Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mangochi Rededication

The Mangochi Church is located near the southern tip of Lake Malawi, in a predominately Muslim region of Malawi. The church was first established in the 1950’s and the present building begun in 1984. During the years it has grown in size, in outreach to the community and in vital ministries, but the building has never been completed – until now. This year, all the renovations to the church were finished and plans made for a rededication of the building. That rededication happened on Sunday. It was a great event, complete with the Vice President of the country as the guest of honor.

The invitation was extended to me to attend to represent PC(USA) and particularly their partner church, Northmont, in Pittsburgh. I went with the Deputy General Secretary and one of the former ministers of the congregation, Rev. S. Chitsulo. But the big guest was the Vice President, Mrs. Joyce Banda and her husband. That was evident from all the preparations made for her visit. There were police posted all along the road, to clear the way for her motorcade. The greatest concentration of them was at the church itself. The area had been inspected and secured early in the morning. By the time we made the 3 hour journey from Blantyre everything and everyone was in place. We were greeted by columns of women all dressed in the material of the day, a print designed just for the occasion and sold in advance, so everyone could have an outfit made – men and women. The men were standing in small clusters chatting and waiting. As we pulled in, a chorus of welcome was begun and everyone sang with gusto to greet the Deputy General Secretary. This was rehearsal for the guest of honor. We dutifully took our places in the receiving line to await her arrival.

Right on schedule, at 9:30, sirens alerted us of her approach. Everyone snapped to attention, ready to welcome her. The women began the welcome chorus and everyone joined in. Large SUV’s filled with police and bodyguards and other officals pulled through the receiving line and moved on to park. Fifth in line was the VP’s vehicle. It stopped at the head of the line and Vice President Joyce Banda emerged, beautifully attired in the fabric of the day. One of her aides had gotten the material the week before and had the dress made for the occasion. This was a lovely touch of support for the congregation. She greeted each of the folks in the receiving line and moved quickly to the front of the church for the ribbon cutting and the unveiling of the commemorative plaque. The minister of the congregation began the ritual for the opening of the church. He led the congregation in a hymn as everyone followed the entourage around the outside of the church, singing the hymn. Once at the front of the church again, the Synod Moderator knocked on the door three times, each time asking entry. Then the village chief, a Muslim, who was in the sanctuary, opened the door, marking the official opening of the church building. This ritual is done at every church dedication or rededication in Malawi. Then the dignitaries, Muslims and Christians, and the congregation filed into the church and took their places.

Worship began, following the usual order of worship, except for end of the service. After the offering, the Guest of Honor was presented with a gift and then there were speeches from selected dignitaries. Gratefully, I had not been selected and could just be present to celebrate with my colleagues. The last one to speak was the guest of honor, her Excellency, the Vice President.
Mrs. Banda is a member of the CCAP church and of the women’s guild of her congregation, so she was quite comfortable first leading the mvano (women’s guild) in a chorus. The women cheered at this gesture of oneness with them. Her speech was relative brief but well received by everyone. She is a wonderful communicator. She presented a monetary gift to the church for their continued work and a packaged gift to the minister and his wife. After the benediction, the clergy led the procession outside to form a receiving line again for the Vice President. She and the other honored guests what to the manse and everyone headed to pre-designated spots around the church building to enjoy a traditional Malawian meal. After food and Malawian fellowship, the Vice President left for other business but the rest of the gathered guests were slow to leave,. No one seemed to want the day to end: it had been special.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Saturday I got a call at 6 a.m. from the General Secretary of the Synod, asking what my schedule was for the day. I said I had a meeting at 10 a.m., but could reschedule it if there were something that he needed me to do. There was. He needed me to stand for him at a rally for Students Christian Organization of Malawi (SCOM). This is an organization working in secondary schools, colleges and universities, much like Campus Crusade or InterVarsity in the States. The Blantyre zone was holding a Big Walk and rally. Walks of this kind are popular here for raising funds or raising awareness of programs, in this case awareness. The group was walking from the downtown of Blantyre out to the soccer field near the stadium, handing out literature about the organization as they went and then holding a rally at the soccer field. My job was to be the guest of honor, sit on the platform and receive the students and then give a speech at the end of the ceremony. I could do that. So I rescheduled my meeting and prepared a speech for the rally.

