Africa Pilgrimage Update #12

I like to be in control.

I like to know what’s going to happen, when it will happen, and who will make it happen.  And, most of all, I like it to happen the way that I think it should happen.

I’m not necessarily proud of all of that, but it’s the truth.  And, to be honest, it’s not a particularly admirable or helpful trait in one who seeks to characterize himself, at least occasionally, as a “pilgrim”.  Remember, pilgrims are those who are willing to step outside of themselves in order to encounter God and experience the richness and presence of the Holy.  “Stepping outside of myself”and “being in control of the entire situation” are in many cases mutually exclusive.

I learned something about that the hard way last weekend.

Our sister congregation is in a town called Ntaja in Southern Malawi.  While it’s not necessarily “the bush”, it is a fair distance from most of the other partnership congregations and it is in a much less wealthy and developed part of the country.  Because our visits there require a fair amount of moving around over the countryside, I generally prefer (OK, let’s be honest – I insist) on driving myself there and back.  I do so because there are not many vehicles available to the church in Ntaja, and there are fewer that are big enough to hold a group AND safe enough to drive.

So when our itinerary came together, I began casting around for possible solutions.  I can often borrow a car from a friend here, but unfortunately that one has no engine at the moment.  Our friends at the Naminga’dzi Farm Training Center heard about my quest and offered to rent me one of their vehicles.  I liked this idea because it would put a little money in their pockets and give me a chance to return it with a little more petrol in the tank.  There were some initial snafus, but hey – this is Africa.  That stuff happens.  I got the keys, we loaded our team, and drove northeast to Ntaja Trading Centre.  The vehicle ran like a dream and we got there just around dark.  The next day we used it as I’d anticipated – driving ourselves and some Malawian colleagues around town and to various events – saving everyone a lot of time and a lot more steps.

As a point of reference, let me invite you to join me on a drive down Main Street in Ntaja.  Notice all of the Nissan Dealerships and Advance Auto Parts franchises…

Saturday afternoon, however, that plan – and my control of the situation – evaporated in a heartbeat.  We were on our way to greet our friends at the Naperi Prayer House when I hit a small bump in the road that led to tremendous vibration throughout the vehicle.  It was loud, it was shaky, and frankly it was a little frightening.  I was able to stop the vehicle, and we all suspected it was a blow-out.  I dreaded this because I had already noticed that while the truck came with seatbelts and about eight ounces of diesel in the tank, it had only 1/2 of a jack and no spare tire.  The good news was that it was NOT a flat tire.  The bad news was that flat tires are about the only automotive repair I’m qualified to do.

Our situation attracted quite a crowd by the roadside!

Yep, that’s me, checking on the situation. You know, because I am so knowledgeable about cars and such…

I nursed the vehicle to the side of the road and, not surprisingly, a crowd gathered.  Obviously, no one in our truck could have seen what had happened.  However, several bicyclists and pedestrians who noticed our difficulty turned around and told us that they’d seen the front driver’s wheel tilting and shimmying like crazy.

At first, I was filled with panic and a little anger.  What in the world was I supposed to do now? How was I supposed to proceed with the program? Would I be able to get our team back to Blantyre safely? How could I fix this thing?

The answer, of course, is that I could not fix anything.  But while I was having an existential crisis there on the side of the Muluzi Highway, my hosts and friends were doing something gracious and hospitable.  They were talking to the folks who had seen what happened.  They conferred and agreed that Maxwell, a member of Mbenjere CCAP, was a fine and trustworthy mechanic who should be consulted.

I transferred our team into my friend Fletcher’s small car, and I gingerly (and slowly) drove a couple of the elders over to the church where Maxwell had gone for choir rehearsal.  He came out with a big smile and said “All right, let’s go to my place and have a look!”  We limped a few kilometers over to his house, and the first thing he did was pull out his nicest chair and set it in the shade for me.  He changed into a jumpsuit and crawled under the truck.  As he did so, I was frantically trying to get control of the situation.  I did this by (ever so helpfully) calling the folks who had rented me the vehicle and letting them know that I was none too happy.  I called my friend Davies – who was preparing to travel outside the country – and asked him to help me generate some plan of action.  And, stressed out, I waited.

Maxwell – a.k.a. “The Service Department” – diagnoses my problem.

After 25 minutes or so, Maxwell called me over and invited me to take a look.  “You have a bad bush,” he said.  “You see there? The bush is gone.  We have to put a new one in.”

