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Zambia Baptists, missionaries pledge to move beyond hurt

LUSAKA, Zambia (BP)–The Baptist Convention of Zambia and the organization of Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board missionaries there agreed Feb. 8 to move beyond the hurt that has plagued gospel witness in the country for several years.

“We were able to dialogue, and it was real dialogue,” said Don Sowell, missionary administrator for the Zambia mission. “It was really the work of the Lord.”

Sowell and Beatrice Kamuwanga, general secretary of the convention, co-signed a letter addressed to “dearest brethren of Baptist churches in Zambia” resolving “a cessation of hostilities” and agreeing to forgive each other “for perceived past hurts” and live peacefully with each other.

Meetings between the groups had become unmanageable because of conflict. But by all accounts, this 10-hour session was different. “It was amazing how we were able to talk and hear each other,” Sowell said.

The two groups promised in their letter to “work towards a way forward to a new working relationship as partners in ministry in Zambia.” Specifics on how that will occur could emerge during another meeting they set for April 19.

The session far surpassed expectations of the Baptist World Alliance representative who proposed and moderated it, he said. “One of the mission’s attendees observed it was the first meeting he had attended with both groups where there was not a display of anger and animosity,” said Eleazar Zhierambere, general secretary of the BWA All Africa Baptist Fellowship.

During the meeting, convention representatives pointed out tensions that had caused them anguish. Among issues they recounted were the court case the mission brought after the convention attempted to influence the government’s granting of missionary work permits, the need for turning over the leadership of Baptist work to national Baptists, and a group of Baptists who split from the convention and asked the mission to work with them.

“When people are hurting, no matter whether it’s real or perceived, the hurt is still real,” Sowell said. “And I believe the Lord would want us to move to heal those things, regardless of the source.

“This was an important step in trying to get past some of that, and to allow the Lord the work in the situation,” he said.

A short time ago, Zambia was a model in missionary-national relationships and a responsive, fast-growing mission field. In the late 1980s the two Baptist entities created a joint governing body, the Zambia Baptist Council. It was to coordinate Baptist work in Zambia and even oversee a planned transfer of property and programs from the mission to the convention.

But the council was dissolved after Zambian Baptist leaders petitioned the immigration office in 1993 to deny work permit renewals lacking the convention’s official endorsement. Transfer of property from the mission to the convention was halted, too.

The conflict caused serious breaches within the convention. Many churches withdrew to begin the Baptist Fellowship of Zambia, which has grown into a strong self-governing body of its own. The fellowship asked the mission to help its member churches spread the gospel and the mission agreed.
In the future, various scenarios for working together could emerge, Sowell speculated. In one, the two could agree to return to a relationship similar to the one they enjoyed earlier. In another, the two could accept each other’s standing as distinct organizations and look for ways to
work together.

At one point in the conflict, work permits became difficult for mission workers to obtain. But a year ago, the Zambian government said it would provide work permits and urged the two groups to cooperate.

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  • Marty Croll