The GS offered his son to accompany me, since he was planning on attending the rally himself. Peter is a university student and a delightful young man. He called me at 9 and said that the group was ready to start their walk and suggested that we join them so I would get a feel for the folks and the event. I could drive behind the walkers in my car as he walked with them. So off we went to join them in route. There were about 200 students who were singing praise choruses and handing out fliers with information about the group as they went. The spirit was enthusiastic and the pace rapid. It took them less than an hour to make the 5 kilometer trip through town to the stadium soccer field.

Now, Malawi is a mixture of casual and formal. There is always an element of the formal, influenced by the strong British ties of the past. This means that there are formal speeches at every gathering, even a small dinner in one’s home. There are protocols to be observed in greeting people, in private conversations and especially in public settings. There is a formal program for every event, from welcome dinners to student rallies. SCOM is no exception. So I knew that as Guest of Honor (one of the formal elements of official gatherings), I would be called upon to observe all protocols. I prepared accordingly, gathering a list of the other honored representatives at the rally, so I knew who to greet and who to acknowledge in my opening salutations.

A platform had been erected at one end of the soccer field and the students gathered around it, sitting on the ground as the “dignitaries” sat in chairs on the platform. The only disadvantage to this arrangement was the wind. A cold wind had come up during the morning and was blowing gales across the soccer field. Everyone was shivering. Before the proceedings began, I was escorted off the platform to meet with the media and give an interview for the local television station. This was a bigger event than I had imagined. This was also the only time during the morning when I was close to being warm. We were sheltered by the platform.

All opening remarks and greetings were directed to the guest of honor and the other distinguished persons gathered – chair of the event, members of the Board of Trustees, patrons and friends of SCOM. That is a rather humbling experience for someone from a casual Western country where such formalities are not the norm. The program included the welcome, songs, poems, and skits by the students from various schools, and then the speeches. Mine came last and was intended to encourage the students to continue with SCOM and in Christian growth. I selected Micah 6:8 as a focus; “He has shown you, oh man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” It seemed to fit the occasion and the group responded well. Truthfully, it was fun to be with students again.

Once I was finished speaking, there were the obligatory thanks and a closing prayer. Then I was escorted off the platform, greeting the students as I left the field. I would have thought that they would rush to get out of the cold wind but that was not the case. They were enjoying one another’s company. They gathered in small groups, chatting and singing. As we made our way in the car to the exit, they are just getting warmed up to the fellowship. Peter told me it was another hour before everyone left. It was as much about the fellowship with one another, from 15 different schools, as it was about raising community awareness. I was delighted to be a part of it, if even in a “guest of honor” capacity.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


This is harvest season, Masika, in Malawi and that is joyfully celebrated in the church. Each congregation sets at least a week, and for some a month, for the members to bring the first fruits of their harvest and present them to the Lord. This is biblical but it is also very practical. This is taking literally the instructions of Exodus 23:16 “Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field.” This is also a way of providing for the poorer members of the congregation. What is brought is shared first with the pastor and then with the poor in the community. Since this is an agricultural economy, almost everyone has a garden – usually several acres. That may seem more like a small farm to us in the States, but it is part of providing for the family here. Some have the plot near their house and other, who live in the city, have plots of land in their home villages, so they travel to plant and to harvest. The first crop is always maize (corn) and depending on the geography of the area, other crops may include rice or casaba or pumpkins or beans or tomatoes. At harvest, the first of the crops are presented – and with great style and joy. This is a gift of thanksgiving to God.

I was afraid that I would miss Masika, just as I had missed Easter, but God was good to me. My first Sunday back with the Chigodi congregation was the last Sunday of Masika. I got to participate in the celebration and to give my thanks to God. While I don’t have a garden, I do have money that I can give and the focus of Masika is the spirit of offering to God, more than what specifically one is offering. So money works, too; it is just not as much fun to present. At the time of the offering, those who have harvest to share leave the sanctuary to go outside and gather what they have brought. As the congregation sings “Bringing in the Sheaves,” thise bringing their harvest process up the aisle with their gifts, 100 pound bags carried by two members of the family and plastic baskets filled grains, placed on the head. The givers sing joyfully with the congregation. The emphasis is on the joy of giving thanks to God for all that he has provided. That was especially felt this year since the rains were late in coming and many were fearful about the harvest yield. In January there were special prayers for rain. God was good. The rains were not too late and the crops came back. So Masika was fully celebrated. The joy becomes contagious. It is a tangible expression of thanksgiving that I have not fully experienced in the States. I was so grateful not to have missed this special time in the life of the church.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Spirit of the Synod

The General Secretary (GS) of Blantyre Synod has been in Scotland for the past three weeks attending the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly and meeting with groups with whom the synod has partnerships. This is the first major trip he has taken since last year’s Bi-annual Meeting, when the new Deputy General Secretary (DGS) and Moderator were elected. In these ten months since the elections, the spirit of the Synod has changed dramatically from tension and struggles for power to cooperation and team work. That was evidenced yesterday at a gathering at the DGS’s home to welcome the GS back. All the clergy who live on the mission grounds were invited for a meal and fellowship, to let the GS know that we were happy for his trip and happier still to have him back.

