On Wednesday morning, our time on the shores of beautiful Lake Malawi came to an end. As mentioned in the previous entry, our friends from South Sudan really opened the eyes of many of their partners with an informative and personal reflection on the history of their nation and church. The bus ride from Mangochi to Zomba featured in-depth discussions about the nature of ministry in South Sudan, the needs and the gifts of our partners there, and the ways in which our lives and callings can intersect. It is worth noting here that our colleagues from South Sudan seem to be very interested in partnership with individuals and congregations in Pittsburgh, but positively passionate about the possibilities of deepening ties with the CCAP in Blantyre Synod. There have been many times on this journey when I’ve compared our tripartite partnership to a stool, indicating that it was possible to balance on a chair with two legs, but a stool with three functional legs was even better. That third leg is getting sturdier each day!
We traveled south from the lake to the town of Zomba, a journey of about three and a half hours. Here, we were met by many from the Blantyre Synod Partnership team as well as many dignitaries from Domasi Presbytery and the host congregations for those of us who have sister churches in the northern part of the Synod. Newly-ordained ELDER Davies Lanjesi and his Partnership Steering Committee team organized a fantastic lunch buffet for us at the scenic Ku Chawe Inn on the upper slopes of Zomba Plateau. The Rev. Dr. Silas Ncozana gave a stirring history of the Pittsburgh-Blantyre Partnership and we rejoiced in the fruit of recent days as well. One surprise for me was when Silas said, “I really appreciated that sermon you preached in Mulanje on Sunday!” I apologized for not even recognizing that he was in attendance, and he said, “I wasn’t! It was on the national radio twice!” I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time!
After lunch came a pivotal moment in our pilgrimage, where our team of sixteen split into thirteen as we paired up with hosts and departed for Balaka, Nansambo, Chiphola, Sande, Blantyre City, and other destinations. Sharon, Gabe, and I headed to the north and to the east, up to another plateau atop of which rests the small town of Ntaja. Here, we are staying with Abusa Johnson Damelekani and his family as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the twinning of the Mbenjere and Crafton Heights congregations.
The Mbenjere congregation is home to about 700 Christians and is divided into 15 “zones”, each of which is guided by a team of elders and gathers for midweek prayers in various homes. In addition, there are three smaller worship centers, called “prayer houses” that are attached to this main congregation. I should note that Abusa Damelekani has four other congregations (and each of them has zones and prayer houses as well!).
Our task on Thursday was to introduce ourselves to the community, and it was a grand day. We began with a breakfast in the home of one of the elders, and from there we proceeded to the Michongwe Primary School. This school has at least tripled in size since the first time we visited it, and there are now 3800 students in grades 1-8. These students are taught by 58 teachers and 14 student teachers. The crowds are so large that on some days as many as 17 classes meet outside under the trees. The students held an assembly in our honor, and Dr. Sharon Carver presented an impassioned plea for the students to work hard and stay in school (especially the girls!). I got the kids to sing Palibe Wofana Naye with us, and then we were deafened by the sound of the entire student body singing the Malawian National Anthem at the top of their lungs. Such pride in their nation! We met with many in the teaching staff and also heard a presentation by two young ladies who are studying to enter a secondary school course in tourism.
We then were pleased to visit the Ntaja Health Centre, where our friend Edith Makuluni has worked for many years. She was off today, but we were given a full tour of this clinic, which functions as essentially the Malawian equivalent of an “urgent care” center in the USA. A highlight for me was being given the opportunity to speak and pray with a group of about a dozen extremely pregnant women and their “guardians”. These women have come to the Health Centre because their deliveries appear imminent, and most have been accompanied by another family member who will care for them, cook their meals, and so on as they await the arrival of their babies. I explained to them that one of my highest privileges in ministry is greeting new babies and reading with them the 139th Psalm. We read this together, and I encouraged the women to remind their children over and over again that they have been “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
The afternoon was spent visiting one of the zone meetings, where Gabe Kish honed his preaching skills by leading an inspiring Bible Study from Acts 2:42-47 about the church’s call to celebrate the awesome nature of our God. Following a time of worship, the group stayed for well over an hour of question and answers about the church in America, and Crafton Heights in particular. It was a very fruitful time of discussion and sharing, and if you can judge by the size of the crowd that followed us singing and laughing as we walked the mile or two back into Ntaja center, they enjoyed it every bit as much as did we.
Of course, the entire day was punctuated by way too much food (prepared by our friends Mr. and Mrs. Haiya and Mr. and Mrs. Mphaso – Mrs. Mphaso is better known to some old friends at CHUP as “Ronnie Gonani”, a visitor in 2000). Tea was drunk, biscuits were shared, and joy abounded. I believe that’s how partnership works!
On a sad note, we learned today of the untimely death of Silimyake Mutafya, a beautiful and engaging young woman who visited our congregation in 2012. She got married in 2013 and was expecting her first child when something went wrong with the pregnancy and both she and the baby died. It was a grim reminder that we can take nothing for granted.
Tomorrow we will be up and out early again, as we visit several prayer houses and zones. As always, your prayers are appreciated. Zikomo kwambiri!