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.

My pilgrimage in Africa has followed a definite course.  I began with two weeks in Malawi, a place where I have deep roots and many relationships. From there, I proceeded to South Sudan. This was my third visit to South Sudan since 2013, and I have been helping to nurture the deepening partnership that exists between Pittsburgh Presbytery, the Synod of Blantyre in Malawi, and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.  You can read about those visits in previous posts in this blog.

I have spent most of the past week in a place where I’ve never been: Gambella, Ethiopia.  I’ve been privileged to grow in friendship with Michael and Rachel Weller in recent years, and each time I’ve flown to Africa they’ve said, “You know, the plane stops in Ethiopia.  Why not visit our home and our colleagues and friends in Mekane Yesus?”

And so I made the plans. Even though Michael was teaching in Juba, the Weller’s home is built to accommodate guests, and so I arrived on Thursday 25 July with both a deep curiosity and a hunger to learn and with neither a plan nor any of my luggage (but that’s another post).

As I arrived, Rachel took me out for lunch at a local restaurant!

The Ethiopian Evangelical Church: Mekane Yesus (EECMY) is the largest individual member church of the Lutheran World Federation – there are estimated to be more than eight million members in Ethiopia.  Here in Gambella, there are two main synods: the East Gambella Bethel Synod is comprised of mainly Anywaa believers while the West Gambella Bethel Synod consists of members of the Nuer people group.  Although the Wellers are working with each Synod, their home is located on the grounds of the Western Bethel Synod.  As a result, I’ve been spending most of my time with Nuer, which is the same ethnic group as many of the congregations with which I’ve met in South Sudan.

After getting settled in on Thursday evening, I was able to play a part in Rachel’s ongoing work with a group of young boys.  Many of these children call her their “coach” for the community’s football/soccer team, and each of them holds a special place in her heart.  Like so many others in this area, these children have experienced significant pain and violence.  Rachel has been leading them through a sequence of child-appropriate Trauma Healing workshops and she asked me to join them.  The boys talked a little of what they’d previously discussed, and then I shared with them the story of Joseph’s imprisonment as a result of the treachery within Potiphar’s household.  We talked about the fact that sometimes, terrible things happen to people who do not deserve them, and how many people might be tempted to feel as though God has forgotten them, or worse, that God is punishing them.  We talked about feeling lonely and afraid and forgotten and vulnerable – and about the importance of developing friends with whom you can share those feelings.  As we closed, they asked me to teach them a song, and so I shared one that I’d learned from PCUSA Mission Co-worker Shelvis Smith-Mather: “When Jesus Says ‘Yes’, Nobody Can Say ‘No’!”  There was a surprising amount of laughter for a session that was labelled “Trauma Healing”!


This is the workbook that the young people are using to talk about difficult issues.

Pastor Matthew was translating but participation was enthusiastic in any language.

Rachel guides participants through an activity that reminds us that we are all connected in Christ.

One of the things I’ve learned is that here in the EECMY, just as in the other African traditions with which I’m familiar, is that the definition of “Youth” differs from that which we use in the States.  In the Western Bethel Synod, the Youth tend to be the “young marrieds” – folks who appear to be in their 20’s.  While in the past, this group has met almost exclusively to serve as a choir, there has been some movement to encourage them to think of themselves as a learning community. To that end, I was invited to speak with a group of about 30 young people about the importance of always growing in faith and helping others to grow as well.  We talked about the fact that Paul was not always the super-Apostle who wrote half of the New Testament, but rather that he learnedhow to follow Jesus by watching someone else (Barnabas).  As he was learning, he discovered that he could not carry the load alone, and he partnered with his friend Dr. Luke and they shared the walk of faith together. As he grew older, Paul gradually called to himself other, younger people (like Timothy and Titus and Silas) and spent his time teaching them how to teach others. We broke into smaller groups and celebrated the mentors, colleagues and protégés that God has put into our lives. At the end of this discussion, they were very interested in knowing more about how young people function in the churches in the USA.  They were pleased to learn that in Crafton Heights we often elect those who would here be termed “youth” to lead the church; in fact, I passed around a photo I’d taken at Easter, when one of the CHUP Deacons who happens to be 20 years old was visiting an older member of the congregation: they could not believe that in that photo, the younger person was the church officer while the older person was the one receiving “care”.  It was a full and rich discussion.

Participants at a “Youth” Discussion.