This is a bushing. You can buy them in the States for $25 or $30. Oddly enough, a “bush”, or bushing, is housed in the part of the steering assembly that is called the control arm.  Control arm?  There’s not too much irony here, is there?

“Ah, great googly-moogly,” I thought to myself.  “It’s Saturday at 4 pm.  Where in the world am I going to get a bushing for a Nissan Patrol in Ntaja?”  I eyed Maxwell hopefully.  “Is there any chance you happen to have a bushing for a Nissan Patrol?”

He laughed and laughed and said, “Ah, no.  We must go see the shoemaker.  It will be fine.”

Of course.  Because what else would you do when you need a bushing for a Nissan Patrol but go to the village shoemaker?  And yet, because I was fresh out of answers, I said, “Sure.  Let’s go.”  Maxwell said, “Because I have removed the control arm where the bushing is, I will drive.”  I looked a little shocked and said, “Are you supposed to drive without a control arm?” and he smiled and said, “Ah, no, not really.  But I can.  It’s ok.”


We drove a few more kilometers and discovered an ancient man sitting on a porch putting a new sole on an old shoe. Maxwell went to him and showed him the control arm and the worn out bushing and came back to me and said, “It’s ok. He can do this.”

I said, “So what do we do? When should we come back?”  Maxwell laughed.  “Come back? No.  We will remain here.  He will do.”

The “Parts Department” at Saturday’s auto repair shop…

And this aged Muslim shoemaker who speaks a language I cannot understand and who probably cannot read or write in any language took a walk around the side of this building an walked up to an ancient Caterpillar tractor tire.  He cut a large hunk of rubber from that tire and returned to the porch, where he spent the next half hour shaping into, well, a bushing.  He made a cylinder, and then he began to carve a hole on the inside – stopping every 30 seconds or so to change knives or to sharpen his current implement.  At one point I asked Maxwell, “But how will he know what size to make it?”  Maxwell exploded with laughter.  “He knows! He can do this.”

The tool box.


…and sharpening…

…and pounding..

…and trimming.

The finished product housed in the control arm.

When he had gotten the rubber close to the right shape, he began to pound it into the control arm, and then put the center core in place.  Finally, he trimmed the edges and presented it to me as though it were a DaVinci masterpiece (which, upon reflection, he had every right to do!).  I hadn’t noticed, but Maxwell had changed back into his jumpsuit and and jacked the car up right there in the shoemaker’s yard.  He reinstalled the control arm with the new “bushing” and said, “It’s ok.  We can go.  But first, you have to pay this man.  He is asking 4,000 Malawi Kwacha for this (that comes out to about $5.06).  I was incredulous and said, “But it has to be more!”  The man shook his head, and finally I was able to give him MK5,000 ($6.33).  We drove back to the church, and I asked Maxwell for his bill.  He refused.  I finally pressed MK5000 into his hand and said that it was his problem now – he could give it to the blind man who was begging by the road or put it into the Sunday collection or buy his family a case of Coke.

Another satisfied customer!

Maxwell, the best mechanic in Ntaja!

The next day, we visited the church, we went to dinner at a friend’s house, and we attended Bible Study without incident.  On Monday we were not only able to drive unimpeded to Blantyre, but we took a few hours to explore the Liwonde National Park as well.  All on a “bush” that was made from a “useless” tire that we’d have shredded long ago in the USA.

I learned something that day about the creativity and resourcefulness of my Malawian friends, and about the inadequacy of my own world view.  I am always learning something of grace and hospitality and trust and community when I am in Malawi, and this episode demonstrates that indeed this old dog can learn some new tricks.  I am filled with gratitude and wonder which, unlike my desire for control, are characteristics that are extremely well-suited for pilgrims! Thanks be to God!

Africa Pilgrimage Update #11

As I write these words, the 2019 Youth Pilgrimage to Malawi is already on their way back to Pittsburgh.  I’ve remained behind in Malawi, where I am preparing to join a few leaders from Blantyre Synod for a visit to our partners in the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) in Juba, South Sudan.  More about that in a few days. What’s important now is to update you as to what has happened with our team between the ending of the host church visits and their stepping onto the plane.

We all reconvened at Grace Bandawe Conference Center sometime on Monday 15 July.  Some folks came back a little earlier than planned because one of our team members wasn’t feeling that well and we thought it would be better to err on the side of caution with an early arrival and more rest time.  That strategy proved effective, because by the time I arrived with the Crafton Heights team, our group had rested, eaten, and was eager to know “what’s next?”

