It started with the question, "How big is the North Katanga Conference?" A colleague was reviewing information about the General Conference of The United Methodist Church when he discovered that 52 delegates would represent that area at this meeting which occurs once every four years.
General Conference is the only body that speaks officially for the 12 million members of The United Methodist Church. 988 elected delegates--half laity and half clergy--from more than 125 countries will gather in Tampa, Florida from April 24-May 4.
The delegation from North Katanga is the largest delegation from any annual conference (geographic area). The North Georgia Conference delegation of 26 is the largest in the United States, representing over 356,000 members.
So, if the number of delegates is determined by the number of church members, how big is the North Katanga Conference? Official membership was 808,123 at the end of 2009. It is estimated that it has grown to about one million with another four million in worship.
North Katanga is The United Methodist Church's episcopal area in the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly called Zaire and the Belgian Congo. It is one of three episcopal areas in the country, and extends into parts of Tanzania, covering tens of hundreds of miles. It is divided into two conferences, with a total of 36 districts. It is one of the fastest growing areas of the United Methodist Church.
There were some Methodist churches planted around the region about 1917, but between the 1920s and 1962, there was little Methodist activity in the region. The first United Methodist Bishop from North Katanga to be elected was Bishop Ngoy Kimba wa Kadilo in 1976. He was followed by the current Bishop Ntambo Nkulu in 1996.
The region of North Katanga has an agricultural-based economy. It is rich in pasture, lakes (including Tanyanika), rivers (the Congo and Lomami), and minerals (gold, coltan, and hematite). It grows cassava, rice, corn, beans, peanuts, soy beans, garlic, cabbage, bananas, plantains, pineapples, avocados, sugar cane, oranges, coffee, palm oil, etc. North Katanga exports its crops to the surrounding regions. Zebras, giraffes, antelopes, lions, hippopotami, crocodiles, rhinoceros, monkeys, etc. were once plentiful there.
In spite of its rich natural resources, Katanga is a very poor area struggling with malaria, cholera, typhoid, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The area has survived the horrific war in eastern Congo and is struggling to recover. United Methodist pastors and lay leaders behaved heroically during the war and are now in place to lead in the recovery.
Bishop Ntambo's first term as head of Africa's then newest United Methodist conference occurred as a brutal civil war began in 1996. During that same period, cholera killed thousands. In the midst of the horrors of war and disease, the bishop brought hope to the North Katanga region. In the fall of 2004, Bishop Ntambo helped to broker a peace settlement in North Katanga.
Partnering with UMCOR, a sustainable agriculture and development program introduced Chinese cabbage cultivation. Because it is more affordable than other foods, the cabbage is both a source of nutrition and of income through sales at regional markets.
The cabbage experiment led to other sustainable crops. Uses of the moringa tree include food as well as medicine. "To buy aspirin one had to walk 50 miles," explained the bishop. On an income of less than $100 a year, such a medicine was difficult to obtain. Now many families have planted moringa trees and can make a pain reliever similar to aspirin from their foliage. Through the sustainable agriculture program, small eggplants, known as "garden eggs," chickens, and cattle provide additional food security.
Almost 40% of this year's General Conference delegates will be from Africa, including those from North Katanga. Their presence will greatly enrich the conversation and expand the perspective of the General Conference.
Lives are being saved, literally and spiritually, by the thousands in Africa. The growth of the United Methodist Church in North Katanga (and across the continent of Africa) in the last 50 years is in sharp contrast to the steady decline of the denomination in the United States.
Maybe the Holy Spirit's fire that is fueling the growth of the Church in Africa will touch all who gather in Tampa. Pray that all participants in the General Conference will be guided by God to make decisions that will make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Taken with permission from "Monday Morning in North Georgia," April 30, 2012. North Georgie Conference of the United Methodist Church.