I was captivated by the condition of this young woman’s Bible. I’m told that Nuer translations are hard to come by and although this one has seen better days, she was guarding it closely.

Sunday was reserved primarily for worship.  We didn’t make the entire service, but I expect to get some credit for sitting through more than three hours of it!  With the exception of a few remarks that I made, the entire service was conducted in Nuer. As I sat there feeling that I was both vaguely a central part of what was going on and yet I struggled to make sense of any of the sounds I was hearing. I wondered how often I place people in a position like that in the USA.  Oh, I understand that I very rarely will plunk someone down in the middle of a four-hour proceeding and then proceed to speak in a dialect unknown to them. I am increasingly aware, however, that there are many aspects of congregational and worship life in the USA that must be unintelligible to a new participant – and yet we all soldier on, using the words and singing the songs and saying the prayers that we think we know and assume that everybody should know… I hope that when I get back in the saddle of ministry again, I’ll be a better translator!

The congregation with which I worshiped.

Rachel and I used Sunday afternoon to pursue two of my hobbies.  One of these is a long-standing pastime with which readers of the blog are familiar.  We borrowed a car and we went birding.  I was pleased to be able to add a couple of new species to my “life list” and even got a few photographs as well.  We combined that passion of longstanding with another, newer, preoccupation: looking for my suitcases.  I’m on a first-name basis with a few employees at Ethiopian Airlines, but nobody can tell me where my luggage is. More on that in another post.

Black-Winged Red Bishop

Black Crowned Crane

This is obviously not a bird, but the colors on this Agama lizard are magnificent! (about 9 inches long)

Monday was rich in conversation as well: in the morning, we’d planned on meeting with the EECMY’s Western Synod staff in some of the Synod campus’ “common areas”, but the rains forced us inside the Weller home.  It was a great opportunity to talk about the need for and the nature of partnership in the body of Christ.  In the afternoon, I was asked to meet with a different group of young people.  Again, we talked about the importance of life-long discipleship and Christian growth.

Some of the group from the Synod with whom I was pleased to share breakfast!

As one of the meetings was breaking up, several people came to me and said a few things in Nuer to which I simply shook my head and grinned.  After they laughed at me for a while, they said something that sounded like “chiloidateth” to my ears. I’ve been told that there is no direct equivalent in the Nuer language for “thank you”, but this is the term that is often used when one has received a benefit or favor.  It means “it makes my heart happy”.

I’m not finished in Ethiopia yet, but I can say that.  Chiloidateth. My heart is, indeed, happy. Thanks be to God!

The Weller home, not unlike my own, tends to have an “open door” policy.  This afternoon a group of young people came with a deflated soccer ball and two partial inflation needles.  They were pleased to know that the old white guy who wears the same clothes all the time was able to combine the two needles into one functioning unit and thus ensure that the game could go on!

As a bonus: during my time with the leadership of the West Gambella Bethel Synod of the EECMY, they asked repeatedly whether I knew of a congregation, Presbytery, or other church body that would be interested in developing a relational partnership.  I would encourage my friends to think prayerfully about this and if you’re interested, let me know or speak with Michael or Rachel Weller!

A Report from South Sudan

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 pendulum has indeed swung!  A week ago, I was in the midst of frantically helping a group of 13 young pilgrims debrief our very intense and active visit to our friends in the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian’s Synod of Blantyre. In a way, it was an extrovert’s dream – meeting in groups, talking about big ideas, engaging in one-on-one sidebars, and always taking in new experience!  When I waved goodbye to the young people, I set my sights on preparing for an official visit to our partners in the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, on which I would be joined by three Malawian colleagues.  That, too, was an adventure in rich conversation and dreaming about possibilities for ministry in a variety of groups and contexts.  Earlier this week, however, I escorted those brothers to the airport here in Juba and am now settling in for the last phase of my African pilgrimage: traveling in South Sudan and Ethiopia by myself (although within a well-defined and well-equipped web of friends, guides, and mentors).  Before I fully enter that place, however, I’d like to share a bit about the visit in Juba in the hopes that those who are invested in one of these churches or our partnership might be encouraged and challenged.

Our little team arrived at the Juba airport on Saturday morning, and we were enthusiastically greeted by a team of pastors and elders from the SSPEC.  After making sure we’d taken care of all the legal formalities, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we would stay, not at the ECS Episcopal Guest House that had been “home base” on my previous visits, but rather the Aron Hotel. This gracious gesture by our hosts gave us the opportunity to maintain contact with friends at home via wifi and have a great deal of privacy as well as space for meeting as a team.