Monday evening we were welcomed into the home of the Lanjesi family for a delicious dinner.  My friend Davies is my counterpart in the Blantyre Synod partnership structure, and even though his work required him to be out of the country on Monday, his wife Angella and daughters TK and Chiko were gracious enough to receive us.  I had such a good time that I forgot to take photos!

We had set aside Tuesday as a day for shopping and tying up loose ends.  As it happens, one of those loose ends was appearing on Mibawa TV to talk about the partnership and its impact.  Chikondi, Coleman, and I were interviewed for a twenty-minute segment, and our entire group was invited to offer a few reflections on this journey.  The program was broadcast live, and you might be able to see a recording of it by visiting this link:

A rather grainy screenshot of the television program discussing the partnership and this journey in particular.

Our team ready to “meet the press”!

Rayna offers a response…

Following that experience, we got on our faithful bus and headed to downtown Blantyre to give the young people an opportunity to purchase handicrafts and also to take an excursion to a Malawian grocery store.  You might guess that some of the folks were eager to dive into the crowd and haggle for a great deal whilst others found that type of interaction to be challenging if not draining. Again, I don’t have many photos because I was working hard to keep track of the young people as we scattered through a few adjacent stands to worry about snapping photos, too!

Greta, TK, and Chiko grasp a great deal from the curio market.

When most of our Malawian kwacha  had been spent, we returned to the Conference Centre to engage in the work of debriefing the trip.  During breakfast and following, we had begun this process by telling stories of our time in the various host churches: Mawila, Chonde, Mwanza, Balaka, and Mbenjere.  We continued that work by reflecting on the situation in which the Israelites found themselves in I Samuel 7.  They were in a jam, and they were clearly on their way from one place to another both geographically and spiritually speaking, and so they turned to Samuel.  He taught them some spiritual practices such as fasting and praying and challenged them to take steps forward in faith.  They were delivered, and Samuel set up a monument stone – he called it “Ebenezer”, meaning “up to this point, the Lord has helped me”. We considered the fact that the Israelites were at a critical moment – they knew that they had left a certain part of themselves behind, but they weren’t sure who they were becoming.

The pink post-it notes contain some “things that cause me anxiety as I plan for a trip to Africa”, and the yellow indicate “things that I’m excited about!”

This was a situation with which our group of young pilgrims could identify.  This trip has put them in some amazingly wonderful places as well as some downright uncomfortable ones.  They’ve seen the world through different lenses, and confronted some of their own stereotypes and notions.  Each of us realizes that we must have been changed by spending this time, but we’re not sure that such change is apparent or comprehendible as of yet.  And so we decided that maybe that Tuesday would be a good day to raise an Ebenezer – to claim that so far, God has helped us… and now it’s time to move on to the next spot, confident that the Divine Presence will be there when we get there.  Using some materials we developed during our orientation retreat, we talked about advice we’d give to our younger selves (of 6 months ago) who were anticipating this journey.  We then talked a little bit about the kinds of people we’d like to become in the next 6 months.  It was a good and rich and powerful discussion.

Not long after those conversations ended, we proceeded to the Limbe CCAP church, where we celebrated the journey with a farewell banquet.  The food was delicious, of course, and the conversations rich and lively.  There were approximately 100 people in attendance, many of whom have participated in the partnership in the past quarter-century.  We were presented with gifts of keyrings, a seed mosaic, and some Malawi tea.  We then took the floor and were able to offer these tokens of our appreciation:

  • a gift from Pittsburgh Presbytery to the Synod Youth Department in the amount of $500
  • a gift from the 2019 Youth Pilgrimage team to the Partnership Steering Committee in the amount of $800.  The hope is that this can be used to help defray the travel costs for one or more young people from Blantyre Synod for an upcoming journey to Pittsburgh.
  • a preaching robe and vestments were given to the Zomba Theological College via the General Secretary

In addition, we made a formal announcement of our earlier delivery of 700+ pounds of medical supplies to the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission.

General Secretary Alex Maulana convenes the Farewell Dinner.

Not all of us are ready to go!

Wednesday morning came far too early! After breakfast we departed for the airport, where we were surprised to see a busload from the Balaka CCAP.  They got up early and drove down simply to see this group of pilgrims back onto the plane.

This is the group from Balaka that came to wish us a safe journey!

Even though he’d been out of the country, Blantyre Chair Davies Lanjesi met our team as they were changing planes at the airport in Lilongwe, Malawi.

