An estimated 20,000 pilgrims from Africa and beyond braved the cold over the weekend to gather at the shrine of Bernard Mizeki, an African evangelist martyred in 1896. [More images can be found here.]
Held June 14 to 16, the celebrations were described as having the best attendance in living memory. Despite average night-time temperatures of six degrees Celsius, many pilgrims spent their nights in the open air, with others seeking refuge in makeshift tents or grass-thatched huts.
Choirs from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique kept the event alive by taking turns to sing, dance and worship God throughout the night, amid healing and preaching sessions from the clergy.
“This is a celebration with a difference,” explained the Bishop of Harare Chad Gandiya. “The last five years were very cruel because we could not come to our home [the shrine] to do what we normally do.”
This was the first time since 2008 that Christians have gathered at the martyr’s shrine for the annual celebrations. Over the past five years, excommunicated former bishop Norbert Kunonga, with the help of the State police, blocked pilgrims from gathering at the shrine site. Despite harassment and intimidation by Kunonga and his supporters, determined pilgrims instead gathered at Marondera show grounds – an area about 11km from the actual shrine – for the martyr’s day celebrations.
The Rt Revd Mark Van Koevering is Bishop of Niassa Diocese in Bernard Mizeki’s birthplace of Mozambique. He said that, while it was Europeans who brought the Christian faith to Africa, “there were many Africans who also helped propagate the Gospel in Africa.”
“The Gospel in Africa spread mainly due to Africans,” he said. “Often these are people we have not heard of or seen. God usually uses people we don’t expect, but thankfully we know the story of Bernard Mizeki and his sacrifices, even to his death.”
Other bishops who attended included the main celebrant at the event, Bishop of Central Zimbabwe the Rt Revd Ishmael Mukuwanda. Bishop of Manicaland in Zimbabwe the Rt Revd Julius Makoni was also present as was the Bishop of Lebombo Diocese in Mozambique the Rt Revd Dinis Sengulane.
Bernard Mizeki was a lay catechist and missionary to the Shona people from 1891 to his martyrdom in 1896. He was committed to Christ and to the people he served and stood by them despite threats to his life. Nationalists claimed that Mizeki was a servant of colonialist rulers, but he knew he served Christ alone. As a consequence of his commitment he was killed, a sign that those who followed Christ would be punished. Instead his martyrdom became a sign of resurrection and hope.
The lifestyle, commitment and sacrifice of Bernard Mizeki continues to inspire many even today. Many schools and colleges in Zimbabwe and beyond have been named after him and a lot of young people learn from the martyr’s courage and example.
Nigel Tapiwa Chigumbu is a student at the Anglican-owned Bernard Mizeki College in Zimbabwe. He said he is motivated and proud to be at a school named after the martyr.
“I have learnt to be a persistent person in whatever I am doing,” he said. “I have also been encouraged to spread the word of God not only to people within my sphere of influence, but also to those in other parts of my country.”
Another student from Langham Girls High School in Zimbabwe, Rutendo Thelma Madiye said that her school teaches the girls to be ‘martyrs’. “Our school trains us never to give up like Bernard did and we are trained to be determined in life in order to achieve our goals,” she said.
“I just like the Anglican Church! It just inspires me,” she exclaimed.