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Orthodox Tanzania

Introduction

Philemon and his wife, Maria, Patitsas, served in August of 2007 as part of an eight person teaching team sent by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center to the western Diocese of the Tanzanian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Administered by Bishop Jeronymos from the city of Bukoba, on the western shore of Lake Victoria, the Diocese is bounded to the north by Uganda and to the west by Rwanda and Burundi; to the southeast, the Diocese is “boundaryless” – an extensive wide open space resides between Bukoba and the capital, Dar Es Salaam, which is on the coast.  This vast region is largely undeveloped, unmissionized and almost entirely unserved by churches of any kind.

Philemon is currently studying for a Masters of Divinity degree at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in preparation for the Holy Priesthood.  Together with Maria, they have three teenage children.

Trip Report

What does it take to make a flower grow?

As Maria and I crossed the Mediterranean on British Airways flight 63 bound from London to Entebbe that question, in reference to the blossoming Orthodox Church of Tanzania, was on the forefront of our minds.  We were traveling with Team Tanzania, on an Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) journey originating in Jacksonville, Florida destined for Bukoba, the western Tanzanian Diocesan seat, with our ultimate destination being the African bush.

I had first discussed the possibility of volunteering for a short-term OCMC mission assignments with Fr. Luke Veronis, a long time friend, during the spring semester at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, where he was now my Missiology Professor.  I expressed a strong desire to participate on a teaching team, and to serve where the Orthodox Church was well led and growing fast.  Offering ourselves someplace where we would learn as much as possible about Church growth was important to Maria and me.

As a dear friend, emeritus long term Missionary to Albania, and someone who had served multiple short-term mission assignments in Africa prior to that, I knew Fr. Luke’s advice would be solid.  The entire Veronis family had been intimately committed to Missions for years.  Fr. Alexander Veronis, Fr. Luke’s father had championed overseas Missions in the United States and the formation of OCMC.  Overseas Missions was and is in the Veronis family’s blood.

By every measure, the Orthodox Church of Tanzania met the criteria I was looking for.  Fr. Luke unreservedly recommended that I apply for a teaching team, one of the four teams invited by Bishop Jeronymos in 2007.  His Grace was a protégé of Archbishop Anastasios Yanoulatos of Albania from their time together in Kenya.  His Eminence Archbishop Anastasios’ accomplishments in reestablishing Christianity in a country that suffered greatly under the extreme persecution of tyrannical communism are legendary, not only in Orthodox Christian circles, but in the evangelical world as well.  Bishop Jeronymos’ accomplishments in Tanzania seemed drawn from the same play book as His Eminence, Archbishop Anastasios.

During his short tenure in Tanzania, Bishop Jeronymos, ordained to the Holy Episcopate in 1999, has grown the Orthodox Church from 5,000 to 50,000 faithful, with 170 communities, and 70 church structures served by 32 priests.

With a year on year growth rate of 33% (some estimates place Tanzanian Orthodox Church membership in excess of 60,000), the Holy Spirit is certainly at work in Tanzania; but how was Bishop Jeronymos making a difference?  What was the secret of his success?  I looked forward to having the opportunity to spend time with him to ask these questions of him in person.

The purpose of our missionary journey was to provide theological instruction to Church workers and catechists as part of a seventeen-day training program held annually in Rubale, Tanzania.  In the off hours, we would stay at the small twelve student seminary compound in neighboring Kazikizi, about a twenty minute drive from Rubale.

Maria would teach four religious education classes, and I would teach five theology classes and a class entitled, “AIDS Awareness in Light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  In all, our team would prepare classes on twenty-five different topics.

We would have open access to the Tanzanian people and could ask them whatever questions we wished.

Here’s what we learned about the Tanzanian Orthodox Church, and Bishop Jeronymos’ leadership style:

Welcoming Strangers

Clearly, sharing hospitality is a virtue Bishop Jeronymos has extended many times prior, and he excels in doing so.

Steady streams of people visit the Diocese throughout the year.  The Patriarch of Alexandria, in Egypt, and Orthodox Church officials from throughout the world have visited and been received. Missionaries, supporters and subject matter experts are constantly visiting from the United States; from Greece, Cyprus, and other European countries; and from many many other places.

The Tanzanian Church understands the ancient art of philotimo[1] and graciously welcomes its visitors.  Everyone is made to feel like a special guest, and the Tanzanian people openly express appreciation for the time, talent and treasure they bring.  No one is treated like a stranger.