This seems like a simple enough event, just a gathering of colleagues for food and fellowship, to welcome one of their own back from a long journey. At one level it was just that, but there was a deeper significance to the event. This was a celebration of our unity as a staff. The ministers’ wives arrived early to help the DGS’s wife with the preparations. They enjoyed the fellowship of working together over the open fires of Malawian cooking. Their spouses and other guests gathered in the living room and laughed and heard stories of the GS’s travels, and filled him in on the events on the Synod grounds while he was away. When the food was ready, the wives joined the laughter in the living room. All protocols were observed. We had a Masters of Ceremonies who directed the program of the evening – dinner and speeches and a toast (with soda pop) to hail our friend’s successful trip. There were jokes and laughter amid it all.

During the speech of one of the senior members of staff, he observed that this was the way the Body of Christ was intended to function and it was a blessing to be part of a functioning body. He drew great applause for the acknowledgment of what most of us were thinking. It is good when brothers and sisters in Christ dwell together in unity. The irony is that none of us gathered there could remember a time when this had happened before. We committed to make it the first with more to come. We want to foster this spirit of unity.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Malawian Dogs

Dogs in America are pets. Dogs in Malawi are guard dogs. Dogs in America are pampered, cuddly creatures, regardless of their size. Dogs in Malawi are tough, fierce creatures, for the most part. I have never wanted a dog in Malawi since they are not what I am used to or what I enjoy. I like American dogs. I have been adamant about this. When my car was broken into and most everyone around me, including my sons, was insistent that I needed a dog for protection, I resisted. I don’t want a Malawian dog.

Recently we have had a number of break-ins and thefts around the Synod and the place has been put on high alert. We have had community meetings for instruction on how to better protect ourselves and our property. After one of these meetings, my gardener Maxwell came to me with the request for a dog for protection. He said he and the watchman had discussed this and they felt this was a necessity. I again resisted. I explained that I did not want a fierce dog around. I didn’t want the responsibility or the liability. I travel too much to be able to care for a dog and my grandchildren are both afraid of dogs. All of those seemed to me like valid reasons for not getting a dog. But Maxwell persisted. He would be responsible for the dog; he would take care of the dog; he would keep it away from the children; he would be certain that the dog was not vicious. We needed a dog. He cited two break-in attempts foiled by the presence of dogs. I still did not yield. Then my friend Sam Ncozana mentioned, within Maxwell’s hearing, that his son’s dog had recently had puppies and he would be looking for a good home for them. Maxwell pounced on the information, insisting that this was the answer to a fierce dog. He could train it from a puppy to be a gentle dog, but to bark to alert us of trouble. Sam sided with Maxwell and I caved. We bought one of the puppies, but with the strict understanding that the dog was Maxwell’s responsibility and I was not to be involved in its care in any way.

The puppy is only 8 weeks old and only about 8 inches tall, not my picture of a watchdog. The puppy followed Maxwell around all day, delighting him with its loyalty. But come evening, he began to cry. He was used to his mother and litter mates. This place was all strange to the little thing. He cried all evening. During the night he was with the watchman, so he was quiet but in the morning began the crying again. I remained silent. I was determined to stay out of this dog business. Several people suggested that I should have gotten two dogs, not one. This would eliminate the crying and increase the protection. This is the Malawian way. From my perspective, that was yet another reason why I shouldn’t have given in in the first place. I didn’t want one dog, let alone two. But Maxwell liked the idea and lobbied for a second dog, since Sam still had puppies available. I was worn down by the crying and the lobbying and finally said yes to the second dog. Yesterday when I returned from work, I was greeted by two little fur balls. But they were not chasing after Maxwell as the first one had. They were curled up together on the patio, enjoying one another’s company, quiet as could be. Maxwell was delighted and certain that they were going to be great watch dogs together. I’m still not certain. The only thing I know for sure is that I have caved and we now have Malawian dogs. I’m trying to stay away, but they are cute – at least at this age. We’ll see.