Faith, Love, and Courage: St. John’s, Essex and Diocese of Lebombo, Mozambique

In honor of World Mission Sunday in March, I had coffee with three men from St. John’s parish in Essex and talked about their relationship with the country of Mozambique, the Diocese of Lebombo, and Bishops Dinis Sengulane and Carlos Matsinhe. 

I sat down with Ed Burke, Tony Custodio, and the Rev. Jonathan Folts, thinking I would hear a simple history of their relationship, the “this and that” of how a predominantly White parish in Essex, Connecticut came to support, sponsor, and build a relationship with a Southern African diocese. But this conversation was so much more. The relationship between St. John’s, Essex and the Diocese of Lebombo is so much more. It is one built out of joy, not guilt or responsibility. It is one that is personal and spiritual, and those who have had the chance to visit have been impacted tremendously.  

From left: Tony Custodio, the Rev. Jonathan Folts, and Ed Burke.

St. John’s, Essex not only supports the efforts and daily needs of the Diocese of Lebombo, but fully embraces those Anglicans as siblings, as family. The Rev. Jonathan Folts, rector of St. John’s, had a smile on his face the whole time he shared the background of the relationship with the Diocese of Lebombo — okay, yes we did talk history. 

Years ago, Helen and Roger LeCompte, two former parishioners of St. John’s, went to work in Mozambique; Helen a physician, Roger a retired missionary trained in the Episcopal Church. When they arrived, they were met with a bit of hostility from the then Bishop Dinis Sengulane, cautious of potential colonization. He assigned them into a parish in Maputo, so they could see what the Anglican Church was like in Mozambique. 

Bishop Sengulane had been the bishop of Mozambique for 38 years. He was the bishop through Mozambique’s independence, civil war, and establishment of peace. From all of this, Bishop Sengulane began the “swords to ploughshares” program, which later inspired Bishop Jim Curry, retired Suffragan of Connecticut, and Bishop Ian Douglas to bring a swords to plowshares program to Connecticut.  

When Bishop Curry visited Mozambique, he developed a close relationship with Bishop Sengulane. Jonathan says. “It was as if two brothers were meeting for the first time,” perhaps influencing what has become Bishops United Against Gun Violence.

From this forging relationship between Bishop Curry and Bishop Sengulane, St. John’s invited Bishop Sengulane to visit Essex, and the relationship between St. John’s and the Diocese of Lebombo reached a new level. It was no longer “that thing Helen and Roger did,” Jonathan said. There was a desire within the community of St. John’s to recharge their relationship. St. John’s currently sponsors a seminarian for their entire time in seminary and three years afterwards. In the past, they helped to rebuild the roof of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Maputo, and hosted several pilgrimages and trips. The financial relationship is built into the annual budget of St. John’s, not as a second thought, but as a pillar of their annual budget.  

This is a real relationship, a deep relationship, a relationship that required more members of St. John’s to go to Mozambique and experience the church, the culture, and the hospitality for themselves. The three men with whom I sat have each visited, toured, and have been impacted by their experience. The three words that came up throughout our conversation were faith, love, and courage

Ed Burke, who visited in 2016, remembers the deep faith that flows throughout the diocese. “The people there are deeply religious, deeply dedicated,” Ed said reflecting on his pilgrimage. “They prayed and sang for ten hours straight in the cathedral in Maputo.” Their deep faith has impacted him spiritually since his return home. “They have nothing, and the unemployment rate is very high,” he said. “But, they help each other with nothing, they praise God for all the nothing they have. Without faith they would be able to survive.” 

The crucifix gifted from Bishop Sengulane and the Diocese of Lebombo.

Tony Custodio, who visited in 2018, kept stating just how powerful love was in that community. “They treated me like family, always making sure I had enough.” The love, Tony said, isn’t a “phony type of love. It is deep in the way they live their life.” For Jonathan, the power of the Holy Spirit in the community of Mozambique was intense. “It moves you in ways that had never moved you before, and the folks there have the courage to follow the Spirit.” 

When I had met with Bishop Curry in September to follow along New Haven’s Swords to Plowshares project, he showed me a gift from Bishop Sengulane — a saxophone player made from an AK-47. I hadn’t known the history of the relationship between Connecticut and Mozambique at that time. 

Bishop Curry’s saxophone statue.

My visit concluded with Tony, Ed, and Jonathan showing me a gift Bishop Sengulane and the Diocese of Lebombo gave St. John’s: a small crucifix hanging in the hallways made from the parts of a gun that was destroyed in Mozambique. It is a powerful message to have the body of the crucified Christ crafted from forged gun barrels. 

But, now as I reflect on my meeting with Tony, Ed, and Jonathon, I cannot help but be inspired by the faith, love, and courage that a community like St. John’s has to fully give themselves into a relationship with a community thousands of miles away. 

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