It has been a good trip – a very good  trip.  I would encourage you to spend some time with one of the travelers, if it is someone you know, in the weeks to come.  Give them some space to wander around inside some thoughts that may have been disoriented.  Encourage them to continue to ask big questions and look for fresh insight.  And be grateful that you live in a world where such reflection and growth is possible!  Zikomo!

Africa Pilgrimage Update #10

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

Friday, July 12 brought a whole new experience to the 2019 Youth Pilgrimage to Malawi.  Whereas the previous posts concerning this journey have all contained stories about the team gathered– that is, together as we participated in youth conferences, wandered and wondered over amazing terrain, and visited historic sites together– on this day the team split into five components.  Groups were sent to their partner churches (or, if they don’t currently have partner churches in Malawi, they went to congregations that would host them for the weekend).  Since I am one lone blogger and haven’t quite mastered the art of being in more than one place at one time (frankly, sometimes I’m pretty shaky at being in only  one place at one time), this entry will focus on the three of us from Crafton Heights who were the guests at the congregation with which we’ve been partnered since 1995 – the Mbenjere CCAP in Ntaja, Machinga, Malawi.  While the specifics of each location will vary, and if you know other travelers on this journey you’ll want to hear more about their particular host weekend, our experience will surely qualify as typical for the purposes of this journey.

For starters, Ntaja, and all of the other locations where we’ve been hosted, is more rural and less-developed than Blantyre and even Mulanje.  While Ntaja is a primary trading center, it is also a crowded, dusty place in a corner of Malawi that is not usually on people’s itinerary.

I’ve often thought I want to write a book featuring photos of “roads” I’ve driven. Here’s a snap of downtown Ntaja at rush hour. “Rush” meaning “It’s market day and why is that crazy abusa driving his car through the ‘mall’?”


We were welcomed by the pastor and some church leaders with a fine meal at the manse; following that we were escorted to our host family’s home.  In our case, the Makuluni family has been blessed with quite a large home, and so each of the three of us had our own bedroom. Menes and Edith have each travelled to Crafton Heights before, and I’ve stayed in their various homes many times. It is a wonderful place to learn about our sister congregation, Mbenjere CCAP, and we were treated royally.

Our hosts, Menes and Edith Makuluni.

Saturday morning found us up and out early, as we toured the church campus and saw not only the “old” and “new” church buildings, but also the Mbenjere CCAP Primary School (which has more than 4000 students and class sizes ranging from 100 – 200), the borehole that Crafton Heights and Bower Hill helped construct about ten years ago, and the environs.  We then met with representatives of the youth department, and combined singing, bible study, games, and small group question/answer time.  After lunch, the program called for us to visit a prayer house, but our vehicle broke down and I had to take it to a village mechanic and a shoemaker (trust me, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post in and of itself).  The girls stayed at the church with a few elders and the youth group members for an impromptu chat that they each agreed was the highlight of their day.  We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Makuluni home and retired comparatively early (but not before we taught our hosts to play “Crazy Dice!).

A tour of the Mbenjere CCAP Primary School. The school buildings are in the background, and the headmaster is the gentleman in the gray coat. We are standing in a “classroom” under the trees – a situation mandated by the intense overcrowding at the school.

Discussions with the Youth Team.

Just as we do at CHUP, the young people play games as icebreakers and conversation starters. Here is a variant on “the shoe game”.

Getting a lesson in “Bao”, a very popular game in these parts.

Sunday was a whirlwind!  We arrived at church at 8:30 for the 9:00 service.  In addition to everything you’d THINK you’d experience at a typical Presbyterian service of worship (a few hymns, children’s sermon, offering, sermon, announcements, etc.), our time of worship included these highlights:

  • A lengthy introduction of the visitors of the day, which included not only our team, but a group of Roman Catholic Nuns from a neighboring town who thought they’d pray like Presbyterians today.
  • The commissioning of the new headmaster of the Primary School, along with his deputies.
  • There were five choirs that sang.
  • We held a service of reconciliation, in which some members who had been put on church discipline were welcomed back to the full communicant membership.
  • Approximately 30 new members were confirmed, and a confirmation class was examined.
  • I was privileged to administer the Sacrament of Baptism to 9 adults and two infants
  • We dedicated a uniform to be worn by a member of the Amayi Mvano, the Women’s Guild of the congregation.
  • There was an exchange of gifts between the congregations.
  • And, in a special “bonus round” of worship after the first benediction, we had a separate service of Holy Communion.

