(Rev. Kelli Hitchman-Craig) - The global connection of the United Methodist Church continues to thrive in the Alabama-West Florida Conference! This Summer, a group from across the annual conference travelled to Tanzania to further develop the relationship between the Alabama-West Florida and Tanzania annual conferences. The group included Bishop and Mrs. Graves, Peggy Groves, Celeste Eubanks, Mike Pearson, Katy Wrona, Ashley Davis, and Jean Tippit.
The relationship between the two annual conferences began in 2018 with a visit from Bishop Graves, which eventually led to a covenant relationship between Alabama-West Florida and Tanzania in 2019. The relational partnership named, “Teaming With Tanzania,” was scheduled to last four years and included three main focus areas: developing leaders through Wesley College, equipping faith communities, and building churches. On this most recent trip, the partnership between Tanzania and Alabama-West Florida was renewed for an additional four years. Executive Director of the Wesley College Foundation, Rev. Eric Soard, shared, “this isn’t an effort to do things ‘for’ Tanzania, but a relationship to build up communities together.”
Rev. Soard continues to be an asset in the partnership with the Tanzania Annual Conference. Soard is a former United Methodist missionary in Tanzania and has experience in orphan care, church planting, and community development. During his time as a full-time resident of Tanzania, 15 churches were planted, a women and children's advocacy center was founded, and established the Community Development Office of the United Methodist Church in Tanzania. Rev. Soard’s love for Tanzania and its people has given him unique insight as to why this connection is so important.
He shared, “This connection between Alabama-West Florida and Tanzania matters because it is theologically imperative. We, as United Methodists, do not see the boundaries of nationality or ethnicity as nearly as important as we see our commitment to following Christ first.” “We are one body,” he implored. Soard also shared important data about the nation and people of Tanzania. Soard explained, “In Tanzania, Christianity is not the de facto religion or culture at large. There is an entire generation searching for a foundation for the development of their values and standards. Our foundation of faith, grace, and social connection is what’s needed.” Additionally, “Tanzania is unique in that 75% of its population is under 35 years old. They have an exponential population growth projection of 137 million people by 2050.” “Tanzania needs a strong United Methodist Church,” he exclaimed, “the United Methodist Church has a needed theology and message for the world!”
Reflecting on the partnership, Rev. Soard shared, “We have made massive progress despite huge interruptions in 2020, which continued through 2022.” A recent report shared by Wesley College demonstrated that the partnership between the two annual conferences has been successful in doing just that. The generosity of the Alabama-West Florida Conference and Alabama-West Florida churches has provided over 100 scholarships for Wesley College students. Over $245,000 worth of educational aid has been provided through the Teaming With Tanzania partnership. Wesley College currently has 219 students enrolled with 32 staff members. Their enrollment is projected to surpass 500 students by 2024.
Dr. Mike Pearson, member of the most recent group who traveled to Tanzania, reflected, “I was taken aback by the vision of the college, it was something that intrigued me greatly!” Dr. Pearson continued, “Bishop Graves has such focus on the partnership with Tanzania and there is a great deal of excitement for what’s already been done and for the continued vision of strategic planning, partnerships, and development.”
Rev. Ashley Davis, Assistant to the Bishop, shared similar sentiments saying, “We have made a huge difference. God has multiplied the gifts that were given and the Tanzania Annual Conference and Wesley College have utilized resources in the best ways. This is a partnership. We are learning and will continue to learn from best practices for starting new churches, seeing to the needs in the community, and becoming more entrepreneurial.”
As the Alabama-West Florida Conference enters a new quadrennium with a renewed partnership in Tanzania, Rev. Soard reminds us, “We’re in partnership as one body of Christ and one global church.” His encouragement for the next four years is simple: “The opportunities in Tanzania right now are endless—for the church, the community, the people. The challenge is that there are too many opportunities and too many great things going on! This is not a partnership for large churches only. This is a partnership for all of us. You’ll be amazed how far your impact can go with whatever you can give and do. Every gets to participate in the body of Christ.”
If you would like to be a part of the partnership with Tanzania learn more here