Rev. Philip welcoming our team at Juba Airport.

Saturday evening’s agenda included a much-longer-than-anticipated gathering with most of the SSPEC Executive Council at the SSPEC Headquarters in Juba.  This was very helpful for our team, as I am the only member of the visiting delegation to have been in South Sudan before.  My friend Abuna  (pastor) Madut gave a brief introduction to the history of the SSPEC.  Most of these Christians have roots in Sudan (“the north”), particularly around Khartoum.  One of the outcomes of the decisive and historic referendum that resulted in South Sudan becoming the world’s youngest nation in 2011 was that these men and thousands upon thousands of others were forced to leave their homes, their ministries, and their positions in the north and take up residence in South Sudan.  It was a mass migration to a place that in many ways (infrastructure and development) was not equipped to handle it.  They left well-built churches and schools and homes to come to a place that didn’t have much of that at all.  As Madut said, “We came empty-handed, but God has provided.”

Circle time with the “elders” of the SSPEC and the CCAP (and one old guy from the PCUSA to boot!).

Elder Daniel added, “When we were in the north, life and faith – it was too easy for us.  Here, we are challenged. I think it is better.”  Abuna James Par Tap, the Moderator of SSPEC, summed it up this way: “We are here. We are OK.  We are doing fine.”

Our conversation that evening covered many things, from updates on Trauma Healing Workshops being conducted in several places to a sense of cooperation with their sister denomination the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan to the idea of leadership training through the Nile Theological College.  These leaders talked to us about the church’s attempts to buy land in various areas throughout the south, so that when the peace is finally realized, they will be in a position to take root and grow.

My Malawian colleagues were very engaged in this discussion, and enthusiastic participants (if you know me at all, you can presume that I, too, was engaged and probably talked more than I should have.  You should just assume that about me in most places…).  Blantyre Synod Moderator Masauko Mbolembole brought up the fact that for some time, there has been discussion about twinning congregations in the CCAP and SSPEC.  He pushed that conversation hard, and pledged that such would happen in the next few months.  This was welcome news, and the South Sudanese were really excited about the prospect of having a church partner on the same continent.  Billy Gama, Convenor for the Partnership Steering Committee, reminded the group of the idea of seconding an SSPEC pastor to Blantyre Synod for a period of 6 months – 1 year.  Again, that was met by nods of assent and affirmation.  As we discussed these and other issues further, Elder Thomas of the SSPEC said, “There’s a new school here.  The PCUSA and the CCAP are older, better developed churches, but SSPEC is coming along.  Let us learn together: how can we benefit each other?  We are a mixture of large, poor congregations and small wealthy ones in both the USA and in Africa.  How do we grow? How do we encourage and include the women and the youth?”  Again, there were deep affirmations of this quest.  As the night fell and we ran out of time, Abuna Madut (while holding a copy of The Writings of Immanuel Kant) said, “It comes back to, as it always does, the question of philosophy.  Here in Africa, we have a philosophy that is called Ubuntu.  When we unite, we succeed.  We are a tripartite partnership.  Surely God is behind this.”  As he said this, I remembered an African proverb that says, “A person is a person through other people.”

Madut and Thomas

It was just about too dark to see when our conversation finally broke up. We didn’t finish, but we had to stop.

Sunday morning was dedicated to sharing congregational life in varied contexts.  The Malawian team was each sent to a congregation in Juba that has expressed a desire to partner with churches in Blantyre.  I was honored to accept an invitation to preach at the United Nations Protection of Civilians Camp #1 (you can see photos from that and in fact hear my sermon by looking at the previous post on this blog).  Worship was followed, in most cases, by meeting with the leadership councils of those congregations and exploring possibilities for partnership.

Sunday evening was a festive occasion as members from several congregations around Juba hosted us for a dinner on the banks of the Nile.  While the seasonal rains drove us indoors, they only dampened our clothes and not our spirits.  We were privileged to be joined by my good friend the Rev. Michael Weller, a PCUSA Mission Co-Worker who is serving in Ethiopia but who has come to Juba to teach an intensive course at the Nile Theological College.  In addition, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Ross, a pastor and professor who has spent a great deal of time in Malawi but is here to join Weller for the course at NTC, was on hand to enjoy this time.  Great food was enjoyed, deep laughter was experienced, and, of course, gifts were exchanged and speeches were made!