Suffice to say, it was NOT a one hour service.  We finally broke up at about 1 pm, weary but also encouraged and appreciative of what we’d experienced.

Being greeted during the “passing of the peace” at worship.

Gift-giving and receiving is an important part of the partnership experience. Here we are presenting Abusa Noah Banda with a symbol of faith.

We ate very well at our friend Fletcher Tewesa’s new home and rekindled a relationship that has been long and fruitful.  Fletcher has also been a guest at Crafton Heights.

Fletcher and a part of his family at their new home in Ntaja.

A testimony to the power of physical presence and personal visits in partnership:  Fletcher moved into a new house several months ago. He has exactly ONE photo already hung up in his home. That single photo is one I took when the team of 5 young people from Crafton Heights visited in 2016-2017. He was so deeply touched by that experience, and it showed on visiting his home. I was deeply moved when I saw this.

After going back to the church for a Youth Bible Study, we then were escorted to the manse for a farewell dinner.

A portion of the youth who gathered for Bible Study.

There were many contrasts in this visit – some of our time was incredibly engaging, while other aspects of it seemed to drag as we waited for the hosts to choreograph their next activities.  Our friends in Ntaja are so eager to make sure that we have everything that we need that sometimes the pace of some activities (NOT WORSHIP) makes it seem like we’re going inordinately slow – but we have to realize and remember that this is a pace that is rooted in grace, welcome, and hospitality.

Sunday evening after the “farewell dinner” we spent a great deal of time laughing with our hosts, learning to makensima – a corn-based porridge that is the staple food – and learning to dress like a Malawian.  It has been a rich and full time, and I know that these young women, this congregation, and the folks at Crafton Heights will have been glad that it occurred.  I can only hope that the other delegations had as powerful an experience as did we!

Rayna gets put on potato peeling duty at home!

Danielle is trying HARD to get a good recipe for nsima.

The girls each learned how to wear a chitenge properly.

After we left Ntaja, we made a quick stop in the Liwonde National Park.  I’m disappointed to say that we failed to find a single elephant, but we did have a great time exploring the countryside and seeing some of God’s rich creation!

Danielle looking eagerly for something wild!

A warthog crosses our path!

A pair of waterbuck size us up.

This impala is waiting patiently to be groomed by an oxpecker – these birds remove ticks and other parasites from their furry friends.


Africa Pilgrimage Update #9

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

When the topic of arranging a youth group trip to Malawi was broached in partnership discussions a couple of years ago, we asked, “Well, what would a trip like that be for?  What would happen  on that kind of a journey?  What would we hope to happen?”  As we brainstormed, a vision came into clarity fairly quickly.  We would want to put young Malawians and Pittsburghers together in a place where neither was necessarily “home”, but each was equally comfortable. We wanted to create a space that was accessible to youth in both cultures and invite them to think creatively and meaningfully about their own spiritual walk, the call to work together to create a world that was more in line with the Divine Intent, and their role as citizens of the world.  We wanted it to be a place that was wonder-filled, but in such a way as to be drawing us closer together, rather than “othering” someone.

July 11 was the real deal.  It all happened.  And it was glorious.

We have stayed for two nights at the Likhubula House, a camp/conference center owned and operated by the Synod of Blantyre.  We are shoehorned into a very crowded camp with two large groups of the Church of Scotland “Boy’s Brigade” Youth Group, who are in Malawi building a school with some of their counterparts in Malawi.  If that wasn’t interesting enough, we started our day by being joined by 54 CCAP students and youth workers.  The 68 of us crowded into a hall that must have been designed to hold at least 70 people (i.e., we didn’t have a lot of wiggle room), and we convened our third of three Youth Conferences on the topic of “Developing Leadership Through Partnership”.  We changed things up a bit this morning by beginning with singing, and then having Eddie Willson lead off the teaching with a session on dealing with anxiety and pressure. This was a good multi-faceted approach to covering the topic, and Eddie did a phenomenal job at making sure that our small group reflection times were cross-cultural and deep.  After a break, Abusa Paul Mawaya of the St. Andrew’s Parish in Mulanje offered a very smart and timely powerpoint presentation on the challenges that the youth in Blantyre Synod face and then he invited our small groups to consider how such challenges related to the American Youth.  The discussion was lively, personal, and honest. It was a room full of God’s children seeking to find common ground in the hopes that we would be better together than walking our own roads.

Eddie gets the conference energized…

Delaney shares with her small group.

The small group conversations were a joy to watch!

