Hundreds of United Methodist clergy and church members parked their vehicles at the foot of the hill as they ascended to witness the historic dedication of the Chin’ando prayer monument.
The prayer shrine reveals a significant and historic narrative of The United Methodist Church in the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area.
Founding mother Mbuya Lydia Chimonyo discovered the spot, named after the Chin’ando tree at the site, in the early 1920s. A pastor’s wife, she was looking for a quiet place to encounter God. Soon, other pastors’ wives joined her.
“Lydia Chimonyo died at the age of 41, but she had already ignited the fire (at Chin’ando) of a unique brand of women’s ministry in The United Methodist Church,” said Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa, who dedicated the monument and improvements to the site on Sept. 6.
The women’s organization Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai, which has become one of the pillars of the church's growth in Zimbabwe, owes its strong spiritual foundations to Chin'ando.
Following years of struggle for recognition of their efforts by the church, the women went up to Chin’ando to pray for the women’s organization to be approved at the 1938 Rhodesia Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
“Their radical prayers in 1938 at this hill gave birth to the organization that (United Methodist) women in Zimbabwe love to identify with,” said Nhiwatiwa.
From the handful of women who frequented Chin’ando in the 1920s, Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai now stands with a membership of 20,809 women (9,191 in the Zimbabwe East Conference and 11,618 in the Zimbabwe West Conference). The women are known for their signature blue dresses with red collars and white headdresses.
“I am blessed to have witnessed the growth and expanse of the women’s organization from humble beginnings at Chin’ando, since I was a young girl working at Old Mutare Hospital,” said Greater Taremeredzwa Nhiwatiwa, the bishop’s wife.
Chin’ando is about half a kilometer from Old Mutare Mission, the United Methodist mission that includes the hospital, schools, an orphanage and more. In memory of Chimonyo, the church has named one of its girls' boarding schools in Mutambara after her.
The recent improvements to the prayer site include a solid rock perimeter and inner walls, a direction sign for visitors and a plaque providing a summarized history. Stone steps and railings were added to improve accessibility for the elderly and others with special needs.
The Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai executive committees of the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area developed the site as a way of protecting the history and spiritual significance through the leadership of Greater Nhiwatiwa, who attended the dedication.
“We have left our cars and some even removed their shoes just as Moses was told by God to remove his sandals as the place he was approaching was holy,” she said.
The women pooled over $60,000 for the improvements.
In the past, strips of bark, threads and various shades of linen were tied to the tree at the center of the shrine.
“Tying the tree or leaving a rock was not only to show that one had visited the place, but adherents would leave the elements as a sign of leaving their all to God,” Greater Nhiwatiwa said.
Bishop Nhiwatiwa said Chimonyo is an icon of women’s emancipation.
“She and the women of her generation fought and won the battle for the place of women in the church and society,” he said.
“The women prayed that their daughters would drive cars one day during the era when not even the black Africa men would be seen driving a car.”
Zimbabwe, like many areas in Africa, struggles with the issue of child marriages, though there have been some advances due to advocacy work by RRW and other women’s organizations.
Praying for a girl child to be taking leadership and driving cars was a major feat of faith, the bishop said. Many in Zimbabwe view owning or driving a car as a sign of success.
Justice Hlekani Mwayera, one of the female high court judges in Zimbabwe and a Zimbabwe East Conference lay leader, called for the church never to underestimate the role played by the humble movement led by a few women during the colonial era.
“In me, Chin’ando prayers are answered. What a rare privilege!” she exclaimed, fighting hard to hold back tears. “I stand today as one of the female high court judges of this land. I drive a car and I lead the church before men, all because of our forerunners who came to Chin’ando praying for future generations.”
The journey to the vibrant women’s ministry in Zimbabwe faced obstacles of gender and racial prejudice, but the women prevailed.
“These women were a very radical group. They declared that if we cannot stand in the church, we can stand in the thickets of forests around 4 a.m. and worship God,” said the bishop.
Not only does the place represent United Methodist heritage in Zimbabwe, but also testimonies about the power of prayer. Day groups of mostly women regularly go on prayer pilgrimages at the site.
“We have testimonies of great miracles that occurred at this sacred place, some from people within our region (Africa Central Conference),” said Bishop Nhiwatiwa.
He recited the story told by Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda of a student pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), Pierre Chaumba and his wife, Ferris. He said Pierre came to Old Mutare to study at the then Biblical Institute. The pastors’ wives at Old Mutare showed concern at the barrenness of their colleague.
“The women stayed for days and nights on this mountain praying for Ferris to conceive … and praise God, she conceived!”
Maforo is a pastor and communicator with the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area.