We Must Do the Work of Decolonizing Our Denomination – Rev. Lloyd Nyarota

Episode 5

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EPISODE 005: Lloyd Nyarota is a United Methodist elder in the Zimbabwe East Conference, and a GBGM missionary spouse. Lloyd is on an ecumenical appointment in the United Church of Canada, where he serves a shared ministry at St John’s United Anglican Church in the province of Alberta; his wife Tazvi is serving ethnic minority congregations in Canada. He has served as a consultant for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Nyarota is a founding member of the Central Conference Outreach team, who wrote and promote the Christmas Covenant legislation on regionalization that was submitted to General Conference.

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Discussion Questions

  1. Rev. Lloyd suggests that it’s time to “re-launch” as a church, liberated from colonial structures and practices. What does this mean to you?
  2. What does Rev. Lloyd see as “fundamentals” of the church, in his context? What do you see as the “fundamentals” in your context?
  3. What do you see as the most helpful ways for our church to be connected across diverse contexts? What qualities should our structure have?

Transcript

Molly: One of the strange things about our United Methodist Church is that we are a global denomination. Our same institutional structure includes local churches and districts and conferences, both in the US and outside the US. Our United Methodist Church institutional body is especially including of churches in Africa, in the Philippines, and Europe.

When we gather together for our general conference to make policies and set priorities as a denomination our delegates include clergy and lay people from all of these places. As a person located in a place that has been long laboring to remove prohibitions against gay clergy and same sex weddings, I often have reduced the global church, flattening our [rich] diversity, to understand how it is an obstacle to this particular change.

But I know the global church means so much more. I’m Rev. Molly Vetter the senior pastor at Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. I welcome you back to our podcast, “Where Do We Go From Here, UMC?”

In this episode I am pleased to welcome Rev. Lloyd Nyarota, a clergy member of the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference. He currently pastors a congregation in the United Church of Canada. Rev. Lloyd is a part of a group of delegates and leaders from the church outside the US who organized and produced a proposal to change our institutional structure called the Christmas Covenant.

It would rework our organizational structure to include a greater ability to contextualize, based on geographic regions, to give time and attention to the particular focus needed in different places at different times.

As we sat down to talk together, I realized that I have so much work to do, to listen to the richness and gift that comes to us from our churches and leaders outside the US as we labor to decolonize our church structures and move closer to the Church that Christ is calling us to be. And so, as church folks committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion, I invite you to jump with me into this conversation, as we see from a new perspective, what it means to be part of a global church.

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Molly: I think it’s so easy to get in the habit of talking to the people we already know, or we look to, and one of the very real challenges and opportunities of our United Methodist Church is that we are present in diverse places around the world, and as a member of the East Zimbabwe Annual Conference serving in Canada, you certainly represent that. You yourself have these deep connections all around the world.

I wonder if you would be willing to say something about why it matters to you that our United Methodist denomination is present around the world, that we’re not a national church connected to other national churches, but that we’re a global church. Why is that of value for you and for the communities that you serve?

Lloyd: Oh, okay, yeah, I think the first thing is, I mean, the one thing that I would put up front with that is, the Great Commission is to go into the world. So, Jesus instructed us to go out into the world. And “making disciples” is a global assignment. It’s a worldwide assignment. I think the United Methodist is kind of fulfilling that. Because our witness is to the world. Our witness is not to our local community.

It is from our local community into the world. Like the instruction– like, you start from Jerusalem. Then go to Judea, and then, you know, now, when Jesus says, after Judea go to Samaria, now he’s challenging the disciples that you have to go to the people who are different than you are.

You know, the whole difference between Jews and Samaritans–so he says, if you are done before you are–he’s not saying “finish.” He’s saying: you start, but you don’t finish there. Then you go to Judea, and then you go to Samaria.

So right, beginning in the beginning, Jesus’ instruction is, “You have to go to people who are different than you are.”

You have to go to people whom you don’t like and they don’t like you.

So go to Samaria. And if you think, when you get into Samaria, that opens your way into the ends of the world, so now you can go… And when you go to the end of the world, you going to see people who are much, much different than you. Even more different than the Samaritans. They’ll be out there. Right? So our witness is to do that.

So, being a global church reminds us that God is bigger than my village.

God is bigger than my community, God is bigger than my local church. So that’s why it is important for me, who realized how big God is, and that realization comes with being part of a global church. Part of a world-wide church. So I reach the world, and the world reaches to me, through the United Methodist Church, through my global church. So this makes us reach to the world. And this is how the world reaches to me.

