Partnership in African Mission Final Update (#10)

In one of my first messages to a Malawian congregation on this trip, I shared the news that people in Pittsburgh were preparing to run a marathon this spring.  Explaining to some of these folks exactly why anyone would voluntarily attempt to run 26.2 miles took some doing, but we got there.  I said that one of the customs in such a race is to have people line the path and offer encouragement by cheering or sharing water with the racers.  Nobody really sees the entire race, but each step is witnessed and applauded.

I believe that in many ways, that’s a good analogy to the trip that Brian and I have shared with our Malawian hosts, South Sudanese partners, and my friend Lauren.  We’ve been running up and down and all around the country, and it’s been tough in some regards – but so worth it! And just like the end of the race features the finish line and the time to rest, so our sprint through Central Africa brought with it a “last day” and one last chance to take in the beauty of this nation and her people.

We began by attending the 6:00 a.m. English-speaking service for the Mawira CCAP in Liwonde.  It was the first time that the service had begun at that hour, as it has been pushed back to accommodate a third worship service on Sunday morning in this rapidly-growing congregation.  Nevertheless, the small group of about 60 swelled to well over 100 by the time 6:30 rolled around.  The service was led by the Youth of the congregation, and it was tremendously encouraging to see how these kids are moving in leadership and ministry in this congregation.  I was especially delighted when I realized that the pastor of this church is my old friend Dennis Mulele, whom I first met while doing a famine relief trip with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in 2003.  He really made an impact on me during that trip and it was a great joy to reconnect in worship.

With Dennis Mulele at Mawire CCAP. The first time we met, the only gray was in our clothing!

 

Sharing the story

 

Offering the benediction.

Following the worship, we spent the afternoon in Liwonde National Park.  This park has been steadily improving in terms of security (anti-poaching) and accessibility of wildlife during the time I’ve known Malawi.  The location – right in Liwonde, about five minutes from the church – made it a great option for us to relax and unwind with a drive through the park as well as a “boat safari” on the Shire River. It did not disappoint in the least!

The graceful Impala!

 

Kudu

African Elephant

This is a really bad photo of a jackal, but it’s the only jackal I’ve ever seen in Malawi.

 

A warthog with baboons in the background

 

Little Bee-Eater

 

Hippopotamus

 

Pied Kingfisher

 

The African Fish Eagle is the national bird of Malawi. It looks like the North American Bald Eagle, but it is not quite as large.

We made it home after dark and have spent the last 18 hours or so resting, packing, doing some last minute shopping, and enjoying a Penguins win from afar!  We are so grateful for the ways that this trip has allowed us to carry the best wishes of Pittsburgh Presbytery into our partnerships here; for the chance to grow in friendship with each other and those who have accompanied us; for the grace of God that has sustained us in so many ways.

So for now, we say, Tionana, Malawi – “so long” – but not “goodbye”!

If you would like to hear more about this journey, find out how you or your (Pittsburgh Presbytery) congregation can be involved in the Partnership, or are interested in knowing about the upcoming plans to host a delegation from Africa in October 2018, please click  here or simply come to our next meeting, Monday, May 7, 2018 at the Pittsburgh Presbytery Center (901 Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15233).

Mulungu Akudalitseni – May God bless you!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #8

Deep and wide.

Breadth and depth.

Those are good matrices for a number of human experiences, and partnership is surely one of them.  The last couple of days have given us a chance to experience the deep reaches of partnership experiences, ranging from intensely personal to those instances where we simply do not know, and cannot guess what might occur.

Lauren Mack is a member of the Crafton Heights church who has been serving since August as a teacher at the St. Andrews Mission Secondary School in Mulanje.  This gave us a perfect excuse to drive down to Mulanje for a day and a half so that we might be able to appreciate the mission and purpose of that institution, see where Lauren and her friend and colleague Brooke are staying, and connect with some of those involved in the Partnership in that area.  Our initial stops included the historic Mulanje Mission Hospital, the St. Andrew’s manse, and dinner with the Presbytery partnership committee.

Lauren is greeted by Ms. Chirwa, chair of the Mulanje Presbytery Partnership team.

 

Touring the Mulanje Mission Hospital.

 

Meeting at the manse with Abusa Paul Mawaya

 

Partnership meal!

On Friday we awoke determined to climb, at least partially, up the side of Mount Mulanje with the notion of taking a quick dip in the icy waters of Nkhalambe Falls.  This pool is both broad and deep… and icy!  Nevertheless, Lauren and I took our chance to say we swam in the waters of an amazingly beautiful African stream.

