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