Greta and T.K. mug for the camera…

Our Malawian facilitator, Abusa Mawaya (center), with Davies Lanjesi and myself.

(most of) the assembled group!

Immediately following the conference, everyone stayed and had lunch together: rice, chicken, and bananas topped the menu and the meal was truly sacramental.  Some of the small groups ate together; there were clusters of “selfies” and a lot of contact information was shared.  When all had eaten enough, the grounds were filled with chatter and laughter.

And if that were not enough, three or four dozen pilgrims of all ages met at the base of the trail for a brief hike into the lower elevations of Mount Mulanje.  The climb was initially pretty steep, but then after a while it leveled out as we wandered through the trees and looked out onto the valley at the base of the mountain.  After an hour or so, we arrived at the lovelyNgarambe waterfall and pool.  This is the point where the small river springs forth from the mountain, and so to say that the water was cold would be an understatement.  It was bracingly, breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly cold.

So, of course, a few of us jumped in.  I mean, when are these kids going to get the chance to do that again?  We jumped, and we swam as fast as we could back onto the rocks, where we warmed up in the 70 degree air.

And we laughed.  And played. And splashed.  And encouraged each other to try new things, to take new paths, and to risk ourselves just a bit.  And. It. Was. Wonder-filled. 

The Crafton Heights Team en route to the top.

Kemp shows the crowd how to enter the pool!

Even Holiness got into the act and decided to take the plunge (that’s Danielle and Rayna coming up for air in the background)!

Coleman asked me if we could swim all the way to the waterfall.
(we couldn’t – not and feel our extremities anymore!)

The setting at Likhubula House was perfect because it is very accessible to our Malawian colleagues and yet it is so amazingly African that it was captivating to the American souls as well.  The mixture of mental, physical, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation was the perfect combination to allow the groups of kids to mix it up in all sorts of ways.

I cannot imagine that there is anyone, American or Malawian, who will soon forget this day or the lessons learned, questions asked, and laughter shared during it. And I can’t help but think that in these memories lies the seed of something that could be sacred and formative for life.

I have a couple of friends who, when asked “Hey, how are things?”, their standard reply is, “I’m living the dream…”  Know this: on July 11, 2019, a group of folks from villages in Malawi and suburbs of Western Pennsylvania and towns in Africa and the City of Pittsburgh lived the dream. I wish you could have been here. I hope that these stories and photos will give you at least a glimpse of what it was like.

And if you know someone who was here today, then make a not to ask them about it in a couple of weeks.  Not now, when it’s so fresh, but in a few weeks after we’ve had time to reflect and digest on what we’ve been.  And be grateful.  It’s a good life, my friends – a good life indeed.  Thanks be to God!

POSTSCRIPT: We are entering the phase of our journey wherein we will split up and go to five various congregations for the next three days.  Internet access is not guaranteed, and the blog reports may be sketchy.  I’ll try to post from Ntaja, but I can’t be sure.  If you’re a parent or friend and are looking forward to these, don’t worry. Silence is a part of every pilgrimage!

What better way to finish the day than a game of “Crazy Dice” with our friends from Balaka CCAP?

Africa Pilgrimage Update #8

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

The 2019 Youth Pilgrimage to Malawi took a turn to the southeast today as we headed into the Mulanje region of the country. Nearly 25% of the cultivated land in this small nation is owned or controlled by large farming operations of one sort or another.  These are often referred to as “estates”.  There are tobacco estates, coffee estates, and especially here in the shadow of the Mulanje Massif, tea estates.  We drove through kilometer after kilometer of well-manicured bright greentea bushes, and we found ourselves as the guests of the people at the Namingomba Estate.  One of our key partnership members is a staff worker there, and she arranged for us to be shown around the tea “factory”.  Here, during the peak season, between 50 and 60 tons of tea are processed daily.  That’s 100,000 – 120,000 pounds of tea each and every day.  We are in the midst of the dry season in Malawi, which the tea growers called “the lean season”. Therefore, we didn’t see much processing get done because they had already finished processing yesterday’s harvest prior to our arrival.  However,  we were given a fascinating tour of the facility and saw the equipment necessary for each step in the process, including withering, fermenting, chopping, refining, drying, and packaging to name a few.  The ancient building scared a few of our members upon entry, but we soon learned to be confident going up and down the various ladders and stairwells.

Mount Mulanje is one of the most striking images in this country – a huge massif rising from the plains.

A tea plantation in the shadow of the mountain.

