It feels odd to be back in Croydon. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks with others from the church in this area, visiting the Anglican churches in Central Zimbabwe. It’s a link we’ve had for a long time, supporting each other in many different ways. While we were there we dedicated a hospital the church is building (at present the whole area has none at all), and attended an anniversary celebration. If any of you find church services a bit long, in Zimbabwe they can be into five hours on special occasions like that.

What’s really amazing to me is what the people in Zimbawe achieve in a country whose economy is at rock bottom. Unemployment is 80% (that is not a misprint). The currency collapsed years ago so everyone uses US dollars, and it seems to me, they have to pay US prices. But they haven’t given up, or just sat there waiting for someone else to sort out their problems. Despite the country being in deep trouble, local people – especially in the churches – are doing extraordinary things for themselves and one another: building their own schools and hospitals, setting up projects to grow food and develop jobs. While I was away Croydon’s Opportunity & Fairness Commission, which I’m chairing, published its interim report. I was sorry not to be in the country for that, but I’ve come back all the more convinced that despite national and other forces we in developed countries have many of the solutions for our local needs in our own hands. If the people of Zimbabwe are able to do so much with so little, why is it we feel so powerless?

I’m beginning to think that one of the most profound difficulties facing us in the developed world is that we’ve developed such a strong sense of our own impotence that we’re scared even to try. And of course there are far more rules and regulations.

I’m not suggesting we all just ignore the rules of our society. I am suggesting that maybe we have, collectively, internalised a sense that someone else will always stop us if we do anything that pushes the boundaries, that’s really new or radical. Maybe we’re living a myth of powerlessness, while all the time having power we just don’t use. I think it could be worth finding out.

It was with some nervous anticipation that I approached passport control at Harare Airport. Would there be problems getting in? Would I be interrogated about the purpose of my visit? Fortunately it went a lot more smoothly than it does for many Zimbabweans visiting the UK. I paid my $55, got the visa, and the receipt from another official whose job it was to do nothing else, through I went and there was Bishop Ishmael.

As we headed out on the way to Gweru, where the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe has its cathedral and offices, I was struck by what a ‘green and pleasant land’ I was looking at. It was the rainy season, of course, but nevertheless I realised right away what an abundance of natural gifts Zimbabwe has. But we were driving down the main road to South Africa – what should be a major conduit for trade – and the road was largely empty. We passed several large farms which had fallen into disuse.  Time and again during my stay I was reminded that the basic amenities of society are in a St Michael Kwekwepoor and declining state, and that the economy is operating at a very low level.

Amid the natural beauty and the economic tragedy, I was almost overwhelmed by the vitality, energy and enthusiasm of so many of the people I met. Most of them were from the churches, of course, but I could see that there are many Zimbabweans of all sorts working really hard to create pockets of growth and stability. The churches were not merely full of people, but full of purpose – reaching out to their communities in worship and service.

The picture shows most of the congregation at St Michael’s Kwekwe – the children and the choir are out of sight. The Mothers’ Union, all in uniform, occupy the entire right side of the church.

The thing I came away most convinced of, was that our partnership with the church in Zimbabwe must be genuine partnership. All Christians have something to give to the whole body of Christ; and all have something to receive. Precisely because of our very different situations, we in Southwark have much to learn about our own life of discipleship to Christ as we grow in our relationship with the churches in Zimbabwe.