The Sunday News
Vincent Gono, Magazine Editor
HE leads one of the most followed churches in the country yet he has maintained a very low profile or is it shying away from the media despite various projects and charitable work that he, through his church is doing.
Dr Bishop Nehemiah Mutendi of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) has managed to build an empire, he can be counted as one of the millionaires but has remained humble, calm and collected and if the media does not look for him he does not bother looking for publicity. He has managed to remain out of the verbal wars, the controversy and criticism poured on his constituency — the Zionist movement by some emerging prophets.
Sunday Leisure (SL) managed to get an interview with the revered man of God, Bishop Nehemiah Mutendi (NM) and below are excerpts of the interview.
SL: Can you briefly tell us about your life from the time you were born as well as the origins of the church — ZCC?
NM: I was born 76 years ago on 15 September 1939 as the sixth son of Rev Samuel Mutendi, at our early mission station called Mukute in Bikita, Masvingo at the outbreak of the Second World War. Coincidentally, the year 1939 was a very special year in the arduous history of our church. In that year the church received a Peace Order from the colonial authorities after almost two long decades of persecution by a host of detractors who included the colonial government, some early missionaries from the mainline churches and the traditional leadership. Reasons ranged from suspicions of the church’s involvement in African nationalism to open racism because ZCC was founded by a black African and also because my father baptised people in the river.
One other source of controversy was the unprecedented speeches in tongues by our prophets which were mistaken for antics of the devil. Local people at the time did not understand the Pentecostal speeches in tongues and even thought our prophets transformed into animals of prey which killed cattle and sheep at night. Yes, imagery songs were composed of how Mutendi was decimating people’s livestock at night-time! This was just ignorance about the Holy Spirit which had descended in this country.
The local authorities and traditional leaders were also worried by my father’s rising popularity as a faith healer of great repute, rainmaker, counsellor and powerful African missionary whose wellness centres at Mubveve and Mukute in Bikita were attracting scores of people from far and wide. Before 1939 the Zion Christian Church went through a torrid time as our worshippers were forbidden from praying in public. In addition my father was arrested on several occasions for preaching the gospel and baptising people. The Lord intervened in miraculous ways and he did not last long in jail or police custody. Each time he left he would continue preaching the Word of God fearlessly, baptising more and more people.
Church services were conducted in thick forests or at night in maize fields in order to avoid police raids. In order to mislead police trackers who were deployed by the Native Commissioners and chiefs to arrest the so-called stubborn Zionists, worshippers would walk backwards when crossing dirt roads or carry hoes as if they were going to the fields when in fact, they were going to pray. It was a crime to belong to the Zion Christian Church and the persecution went on for many years. Come 1939, my father engaged a lawyer to assist in the registration of the church and apply for the cessation of the hostilities against the Zionist worshippers. The result was a Peace Order which directed that my father was free to worship God in public without harassment from the police although discouraged from spreading the gospel beyond his home area.
Therefore, in spite of the spectre of the Second World War my birth came at a time when the church was achieving a milestone . . . in the form of that Peace Order which was significant for the spread of African initiated churches in this country. It should certainly have come as a big relief for my parents after I was born that they could take me to church to pray freely in the open with other worshippers at Mukute Mission. I want to believe when he gave me the name Nehemiah which means “comforted by God” he knew what he was doing.
We also know Nehemiah in the Bible as the builder and that points my father’s new focus to build the church in peace. A few years down the line I watched the beginning of my father’s construction programme at Mutarara Mission starting with the church, the administration block and then the stone wall. The highlight of the construction programme was the putting up of a fully-fledged primary school which was officially registered.
I grew up in Bikita and assisted my parents herding the family livestock until I was ready to go to school at Pamushana, the DRC mission school for primary education in Bikita. I then went to Solusi for Junior Certificate. After completing Rhodesia Junior Certificate, I trained as a teacher at what is now Mutare Teachers’ College and taught in Manicaland for several years before I was recalled by my father to serve in our church schools. The honorary doctoral degree I was awarded by the University of Zimbabwe was in apparent recognition of my efforts in education and social development. Glory be to God for that recognition because I have dedicated my life to serving the Lord our God of Zion in my position as leader of the church.