You know, there’s something I always tell people. I’m one of the presenters and the writers of the Christmas Covenant legislation going to General Conference, and sometimes when I talk to US delegations, something I tell them is: if you don’t like anything about the Christmas Covenant, I can give you one reason to vote for it: just to follow your dollars. Because you have given to Africa University. Almost 60% of the authors of the Christmas Covenant are Africa University graduates.

Yeah. So that’s an investment that the church has done. So this is how the change has reached out. And this is now how the US changed and reached a village in Africa, and now that’s how that village is reaching out of the church in the US, in the Philippines, in Europe. So that’s how it is important for me.

Molly: You’re a very distinctive embodiment of that, as a clergy person who belongs in the East Zimbabwe conference but is serving in Canada, married to a missionary of the Church from Zimbabwe, who’s serving on behalf of the United Methodist Church all across Canada.

You are, I mean, I think we tend to think of the historical role of mission of you know white people from the US going to take the Gospel to Africa. It’s a powerful thing to remember and know that missionaries from Zimbabwe are sent to the US, to Canada, to places… that it’s no longer sort of one way direction, but a mutual sharing together in the Body of Christ that is our denomination.

I wonder if you’d say a little bit more about the Christmas Covenant?

I’ve always wondered: did you choose the name Christmas Covenant as a reference to the Christmas Conference, that gave birth to the United Methodist Church (or to the Methodist Church which would become the United Methodist Church)? Or is it just coincidence that you were meeting around Christmas time?

Lloyd: Okay, right? Yeah, It’s both. The Christmas Covenant, we released the framework of the legislation on the 19th of December 2019. So, it was around Christmas, and then, as we were thinking, that this is a gift, a Christmas gift to the church. We also then realized that, oh!, this church was founded at the Christmas Conference of 1784. So there’s involvement of both. The Christmas Covenant being a reflection of how we started. And the idea is: Look here! After all this over 200 years, a lot has happened in this church. Splits have happened. Mergers have happened.

Now another split will be happening and all that. It’s a time–maybe it goes well with what Bishop Bickerton was saying when he was taking over the mantle for the leadership of the Council of Bishops – that is time to re-launch.

So it’s time to launch. And I think the United Methodist [Church] needs another Christmas Conference to launch anew, to launch with a structure that is decolonized. To launch as a global church, to launch as a church that is now bigger than the United States denomination, bigger than a national church. [Back] Then, at Christmas Conference, the thinking, the framework was, a church in the Americas colony, and the Methodist denomination ever struggles with issues within the United States: when they split about slavery, the division between North and South, Episcopal South and all that, all of these were struggles within the United States. The birth of the Free Methodists and the African Methodist Episcopal Church and all that, all of this was struggles within the United States.

Now, after all this journey, the Christmas Covenant is giving us to launch a global denomination that is connectional, that is decolonized. So that is why we have to do the work of decolonizing a denomination by restructuring it. By looking at the structure and saying, let’s recognize our contextual differences.

How can we have unity in diversity?

Molly: Can you say something about what you see as the harmful colonialist structures that are part of our denomination currently? What does that look like?

Lloyd: If you look at the United Methodist structure, it is a denomination that currently is structured as a US church, with mission outside. I mean it’s not difficult to see that. Even just look at the recent Judicial Council rulings: jurisdictions, jurisdictions, jurisdictions.

So the rulings are not like for one church. Even when the Bishops are asking a question to the Judicial Council, they seem like they’re asking for the US Church. And then, when we are sorted, then everyone else will be Okay. That’s the thinking–because that is how we are structured, we are structured in such a way that the US Decisions are “the church,” and then when you go home, you can figure out what needs to be done. But we, the church, will have made a decision. That is why you see, General Conference is bombarded with United States of America issues.

Now the church has grown beyond this colonial structure. Now we have delegates from Europe, the Philippines, and Africa, And now we can say other parts of Asia, who then come to General Conference, and spend time talking about issues that are so foreign and so distant.

But they still have to press that button to make a vote. Oh, some may abstain, but some may vote. The vote now has implications on everyone else.

And the irony is, we from outside the United States, we cannot bring our issues to the General Conference. Let’s take, for example, the struggles we have about, in Africa, the struggles we have with issues of polygamy, with issues of the traditionalist religions, traditional religions in Africa. How do they fit into our faith as Christians?

Those are issues we struggle with on a daily basis in Africa. If you go to, if you ask about the position of United Methodists on polygamy–I always say to people: go to 10 districts across Africa, you’ll come up with 10 different positions. Because of the cultural differences, because of the interactions, because of how people see this, how we, how we read the Scripture and interpret it, you will see all these differences.