Climbing up Mt. Mulanje

 

I told her we should pause for a photo. Meanwhile, I was dying for breath! I asked our photographer to take an extra half-dozen or so just so I could rest…

 

After about an hour, we make it to the falls!

 

And about four minutes later, here we were! Since the water flows out of the mountain, it is extremely cold year round.

 

Not long after we got in, a police unit came by. They couldn’t figure out why knuckleheads like us insisted on swimming on a cool, rainy day… so the took some photos of us swimming for the folks back home!

After our morning hike, we headed back to Blantyre but first took a stopover in Mpemba, where Mrs. Sophie Mnensa lives.  Sophie and her late husband, Ralph, were our colleagues on the Presbytery’s first pastor exchange program in 1998, when our families spent about 12 – 14 weeks together, half in each home.  This was an example of the depth of the partnership in our lives – to see how fully we have been able to engage with and for one another over two decades…

Greeting Sophie…

 

Sophie is able to video chat with her sister, Sharon – all the way in Pittsburgh!

 

Can you tell it’s not just Sophie who’s excited to see Sharon?

 

In 1998, the Carvers stayed with the Mnensas and spent a lot of time with two little boys – Gregory and Gamaliel (aged 2 and 4). In the same year, the Mnensas stayed with the Carvers and spent a lot of time with a three year old girl named Lauren. How exciting to see those kids together today? Who would have thought our friendship and partnership could have brought us this far?

 

Ralph died in 2002, but Sophie asks me to walk with her to his grave each time we visit. it is an honor to do so.

We arrived in town to see that our friends from Blantyre Synod had set up a banquet honoring the arrival of team from the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique.  This church body, like Blantyre Synod, traces its roots back to the early Scottish missionaries.  Several years ago, when we were beginning to envision a tripartite arrangement between South Sudan, America, and Malawi, members of the CCAP Blantyre Synod were exploring the reality of coming alongside this Presbyterian denomination in their closest neighbor.  That work is culminating this weekend as well over a dozen congregations will become formally twinned with one another – Mozambican and Malawian.  While this is not “our” partnership, it was a thrill to bear witness to the birth of a new reality in shared mission.  In many ways, this is the “breadth” of the church – it’s more than Pittsburgh can do right now, but we sure loved sitting on the sidelines and cheering on our brothers and sisters.

Brian, seated at “the Mozambican table”, brings greetings to the assembly.

 

The Moderator of the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique

 

I can’t get over the fact that on Wednesday, we had lunch with South Sudanese, and just a few days later, we’re having dinner with Mozambicans. What a joy indeed!

This has been a day! But thanks be to God, we’ve had the resources to thrive throughout it.  Thanks for your prayers!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #7

Wednesday brought another transition for our experience in Malawi.  We woke bright and early after having rested well during our stay at the Makuluni home in Ntaja.  There was a brief time for greetings and farewells, and then we headed back to Blantyre – a three hour drive.

Our host in Ntaja, Edith, stands with me and members of the Tongwe family (who hosted three young women from Crafton Heights in 2017).

Hope Mkandawire, who hosted two of our young adults last year. Note the envelopes in my left hand – messages I’ve been entrusted to carry back to Pittsburgh.

Upon our arrival in Blantyre, we were privileged to reconnect with our brothers from South Sudan, who had been the guests of the Synod whilst we were visiting Mbenjere in Ntaja.  During a farewell luncheon for them, Rev. James and I signed the official copies of the “Memorandum of Understanding” between the three church bodies (Rev. Mbolembole, Moderator for Blantyre Synod, was compelled to be out of town and therefore had signed them previously). I cannot emphasize enough how incredibly fruitful this time has been, particularly in terms of strengthening the pan-African portion of our tripartite agreement.

Rev. James Par Tap and I signing the M.O.U. in Blantyre.

Davies presents a farewell gift to Rev. Deng.

After escorting our friends to the airport for their flight back to Juba, Brian, Lauren, Chikondi and I visited the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission, the arm of the Synod responsible for the most direct relief and development work.  Here we were very engaged by a presentation from the Director and two members of her management team.  I have long been impressed with this group and their dedication to serving the poorest of the poor, and hope that we will have the opportunity to continue to work to strengthen their ministry here.

In Lindirabe’s office taking in an incredible amount of information that was shared with great passion.

