Pastor Don preaching with Pastor Pedro translating - very exciting message happening!
Pastor Pedro giving his message.
All the young ladies who attended the conference.
All the young gentlemen who attended the conference.
Over 200 young people attended our Nampula Youth Conference on healthy relationships in dating and marriage. Most of the topics discussed are either taboo to talk about in the culture or are confined to teenage initiation rites.
Kids in Mozambique face tremendous pressure to be sexually active as soon as they hit puberty. Besides thousands of young people dying from AIDS each year, this also results in lots of teen pregnancies and older moms who have kids with several different men suffering in such severe poverty that their children have to sell things in the streets to survive and their daughters are “married” off when they are very young. Young people who grow up in this environment have tremendous baggage to overcome and the churches are filled with couples, families, and even church leaders and pastors who don’t even know where to begin in trying to create a healthy marriage. These problems exist everywhere, but in Mozambique the church is very young and there are often no models of healthy relationships and marriages for people to look to as an example.
In the “old days” it wasn’t like this. Before colonialism the tribes in Mozambique each had their own marriage customs and traditions. In Macua culture, when a young man got to a certain age, his uncles would find a girl who came from a family with a good reputation and meet with her uncles to arrange a marriage. If a young man already knew a girl he liked, he could ask his uncles to go talk to her family to see if they would accept him. The marriage ceremony itself was like a formal meeting between the two families where relatives from each side would ask questions to ensure that the other family was honorable and that their son/daughter would be a good and faithful spouse. Both families would promise the other that they would support the marriage and take care of the new spouse as their own son or daughter. If everyone was happy after that, it was agreed that the union was official and then everyone would eat a huge feast. The cost of the feast would be divided among the groom’s relatives and all the women in his family would prepare the food. The Macua tribe does not do dowries, but most of their neighbors do and their marriages would involve negotiations for the dowry. These special meetings united couples in marriage in this part of Africa for thousands of years.
When the Portuguese took over they introduced and made legal the European way of getting married at the time, which included a marriage ceremony in the courthouse and in the church, the bride wearing a white dress and veil, the groom wearing a suit, a godfather and godmother (instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen), and all the expenses that go with it. Very few people could afford the court fees required to get married in the court, not to mention the white bridal dress, suit, and party for the whole church or community afterwards. People continued to get married in the traditional way, but only court marriages were legal in the newly structured colonial system.
Every Mozambican has to have an ID card to do anything and the ID card says “single” or “married” on the front. Thousands of couples who have been married for decades and have children and grandchildren together have to constantly present a card with their picture and the word “single” on it, because their wedding was not done at the courthouse. Today many couples continue to have the family meeting that signifies that they are married, but when their ID card says “single,” they feel like it’s not legitimate. And they won’t go get the paper at the courthouse because they feel like they need to have a huge church wedding for it to be a “real” marriage.
Marriages in the old days were not “all good” because polygamy, concubines, and girls marrying at a very young age were the norm. But all the cultures in Mozambique did have wedding traditions in place before the Portuguese came. In Macua culture it is the formal family meeting and feast that confirms and recognizes the unifying of two people in marriage. It is affordable and attainable for every couple and it is perfectly African. In American culture we often focus on the strength that comes from independence. But in African culture the focus is on the strength that comes from the family. In American weddings family and friends “send the couple off to start a life of their own.” In an African wedding the new spouse becomes the new son or daughter in the family. Yes, these are generalizations and in both cultures the couple is sent off and the new spouse is welcomed – but the emphasis is different.
Before Victor and I had our church wedding, my family was invited to his parents’ house to have a special family meeting and dinner with his relatives. We didn’t completely do it the way it would traditionally be done because my whole family couldn’t be there and we were unfamiliar with the custom. But Victor’s uncles and cousins sat across from my parents and promised that all of them would take care of me and protect me from now on. It wasn’t just Victor’s responsibility – it was now the responsibility of the entire family to make sure I was okay and happy and safe and well taken care of. When a married couple has a problem they can’t solve, they will call a meeting with both families and the elders will give them council and support. The ideal African marriage provides the full support and backing of the African family. Yes, this could be very messy if you have difficult in-laws, but it can be a very beautiful thing when a couple is supported by the weight of respected elders who have their best interest in mind.
When outsiders came to Mozambique they brought rule and religion. The Europeans were not the first to arrive but when they did it was the Portuguese colonial government and the Catholic Church, eventually followed by evangelical missionaries. At the same time laws were being put into place, those who were bringing the gospel message had great influence over the culture that would emerge from the Mozambican church. Like the saying, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” it can be a big mistake to throw out the good and unique parts of the culture while teaching against things like polygamy and underage marriage.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say what a marriage ceremony should look like, what clothes the bride and groom should wear, if there should be presents or dancing or food, a wedding cake, or even rings! But somehow these western practices have become the only real way to get married in the eyes of many in Mozambique. Meanwhile the churches are filled with couples who are struggling to have healthy relationships with lots of baggage and few examples to follow.
The church in Mozambique is very young. Most pastors over age 50 grew up with a father who had more than one wife. Literacy is a struggle and a large percentage of pastors can’t read fluently or with good understanding. The Bible has been translated into local languages but schools only teach in Portuguese so only Portuguese speakers know how to read. And most villagers are not completely comfortable with Portuguese. None of these issues are too big for God. But he uses us humans to bring each other the message of the gospel and to help point and encourage each other in the right direction.
When marriage doesn't seem possible there are no realistic options for most young people in relationships in the church. The church can help to change this by working to restore the legitimacy of the traditional African marriage feast and family meeting, which is attainable for everyone. The church can also facilitate and legitimatize church weddings that are affordable. These would give young people an avenue for marriage that everyone would accept and that would set an example to others.
The issue of marriage is just one of the many topics we are talking about in the church now. Over the past year Victor has felt God leading him to bring these and other issues up in the through youth and pastors conferences. These are things we constantly discuss in the orphanage but our ministry is not confined to the kids alone. The strength in African culture is in the wisdom of the elders. We are raising up kids who will become future elders. But in the meantime there are elders who are elders now – pastors and respected community leaders who have great influence over the people and the future generations. It is a big deal for us to be in a position where we can discuss these important issues with pastors and elders as they are leading others. There are many misconceptions in the Mozambican church concerning sex, marriage, and relationships, and the goal is to redirect people to be lead by the Word of God, rather than by commonly accepted practices or traditions from the west.
God is doing great work in Mozambique and it is exciting to be a part of it. There are challenges but we are constantly encouraged by the transformations we see in the lives of the people we are privileged to work with. Thank you to Pastor Don Shackelford of Flowertown Baptist Church in South Carolina and Pastor Pedro Caetano from ITM in Beira for speaking at the youth conference. Your messages were deep, inspirational, and impactful. And a special thanks to Pastor Mark Turner from Oakbrook Community Church in South Carolina for inspiring and supporting Victor in the mission to bring transformation in relationships in the church. Your mentorship has been invaluable to us in our own marriage and in our ability to encourage others toward the message of the gospel in this area. Pastor Mark will be in Nampula next week and will speak on marriage at a pastors conference, which the pastors are anxiously looking forward to!