TALBOTT, Tenn. (Dec. 11, 2017) -- The Rev. Samuel Dzobo lives off a little country road and is the pastor of two small-town congregations in east Tennessee. At Christmastime, he’s busy with all the things preachers are busy with: Worship, cantatas, parties, outreach.
"Pastor Sam" has a lot to celebrate this year, but he won’t be home for Christmas. His home is Zimbabwe, a nation that’s been in the news a lot lately as its president of 37 years was forced to resign Nov. 21 following days of political crisis and a military takeover.
While Dzobo went about his pastoral duties over the last few weeks, his smart phone was buzzing with media updates and family messages about the historic events unfolding at home.
“For 37 years we have been in that environment where you could not freely say or speak your mind,” says Dzobo, age 42. “That’s all my life right there. That’s all I’ve ever known.”
He was five years old when Robert Mugabe came into power. At age 30, Dzobo got a firsthand taste of his nation’s oppression when he was arrested for preaching against the government’s destruction of homes. He was arrested in 2005 as the Holston Annual Conference, which was in session in Lake Junaluska, N.C., prayed for him.
Today, Dzobo is the owner of four degrees: a doctorate from Asbury Theological Seminary, a master’s from Duke Divinity School, a bachelor’s and master’s from Africa University. He has lived, learned and pastored in the U.S. – in Holston Conference – for the last 10 years.
He is watching his home nation celebrate a new leadership from a distance as he prays to discern the direction that God wants, not only for Zimbabwe, but also for his church and family.
“We look at this as an ordained time here, because things have been very difficult in Zimbabwe, and we have been given a very rare opportunity to support our families,” he said. “Sometimes we wonder what would have happened if we had not been here.”
In addition to advancing his education and sending money to feed family in Africa, Dzobo’s ministry and relationships in east Tennessee are helping to build a church in his home village outside of Mutare, Zimbabwe.
Mary’s Chapel United Methodist Church, a congregation with 35 in worship attendance located in Bean Station, Tenn., has already raised $12,000 to construct a building for Dzobo United Methodist Church.
SINGING THE CONNECTION
Samuel Dzobo is pastor at Mary's Chapel, as well as pastor at Woodlawn United Methodist Church, a congregation with 55 worshippers in Newport, Tenn.
The story of how he became a United Methodist pastor begins in Dzobo Village, named after his family. Dzobo’s father was the village chief when he sent his 13-year-old son to deliver a message to his uncle. Young Samuel was walking by Dzobo Primary School on a Sunday morning when he heard singing. The boy was first drawn to the window to listen, then to the door.
“The woman who was leading the worship invited me in … and that whole congregation started singing.” The song they sang in the Shona language is translated in English as, “Now that you have come, it is good.” Dzobo said he felt such a rush of “welcome and love,” he knew he would return.
“It just turned my whole world around,” he said. “I guess I just wanted to be greeted again, and I look back and that is how Christ Jesus got me in. That is my home church.”
Dzobo began preaching at age 16 on “Youth Sunday” in his church. As a young lay pastor, he led Concession United Methodist Church followed by Budiro United Methodist Church. In 1999, he was appointed to Hilltop United Methodist Church, the first Methodist church in Africa, established in 1897 and located in Mutare, Zimbabwe.
Shortly before Dzobo arrived as pastor at Hilltop, the nearby after-school mission known as Ishe Anesu was started by Maria Humbane. In 1999, Holston Conference began an annual “Hands-on Mission Project” of collecting food, school and health supplies for Ishe Anesu each June. The project continues, with Holston Conference sending supplies valued at $101,630 in 2017.
In addition, Holston’s 874 congregations in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia collected a $105,588 offering in June 2017 to continue Ishe Anesu’s work after Humbane’s retirement.
“We’re in a season of great need,” Dzobo says. “I’m grateful as a Methodist for the work the United Methodist Church has been involved in Zimbabwe ... I'm very grateful for the opportunity Holston Conference has given me to experience both Methodism in Zimbabwe and here in the U.S.”
Through his friendships with the Holston pastors who visited Ishe Anesu over the years, Dzobo has acquired scholarships, work and other aid in the U.S. After helping to unload the food and school supplies sent by Holston to Zimbabwe from 1999 to 2007, Dzobo has been on the other side of the ocean for the last decade, helping Holston pack the supplies that are shipped to his homeland each June. (See photo below.)
REALITY OF CHALLENGES
“I want the people here in the USA to understand how much we in Zimbabwe appreciate the partnerships and appreciate the benefits of the connection,” says Dzobo on a Thursday afternoon. He’s sitting on the sofa of the parsonage next door to Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Talbott, Tenn., where he lives with his wife and 13-year-old son. His 20-year-old son is away at Tennessee Tech.
“And this big talk – we sometimes are worried about what is the future of the church. We see God -- we see Christ very, very alive in the connection, and it’s the last thing we want to let go.”
Like many United Methodists, Dzobo is concerned about how conclusions of the Way Forward Commission and the General Conference session to follow will affect the unity of the church he loves. He’s also concerned about what will happen in his home nation under the new leadership, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, installed by the same leaders who supported Mugabe.
“There is so much joy, and I will let everyone celebrate, and I’m celebrating, too. But the question is, what happens in two weeks when the celebration dies down?” he said. “The reality of the challenges we face … With 90 percent unemployment rate in Zimbabwe, that’s unsustainable.”
With his doctorate in theology completed in May 2017, Dzobo is an assistant professor of Christian leadership at Hiwassee College and considering a return to Zimbabwe to teach. “I would have joy in going back to Africa University and giving back,” he says.
In the meantime, he is celebrating the hope of the Christ child with his U.S. congregations, one of which has helped to build the foundation and walls for a new church in his home village 8,100 miles away. The next project for Mary’s Chapel is to raise money to provide a roof for the congregation that first won Dzobo’s heart. The congregation continues to worship in Dzobo Primary School as the building is completed.
“When you go to church in Zimbabwe on Sunday, it is as if none of these things existed,” Dzobo says, after describing the financial desperation and heavy police presence he saw on the roads in his country during a mission trip in August. “The joy you experience in the church … They are rejoicing. And the singing, and the singing, and the singing. I always say Jesus called me by singing.”
Dzobo says that his U.S. congregations like to hear him and his wife, Pauline, sing in their native Shona language. This Christmas, they will sing “Silent Night” as they pray for their church and country from the hills of Tennessee:
Pausiku hweutsvene, Kune nyika iri kure, Yakajeka nyeredzi yaTenzi, Chiwoneso chaMwari wediko. Iyo Tenzi wabarwa, Iyo kwakabarwa Mesiya.
Video below: Rev. Sam Dzobo updates Morristown District clergy on Zimbabwe news on Nov. 28. Photo below: Dzobo helps load "Hands-on Mission Project" supplies for Zimbabwe in June 2012.
Prayers for peace lifting Zimbabwe (UMNS, 11/30/17)
AU campus, students safe amid Zimbabwe unrest (UMNS, 11/15/17)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.