Upon our arrival at the Entebbe Airport on Saturday we were immediately received as honored dignitaries by several representatives of Bishop Jeronymos who welcomed us with open arms and helped our eight-member team with our bags.

After respectfully ushering us to their cars we made the one hour drive to Kampala where we were received at the Athina Hotel and quickly registered to recover from our two and a half day journey from the United States.  That evening we were treated to a multi-course Greek feast prepared by the Hotel’s staff of chefs and shown to our rooms with fresh clean beds and linens.

After attending the Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Kampala the following morning, we celebrated a meal with the Parish council and commenced our six-hour drive to Bukoba.  When we reached the Diocesan Center Sunday evening the red carpet was again rolled out for us by His Grace Bishop Jeronymos who personally received us.  His Grace’s Diocesan team had prepared an excellent multi-course African-Greek style meal for us, and prepared comfortable sleeping accommodations for us to rest.

We were consistently shown this kind of hospitality throughout our time in Tanzania.  Wherever we went we were offered the best food and sleeping accommodations available, provided clean drinking water and treated as welcomed guests in church services and social settings. Even on the rare occasion when a humble meal of beans and cornmeal was provided we knew it was served with a loving heart.

All of this hospitality reflected favorably on the graciousness of our hosts, and established a bank of goodwill and trust with our new found Orthodox Christian brethren that would carry us through the demanding work schedule and difficult rural conditions ahead.

Organized for Execution

Bishop Jeronymos knows the importance of a well-organized team able to get things done.

Important decisions are made every day. At any given time there are seven to ten construction projects underway which include the building of schools, churches, clinics, monasteries and orphanages.  There are worship services to be offered, guests to be received, seminary classes to be taught, government officials to be met, crops to be harvested, water wells to be drilled, trees to be planted, orphans to be sheltered, people to be hired, supplies to be purchased, and the list goes on and on.

His Grace’s Diocesan office is staffed with committed and capable people.

For example, the Secretary of the Diocese, Adam Mwesigwa, is a man with amazing project execution talents.  He’s the Bishop’s trusted and effective “right hand man”.  His title belies his actual role, which is Chief Operating Officer.  Virtually nothing gets done in the diocese without Adam having played some important role in bringing the people and project together.  He is fluent in Greek, English, Kiswahili, and a number of local African dialects, and easily interacts with people from every walk of life.[2]

Other members of the Diocesan team include Fr. Spyridon, the Bishop’s Chancellor and Proestomenos of Holy Apostles Church in Bukoba.  Abel, Anastasios, Dimitri, and Panagioti keep daily operations running smoothly.  Do not let their baptismal names fool you – they are all Tanzanian nationals by birth.  Numerous “Mamas” who excel at cooking are also on hand to help.

All of the priests we met were dedicated men, honorable and well qualified for their roles.

Royal Priesthood of Believers

In addition to the thirty two priests serving 170 communities in the Bukoba Diocese, His Grace calls upon the Royal Priesthood of believers, encompassing all baptized Orthodox Christians (1 Peter 2:5,9), for assistance as missionaries, catechists, evangelists, readers, doctors, engineers, teachers, agriculturalists and volunteers.  At least one catechist, responsible for membership growth, is assigned to each of the 170 communities.

Those serving the Church in the local communities are provided with ongoing theological training and leadership development.

In addition to the Theological School in Kazikizi that accommodates up to twelve seminarians at any given time, Bishop Jeronymos has hosted an Orthodox Catechetical Camp in Rubale for the last five years.

The camp, which is really a “train the trainer” educational program, is usually held in August, runs for several weeks and covers a range of topics, mostly theological, but also includes AIDS awareness, agriculture, economic and banking issues.  Classes are presented by OCMC missionaries using local church members as translators.

Participants in the camp are committed Orthodox Christians, village leaders and key communicators in their local communities. They are expected to share what they’ve learned by disseminating the information they have received when they return to their villages and home parishes.

Leadership Development

The Bukoba Diocese offers sixty-five University scholarships to educate the future leaders of society.  This educational funding is available not only for theological training, but is extended to students pursuing engineering, banking, agriculture, medicine, law, education and other professional degrees.

This program is already bearing fruit in the form of graduates who have returned to run Diocesan ministries in forestry, agriculture, medicine and engineering.

And while we were serving at the Catechetical Camp, two graduating students from the Kazikizi Seminary (known as a Minor Seminary due to its limited course offering) departed for the Patriarchal Theological School in Alexandria to continue their studies for two more years.