We now have African Initiated Churches that promote polygamy, based on the Old Testament. In the United Methodist [Church] we are very strong against polygamy, but we struggle with how to deal with polygamous families when they come to the church. Not easy.

Molly: That’s a whole challenge that I can’t even really, can’t really imagine. And I don’t feel like I have anything particularly helpful to contribute to your conversation. Although I’m grateful for you having my congregation in mind as you navigate those issues. I don’t feel like I have expert insight to add to the nuance of the struggle that you’re facing.

Lloyd: So that’s what we are saying about decolonizing this structure. Because there are US issues. You know, General Conference delegates are voting for the resolutions that are talking about gun control legislation in the United States. We have to vote about decisions that are made by Congress on abortion. You name it–when we get to General Conference, how many resolutions are written from US Conferences responding to decisions by the US Congress?

Molly: Yeah. And I want my church to have the ability to speak clearly into political and social issues that are extremely critical here in the US context. But I don’t want for that to monopolize the whole of the time when we’re gathered together as a worldwide denomination.

So how can we be free and empowered to have a clear voice on issues that matter in our context, without expecting everyone to have our agenda be your agenda. Or you know to spend all our time talking about the things that matter where I am, and not any talking about the things that matter to folks in other places.

Lloyd: And I think that’s why the Christmas Covenant is–when we were writing the Christmas Covenant, that’s what we were thinking about. That issues that pertain to the US region, the US church, be discussed in the United States. Issues that are pertaining to Africa…

And you know Africa, we kind of run into difficulty because we are so diverse. That is why are 3 regions, which is West Africa, and then the Central Africa, then the Southern Africa Regions.

And then, if you go into Europe, you can see, see you see now how the European Central Conference tried to move Ukraine from Russia into – They were dealing with an issue that is within their region. And then to make that decision.

Just imagine, if the General Conference was to make that decision, how divided will it be, just to move Ukraine from Russia to be part of the Baltic/Nordic Conferences. So that’s why regionalization is important – it makes us focus.

And then, when we meet at General Conference, we are discussing global issues:

How to make disciples. We are discussing the Great Commission like I started, like I said at the beginning. Making disciples together, how do we support each other? How do we celebrate the work that we have done as a global church? How we have served the people who have been affected by hurricanes–during the hurricane season in Louisiana, in Texas, in Florida.

How we have with UMCOR supported refugees who are running away from war in Ukraine, and to go into Poland? How have we supported drought that is imminent in Southern Africa, how did we support it?

How do we make God bigger than my village?

Molly: From my perspective, previous attempts to restructure the denomination, so that we have more sort of parity or equity internationally have been thwarted by conservative voices in the Church that have used a fear of changing our stance on human sexuality as a wedge to just stymie any open conversation about how we’re structured as a global denomination.

Lloyd: Conservatives in the United States have been unfortunately being very colonial in their relationship with the church, especially in Africa, and probably in the Philippines, and they have been misinforming and giving wrong information to people. They have centered that effort around homosexuality.

And, to my understanding, you know, homosexuality is not what I would call a primary issue in the African context.

The African continent is still trying to see how best we can lift the quality of life–where education is available to all. Where health facilities are accessible by all. Where, I mean, having at least one decent meal is something available to every family across the continent. These are the issues that the church in Africa is focusing on. How can people live?

We are focusing on democratization of our political systems. How can human rights, human dignity, and universal suffrage– and human rights can be accessed. How can people be free? Those are the struggles.

Those are fundamental struggles. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on those life-giving issues, where we are focusing on providing education so as to deal with issues of poverty…

When we were doing the Nothing but Nets promotion to deal with malaria, in Africa, to be conservative, they were saying every 5 min a child dies of malaria across the continent. Every 5 minutes, and that’s being conservative, it could every minute but I’m trying not to be wrong. A child dies of malaria. Whereas here, when I see mosquitos, it’s not a bother in North America.

I remember in 2002 my first time in the United States I was a camp counselor as an Africa University student, in Michigan, in Camp Kinawind, in Michigan. I think that was the Detroit Conference.

I went there as a camp counselor in the summer of 2002. That’s a rustic camp–there were lots of mosquitos. I was scared to death that I was going to have malaria. I was told: we don’t have malaria here. The mosquitos here don’t have malaria.

I was shocked. That there are mosquitos that do not have malaria, as many as there were.

I had had malaria more than 30 times by then in my life, I’ve survived 30 times of malaria, bouts. So I’m trying to say, when we were doing that, we were looking at fundamentals that save lives.