Arriving at the Namingomba Tea Estate

Today’s tea, ready to be sampled.

Volunteers, hard at work for the cause of good tea!

Although most of the day’s production was finished by the time we arrived, we did see the last few stages of winnowing and chopping and packaging the harvest.

If you think that this is a lot of tea…

…get load of this. Each of these bags contains around 120 pounds of loose tea.

We were surprised to be taken from the tea factory to a facility on the same grounds that processes macadamia nuts.  Malawi is encouraging people to grow this valuable crop as an export in order to help replace the loss of income caused by a slumping tobacco market worldwide.  Whereas the tea factory was, well, a little “rustic” or “homey”, the macadamia operation is spic and span.  We removed all jewelry, donned lab coats and special shoes, walked across anti-bacterial mats and entered a clean zone.  We saw automated shellers and sorters, and were fascinated at the deft handling of each individual nut by the staff on the conveyor belts.  Again, we walked through the steps ranging from washing the exterior shells to packaging up the finished product.  This experience gave our group some great opportunity to think about the nature of commerce, wages, land use, and more… we didn’t finish talking about it, and we’re surely not done thinking about it.

Hudson modeling the visitor’s garb…

…joined by fashionistas Jessica and Holiness!

The macadamia sorting line.

From there we enjoyed a delicious meal at the Kara O’Mula restaurant, and then we headed off to the Mulanje Mission Hospital.  Here we met the Medical Director and another doctor, who were gracious enough to give us an impromptu tour of this facility.  It was amazing, and it was encouraging! We heard about hospital initiatives involving spraying the homes in villages around the region that has reduced the malarial cases dramatically.  We saw children’s wards that were described as “too big” because they are so rarely full.  We met with dedicated staff and saw amazing equipment like solar “trees” that make up for occasional blackouts so that life-giving oxygen and other medical necessities are able to flow unimpeded.  This visit was truly a highlight of our time here, and we were thrilled to present to the staff a gift of $500 (representing $100 from each of the 5 congregations) to be used for medical care in a way that seemed fitting to the staff.

Dr, Peter showing our group the layout of MMH.

The tour continues.

Rayna presenting our gift to Dr. Arie, the Medical Director.

A wonderful surprise was running into my old friend Keith Lipato, the Principal of the Mulanje Mission Hospital School of Nursing. He was riding by on his motorbike and recognized me and we had the chance to embrace briefly.

One of the doctors mentioned that he is participating in a race called the Porter’s Race – it is a grueling challenge up and down Mount Mulanje designed to raise money for worthy causes.  His name is Peter Schwellnus, and he’s a South African who trained at Mulanje and has come back because of his love for Malawi.  We’d be thrilled if you visited his fundraising page to learn more about Peter, this race, and his passion for the people of Mulanje Mission Hospital.  Take a moment and click here to support this cause.

I read a book recently that really resonated with me.  It is called Factfulness  (click here to learn more about this book)  and it’s written by a Swede named Hans Rosling.  In it, he argues that the world is actually getting much better for many of the people who are close to the margins.  He makes a huge distinction between those who earn $1/day and those who earn $2/day, for instance, and points to the ways that life is quantifiably better for those who experience even a very modest bump in income and security.  I recalled that because the Mulanje Mission Hospital I saw today is a much-improved place to work, heal, and serve than that which I found on my first visit there in 1995.  Not only that, but the roads over which I drove today are remarkably better than they were even 18 months ago.  Malawi is still a difficult place to be sure, but the signs of hope and growth are real.

Our day ended by driving to the base of Mount Mulanje and settling into a very crowded Likhubula Youth Centre.  There are at least two groups of young men from Scotland on a “Boy’s Brigade” service learning trip who are staying here now – so many that we have to eat in shifts. We completed the day with what may be our best evening discussion/devotion of the trip.  We are grateful for your prayers!

Africa Pilgrimage Update #7

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

Our time at Lake Malawi came to a close earlier than any of our pilgrims might have chosen, but we left the Mangochi region grateful for the opportunity to have been with the youth of those churches and to have seen just a sliver of the natural beauty of that area.  We boarded our bus early for a long ride south to the Zomba District, where we spent several hours on the grounds of the Naming’azi Farm Training Centre.  Here, we met with the Director of the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission, my friend Lindirabe Mazinyane.