Based on the programs now underway, one can easily envision a day when Orthodox Christian citizens will play leading economic and governmental roles in lifting the entire Tanzanian society to a better standard of living.

Blessing the Loaves

Bishop Jeronymos understands that one of his primary roles is to marshal resources by inviting the Lord to bless the proverbial “five loaves and two fish” that have been presented.  Indeed, the Lord is multiplying the gifts.

With a population of 38 million and annual GDP of $22 billion [3] (<$600/person), Bishop Jeronymos’ Tanzanian Diocese encompasses one of the poorest regions of the world.

As if that wasn’t a big enough challenge, approximately 9% of the adult population is living with HIV.  Sadly, nearly 1.5 million children have been orphaned by AIDS; half a million of which are double orphaned with both parents having died of AIDS.

According to a recent study conducted by the World Bank, the economic impact of AIDS will be a reduction in Tanzanian GDP of 15-25% by 2010.

His Grace understands that if the Tanzanian Orthodox Church is to survive and prosper he is must address these difficult challenges head on through AIDS education and economic growth.

As many as 300 Orthodox missionaries visit Bukoba in western Tanzania each year.  His Grace excels at enlisting their support in the ministries of the Church and making them champions of Tanzanian projects in their home parishes.

How does Bishop Jeronymos do it?  His graciousness, humility, intelligence, loving and prayerful heart win everyone over.  It is evident to all that he is doing the work of Christ, so people strive to do their best to help.

No project is too mundane or challenging for the Diocese to tackle.  He understands the importance of job creation and economic development for the life of his community.

Bishop Jeronymos has asked each of his 70 landed Churches to plant 10,000 trees with seedlings grown in the Diocese’s own nurseries. In addition to the environmental benefit, the future value of the mature trees will provide an economic benefit to each community.

Jobs are also being created through the many construction projects, well drilling, the Diocesan farm, and furniture making shop.  Similar projects are sure to follow.

The Diocese is also drilling water wells and plans to drill many more in the months to come to protect its people from commonly occurring, but avoidable, waterborne diseases.

It is evident from the project and activities of the Diocese that, not only is the Tanzanian Church being edified through the Bishop’s capable leadership, the people are also benefiting economically through job creation and capital investment.

Remembrance of Death & Prayer

At our final gathering with Bishop Jeronymos as an OCMC team on the 15th of August, during our closing meal, we had the chance to reflect on our experiences together and the things we had witnessed in country.

We discussed the beauty of the people, the things we had seen accomplished, and our small contribution to the overall effort.

It was a somewhat somber moment as we also remembered the two people we had memorialized after the Holy Dormition Liturgy that morning, Mama Stavrou’s husband who had passed away five years prior, and Christina Lekas’ mother, Lydia, who had died the year before. Both of them were active church goers and devoted servants of God.

I decided to ask Bishop Jeronymos the following question, “Your Grace, we’ve seen the amazing work the Church is accomplishing here in Tanzania.  As we return to our home parishes in America what message would you like us to convey to them?  Is there anything else you need or would like us to share?

His answer was simple and straightforward, “More than anything else we need your prayers.  Everything requires God’s Grace.  Recently I was traveling with my driver in a remote region of the Tanzania.  Our car lost its brakes and we started to go off the side of a cliff. We would have plunged to our death had it not been for the intervention of the Panagia.  More than anything we need your prayers.”  He didn’t elaborate further but from the tone of his voice and the expression on his face, he’d clearly been through a harrowing experience.

In the face of all the extreme challenges of Mission life, in the face of poverty, remoteness, disease and death, and the many other challenges faced each day, the Bishop was keenly aware that everything good requires God’s Grace, and that prayer was essential to his success.

We are also reminded of just how thin the veil is separating the living from the dead; what a blessing, honor and privilege it is to serve the Lord; and of just how short the amount of time we have available for us to gather His harvest.  These are very humbling thoughts indeed.

In acknowledgement we pray, “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.[4]

We also pray that God grants His Grace, Bishop Jeronymos, many years of health and happiness in service to our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen

Philemon welcomes comments on this article – feel free to e-mail with your reaction;

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[1] Philotimo – responsive gratefulness; also see http://orthodoxwiki.org/Orthodox_Living

[2] Adam studied theology and European culture in Greece for seven years, and hopes to one day pursue a Masters of Divinity at Holy Cross in Brookline, MA.

[3] 2001 $US

[4] Psalm 90:12