I have been home four days, savoring favorite foods—available in abundance, reconnecting with the classroom and students, and soaking in warm reunions with my loved ones. Ever-present, however, like a continuous musical backdrop, play the memories and melodies of these beautiful Zimbabwean people, people who are grateful to have stocks of food at all grace the shelves of their grocery stores, people who endure unemployment at the staggering rate of 90 percent, people whose loved ones, one out of two, have either disappeared or fled to safer environs. As these memories continue to linger, and as they inform my responses to the dozens of inquiries about our trip, they have clustered around three refrains—the pain, the courage, and the awe-inspiring faith that reverberates throughout the Zimbabwean people.
Before we traveled, we read about the political violence, the rampant poverty, and the deteriorating social infrastructure. This did not prepare us for what we saw. A once thriving country—the breadbasket of the African continent and a coveted vacation destination—is in ruins. Nearly every commercial farm has been overrun and ravaged; buildings and roads are in shambles; currency is near impossible to come by; electricity, water, and gas are unavailable for days at a time; and these hardships are suffered while gazing upon the gated mansions of corrupt governmental officials. More than these hardships, however, is the constant threat of random violence. We heard story after traumatized story of bodies beaten and maimed, loved ones disappearing into torture camps, property vandalized, livestock stolen, forced public disrobings, rape, and unending nights of mobs shouting chants of intimidation while surrounding homes, churches, or hospitals. The impetus for such violence is capricious and petty—for being seen with a white person, for offering comfort to a victim of violence, for not knowing the words to a political song, for hesitating to pretend an injury and forfeit one’s right to vote, for refusing to preach support for the ruling political party, for having an extra goat, for having a goat at all, for having the misfortune of someone dropping a political pamphlet on your car, for looking haughty, for looking hungry, for having a name that sounds like a revolutionary. And salting the wounds with the constancy of bitter reminder, the perpetrators of this violence are encountered everyday—they are neighbors, they are members of the churches, they stand across from their victims and sing, and smile, and gloat, adorned in the stolen articles and the fearlessness of those protected by corrupt politicians. The people of Zimbabwe know suffering, and their suffering is provoked on a daily basis.
And yet, these people embody a courage that is the backbone of their tenacious commitment. Throughout the week, many of the workshop participants came to the three of us and they marveled, they were even inspired, that we would leave our homes and choose to travel into the heart of danger while so many of their compatriots are fleeing the country to find safety elsewhere. To be honest, I never felt like we were in danger. We were surrounded by protective hosts, we had resources, and we were always aware that we were a plane ride from home, our tickets already secured. What I missed in their comments at the time was what they were saying about themselves. They felt like they lived in the heart of danger every day, without the option of catching the next ride out. And still, they gathered at a workshop tooling themselves on how to heal victims of violence, strategizing how to reconcile those divided by the politics of fear and vindictiveness, forming coalitions, exhorting resolve, singing of hope, praying for power and compassion. The secret police were spying on the proceedings, yet still the leaders were there. Many had been warned, as recently as a few days earlier, that the next time their beating would kill them, yet still the leaders were there. The unity government was on the threat of collapse, the agency on healing and reconciliation had gone underground, ministry officials failed to show, and still these leaders were there. And there they remain even now. 85 pastors, chiefs, and community leaders left the workshop mobilized to seize the moment and nurture healing even while the threat of violence casts its ominous shadow. These leaders, today, are preaching and teaching; they are risking reprisals and tending to victims; they are visiting perpetrators in their homes; they are networking with other headsmen, pastors, and community leaders to establish healing and reconciliation circles; and they are approaching government officials about the need for human rights. The most powerful chief at the conference, a senator and Member of Parliament, epitomized this mobilizing spirit when he took the floor at the close of the conference. His face etched by decades of silent anguish, he stood as if freshly awakened to the depth of the oppression his people knew. He looked personally affronted—under his watch, his land had been betrayed. And with the conviction of one whose body is now on the line, he told every participant in that room—the time of fear, the time of silence, is over, now. The very next day, he called a meeting of every headsman and chief in his land. With or without governmental sanction, the process of healing is starting. In the face of violence, the people of Zimbabwe are displaying a courage that is as humbling as it is inspiring.
And what keeps this people going? Their faith. In one week, I witnessed enough hope, enough resilience, enough generosity and compassion to fill a gallery of saints to be celebrated and sanctified. Christianity works in Zimbabwe. Like the persecuted soil from which this religion was birthed, their land is waged in a battle between good and evil. The Christians of Zimbabwe are front-line combatants. Evil is incarnated on a daily basis in the form of dehumanizing abasement, malicious intimidation and unchecked cruelty. And through it all, they worship a God who is on the side of dignity, justice, and the flourishing of all life. They identify with a Christ who was also a victim of torture and political violence. They know the power of a Spirit that is stronger than despair, stronger than fear, stronger than death emboldening them to rise up for what is right. To be sure, the God within them is stronger than the malignance within the systems and perpetrators of evil. And this God has called them to arms. But this is truly the extraordinary part. The arms they raise are not those of their oppressors. The Christians of Zimbabwe are fighting with different weapons. They are setting aside the machetes, the malice, the taunts and the epithets. They are waging this war with the weapons of love, of truth-telling, and of emboldened dignity. They are fighting back with forgiveness that is empowering and free, with reconciliation that is accountable and restorative, with nonviolence that is creative and fearless, indeed, they are fighting back with compassion, taking Jesus at his word that it is possible to stand up for justice and healing while loving one’s enemies with an authentic understanding. Christianity is alive in Zimbabwe. Christ is alive in Zimbabwe. I know. I saw Him. In victims liberated to tell their stories; in communities risking retribution to take care of their own, in people still bruised restoring the humanity within their perpetrators with a love that diffuses vindictiveness, I saw Him. And my own faith will never be the same.