Letter From Melvin Rhodes, UCG Chairman
April 20, 2012
Dear Fellow Ministers,
I’ve just returned from a very positive and uplifting trip to Zimbabwe and South Africa. It was really good to be with the members down there.
I spent Passover, the Night to be Much Observed and the First Day of Unleavened Bread with the brethren in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.
Members in Zimbabwe are scattered all over the country—a nation that is over three times the size of the state of Michigan—where I live—so it’s always a joy when everybody can get together for a couple of days. It costs us about $1,000 to bring them all into a central location. It would cost far more for me to travel around and visit everybody. They also benefit from being with each other.
In a country that not so long ago suffered from severe food shortages, the ladies put on a really nice meal for us on the Night to be Much Observed. Thanks to the generosity of a teen in Lansing, Michigan, I was able to give every single household a box of scripture cards prepared as a fundraiser by our Ambassador Bible Center.
At the same time, Marshall Takaindisa, a long-time member from a remote rural area, received his “new” (used) battery operated wheelchair. Marshall teaches at a sprawling school complex and, so far, has depended on others to push him around. But now he can get around by himself.
He asked for a wheelchair a few months ago. Finding a wheelchair was one thing—getting it into the country was quite another. Freight charges and customs duties are only part of the problem—the paperwork is quite daunting. It was suggested that I “ride” it into Zimbabwe. For this, I needed a letter from my doctor saying that I needed to use a wheelchair in Johannesburg where the new airport requires a lot of walking. For once the wound in my foot was advantageous!
I asked the office in Pretoria, South Africa, if they could help find the wheelchair. Finally one was found, but when our office employee’s husband, Neil Wallis, went to pick it up, he realized there was no foot-rest. That meant I would have to keep my feet up while using the chair. A foot-rest could be added once it arrived in Zimbabwe.
At the airport the battery ran out so I had to be pushed with my feet up, but we got it on to the plane and into Zimbabwe and into the hands of Marshall, who was absolutely thrilled to receive it. As LifeNets paid for the wheelchair, there was no cost to the church for a wheelchair that will make a big difference in one man’s life.
After Sabbath services on the first Holy Day, I was able to travel to Mutare, a four-hour drive away, where our deacon, Mike Mukurati and his wife Primrose, live. This beautiful mountainous area is close to the Mozambique border. I spent the remainder of the weekend with them. On the Sunday Mike and I visited a new member who lives in Mutare, an 83-year-old lady originally from South Africa, Claudia Harrison. Mrs. Harrison is the only person of European descent in the Zimbabwe congregation. If you’re ever in Mutare you must visit—she makes a really good cup of tea! (I can’t speak for her coffee!)
Following my visit to Mutare, we returned to Harare, and I then flew back to South Africa. I was able to spend the Last Day of Unleavened Bread and the weekly Sabbath with the members in East London, a congregation that recently returned to the United Church of God after they became more aware of recent events.
Their enthusiasm and the spirit of love, joy and peace (the first three fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians chapter 5) was an exhilarating experience for me personally. I longed for my wife to be there to share the time with me, but she was not able to make this trip. Once again, it was a real joy to be with the members in an isolated part of the world.
After returning to Johannesburg, the three ministers serving in the region were able to get together Sunday morning to discuss future plans for serving the area. At the present time, there is just one elder resident in South Africa, Roy Demont, who was ordained last year exactly one week after his wife Jean died. Roy is in his seventies and has been speaking in all four congregations in South Africa, once a month in each. The churches are so far apart that three require flights to get there. While we were talking he offered to go to Zimbabwe a couple of times a year, which will help me out greatly, as I can only make it there twice a year from the United States.
Roy’s son in law, Grant Chick, was also present. Grant lives in Australia and, with the support of the Australian National Council, was able to help out in South Africa during the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread. He and his wife will be returning to the area for the Feast of Tabernacles, where Grant will speak in both Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Also present at the meeting was Jason Webster, who has been doing an outstanding job taking care of the church’s needs in the Johannesburg and Pretoria area.
In both Zimbabwe and South Africa I had the very real sense of being on the frontline of the work that God has called us to do, the work of preaching the gospel and preparing a people. There are currently 120 attending with us in South Africa and about 30 in Zimbabwe.
South Africa does not need a great deal of help from the Cincinnati home office. They are self-sufficient. But we in the U.S. do take care of their magazine and booklet printing and some of their mailing costs. Occasionally they need help in other areas. For example, Richard Kennebeck, our information technology (IT) manager, was there during Unleavened Bread helping them with their computer and office system. His wife, Emma, also helped their office manager and treasurer in South Africa, Isella Wallis.
Zimbabwe requires slightly more help. The members in both countries are excited at the prospect of preaching the gospel in their areas—it is hoped to hold a Kingdom of God Bible Seminar in Harare next time I visit.
Spiritually, the visit to both countries was also a big boost for me personally. In Zimbabwe I very quickly realized my new iPhone did not work at all, which meant I was cut off from the rest of the world. I could not receive calls, text messages or e-mail—and it was wonderful! Very relaxing. I had more time for prayer and Bible study and more time to talk with the members—a reminder of the importance of living by the two great commandments, love toward God and love toward neighbor.
“Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ Jesus said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets’” (Matthew 22:35-40).
Our priorities should always be our relationship with God, first and foremost, and then our relationships with other people—with our spouses, our children and members of God’s spiritual family. Electronic gadgets can get in the way—they don’t save us time, they consume time—sometimes at the cost of neglecting those important relationships. In the Western world our spiritual lives are constantly threatened by modern technology. It’s a joy to go to areas that are not yet spoiled in this way and where people still matter. It is not surprising that Africa is the only continent where the number of people claiming to be Christian is actually increasing.
“Look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest” said Jesus Christ in John 4:35. In the previous verse He said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.”
That work continues to this day and we have a part in finishing it. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
The African field is indeed “white for harvest.” Those turning in hope to Jesus Christ need to understand the need to be like Him, to keep His commandments, to walk as He walked, to live His way of life. Simply calling yourself Christian doesn’t do this. There’s a need for the truth of God to be revealed and for people to take God’s commands to heart. “You shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:18). “And you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Africa is an exciting place to be, especially when you are visiting those areas where God has called people to be a part of His spiritual family. Remember your brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Africa; and, if you are ever able, be sure to visit them and be inspired—and take a break from all those electronic gadgets!
Melvin Rhodes—Chairman, Council of Elders, United Church of God