Equipas de vida—“life teams,” in Portuguese—are multiplying across the rugged highlands of northern Mozambique. Seven years ago the teams were merely a beautiful gleam in the mind of Rebecca Vander Meulen ’99, when she became the director of community development for the Anglican Diocese of Niassa.
“The bishop wanted to launch a more formal response to HIV and AIDS within the church,” she said. “That meant bringing knowledge to local congregations, because there was very much an idea that HIV was caused by witchcraft. It was also about erasing the stigma of the disease. We used the phrase, ‘In Christ there is no positive or negative.’ That really caught on.”
Vander Meulen first went to Mozambique as a graduate student to do research on composting latrines. After finishing her master’s at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, she returned to the country.
“The people and the country are incredibly hospitable,” she said. “They made me one of theirs.”
From the beginning, Vander Meulen has been the only non-Mozambican on the diocese’s development staff. And from the beginning she envisioned Mozambican-driven development—a vision that evolved into local life teams.
“I would go to a village congregation and give a robust HIV training to anyone interested,” she explained. “Then I would ask, ‘OK, what would you like to do with this?’ First they generally wanted to teach in the school and in church what they’d learned about HIV. Then they started to see other needs. We called this group a ‘life team,’ and we’ve developed a process to lead them through identifying their community’s biggest needs, as well as their skills and resources. Then they just go!”
Village life teams have organized projects that include building schools and roads, digging new wells, running community gardens fertilized with compost and introducing the use of clay stoves. What each team undertakes is different, Vander Meulen pointed out, because each village is a unique mix of needs and resources.
While she still visits their projects, she no longer trains life teams. That’s been taken over by men and women—32 of them—who, as team members in their home villages, demonstrated organizational skill and verve. Vander Meulen now trains them to train the local teams.
“People here have been told from infancy, ‘You are poor.’ We help people recognize, ‘Yes, we are poor, and we have skills.’ While outside funding remains crucial in this economically poor region, there’s so much the people can do for themselves when they have confidence in who they are and what they can do.”
Vander Meulen said that while the practical results—roads, schools, better-fed children—encourage her, there’s something else that really energizes her.
“When people who thought they had nothing recognize that they have gifts to offer to their neighbors, they come alive in new ways. It’s so life giving to see people blossom into a reality of service and freedom.
“If it had been just up to us, this wouldn’t have happened on the scale that it’s happened. We started out with two life teams, and now there are over 200. There’s still lots to do—we’d like to see 1,000 teams and no need for staff, just life teams training each other. But it’s clear God is moving, and we’re trying to follow.”