Just a few tourists visiting the Nile…

Lydia (Philip’s wife) presents me with a memorable keepsake necklace while Pastor Deng uses an unorthodox photographic technique!

Michael Weller


A welcome from Mama Achol!

Monday morning was similarly full: my Malawian brothers and I were accorded an audience with the Honorable Dr. Riek Gai Kok, the Minister of Health for South Sudan.  He told us some of the political history of the country and narrated his own involvement with the independence movement, working with John Garang in the decades leading up to independence. Our conversation was animated and political, and then he surprised us all by expressing a deep and lasting gratitude to the people of Malawi.  He said that in 2009, there were a total of 9 midwives to be identified in all of South Sudan.  Malawi, he said, was the first nation to accept South Sudanese midwives, nurses, anesthesiologists, and clinical officers for advanced training.  Now there are more than 9,000 midwives in this nation of approximately 12 million people.

At the Ministry of Health

We were also glad to visit the Juba campus of the Nile Theological College, where we were welcomed by their Principal, the Rev. Michael Obat.  Once more, the notion of intra-continental collaboration was discussed with great excitement.  Too often, the notion of acquiring an advanced degree is equated with study in Europe or North America – a costly endeavor that sometimes results in “brain drain” as many of the brightest and best students find it easier to remain in their adopted country than to return to their own.  I listened with joy and anticipation as the conversation explored ways in which institutions such as NTC, Zomba Theological College, the University of Blantyre Synod, and even places like the University of Juba or Chancellor College in Malawi might join together in providing education that is affordable and contextualized.

I was further privileged to return to NTC and sit with Rev. Michael for a couple of hours this morning.  We talked about Presbyterian Polity and contextualized worship and theology and dealing with prickly issues in congregations and growing partnerships that are sincere and affirming and characterized by mutuality.  It is my deep prayer that fruit will come from these conversations and the ones that I hope will follow.

Dr. Lanjesi along with Rev. Obat at NTC.

The library at the Juba Campus of NTC.

With that, the “formal” time in South Sudan ended, and I was free to hole up in an apartment being graciously lent to me by PCUSA Mission Co-Workers Lynn and Sharon Kandel, to walk to dinner adventures with Michael and Kenneth, to join those brothers in prayer and sharing, and to reflect on what has been and what is to come. I have discovered that while the news from South Sudan is often discouraging, life in Juba is vibrant and growing.  In fact, I texted my wife that the part of the city in which I’m located reminds me of Cairo – it is loud, noisy, fast, dusty, and busy, busy, busy.  There is much to be done, for sure, and we must continue to join our hearts and minds in prayers for peace – but I can also tell you that this is a different city than the one I visited in 2015.  This time, and indeed this life, is a great gift.  Thanks be to God!

One of the great joys of these few days is a bit of concentrated time with Michael Weller and Ken Ross. While I’ve just met Ken, Michael has been a dear friend of the heart for some years. It is a privilege to be here with him now (“here” being the guest dining room at the Nile Theological College, aka the veranda, aka the front entryway aka the shadiest spot around!).

Preaching in a Place I Wish Did Not Exist

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.

On July 20, I was a part of a delegation that included three leaders from the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian and myself (representing Pittsburgh Presbytery of the PCUSA).  In my next post, I’ll talk a little about the overall visit of this small team and the fruit that came from there.  For now, however, I’d like to reflect on my worship experience.

The sign says it all. UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) Welcomes You…

When I visited Juba in 2015, I was asked to preach at a United Nations Protection of Civilians (PoC) Camp.  If you’d like to read that post as background, you can do so by clicking here. Let me simply say that that day was, and remains, the single most powerful worship experience of my entire life. There is no way that I can adequately describe the impact of those hours in my spirit. I am a better person for having been there, for sure. For another description of these camps, how they came into being, and what it might be like for those inside, I’d suggest this article from the Huffington Post.

Simply getting to church in a PoC Camp is no easy feat.  There are a number of checkpoints, and the closer you get to the camp, the military presence and security that the UN provides becomes more and more apparent. Driving toward the camp prior to worship I must have passed six or seven vehicles transporting troops to their posts. As I left I passed a convoy of about five vehicles I’ll call armored personnel carriers.  Upon arriving at the gate of the camp, I was greeted by several soldiers from Rwanda wearing full riot gear and carrying shields.

