After two drown in Tanzania, Christians re-examine safety of river baptisms

After two drown in Tanzania, Christians re-examine safety of river baptisms

(RNS) — It’s a rite that dates to the time of Jesus, who was dunked in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. But Christians in East Africa are now taking stock of their faith’s central rite after one such ritual turned tragic in northern Tanzania.

Two Christian farmers, aged 30 and 47, died as their pastors attempted to baptize them in the fast-moving current of the Ungwasi River in Rombo District in the Kilimanjaro region.

The ritual was organized by Shalom Church, a charismatic group in the country.

“Following the incident, we have agreed on some measures that will ensure the safety of our followers during baptism in the rivers,” Samuel Kamigwa, a pastor at the Victory Christian Center, a Pentecostal church in Tanzania, said in telephone interview.

Kamigwa said churches were considering increasing the number of ministers at one baptism event. They would also baptize one person at a time, while others are kept at a safe distance, and will choose a time when the water is calm enough for the ritual.

“As churches, we have to be careful. Baptism is one of the core rites in our faith and it has to continue,” he said.

Drowning during baptism is not uncommon in Africa, and Tanzanian police detained a pastor in connection with the deaths of the two. Local news reports say Kilimanjaro Regional Police Commander Hamis Selemani has warned against using the rivers for such activities unless the safety is confirmed.

In Africa, river baptism is popular, particularly among Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

Immersion is viewed as a way of cleansing one’s sins and being reborn into a new life. Affusion, where water is poured over the head, and aspersion, where water is sprinkled on the head, are more common in mainline churches.

The Rev. Wilybard Lagho, vicar general of the Mombasa Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Kenya, said pastors need to be prudent: “If they choose the river, they must take a careful review to avoid endangering lives.”

Last year, six children died in Zimbabwe’s eastern province of Mashonaland during an early morning baptism in a stream by a self-styled prophetess.

And in January 2015, two elderly Pentecostal church pastors drowned in Mutshedzi River in Limpopo Province of South Africa, where they had gone to baptize four junior church members.

(Fredrick Nzwili is a Nairobi-based correspondent)

Kenyan pastors offer young people a token of love

Kenyan pastors offer young people a token of love

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) On Valentine’s Day, some Kenyan pastors handed out red roses as a sign of love to HIV-positive youth suffering stigma and discrimination.

The gesture was meant as a way to reach out to youth, many of whom feel rejected by the churches.

“We came to show the youth that we care and support them,” said the Rev. Geoffrey Wanjala Munialo, a pastor with Vineyard Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Nairobi.

“We’ve also been teaching them the right perspective of love,” he added. “The right perspective helps people care and eliminate stigma and discrimination in HIV.”

Widespread stigma prevents many youth living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from coming forward and acknowledging their condition.

“Most parents prefer the status of their children remain unknown,” said Munialo. “They fear guilt by association.”

Mary Mutua, who is HIV-positive, said she blames the church for not giving greater priority to people like her.

“The church does not want to talk about it,” she said, because it means acknowledging that young people contract the virus through sexual intercourse.

“Many are comfortable supporting those who got it at birth because they feel it’s less sinful,” she added.

AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death among adolescents in Africa, according to a UNICEF study that showed the number of teenagers dying from AIDS has tripled since 2000, while the number of new infections in other age groups has slowed.

Girls subject to sexual violence, forced marriages and trafficking, and gay and bisexual boys who use drugs are especially vulnerable.

The Rev. James Muhia, the parish minister at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Ruiru near Nairobi, acknowledges that churches have not always done the right thing by young people.

“Forgiveness will open the doors for the church to accept and embrace them,” Muhia said, referring to young people.

Jane Ng’ang’a, the program officer for the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV-Kenya, urged churches to work to become safe places for the youth and others.

“There are some wounded youth who have come to church,” said Ng’ang’a, “but they do not feel safe enough to share their condition.”

(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)