The Rev. Paul Neshangwe is no stranger to working with those across cultural and societal boundary lines.
Though his work as an International Peacemaker with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) first brought him to the United States, it was a presbytery partnership that made him stay — at least for a while.
Neshangwe came on staff with the Presbytery of Denver in 2008 as pastor in partnership and church development. Before that, he had served as pastor of Lomagundi Presbyterian Church in Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, and as moderator of the Presbytery of Zimbabwe.
“When we first began to discuss the possibility of having a relationship between the two presbyteries — Denver and Zimbabwe — we were very intentional about not making it ‘mission,’” Neshangwe said.
Instead, the focus was on shared partnership.
“Often when people in the richer countries relate to the people in the poorer countries, the temptation is to be like big brothers relating to little brothers, but that doesn’t really make for peace,” Neshangwe said.
So the presbyteries sought to work as equal partners to avoid the appearance of Zimbabwe being a “project” for Denver. It’s a model that can be challenging, Neshangwe said.
In fact, it’s that challenge that brought him to Denver.
“The Presbytery of Denver wanted to find a way of ministering effectively to immigrants from Africa, so they called me here to discuss that, within the context of our partnership,” Neshangwe said.
The presbytery originally decided to develop a congregation for African immigrants in the area. Neshangwe’s first task was to meet with those immigrants as well as organizations working with refugees and those seeking asylum.
After about six months of this work, Neshangwe discovered an interesting — and somewhat surprising — fact.
“The conclusion we found was that, in response to our question, those immigrants asked, ‘Why would they not want us to join their existing congregations? Why would they not make space for us within those congregations?’” he said.
Thus came a shift in the way the presbytery approaches its work with immigrants.
“We concluded that we would not form a separate congregation for African immigrants but that we would need to work with the congregations that are here to learn to make space for African immigrants,” Neshangwe said.
“As we were learning how to do that, we realized that what we also needed was to learn to make space for the other — not just immigrants — so that we are now focusing on learning to embrace the diversity around us and to celebrate where we are doing it well and improve where we are not.”
It can be a challenging path, one that had led to some difficult questions.
One such question: Why are North American Christians so committed to flying around the world to improve life and make peace when they struggle to do that work in their own neighborhoods?
“As you can imagine, it is not an easy thing. It is much more challenging to actually make the necessary space here where I am — it means I have to be changed,” Neshangwe said. “If I am going on a mission trip to Africa for two weeks, it’s just a challenging two weeks. But to say now I have to learn to listen carefully every Sunday to a different accent and to accept those who aren’t like me throughout the year — it’s a lot more challenging.”
But it is a challenge that is also bearing fruit.
One such example is a weeklong celebration the presbytery hosted to celebrate its work with Africans. Any congregation that had a relationship with Africa was invited to come share stories and learn about good work being done.
The event culminated in an open invitation to all African immigrants in the area to have a dance party with the congregations and to listen to a speaker, a Ghanaian PC(USA) minister from New Jersey.
“The ongoing challenge for us is, ‘What does God require of us?’ I think that is the key challenge in any peacemaking effort,” Neshangwe said. “I have a growing conviction that the challenge is not entirely the shrinking size of the church in America. The issue for me that is more disturbing is if the smaller number that remains loses its saltiness.
“When people see that life is tasting better because there is a Christian in our midst — that is the real step in peacemaking.”
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.