At the age of 37 in 1977, I left teaching as I was ordained Bishop and leader of the Zion Christian Church after my father had passed on in 1976. That was a midlife career change for me, but you will appreciate that I really never stopped teaching to this very day because as you very well know, even our Lord Jesus was a teacher. I have led the Church along the traditions of its history following in the footsteps of my late father whose mission, ever since 1913, was guided by the Holy Spirit.
We undertook several projects the first of which was the purchase of the farm called Mbungo in 1981. We went on a school building programme beginning with Mutendi Primary in 1982 and followed by Mutendi High School in 1983 and then Hebron High in Mwenezi in 1986. To date we have established 11 schools and as we talk now we are building four schools in different parts of the country such as Belvedere in Harare where we are building a state-of-the-art high school to be called Samuel Centenary Academy.
Education is one of the greatest passions I inherited from my father the late Rev Samuel Mutendi who put up nine schools in Zimbabwe during his time. Six of those schools were burnt down by the colonial authorities in 1932 as the schools were mistaken for political bases because adults came for literacy lessons so they could read the Bible. Three of the schools are still there today. During my era the church has put up six secondary schools, four primary and one College of Music, Resource Units for inclusive education and an Adult Literacy programme called Dzidzai. In two of our schools we offer special needs education to the disabled and the visually impaired pupils.
The church has established a scholarship programme to assist orphans and vulnerable children by paying for their education from primary to university level. This has led the church to form a non-profit organisation called Rucors (Rugare Community Relief Services) aimed at addressing the plight of orphans and the vulnerable in our communities. Our church has also embraced the idea of vocational skills development and annually we sponsor the training of our church members in various skills such as building, welding, carpentry and joinery, plumbing, dressmaking, computing and so on. All these efforts are meant to empower our members and non-members so that they can become economically self-reliant and become productive citizens of Zimbabwe.
On our core business, our church has grown in leaps and bounds in the last 15 to 20 years within the country and the region. I am very proud of the church I lead, the Zion Christian Church. I pray every day that the Lord continues to bless its hard-working, God-fearing members and the nation of Zimbabwe at large. We have established regional parishes in the Sadc region and overseas parishes to service our flock in the diaspora. We have a large following in the UK, USA and Canada while we have smaller parishes in other European countries and the Far East. For this reason we are compelled to visit these parishes regularly every year as commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ to encourage the flock and to serve Holy Communion. I am afraid I can go on and on.
SL: How have you managed to build such a church with a following all over the world?
NM: We are but instruments of the Lord our God. Christ leads us to all corners of the world as He commanded everyone in the book of Matthew 28 vs 19 to deliver His message. The mission belongs to Him and we simply do His work. What we do, we do by the Grace of God. We spread the Gospel of Christ and for Him nothing is impossible as written in Luke 18 vs 27. The church is growing as we must reach out to as many people as we can before Jesus come lest we shall be found wanting by the Lord.
SL: The Church at Mbungo is such a majestic work of art. How many years did it take to construct such a building and what exactly was in your mind?
NM: The building at Mbungo was done by the church, from October 2005 to 2010, during the worst economic conditions ever experienced in our country’s history. Church members literally sacrificed everything they had to build that House for the Lord. The project reminds me of the Shona hymn, “Mufiri Ishe wangu ndingamufadza nei? Pasina zvangu zvese ndingamufadza nei?” In other words, how can I honour my Lord if I do not give him all my possessions?
Both rural and urban parishes contributed immensely towards the construction of the church. While some brought cash others contributed the labour and the Lord our God gave them power and hope until they made it in the end. The church was officially opened on 21 April 2011 by the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, President Mugabe and I presided over its consecration later in the year on the 7th of August the same year. A day before the consecration, the church was certified as a tourist resort by the Ministry of Tourism. Glory be to God our father in Heaven for the manner He allowed us to put up such a majestic building against all odds without any help from donors or loans from financial institutions. It was a blessing indeed because the Lord was our one and only contractor.
