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.
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 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!