But what our conservative friends in the United States have done, instead of looking at those fundamentals, they have brought the emotive issue of homosexuality. Whereas, homosexuality is not an issue that can be discussed, even under a tree, even at a garden in Africa. It’s not an issue that concerns people, because people are concerned about life and death issues, not how one loves or whom.

But that has been diverted. And that is why – the only people on the African continent who are so crazed about homosexuality are the general conference delegates. You go to the pew– people, they’ll be shocked what you’re talking about. They don’t even understand.

So the General Conference delegates have been gathered by the conservatives, manipulated, used, fed the wrong information, disinformed, and they fed and got into them, and kind-of used them as hunting dogs at General Conference.

Molly: So, even in contexts that are very… that would label homosexuality as sin, it would be hard to find people who feel like the biggest challenge facing the church is that we need to make sure there’s no gay pastors in our church, or no gay couples in our church.

Lloyd: It’s not an issue in our continent right away, right now, that we should put energy to.

There are things we need to put energy to. How can we provide education of our children? We have millions and millions of children who are out of school, you know, from United Methodist families across Africa.

We have millions of children from United Methodist families who are dying of malaria.

We have millions of United Methodist pregnant women across Africa who are dying whilst giving birth to children.

We have millions of United Methodist youths in Africa who are not accessing higher education.

We have millions of United Methodist youths across Africa who do not have jobs. In Zimbabwe, 90%—unemployment rate is 90%. That means if I stand on the pulpit, 90% of the youth that I’ll be looking at, they have no chance of getting a job, even if they are graduates with a degree.

Let our own tribe tell me that the homosexuality is a priority for me and my ministry in Zimbabwe, in Africa, where I can not even point to one homosexual in my community. And then you try to say that’s a priority.

That’s what the American conservatives have done. They’ve taken away fundamental issues that we should talk about, that we should focus on: providing education, providing health care, clean drinking water, health facilities.

People who need… How can we create jobs? How can we make the United Methodist mission centers to create jobs for the youths. That has been taken off the table, and they are bringing homosexuality.

That this is very colonial, because what they are doing is: don’t discuss about the future of your people.

Don’t discuss about the lives of your people.

Discuss about what matters to us, so that we can break away from this denomination.

That is very neocolonial and it’s not right.

Molly: So I’m going to share this conversation with my congregation. I wonder if you have any final message, advice, challenge, charge that you would want to give to members of a congregation in Los Angeles, or wherever else, who are listening in, that would be a particular message, coming from a pastor from East Zimbabwe serving in Canada, about the future of our United Methodist Church.

Lloyd: What I would say is, God is not yet done with people called United Methodists. God has a lot of work that He has put on our shoulders as people called United Methodists, to serve this world. And that is why we are a global church. We still have to fulfill the Great Commission, and we have to focus on fundamentals.

God is bigger than my local congregation. God is bigger than my local community, but He is concerned with the local congregation, the local community. God is concerned by each person.

You as an individual, me as an individual. Whatever your struggles are, as an individual person, God is concerned about. And when I say God is bigger than that, I don’t know what is your struggle in Los Angeles today.

The struggle of a child in my village is to get education, is to get clean drinking water. The struggle of a woman in my village is to make sure they deliver that gift from God in a baby, in a safe, healthy environment.

You can have your challenge in Los Angeles. Whatever it is, God is concerned about it, and God expects us to come together to work together, so that we each fully live the life that God has given us. Each one fully, because you are fully accepted by God as you are. As a human being, as a person. And God is concerned about what you eat, where you sleep. God is concerned about your happiness and God is concerned about your freedom and my freedom.

And the United Methodist Church has the responsibility to deliver that with the global church, because we are witnesses to the world.

Molly: Amen. Thank you; that’s a beautiful message to end with, and I’m grateful to be in this with you, grateful for your time talking to me and for your faithfulness in your work.

Lloyd: Thank you for this opportunity and thank you for the conversation.

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Molly: Thank you for being with us for this conversation. I know that I have been provoked to think in new ways, and I hope you have to.

I also hope you’ve heard this message that Rev. Lloyd preached so clearly, about God’s deep love for you, as you are; for each one of us in our particular context, and a call to be a part of a church that’s bigger than our own village, than our own local setting, that’s doing the work of life, and liberation, and justice.

I hope you’ll tune in for our other conversations. If you haven’t already listened, I invite you to tune in to our earlier podcast interviews. I hope you’ll come back next week for one final interview in this 6 episode series, as together we ponder this question: Where Do We Go From Here?

Thanks for being with us. Blessings.
Episode 5