Our day ended with great fun and laughter as our hosts, Davies and Angella Lanjesi, invited Lauren and me to prepare the evening meal.  When Davies stayed in our home, he remarked that he really enjoyed the fish filets I served.  I told him that I had caught and filleted the fish myself, and he said, “One day, you will be in our home and you will show us how you make these filets”.  Yesterday, apparently, was that day!  Lauren prepared fried chicken for the first time, and after the meal we introduced her to the wonders of Malawian sugar cane.  We spent literally hours around the dining room table laughing and enjoying the time together.  It was a great day.  Thanks for your prayers.

The lesson begins…

Just a couple of folks making dinner…

Tastes like chicken!

Enjoying the sugar cane.

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #5

Relationships.

For me, at any rate, that’s what partnership in mission is about – taking intentional steps to befriend and come alongside someone else to the end that each of us may somehow become “de-othered” and befriended.  For many years, I have sought to walk the path of partnership so that individual Christians might grow in faith resulting in the strengthening of local congregations which leads to the reinvigoration of larger church bodies to the end that the global church is a more capable witness to Christ.

But it all starts with a willingness to take a step, to extend a hand, and to tell or listen to a story.

Today was a day that demonstrated how significant interpersonal relationships can be.

We started the day by leaving the site of the Partnership Conference in Mangochi and heading south to the Zomba Theological College.  There, we were met by my old friend Takuze Chitsulo (who studied in Pittsburgh a little more than a decade ago), the Principal at Zomba Theological College.  After a formal welcome in his office, our team was privileged to enjoy lunch together. It was a deep privilege to watch and listen and Brian and some of the colleagues from the College asked probing questions and looked for ways to enhance the institution’s ability to train young leaders.

Takuze Chitsulo (bottom R) provides a brief overview of ZTC to the team.

 

PC(USA) Volunteer in Mission Donna Sloan engaging in some serious conversation with Rev. James.

After a delicious meal, our team was split.  I was surprised to find that when we left the Principal’s office, I found my friends Fletcher and Hope, who had ridden a minibus about three hours to Zomba simply so that they could welcome us to the place and then escort us to our next stop. So as Davies Lanjesi took the brothers from South Sudan on to Blantyre, our group of three became a group of five heading toward Ntaja.  En route, we made a quick stop at Chilema Conference Center, where we had the opportunity to view the famous “Chilema Tree”.  This magnificent specimen is a single tree, perhaps as old as 75 years.  Its many roots and trunks cover an acre, and it is the only banyan tree in the entire nation of Malawi.  It is simply incredible, and Lauren said that JRR Tolkien must have had this in mind when he wrote “Lord of the Rings”.

“Chilema” means “abnormal” or “malformed” in the local language. You can see why the place has this name…

 

Upon exiting the understory of the tree, we ran right into one of the biggest smiles and best preachers in Malawi – Elder Hastings Phale.  I’ve worked with him in both Malawi and Pittsburgh, and it was a profoundly joy-filled occasion to see him at Chilema.

One of these guys is an incredibly amazing preacher. The other one wears snazzy shirts.

Not five minutes after we left Hastings, we were pulled over at the Malosa turn-off by a couple with smiles bright enough to blind us.  Abusa Johnson Demelekani and his wife Charity were out doing some shopping and we (almost literally) ran into them.  We piled out of the car for a quick hello and a hug, and were further gratified by the power of relationship.

But the most profound relational experience of the day came when we arrived in Ntaja.  Here, we were privileged to greet, and then be hosted by, Menes and Edith Makuluni.  In 1998, when Lauren was five, Menes visited Pittsburgh and stayed in her home.  Since then the families have corresponded, and both Menes and Edith have visited the Mack home.  Tonight, the circle was completed as they welcomed her into their home.  What a great joy it was!

We spent at least an hour this evening reflecting on the changes that have come into our lives in the past two decades – noting the times where God has been faithful and celebrating the power of friendship to bring healing, challenge, hope, and comfort when it is needed.  Menes and Edith rejoiced at the ways that Lauren’s walk of faith has progressed and she bore testimony to the fruit of their faithfulness as well.

Relationships.

They make us stronger, better, and more apt to know something of God’s purposes in the world.  Tonight, I’m grateful for the web in which I’m bound.

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #3

Each party to our trilateral international partnership brings a unique mix of regional customs and practices to the table, and that’s one of the things that makes our fellowship rich and deep.  On Friday evening, we gathered 12 leaders from the three churches around a table to have some important conversations regarding partnership practices and hopes. As we did so, I explained a custom that is very familiar to many of us in Western Pennsylvania: every April or May, we go to the back of our closet and find our “summer clothes” and try them on to see whether they still fit.  I’m amazed at how often my closet seems to shrink my clothes, but that’s another blog post…

At any rate, I explained that a significant portion of our time in Malawi this year would be set aside to opening up the Partnership’s closet and taking a look at our practices and policies to see which of them still fit and which were in need of alteration or replacement.

