Dear Bishop Hartzell,
Here I am, standing on top of Mt. Chiremba in Zimbabwe, just as you did one hundred and seventeen years ago. Oddly, what came to my mind was a quote from President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1965 Inaugural address: “For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say ‘farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it – and we will bend it to the hopes of man.”
I can just imagine you saying those very same words about Zimbabwe as you stood on top of Mt. Chiremba. I’ve always been intrigued by your story. Perhaps it’s because my maiden name is Hartzel, or maybe it’s because, like you, my visions compel me to act.
The journey that brought you here was circuitous. You were born in 1842 in Illinois as Joseph Crane Hartzell, the son of active Methodists. From an early age you felt a call to ministry and received a B.D. from Garrett Biblical Institute in 1862. After serving in Illinois and New Orleans and advocating for the rights of freed blacks during the reconstruction era, the 1896 General Conference elected you to be the Missionary Bishop of Africa.
A Shona legend says that you climbed to the top of Mt. Chiremba in 1897, knelt down in prayer, and had a vision of young people from all over the area running to this valley with schoolbooks under their arms. This land had been given earlier by Chief Mutasa to British imperialist Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company. When the routing of the railroad in Rhodesia necessitated moving the town to the other side of the mountains, you shared your vision with Rhodes and negotiated for 13,000 acres of land at the site of the old town of Mutare. You saw a new world coming way before your time, welcomed it, and bent it toward the hopes of tens of thousands of children and youth.
Let me tell you a little about this new world that came about because of your dreams. You know about the Old Mutare Methodist Mission that was established shortly after your vision. Today the mission has an orphanage, the Hartzell School for grades one through thirteen, a church, a medical clinic and hospital, and an HIV-AIDS Clinic.
Even more amazing, when the call was issued in 1984 by two African bishops to create Africa University, the logical site was down the road from the Old Mutare Mission. Since 1993, hundreds of graduates from twenty-nine African countries have received degrees from this United Methodist institution and are changing the world in their home countries.
The day was hot, and the climb was steep, with loose rock and jungle-like vegetation to cut through. I thought you might like to know that the view from Mt. Chiremba is still spectacular! I hear children far below playing outside the Old Mutare Mission and know that mission team members are training children to use new ipads.
I also have a great view of the entire campus of Africa University, including many fields of crops, pens for animals, and buildings where hundreds of college students are sitting in classes, training to become future world leaders. Do you know what we call Africa University today? The school of dreams in the valley of hope.
Bishop Hartzell, I know that you are delighted to observe that shaping the hearts, minds, and spirits of all people through education is still a core value of The United Methodist Church. Education is also a priority for Zimbabwe, which, although it is a very poor country, has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.
One afternoon I walked on a path through a cornfield where many students were returning from school and encountered three teenage boys.
“Hi! How are you?”
“Fine. Where are you from?”
“Why are you here?”
“To visit Africa University. Have you ever heard of Africa University?”
Two of the three said yes. One said, “It’s United Methodist.”
“You’re right! What do you want to be when you become an adult?”
“A doctor or a pilot,” said one. The second said, “The same.” The third said, “A nurse, and I want to study in the U.S.”
“It’s very important that you get a good education. That’s how you will become successful. I hope someone may maybe you will go to Africa University. I love Zimbabwe.”
“We don’t like it here.”
“Why not? It’s so beautiful!”
“No, it isn’t. There is nothing for us. Bread costs a dollar. We don’t have food to eat or clothes to wear. Our dreams will come true in America.”
“Sometimes people do come to the U.S. for an education, but maybe God is calling you to use your education to make Zimbabwe a place where everyone has enough to live well. God bless you.”
Bishop Hartzell, did you ever dream that there would be a world-class university at the bottom of Mt. Chiremba? As we traveled from Zimbabwe to Botswana, the young man who checked our passports saw the logo of the United Methodist Women on her passport case and said, “I’m a Methodist, too. Why are you in Zimbabwe?”
After she explained that we were headed to Africa University, he said proudly, “I graduated from Africa University in 2010.” When it was my turn, we chatted for a few minutes, and I asked, “Did you get a good education at AU?” “Oh yes,” he said with a smile. “Africa University changed my life.”
On the plane from Johannesburg to Harare, a young man sat next to a couple from our group, saw our name tags, and asked why so many Americans were traveling to Africa University. He said that he is a 1999 graduate of Africa University, part of one of the first graduating classes of seventy-five people.
His father died when he was a teenager, so he did not have any money to go to college. A Methodist pastor asked him to apply to Africa University, and he was not only accepted but received a full scholarship. Today he provides social services to orphans of parents who died of AIDS. He said, “I would not be here today if it were not for Africa University. AU gave me my life.”
Before I climbed Mt. Chiremba, our mission team met in small groups with students, many of whom receive large scholarships. When we asked why they came to Africa University, we heard a common theme.
- I want to go back to my country to be a leader.
- My mission is to eradicate poverty.
- Because of all the conflict I see in churches, I want to get a master’s degree in peace, leadership, and governance.
- I want to improve the environment in my country.
- I have a passion for eliminating corruption and creating a better world.
Bishop Hartzell, I marvel at your foresight. You were an adventurer for Christ. The uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge were your parish. The star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground was your mission. And the new world of which you dreamed is, indeed, coming. It’s a world where African leaders will receive the education and empowerment they need to transform their continent.
After coming down the mountain, I have the joy of holding a baby from the orphanage. Looking into her eyes, I whisper into her ear, “You are a precious child of God. We will love you, educate you, and give you the opportunity to create a new world. Your time has come.” The baby’s name is Rejoice.
Thank you, Bishop, Hartzell, for leading the way rejoicing.