Hearts for Suffering Mozambicans

Mark and Helen Van Koevering with Diocese of Niassa staff in 2015 | Courtesy of Mark and Helen Van Koevering
Mark and Helen Van Koevering with Diocese of Niassa staff in 2015 | Courtesy of Mark and Helen Van Koevering

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When a cyclone killed more than 600 in Mozambique on March 15 and left a gruesome trail of homelessness, hunger, and disease, the disaster did not feel 8,700 miles away for the Provisional Bishop of Lexington and his wife.  It felt intimately close.

How to Help: The diocese’s online donation form includes a Mozambique Fund option, or send checks (memo line: Mozambique) to the Diocese of Lexington, P.O. Box 610, Lexington, KY 40588.

Bishop Mark Van Koevering and the Rev. Helen Van Koevering, rector of St. Raphael’s Church in Lexington, spent 30 years in Mozambique before settling in the United States in 2015. On the day the cyclone hit, Bishop Van Koevering was on his computer, tracking inaugural ceremonies for a new Mozambican diocese he had helped envision years earlier.

“We were getting live video feeds of the celebration and later hearing of the devastation that happened further south,” said Van Koevering, who became Bishop of Niassa in 2003.

Helen said she was shocked to learn that even highland villages, which she had always known to be safe in heavy rains, had become scenes of devastation.

“The fact that people died there and got lost there in landslides is just incredible,” said Helen, who was an education missionary in Mozambique. “I don’t think people knew the extent of it. … People just couldn’t get news out of there.”

More than four weeks later, the horrific damage is still coming to light. The Van Koeverings hear reports of orphaned children, spreading cholera, and food shortages. Fifty Anglican churches in the Beira area were reportedly destroyed.

Despite all the turmoil, people will not stay in temporary shelters for long, the bishop said, because the population consists largely of subsistence farmers, who are determined to return to their fields.

The Van Koeverings describe the people of Mozambique as resilient and hopeful. It is a young country, freed from Portuguese rule in 1975 and then consumed by war into the early 1990s. Groups with little history of working together are now joining forces to find help where it is needed, the bishop said.

But the Van Koeverings are also realistic about the survival challenge facing their adopted country. They draw on their knowledge of the Mozambican church to make sure U.S. donations reach people who will deliver urgent relief.

Their initiative begins with knowing how perilous life is for many in Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries. Mozambicans know life’s perils, even those associated with trying to survive a disaster, all too well.

“A lot of people have experienced this,” Helen said. “They’re responding because they’ve seen it and know it for themselves — the vulnerability. When you think that the war is only over since ’92, a lot of people grew up with that vulnerability. They know what it means. … You don’t need any imagination.”

Food shortages have become a major risk, said the bishop, who worked as an agricultural missionary in the region before seeking ordination. The months of January through March are known as Mozambique’s hunger season because farmers have by then consumed the prior year’s crops, but new crops are not ready for harvest. With anticipated crops now destroyed, the hunger season is poised to intensify and drag on.

Those wanting to help Mozambique through Episcopal Church channels have options. Episcopal Relief & Development is working with the dioceses of Niassa and Lebombo to address long-term needs such as schools, water, sanitation, and agricultural assistance.

For donors eager to meet immediate needs, the Van Koeverings have been collecting funds for the Diocese of Lebombo. Bishop Carlos Matsinhe of Lebombo is their trusted friend. Matsinhe celebrated their wedding and later went to find Mark when he was trapped during a village massacre. Helen said she trusts him now to deliver the dollars where they are needed.

“Carlos is very experienced in doing development work and community work,” Helen said, and food distribution will be a priority. Funds will also enable diocesan ministry in the most devastated areas.

The money “just gives him that flexibility to do things and stay involved in ways that he might not otherwise be able to,” Mark said. He said Bishop Matsinhe must travel 800 miles just to reach the populous Beira corridor, where damage has been severe.

The Van Koeverings expect church rebuilding efforts will not be far off. Helen recalls helping Mozambicans recover from a massive flood in 2000. They wanted not just food, clothing, or blankets, but churches.

“People were asking us to help rebuild churches because it was a sign of hope,” Helen said. A church “could be used for all sorts of community things. It was something that was being asked for. That’s part of the resilience of Mozambicans. There truly is hope in spite of calamity.”


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