UN Troops on patrol outside of the UN Camp.

An armored vehicle – one of many I saw encircling the UN Compound.

We wound our way through the camp.  There were some of the lanes that could generously be described as “streets”, although I saw no non-UN vehicles inside the camp.  Other passageways, however, could not even be termed “corridors”.  As I approached the church we turned into a path that was between a number of tarp and stick shelters that was so narrow I could not walk fully facing forward: I had to lead with my right shoulder and turn so that my left was behind me.  It was so narrow that there were places I wondered if I could fit.  To say that the camp was crowded would be a grave understatement indeed.

It was hard to notice how crowded I felt because my ears were assaulted by so many sounds!  There was singing coming from the building I supposed to be the church; there were people crying; there were people shouting and children playing; and there was the constant drone of gasoline powered generators.  Oh, it was sensory overload for this pastor from Pittsburgh!

We entered into the building where worship was to take place, and a large crowd had gathered.  I found out later that the “official” count for the morning was 523, but I have no idea when that count was taken because there were always more and more people entering the worship space.  I might describe the building as a large “Quonset Hut” – it was constructed mainly of metal and it was like being inside a half-pipe.  It was huge!

The worship began, and it was a delight.  I mean, the choirs were singing like nobody’s business.  A few children broke free from their mother’s arms and rushed to greet me. I was struck by the number of pastors present, and came to understand that there are five faith traditions inside the camp who coordinate their worship in that space.  Every six months the leadership changes – but the congregation remains the same.  This morning, it was supposed to be an Anglican service, but a white Presbyterian from America preached.  There were pastors from (I believe) Methodist, Pentecostal, and Baptist traditions there as well.

The men were poring over their bibles as the scripture was read in their own language.

Likewise, the women were diligently following along. The literacy rate seems to be very impressive.

Several of the pastors present to lead worship this morning.

There are things that I hope I never, ever forget from this morning’s worship.  Among them:

  • Although nobody in the congregation appeared to be in a hurry to be anywhere, the pastor in charge of the worship seemed to be quite worried about keeping time. We (the pastors) were sitting in an area behind the pulpit and the communion table, so anyone who spoke or sang had their backs to us.  There was a choir that was enthusiastically launching into the ninth or tenth verse of a chorus, and the pastor got up and went and stood right in front of them and tapped his wristwatch.  They stopped about ten seconds after that…
  • About an hour later in the service, another man got up to speak about something, and it was clear that the pastor wasn’t crazy about what was being said. When this man had gone on for about five minutes, the pastor tried the old “go out and tap my wristwatch” thing.  No effect whatsoever.  He sat next to me fuming for a moment, and then he got out his phone and called an usher/deacon in the front row!  I know that because I watched a man look at his phone, then look at the pastor, and then get up and go to take the microphone from the offending party.  I hope I never complain about a “minute for mission” that lasts four minutes again!
  • There was a dog laying under the communion table that got up and walked out just as I started to preach. I was initially offended, but she came back for the end of my sermon and the benediction.
  • Oh, beloved – there was so much laughter in the worship service. It was the best sound I’ve heard in a while, to hear laughter in that place, amidst all that noise.

While I was preaching, I was momentarily distracted by the appearance of UN Soldiers in full riot gear just outside the back of the building.  That doesn’t usually happen in Crafton Heights.  Then I noticed that there were UN Military Police who had entered the worship space.  I was confused and not a little concerned until I noticed that they were paying attention to the sermon.  And at the end of worship, after the gifts had been exchanged and the benediction offered, this congregation did what every South Sudanese congregation with whom I’ve ever worshiped does: I was the first person out of the building, and then every congregant came out and shook my hand and then extended the line so that at the very end, everyone had greeted everyone else.  And know this, beloved: the UN Soldiers came to shake my hand. One of them asked to take a photo with me.  If you know me, you won’t be surprised that when I tried to thank these women of the UN for the work they’re doing to protect the South Sudanese, I couldn’t because I was weeping.  Oh, how grateful I am!

The congregation greeting me. If you look at the very back of the room on the right side, you’ll see two of the UN police officers, each of whom was among those who came to greet me and the rest of the congregation after worship.

