Mazvita said it would be fine. I wasn’t so sure.
She said the people of Zimbabwe were ready to begin talking openly about the horrors they had experienced. I was not completely convinced. I had followed the news reports of years of violence and terror, so I was more than a bit uneasy.
But I went anyway—with two other West Coast teachers of contemplative practices and religious leadership—trusting in Mazvita’s confidence that the time was ripe for initial steps toward healing and reconciliation in one of the most traumatized countries on earth. I wanted to experience the grace of hope in the midst of horror. And Mazvita believed such hope was beginning to grow.
Mazvita Machinga is the founding director of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Centre in Matare, Zimbabwe. She also happens to be a Ph.D. student in my courses at Claremont School of Theology near Los Angeles.
Each year her Counseling Centre holds a workshop for pastors. In 2009 she wanted the workshop to focus on practical strategies for helping the Zimbabwe people constructively address the atrocities that have occurred in their countries over the past 12 years. She had asked my colleagues and me to present what we know about contemplative practices that foster healing and reconciliation in relationships and in the world. She believed that what we teach our students in Southern Cali-fornia about the transformative nature of active, “engaged compassion” for oneself, for others, and for the world, would also speak to the longings of the people of Zimbabwe.
SINCE ZIMBABWE’S 1998 economic collapse—the result of Robert Mugabe’s ruthless, violent efforts to retain power—Zimbabweans have suffered horribly. Over three million of the country’s 12 million inhabitants have fled. The unemployment rate hovers near 95%. Approximately three million people suffer with AIDS without the benefit of medications that can control the progress of the disease; as a result, many thousands are orphaned. After inflation reached 231 million percent in 2008, the country switched to U.S. and South African currencies in order to try to stabilize its economy. During that same year’s presidential elections, Muga-be’s forces set up rural torture camps run by bands of thugs who intimidated the electorate through killings, maimings, rapes, and beatings.
To walk the streets of Mutare, Zimbabwe’s fourth-largest city, is to glimpse something of a post-apocalyptic world: disintegrating pavement; crumbling, once-proud buildings; power and water outages randomly-spaced for days at a time; hundreds and hundreds of people milling about, seeking any work they can find to feed their families.
In such a setting, the people I met have cultivated a stance in life that astonished me in its ability to endure. An image of this stance lingers in my memory: my new friend Petros leaning calmly against a pickup truck for over an hour outside the city’s lone “Internet café” (a handful of computers in the basement of an office building) as I tried to find a way to have cash sent for food for the workshop meals.
How could he remain so sanguine in the midst of such chaos?
“Impatience,” he smiled, “would kill us.”
What was once called “the breadbasket of Africa,” with solid educational, business, and industrial institutions set around an agriculture-centered economy, has become a place of shortages, torture, and fear. The only dependable source of good in this land is to be found in the souls of the people who long for healing, compassion, and a reconciliation that restores victims and invites perpetrators to a new way of life. So it is that in this ravaged nation, carefully cultivated by good and courageous people like those I met there, a new hope is beginning to grow. And that new hope is what my colleagues—Frank Rogers and Mark Yaconelli—and I were headed to experience.
Under international pressure after hijacking the presidential elections of 2008, Robert Mugabe agreed to a power-sharing, transitional government with his electoral opponent Morgan Tsvangirai. In February, 2009, the government established a “ministry for healing and reconciliation” that invited the people of Zimbabwe to begin developing processes and approaches for bringing the nation together again. Yes, there was worldwide skepticism about the government’s commitment to healing and reconciliation. Some torture camps still operated in rural areas, and few, if any, victims of violence were willing to speak publicly of their experiences. But the government’s invitation offered an officially sanctioned opening for those bold enough to respond.
The workshop Mazvita asked us to help her lead would be the first event in the country to offer a public forum for describing the atrocities of the past years and developing strategies to begin addressing the wounds of the nation in practical, concrete ways in the daily lives of the people. So we went—nervously, hopefully. And we were welcomed with open arms.
More than 90 people gathered for three days at a Catholic convent’s retreat center with no electricity and limited food on the outskirts of Mutare.
The staff members of the pastoral care center had taken a revolutionary and courageous stance: They had invited people from all sides of the nation’s trauma—not only victims of the violence, pastors, and other spiritual care-givers, but elected representatives, tribal leaders, government officials, and persons associated with the perpetration of violence. They had decided to videotape and transcribe the proceedings of the workshop in order to send a complete report to the government—at the risk of danger to themselves. Their wide-open stance bore fruit, bringing together for the first time pastors from over 30 denominations, 3 tribal chiefs (one a senator), a tribal official elected to the national assembly, and—of course—the obligatory undercover government security officers (at least three).
We asked one of the organizers, pastor Gift Machinga (a former student of ours, and Mazvita’s husband), how it is that he is able to feel and demonstrate compassion for everyone involved, no matter what they have experienced, done, or believed.
His simple answer: “It’s all humanity.”
