and "conflict brought by political despots."

But he doesn’t stop there. "Sometimes when people see the wars that continue to afflict us, they don’t see the positive things," he says - "a continent trying to deal with its problems" and the enormous potential of Africa’s churches to "equip, empower and protect the people."

Dandala, known for his work in conflict resolution at the height of the apartheid era in South Africa, is the immediate past Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. He led a World Council of Churches "Living Letters" delegation to the United States in November 2001, meeting with delegates to the NCC’s annual General Assembly among others to wrestle together with questions raised by the attacks of September 11, 2001.

This week in New York City, he met with staff of the National Council of Churches USA, Church World Service and the United Methodist Church after participating in a U.S. speaking tour and "teach-in" organized by Africa Action, the oldest Africa advocacy organization in the United States. Dandala also spoke at a breakfast forum at The Riverside Church in New York City and co-officiated at Holy Communion at morning worship there.

The All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), established in 1963, is a fellowship of 169 national denominations and 35 national Christian councils across the continent, comprising an estimated 120 million members.

The AACC’s program seeks to equip the members for witness and service in such areas as Christian and family life education, theology, interfaith relations, youth, women, development, refugee and emergency services, and information. Nov. 22-27 in Yaounde, Cameroon, members will gather for the AACC’s 8th continent-wide assembly, under the theme "Come, Let Us Re-Build."

"Some of us are very passionate about what this network could do," Dandala commented to CWS and NCC staff. "We want to be sure the churches come together in a meaningful way."

That is easier said than done, he acknowledged. Travel and phone calls between countries can be difficult and expensive, letters can take up a month to reach their destination and Internet access is scarce. "Interconnectivity, taking our future into our own hands, together, is key," he said.

In response, Church World Service is assisting the AACC with computer hardware, software and networking upgrades based on a needs assessment visit last year. The project is one of several collaborations between CWS - the global humanitarian agency of the NCC’s 36 member churches - and the AACC, a longstanding partner.

This week CWS Executive Director John L. McCullough presented Dandala with a "down payment" of three new laptops as part of the broader package of assistance. Dandala responded, "Your commitment to help us with these computers will help us strengthen our networks in a vast continent that doesn’t have much in the way of digital connections - but needs them more than ever before.

"Maybe CWS is just thinking that with computers our letters can be written more efficiently," he said. "For us they empower the church to speak with more authority to the things happening on the continent at this time."

African church life is a mixed picture, Dandala acknowledged. He expressed sadness and distress at churches that "take people’s money and give nothing back." In the HIV/AIDS and other crises, some churches "are in the forefront of the struggle to care" but others are "making things difficult," teaching, for example, that AIDS is God’s punishment of Africa.

Dandala said the AACC’s mission includes bringing African church leaders together "to consider the kind of Christianity we need in Africa - ecumenical, socially sensitive, healing and transforming - the kind of salvation that has a direct positive impact on people’s lives."

On the political front, Dandala called the establishment of the African Union in 2002 "something of a miracle at the moment." The AU’s predecessor body, the Organization of African Unity, had as a cornerstone principle non-interference in other countries’ affairs - predicated, ironically, on respect for boundaries that had been imposed by colonial powers.

That principle "has been the downfall of the continent since 1957, which has seen the inability to do anything when evil takes place somewhere," Dandala said. "But now the AU agrees that we have a moral obligation when one of the leaders on the continent is destroying his or her country." For example, he said, it was "unthinkable a few years ago that heads of governments would intervene as they did in Liberia’s civil war," convincing Charles Taylor to step down as President.

"We wish it could happen more," he said, expressing distress at watching Zimbabwe "destroy itself. It’s a fact that land distribution in Africa is badly skewed against the poor, the ordinary people. We need to find a political solution that conveys that democratic values can be used meaningfully in resolving conflicts on the continent. Some of us as churches have said that to (Zimbabwe’s President Robert) Mugabe."

Concluded Dandala, "Churches are like the veins and arteries in the body of Africa. Yes, we are the church in Africa, but we are not alone - we are part of the worldwide church.

"Many world powers are interested in Africa not to build but to plunder, not to empower but to frustrate," he said. "We look to the churches worldwide and say the only bulwark that can protect us is the powerful collective voice of the churches to say, ‘Give the people a chance,’ and to walk with us."

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