The BSHDC is a wide-reaching arm of the church that coordinates and leads efforts in, well, development and health. Under the auspices of this agency, the CCAP is able to facilitate programs relating to such things as orphan care, disaster relief, community development, health care, and more.  Some of these efforts are led primarily or exclusively by the BSHDC, whilst others are coordinated in conjunction with other national and international partners, such as the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the ACT Alliance.  Lindirabe was the one who sent us the list of disaster relief supplies that we carried from our friends in Pittsburgh to Malawi.

Preston welcomes us to the farm and explains its relationship to the BSHDC.

Lilndirabe SAID she was going to tell us about the BSHDC, but in fact she gave us a mini workshop in leadership development and the importance of strategic planning!

One of the most impressive ideas that the BSHDC has put forth is the Naming’azi Farm Training Centre.  This facility, encompassing many acres, is at once a demonstration farm indicating some best practices for rural Malawians, an income generator for the other work of the BSHDC, and a classroom/laboratory in which local farmers may come to receive training in fish farming, composting, soil conservation, irrigation, and more.  It is one of the best ideas going, and I was eager to introduce the team of pilgrims to some of what is here.  We once again recalled the words of Pope Benedict that we’ve used to describe a pilgrimage: “To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.”  Surely the Farm is one place that has shone in Malawi.

And so we tramped through rice paddies and tomato fields, past fish ponds and pig sties, and arrived at an area near the edge of the farm where we planted about 30 – 40 pine seedlings.  Malawi has suffered greatly because of the deforestation of the hillsides, and this is a symbolic effort to reverse that.  The trees that we planted will keep topsoil in place, provide some shade, soak up some carbon dioxide, and perhaps eventually serve as timber for building or making matchsticks.  It was an honor to participate in this event.

Fields of tomatoes are being irrigated and ripening at Naming’azi Farm.

The fish ponds, which we were told are growing chambo that will be sold at the market.

Greta and T.K. are saving the planet one tree at a time…

Kemp showing us how the planting gets done.

Even the leadership of the partnership can get our hands dirty! Here I am with Dr. Lanjesi, the chair of the Malawian team.

Sampling the honey from the Farm’s beekeepers.

When one of our team left something in the “big” suitcase, there was only one way to retrieve it. Some of our Malawian friends found this photo of me to be hysterical.

Meanwhile, Danielle thinks she’s pretty funny taking a selfie with her seat mate on the bus. I was just resting my eyes for a minute…

We had a very  late lunch (4:30 pm!) at the Ku Chawe Inn, an incredibly well-appointed hotel on the top of the Zomba Plateau, and then we got back into the bus for a ride to Blantyre that seemed longer than it actually was.  We were greeted here by one of the founders of the Partnership, my old and dear friend the Rev. Dr. Silas Ncozana.  Silas was the General Secretary of Blantyre Synod when the partnership was conceived and formed, and his fingerprints are all over the fruit that this partnership has produced over the years.  For an hour or two, he told us stories of his youth and his ministry, and he charged us to continue to grow as disciples who are seeking the good of the world.  It was a deep and rich conversation that filled me with immense joy.

Silas Ncozana addresses our group of pilgrims.

The end of a delightful and important day.

Africa Pilgrimage Update #6

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.


I should actually write more, but I’m really bushed and we’re getting up in six hours.  So here is a taste of our day today. Highlights included the second Youth Partnership Conference, held at Koche CCAP outside of Mangochi, as well as a trip on Lake Malawi in a small boat that allowed us to view the Lake Malawi Cichlids, swim, and view the African Fish Eagle (the national bird of Malawi).

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this is a huge post.

My day started with a solo walk, whereupon I encountered this Collared Sunbird – a first for me!

The Malawian presenter at the conference this morning was my old friend the Rev. Dennis Mulele. We first met in a famine relief effort in 2003 and he’s been one of my heroes ever since!

Eddie Willson was the Pittsburgh Presenter, and he got things moving in a hurry. Everyone agreed that this was a very energetic and inspirational conference!

Eddie had us mingle around until we found “elbow partners”. Even though I only have two elbows, somehow I wound up with 8 partners!

Small groups work through some of the challenges and possibilities faced by youth in Malawi and the USA.

Our day also included conversation in groups of three or four (or, in my case, nine!).

(Most of) the Malawian and Pittsburgh youth and leaders at the conference today.

Setting sail for an adventure!

Rayna soaking it all up!

Lake Malawi is remarkable for the more than 700 species of cichlids it contains. It is the fourth largest lake in the world in terms of volume.

Feeding the cichlids.

So why not swim with the cichlids?

An African Fish Eagle comes up with some dinner!

The ending of a beautiful day.