The team hard at work assessing the partnership.

We worked into the night on Friday, and then were back at it bright and early on Saturday morning. One of the “perks” we enjoyed was that our Malawian hosts selected a small conference center right on Lake Malawi to gather.  The gentle breeze off the lake and the sound of birds and the opportunity to wander outside on our breaks were a real blessing.

We began our time in small groups, and I asked each person to tell a story of one person who had helped to shape their own faith journey.  In trios, we heard of grandmothers and professors and friends who in one way or another gave of themselves to the end that each individual was somehow touched.  When we came together, we affirmed that at the end of the day, our partnership was based in relationships and stories, and it was our privilege to create time and space in which relationships could be established and stories shared.

South Sudanese Pastor James Par Tap greets me in the fashion often used in South Sudan.

Throughout the day on Saturday we considered historic practices and looked at the future. Brian Snyder (vice-moderator of the International Partnership Ministry Team of Pittsburgh Presbytery) summed it up well when, upon exiting into the bright Malawian sunlight, he said to me, “Well, I may be new at this, but I cannot imagine the day having gone any better!” I agree wholeheartedly.  There was a genuine sharing and intimacy that permitted us to move ever closer to the goal of life-sustaining partnership.

Lunch – fresh caught fish on the shores of Lake Malawi!

There will be other times and other forums in which to discuss the specifics, but the short story is this: most of our clothes still fit pretty well.  We affirmed the core of our recent partnership agreements and celebrated the ways that the partnership has borne fruit in recent years.  For instance, the South Sudanese reported that after a recent visit to Malawi, they took the Malawi “zone” system of member care to their churches and it has really helped the ministry within those congregations.  Members of the CCAP talked about how some of the young adults who received leadership training at Crestfield returned to Malawi and in turn were able to offer gifted direction to the Synod’s youth programming.  We celebrated the fact that a young person from Pittsburgh who traveled to Malawi last year has become a Deacon in her congregation and is now serving ably in that capacity.

After we were finished looking at whether the old practices still fit, we talked about some new ideas. Again, more will be shared in the weeks to come, but we accepted the request from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church to begin the process of pairing some of their congregations with Malawian and American counterparts.  The Blantyre Synod extended an invitation to SSPEC to designate a pastor who could come to Malawi for a pilot program of pastoral exchange. Plans were made for visits to Pittsburgh in 2018 and Malawi in 2019.  Additionally, we committed to working toward a smaller-scale pilgrimage to South Sudan by Malawian and American partners at some point in the next 18 months.

Our team at the end of our working day.

In the midst of the work, we were privileged to share delicious meals and much laughter.  Our day ended with a banquet during which gifts were exchanged and greetings and well-wishes extended.  We finished our time together singing “To God Be the Glory”, a message to which we commend all our efforts.

It wouldn’t be dinner in Africa without a speech or five…

Here I am presenting Rev. James with the gift from the Crafton Heights Church Youth Group: $2500 to be used to provide relief for those suffering famine in South Sudan.

Nancy Collins, PC(USA) Regional Liaison for mission in Central and East Africa, accepts a gift from Blantyre Synod Moderator Abusa Mbolembole.

“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the people rejoice!”

We appreciate the prayers that have come, and welcome further participation in this journey of partnership.  Zikomo!

Hey, whaddya know? There are birds here! I met this Firecrowned Bishop (a first for me) on my morning walk.

PARTNERSHIP IN AFRICAN MISSION 2018 #2

The second day of our time in Malawi was very useful as we prepare for a summit meeting with our partners.  We all slept soundly and well, and spent the morning relaxing, visiting the banks, and making arrangements for the meeting.  I even added two birds to my “life list”!

After a delicious noontime meal, the team was formally received by the General Secretary of the hosting body, Blantyre Synod CCAP.  In addition to a welcoming conversation in that office, representatives from Pittsburgh Presbytery, Blantyre Synod, and the South Sudan Evangelical Church toured the Blantyre Synod Radio station, where several of us were interviewed about the nature and purpose of the partnership.  We then were shown Blantyre Synod’s “cathedral church”, St. Michael and All Angels.

At the conclusion of the afternoon, we were dismissed to our host homes for evening meals and fellowship. My brother Davies and I spent a good bit of time preparing for the meeting, and we also welcomed Ms. Nancy Collins, the PCUSA Regional Liaison for Central and East Africa.  We are delighted she will join us for our meetings, which commence tomorrow.