You might wonder what I could possibly say to this congregation.  If you’d like to hear it, there is a very rough recording below.  It’s about 25 minutes, and you hear my preaching and then the Nuer translation.  I preached mainly from I Samuel 7:5-13 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5.  I sought to be an encouragement in that God promises to help us where we are – while we are in between our worst day and our best day.  And I said that the next time I come to South Sudan, I hope to come to this place and see an “Ebenezer” – a sign that once upon a time, the Nuer people in South Sudan needed a place to be protected, but that was a long time ago, and those people have all gone back to their farms and their communities now.

To hear the sermon as preached, please use the player below.  I recorded this for my wife and she suggested that I share it in this format.  I hope you find a word of encouragement here (approximately 23 minutes).

It was a good, good worship, and I wish that you’d have been there.  I hope that my narration of this has helped you get a sense for what it was like.  And please know this: if anything in this post has given even a hint of a suggestion that I do not respect the amazingly resilient people of South Sudan OR the United Nations troops who are staffing this camp, then I have written it poorly.  I am humbled by the grace of my sisters and brothers in the Lord here at the UNMISS camp and I am so grateful for and respectful of the work of the UN in this time and place.  It was truly an honor to be here.

Leaving worship, I was reminded of the stark contrast – the freedom we enjoy in the Lord and the gates wreathed in razor wire. Oh Lord, hear our prayer!

One last photo with some of the worship leaders before departing.

The Pilgrimage Continues…Update from Addis Ababa

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.

Every now and then I wonder how in the world Mrs. Carver’s little boy wound up being in a place that is surprising, to say the least.

Tonight is a night like that.  It’s just after midnight local time and I’ve arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Along with three colleagues from the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian in Malawi, I’m en route to Juba, the capital city of South Sudan.  Together, we hope to share in a visit that will provide encouragement, reflection, and offer sustenance to the tripartite partnership that our churches formed in 2013.  This will be the first time since then that we’ve had folks from the US and Malawi visit South Sudan together.

Our small delegation includes, from right, Dr. Lanjesi (chair of Blantyre Partnership Steering Committee), The Rev. Gama (Convenor of the same group), The Rev. Mbolembole (Moderator of the CCAP Blantyre Synod), and Mrs. Carver’s little boy.

It’s taken most of the day to get this far – a flight from Blantyre to Lilongwe, and then a connection that we made by the skin of our teeth to get us to Addis.  Our connection is in the morning, however, and so the good people at Ethiopian Airways have put us up in a very nice hotel and even offered us a couple of meals along the way.  As none of my three colleagues have visited Juba before, I gave them what I could in terms of an orientation as to the recent history of this nation that is both promising and deeply troubled.

They asked me what people always ask on trips like this: “What are we supposed to do? Shouldn’t we bring something?”

And so, of course, we talked about the language of the pilgrim.  While we hope that our brief stay in South Sudan will bring some measure of encouragement to the pastors and congregations we are able to greet, our deeper hope is that knowing something of the challenges and opportunities they face each day will equip us to grow and lead in our own churches to the end that lasting change will be felt in our own hearts, and then into the lives that we lead in the places that we lead them – and that will create a space wherein the people of God can more truly become one.

So I don’t know if I’ll have wifi or access for a few days, but I’d appreciate the prayers you’re willing to offer.  My Malawian friends will return home on Monday, but I’ll stick around Juba a few more days to spend some time with my friend the Rev. Michael Weller, a PCUSA mission co-worker who is currently teaching a class in Juba.

My well-appointed room in Addis Ababa!

Before leaving Blantyre I was able to visit with my old friend Sophie M’nensa – she lives on a small plot of land not far from Blantyre. I don’t take visits like this for granted!

a highlight of the visit included a chance to video chat with Sharon, Ariel, Lucia, Violet, and even Sharon’s mom!

It’s always hard to say goodbye to old and dear friends…

While waiting in Blantyre, I took the opportunity to match wits with TK in a vibrant game of Bananagrams…

Not to brag, but look at those boards… We did all right!

We even managed to squeeze in a visit to the Malawi Department of Motor Vehicles. In a shocking development, the system was down and we were told to return the next day…

This is my favorite photo of all: on the far right you’ll see the smaller plane that carried us from Blantyre to Lilongwe. On the left, the larger plane that we took to Addis Ababa. In between? The tarmac across which we ran to change planes – without even going into the terminal first. THAT’s never happened to Mrs. Carver’s little boy before! I can only hope that the man in charge of putting my suitcase on the plane ran as quickly as I did!


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.