I invite you to “overhear” the gospel of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the words I wrote last week to members of the Africa University Task Force of the Grand Rapids District of the West Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church.
I am getting a bit teary-eyed as I write the words “AU Update” in the subject line for what may be the last time. Today thirty-five United Methodists from the Michigan area are traveling to Africa University for the dedication of the Ubuntu Retreat Center. Bishop Deborah Kiesey, her husband, Brad, and Mark Doyal, Michigan Area Director of Communications, will be joining us in a week.
The dedication itself is on March 19. Ed (and wife Ginnie), Dick, Dianne, Kim (and husband Cam), Gary (my husband), Liz (and husband Bill), and I will be traveling with the group. To those on the task force who are not able to go, I want to say a special thank you.
- Don Reis: Your tireless commitment to this project, especially related to the design of the building itself and fundraising throughout the conference, made a huge difference in the campaign. Please know how much we will miss your presence.
- Doug VanHartesvelt: Your special contribution to this project was the design and completion of the plaques for major donors. They are absolutely gorgeous, and we will remember you when we hang them in the retreat center.
- Don Williams: You were “all in” from the very beginning. Your history with AU, knowledge of the conference, and the inspirational way in which you told the story of this project in numerous churches was essential to the campaign’s success.
- Jenny Kroeze: Your prior contact with AU and connection with the United Methodist Women opened many doors for us, especially a $20,000 donation from a local UMW unit.
You may recall that I discovered Africa University when I was a board member of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and would hear Dr. Jim Salley, Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Advancement at AU, give reports on the university. Like many of you, I had no idea what AU was all about except that it was one of our general church apportionments. Jim would always inspire me with stories of how the entire African continent was being transformed because Africa University trains principled Christian leaders who go back to their home countries to make a difference.
When I invited Jim to speak at the Grand Rapids District Conference in 2009, I had no grand scheme for what would happen. I simply felt God’s nudging to bring him to Michigan. When you agreed to be on a task force that formed after Jim’s visit, you created a vision for how we could do something great for and with Africa University. You were dreaming much bigger than I was!
At first we had grandiose plans for a multi-faceted project that included endowed scholarships and university partnerships as well as the construction of some sort of building. The recession resulted in a more realistic vision, but it was still ambitious: building a major retreat center at a university in an isolated location that had student dorms but no guest lodging.
As our plans unfolded during monthly meetings, I remember saying to one of you, “This project is so huge and complex, I don’t know if I have the energy to lead this and keep my day job as a district superintendent.” In his wisdom my friend said, “Laurie, it will not happen without you. You need to lead and keep the vision in front of us and the conference, and we’ll follow and do the rest.”
I can hardly comprehend the transformative nature of this journey. Eight days ago I mentioned the trip to Africa University at First UMC, Birmingham, and included these paragraphs in my sermon. The scripture was Habakkuk 2:1-4.
“If you would have told me five years ago that the fulfillment of our dream of helping Africa University would have taken this much time, energy, commitment, perseverance, and persuasion, as well as a million dollars, I probably would have said, ‘Are you kidding? I don’t think so.’ The only way we made it is because we believe passionately in the mission of Africa University to create moral, ethical, and spiritual leaders for the continent of Africa, and we had a vision, a team, a plan, and a rampart from which we could see beyond the challenges to the goal.
“God has said to me so many times during my life and probably to you as well, ‘There is still a vision even though it may not come to fruition on your timing.’ If the vision tarries, don’t get discouraged but allow God to shape and prepare you through active, discerning, grace-filled patience. Don’t let the vision pass you by, because if the vision is of God, it will surely come. It will not delay forever.”
Coincidentally, Harold Stanton, a long-time member of First UMC, Birmingham, who died several years ago, was very instrumental in the beginning of Africa University in 1993 and volunteered as a professor in the agricultural school for two years. His wife is so delighted that we have built the Ubuntu Retreat Center and is praying for our trip.
Each one of you has been an essential part of my journey over these last five years. I have no words with which to thank you for the honor of working with you on this project. It has been one of the greatest and most fulfilling experiences of my life. “It’s just a wall,” will forever remain in my vocabulary as I reflect on the many times we were on the verge of giving up but just kept on going.
When six of us traveled to AU in November 2010 to dialogue with the administration about our dreams of a retreat center, we were met with smiles and great enthusiasm, “We, too, believe that one of our greatest needs is a retreat center. Thanks be to God.” We discovered three things rather quickly.
- It is no easy task to partner across continents and cultural and language barriers. Basic communication is difficult, and understanding contextual differences is even more challenging. Patience, mutual respect, and understanding are essential. The joy of our global denomination is our insistence that we are all one in Christ Jesus and are called to practice ubuntu: we are one human family in Christ.
- A twelve-year-old boy, Gift Tongerei, became the bridge that empowered our task force and the AU administration to create a common vision and plan for the retreat center. Gift, an orphan from the Old Mutare Mission, preached at the university chapel on Joshua and the battle of Jericho and repeatedly insisted that whenever we face challenges in our lives, we need to believe and repeat, “It’s just a wall.” Nothing truly great is accomplished without setbacks. With a vision that is of God, along with faith, persistence, and eyes set on the goal, the walls will come a tumbling down.
- In order to convince our district and conference to join us on the journey, we had to learn how to tell the story of how God is working in a mighty way at Africa University. Our task force fanned out across the conference, speaking passionately in countless churches, and inspiring church members to support this project. We also invited Eric Mulanda, student body president of AU in 2010 and currently a student at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, to preach and speak in conference churches as he was able.
The stories of how hundreds of local churches and individuals stretched themselves in so many creative ways to contribute to the Ubuntu Retreat Center will be imprinted in our memories forever. Not to mention the unbounded joy of the announcement of a $500,000 anonymous matching gift!
I can’t wait to see the new building and sleep in it! Of course, the finished product is not the building itself. It will be the thousands of people across the African continent whose lives are forever impacted by AU graduates as well as what goes on in this retreat center. It will be VIM teams, visiting professors, and retreat participants who gather in this holy space. And it will be the transformed lives of conflicted groups that gather here to seek mediation through the Institute of Peace, Leadership, and Governance. If the vision is of God, it will surely come.
My dear friends, I close with the key word of our project, ubuntu, “I am because you are.” I am who I am because of who each one of you is. And “we are” collectively because of who Africa University is. We are all one in Christ Jesus: that is the vision. Thanks be to God.