For Gift and those who share his stance, every person deserves to be cared for in a way that does not deny the pain they have caused—no matter how horrific—but offers a new way forward, new possibilities for a life of grace and goodness. Such is the nature of engaged compassion.
THE COMMON THREAD of humanity that the workshop organizers celebrate and tend appeared again and again during the three days as people told their stories. Two examples suggest the challenge the people of Zimbabwe face in embracing their common humanity with compassion:
One pastor, Thomas, told the group of being harassed during the elections of 2008 by a gang of young men who demanded that he support the ruling party. After Thomas insisted on his public neutrality as a pastor, 20 men demanded that he come out of his house and chant the slogans of the ruling party. He refused. They then began to beat him with sticks wrapped in barbed wire, eventually dragging him to a slaughterhouse and covering the floor with his blood and pieces of his flesh. Finally he was released, only to be confronted by another group of young men, one of whom said, “We’ve been looking for you. I’m going to finish your life.”
Beaten with a stone, knocked unconscious, and left for dead, Thomas was later carried to a hospital in a wheelbarrow by a group of women. Soon the men who had beaten him gathered outside of the hospital, demanding his life. Only the nurses’ lies about his whereabouts saved Thomas. After weeks in the hospital, he returned home to find his house burned down, his farm dug up, his stored food destroyed—but his wife and children safe.
One year later, Thomas is still a pastor and a community leader. Every day in his rural village he sees the 20 men who beat and tried to kill him. They have not yet been prosecuted. At the end of his story, Thomas said that this public telling was the opening to a new life of interior freedom and active vitality for him.
Another participant is secretly connected with the perpetrators of violence in the region of Mutare. Confiding in one of the workshop leaders, he described terrible struggles in his own family life that had brought him great grief. He spoke of the shame he felt around the job he held, of how he wished he could cut ties with those who have done violence, of how much he wanted a chance to finish university courses that would lead to a different career than the path he is currently on. If only he had a few hundred more dollars, his life could change. If only he had a few more resources, he could begin again. If only a way would open, he could be free of a life that troubled him.
But there seemed to be no hope that a new life could begin for him, no other job that would allow him to feed his children. So he lives in quiet agony, afraid for his life and his family’s. In a place where violence reigns, even the perpetrators may become victims, held hostage by a system of terror. As this young man was telling his story to someone who did not reject him, he realized that he needed to find a wise confidant, a spiritual counselor, someone who could help him find a way out of his bondage. In this realization was his hope for a new life.
Stories such as these were told and retold as the first two days of the workshop unfolded. But on the third day the participants shifted focus. They were experiencing healing beginning within themselves; now they wanted to bring healing to their communities. They wanted reconciliation to come alive among the people of their congregations, tribes, and towns.
THEY DIDN’T KNOW IT, but they were proving Mazvita right. She had told us to trust that the people of Zimbabwe are ready for healing and reconciliation. And so they are. Working groups formed according to geographical regions—tribal chiefs with pastors, or victims with government officials, or elected officials with pastoral counselors, or whatever mix was necessary to begin to develop strategies for addressing the brokenness of the communities they would return to.
The enthusiasm for developing action plans and strategies and processes based in the healing compassion we were all experiencing, carried us to the workshop’s appointed ending time and beyond.
As the workshop drew to a close, what lingered in me was not simply the fervor of the commitment to actively seek healing and reconciliation. Rather, it was the sense that for the first time in many years these 90 new friends of ours had come to embrace a living possibility for the future of their nation and themselves.
At the end of the workshop, there was a palpable sense that things could and would change for the better in their country. One pastor and his family had been beaten, and their home was burned down before they fled to another part of the country. Although he has started a new congregation where he now lives, he talked about an abiding sense of dejection and hopelessness. But as a result of the workshop, he said, his hope was restored, and he was deeply excited to begin putting into practice the processes of healing and reconciliation he had learned.
This hope was crystallized in the poetic voice of one participant who spoke to the group about the horrors he had witnessed and felt. And then he seemed to express the longing of the entire country:
“Even though our hearts melt within us, hope arises like a frail old lady, calling down our streets and neighborhoods, calling out that the good that is within us is greater than the horrors that confront us.”
Yes, Mazvita had been right. I returned from Zimbabwe struck by the horrors. But more than that I returned marveling at the hope of a people—and praying for the day when that frail old lady will call not only Zimbabwe, but the whole world, to the full goodness that is within each of us.
Andy Dreitcer ’79 (Andy Deeter, while at Wabash), is Associate Professor of Spirituality, Director of Spiritual Formation, and co-director of the new Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology. He lives with his wife, Steffani, and daughters, Hannah and Monica, in Fairfax, CA. In April, he and his colleagues led two Capitol Hill events for Con-gress members and their staff on the possibility of compassion in the political process.
The Editor’s Note was excerpted from an article by Jim Welte, Marin Independent Journal, Fairfax, CA.-