I’ll do my best to update the blog as we move ahead in this task, but am uncertain as to the availability of internet in the next few days.

Now, a few photos…

At its core, Partnership is about People and Relationships. Here, our hosts Davies and Angella Lanjesi read a note from the group of young adults from Crafton Heights whom they hosted a year or so ago.

 

In the General Secretary’s Office

 

Watching a live broadcast from Blantyre Synod Radio

 

Dave is interviewed about the partnership

 

Clearly, these guys are a lot better at radio interviews than I am!

 

The interior of St. Michael and All Angels Church

 

Partners being framed by the church. As it should be!

Texas Mission Update 2018 #5

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

Those of you who use Facebook are familiar with the “on this day” feature in which the social media platform reminds you of what you posted on that particular date in previous calendar years.  It’s a lot of fun, and recently, I have adopted the practice of looking at those postings as a way of connecting my current self with the experiences that seemed so important to me in the moment.  This week, in particular, there has been great joy in those posts as so many of our previous mission trips to Texas have fallen in this window of time.  It is a deep blessing to look at friends (from CHUP and from the Rio Grande Valley) who have been a part of shaping my experiences of partnership, service, and mission!

Today is the day on which the 2018 version of this trip shifts from “what we’re doing” to “what we did”.  This will be the closing post from this experience, and it always brings measures of both joy and disappointment.

We started yesterday in a bumpy fashion.  I’ve been leading mission trips for 36 years, and for what I believe to be the first time, I began the day by locking the keys inside the building in which we were staying.  Not only did I lock the keys to the church inside the church, but I locked the key to my van in there as well.  “Frustrated”, “irritated”, even “pissed” are too mild to express the feelings that I was directing toward myself at that moment.  We put everyone else into Gabe’s van and I sat and waited for someone from the church to show up and bail me out.  Unfortunately, it was the pastor – and Friday is his day off – and I rousted him from that to stop by the church for a while.  That was not good.

This is what it looks like as you drive away leaving Pastor Dave fuming at having locked the keys in the building…

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was working their butts off on Carrie’s home and on Melvin and Mary’s place.  Each group felt as though they got to a good stopping point.  Our group finished our time at Carrie’s place by completing the lion’s share of the electrical work and hanging nearly all of the drywall.  Not only that, most of the seams had received two coats of mud.  Meanwhile, the group at Melvin and Mary’s home completed the messy job of replacing a number of rotting soffit and fascia boards, power washing the outside of the home, installing trim, and painting most of the outside as well.

setting a window into place

The group at Carrie’s home

The message in the dust from Caelea reads, “Thank You from Caelea” with some hearts…

Buoyed by this, we took a half day and split into two groups for a little local flavor.  As we prepared to depart the church, we were met with two surprises.  Unfortunately, one of the toilets had overflowed in our absence and we were met with a couple of inches of water in the bathroom.  Mike and I got that sorted out, while the rest of the group embraced the welcome arrival of our friend Roland from south Texas.  We first met Roland on the trip in 2009 or 2010, where he was our work site coordinator.  Since then, we’ve developed a friendship that has been transformative and life-giving.  We’ve worked with him every year since then (save 2018) and he’s brought several groups to Pittsburgh as well.  He joined us for lunch and then accompanied the portion of our team that spent the afternoon taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of Galveston Island.

Reconnecting with Roland!

Dining in Galveston

Beaching it up!

The remainder of our team chose to visit the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, a 45,000 acre parcel of protected wetland that is home to hundreds of species of birds and many other animals as well.  This group braved a very short (3/4 mile) hike through the mosquito infested swamps and then chose to take advantage of the CD-guided audio driving tour through the rest of the facility.

At Brazoria

What could it be?

Oh, I see now!

Here’s mamma!

And one of at least 20 babies!

A flycatcher (too bad she wasn’t interested in mosquitos!)

Every bunny had a great day!

White Tailed Kite

The last of a small herd of wild hogs we encountered.

Everyone had a great time, and then we convened back at the church for our final evening of rest and relaxation prior to our Saturday morning flight.  Before we left the church, we spent a few last moments in the company of the Apostle Paul, reading the familiar words from I Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poorand give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Our challenge for the day – and all the days ahead – is to ‘liberate’ this passage from its confinement to weddings and seek to apply it to the whole of our lives.  We hope and pray that time spent here in Texas will enable us to become more a people of love in every area of our lives.  We appreciate your prayers and your presence on our journey!