There can never be a better investment than investing in the work of the Lord our God. In order for the people to be blessed they should be taught to give to the Lord who shall give us more in return. As it is written in Proverbs 8 vs 18, “Riches and honour are with me, long-lasting wealth and righteousness.” That is what I was thinking about when we undertook this mammoth task of building a House of God.
SL: What do you think and say about the emergence of so many other churches with some claiming miracle power?
NM: Jesus taught us not to judge other people but one does not need to be a leader of a church to realise that rape, child abuse, murder, and robbery and corruption are evil practices. The Bible tells us that a sower went out to sow seeds and at night the enemy went out to sow weeds. On discovery of the weeds Jesus advised that the sower should not worry. Let them grow together, the seeds and the weeds; wait until harvest time, Jesus said. It will be very easy then to separate the weeds from the real crop as they show their fruits. Jesus encouraged the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the world. The number of churches is therefore not an issue as long as we stick to the Christian doctrine as pronounced by our Lord Jesus. Not all new churches are bad and there are many new churches out there doing important and good work.
Jesus spoke about great miracles that shall be attributed to false prophets and he warned believers to be wary of such deceptions. If you read in the book of Matthew 24 vs 24 which says, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” So, you will notice that Jesus warned us sufficiently about such happenings. The Gospel is not founded on miracle power. Jesus warned that a lot of people shall be misled by this miracle power mentality.
Mankind has no defence against the antics of the devil. A lot of people shall be tempted and they shall fall by the wayside and be swallowed by the earth as happened to those who rebelled against Moses in the Bible. People must pray for the Lord’s deliverance in times of these great temptations. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray not to be led into temptation. And during a time like today where a number of wolves are coming in sheep’s clothing we can only survive by God’s grace through prayer. For every temptation that confronts us, the Lord shall provide a way out to those who keep unity with Him as written in Corinthians 10 vs 13 “No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it”.
SL: We know there are so many miracle wonders your church has done to change the lives of many people in the country but you have never really given them so much publicity. Why?
NM: Jesus always discouraged the people He healed from spreading the news of their healing. While Jesus performed several miracles he never bragged about his power. Instead he healed out of love and compassion. You may want to know that true prophecy should be attributed to the Lord and not to the prophet. We can fill countless pages with testimonies of the miracles that the Lord has performed in our church . . . but the Bible says you should celebrate if your name is written in the Book of Life and not when you are healed or when you think you have performed a miracle.
SL: As an elder what advice would you give to other church leaders, some of whom are engaging in struggles over control of their churches while some are involved in immoral as well as criminal activities?
NM: In John 13 vs 34-35 Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment — to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.; Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples — if you have love for one another.” Love is thus our Christian identity without which we must not claim to be Christian. Leviticus 19 vs 8 says you must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD. These scriptures highlight the Lord’s quest for Love. In fact, God is Love. Of all the attributes and credentials expected of men of the cloth, love is paramount. It is a serious misnomer for church leaders anywhere to be engaged in struggles for personal glory and selfish gain. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek in the event of provocation and he advised Peter to put his sword back in its place and leave the aggressors at the mercy of the Lord who is the ultimate arbiter.
SL: How have you managed to keep a clean record of yourself over the years as leader of the ZCC church?
NM: I am flattered by your apparent claim that I have kept a clean record. I am instead striving to keep such a record as expected of all Christian leaders. Indeed, all church leaders should aim to be role models of their followers. As a leader of a Christian organisation one should pray for the Lord’s guidance in all your ways so that you are not found wanting by your followers. So many verses in the Bible teach us good behaviour that is acceptable before the Lord. David writes in Psalms 1 verse 1-2: “How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand in the pathway with sinners, or sit in the assembly of scoffers. Instead he finds pleasure in obeying the Lord’s commands; he meditates on his commands day and night.”
In Ephesians 5 vs 11 St Paul says, “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” In other words your assertion that I have a clean record is neither here nor there because a day is coming when every one of us shall stand before the throne and be judged according to our deeds and the Lord our God and Creator shall determine our eternal fate. Clean record, yes everyone wants to have a clean record. But our Lord Jesus Christ could not accept that tag. Rather we must pray for the Lord’s Grace and Forgiveness and appreciate that the Lord Jesus died as perfect ransom for our sins.
SL: Thank you for your time.