Jumuiya, Small Christian Community, is at the heart of Tanzanian church

  • A Small Christian Community (SCC) gathers in Mwanza, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of James Jay Carney.
  • SCC participants at a meeting in Mwanza, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of James Jay Carney.
  • Members of a Small Christian Community read scripture at a meeting in Mwanza, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of James Jay Carney.

The heart of the Tanzanian church is the jumuiya, or Small Christian Community. Initiated in the 1960s in part by American Maryknoll missionaries, SCCs were seen as a “new way of being church.” Shifting away from the “pipeline ecclesiology” in which missionaries pumped services and funds to the laity, the SCCs looked to empower lay Catholic believers via small faith communities. Rather than invite the people to church, the church was now going to the people.

The “church going to the people” remains crucial in rural areas where the closest church is often several hours away by foot. Rarely do villagers own a bicycle, and it is almost unheard of for them to own a piki-piki (motorcycle) or a car. Even if someone in the village does own one of these more efficient modes of transportation, roads are often extremely rough or entirely non-existent. During wet season heavy rains can block the routes entirely. And while there are parish outstations throughout rural Tanzania, a single priest is responsible for many outstations. Even if he visited one outstation every day, it would take 4-6 weeks for the priest to visit all of his parishioners.

In addition to making the church physically accessible to the people, the SCCs also help to develop local lay-leaders, who provide much needed support for the priests. The appointed leader of each SCC receives some formation and is responsible for leading the SCC at weekly meetings. He also serves as a second pair of “eyes” for the priest and is responsible for communicating with the priest about local developments and about any hardships or illnesses that a family may be going through.

Consisting of 10-20 families, SCCs meet weekly in lay leaders’ home or in a public neighborhood space. Together, the members of the SCC study Scripture, discuss local issues, and pray for and with each other. These SCCs have often served as a social safety net for neighbors who fall on hard times. Additionally, hospitality for guests is strongly emphasized, reflecting the local proverb that “a guest is always a blessing.”

The wide-ranging ministries of the SCCs can be seen in the following examples:

The Mtakatifu Yakobo (St. James) SCC of Transfiguration Parish in Mwanza meets every Saturday morning at 6:45 a.m. As the sun rises, members gather in an urban alleyway in the poor slum of Mabatini to sing, pray, and share fellowship with each other. Chickens, dogs, and children wander through the fellowship meeting as the members study the upcoming Sunday Mass readings.

Out in a rural village in the Diocese of Shinyanga, a priest has traveled an hour and a half by car to say Mass in a small mud-brick church structure built by the villagers. This will likely be the only Mass said here for the month. Villagers express their joy through vibrant song, and they bring forth gifts from their harvest during the offertory. As soon as Mass is over, the SCC leader for the village ushers the priest to a home nearby. A young woman is deathly ill and is in need of receiving the anointing of the sick. Though the mood at this home is somber, the family has prepared a large meal of chicken, rice and beans as a show of hospitality. After eating, the priest and SCC leader visit with the young woman and her family to offer prayer and support.

The Mtakatifu Fransisko wa Assisi SCC meets at “mwisho wa alami” (end of the pavement) in Bwiru, Mwanza each Sunday evening. As the sun begins to dip, children on last-minute errands and lumbering cows pass by on the road. The SCC members pray the rosary together, discuss funds needed for the building of their church, and again listen to a petition from the choir for help to buy a keyboard.

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The global website for Small Christian Communities offers an unmatched online resource of first-person testimonies and local commentaries on SCCs in Africa and around the world.

J.J. Carney, “The People Bonded Together By Love: Eucharistic Ecclesiology and Small Christian Communities in Africa,” Modern Theology 30, no. 2 (2014): 300-318.

Joseph Healey and Jeanne Hinton, eds. Small Christian Communities Today: Capturing the New Moment (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005).

Joseph Healey and Donald Sybertz, Towards an African Narrative Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 104-67.