Texas Mission 2017 #5

The fancy dashboard screen indicates the outside temperature to be 111°. Yikes.

The fancy dashboard screen indicates the outside temperature to be 111°. Yikes.

The last “work” day of our 2017 Mission to Mission trip was powerful in many, many regards.  For a variety of reasons beyond our control, the time spent at the home in Donna, TX was limited to half a day.  In some ways, that was probably a pretty wise decision, given the heat we experienced this afternoon.  As with most things in our lives, we didn’t finish the job entirely, but we had to stop anyway. We’ll trust that just as the Lord raised up hands to begin work of which we knew nothing two weeks ago, we’ll trust that there will be hands sent to complete the tasks we were obliged to leave undone today.  At any rate, it was wonderful to see this project to this point and to celebrate with the homeowners as they continued to dream of moving into their own new space.

Joe is sealing up the bathroom tile.

Joe is sealing up the bathroom tile.

Gabe installing some light fixtures

Gabe installing some light fixtures

Here, the team observes a moment of silence for the broken pipe, only recently buried...

Here, the team observes a moment of silence for the broken pipe, only recently buried… I think Lauren may be reading some sort of liturgy from her phone.

Bob engages in a little resurrection theology with the soon-to-be-mended pipe.

Bob engages in a little resurrection theology with the soon-to-be-mended pipe.

You know, painting, sawing, and Tina handing trim through the window...

You know, painting, sawing, and Tina handing trim through the window…

What? A Long-billed Curlew stopped by the vacant lot next door? Who knew?

What? A Long-billed Curlew stopped by the vacant lot next door? Who knew?

With Adriana and Raymond - we are glad to have been able to participate in this stage of their journey.

With Adriana and Raymond – we are glad to have been able to participate in this stage of their journey.

pizzahutOnce again, we found ourselves the recipients of lunchtime hospitality.  This time, it was not a meal cooked and delivered to the site, but rather the treat of personal pan pizza in air-conditioned comfort.  Our liaisons at First Presbyterian Church of Mission TX, Kathy  and “Tejano Bob”, took us to Pizza Hut in an effort to break up the day.  It worked.  Folks were in a food coma ten minutes later…

The interior of my van upon leaving Pizza Hut...

The interior of my van upon leaving Pizza Hut…

Several of us took advantage of the extra hours in the afternoon to visit the Refugee Center located at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen.  Here we were privileged to see how this congregation has rallied people of faith and good will across the Rio Grande Valley to provide a hospitable welcome to those fleeing persecution and danger in Central America.  Persons who are seeking refugee status in the USA are received by the Border Patrol and vetted at a detention center nearby.  Those who are cleared for entry and continuing the process are then brought to this center, where they are given a hot meal, a clean set of clothes, a shower, and a place to sleep for the night before going to the bus station the next day to travel to the city in which their sponsors will receive them.  It was our honor to be on hand when two young mothers and their children came in and were received so graciously by the volunteers of the parish.

The exterior of a tent used to house some of the refugees received at Sacred Heart

The exterior of a tent used to house some of the refugees received at Sacred Heart

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Dinner provided us with the incredible opportunity to share in a lengthy reunion with the Paz family, with whom we were glad to work two years ago.  We stopped by to say “hello” yesterday, and then got a message inviting us to dinner today – and what a feast we shared.  There was enough chicken and sausage to feed an army, along with some amazing beans and a homemade cake.  It was good to get caught up on the who’s doing what in school and to see how the house is continuing to provide a blessing to our friends and those with whom they come into contact.  We don’t often get a glimpse of the kingdom, but tonight we did.  And we were glad for it.

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The table is spread!!!

Joe, Tim, Vicky, and Lauren

Joe, Tim, Vicky, and Lauren

With Julio, Ricardo, Juani, and Kimberly

With Julio, Ricardo, Juani, and Kimberly.  Alert readers will notice that Ricardo is holding a recently-imported bottle of Nali brand hot sauce from Malawi.  That’ll get the old salsa up and running!

Sometimes, being friends with someone means taking a turn on the trampoline with them. Better Lindsay than me, I'd say...

Sometimes, being friends with someone means taking a turn on the trampoline with them. Better Lindsay than me, I’d say…

Tomorrow is a travel day – we’ll take the drive up to Houston and then on Saturday return to Pittsburgh.  It’s been a great trip for all kinds of reasons, and I hope and pray that the fruit will show in years to come.

Texas Mission 2017 #4

By the time we get to the third day of a mission trip, we’re really  about as much “on a roll” as we’re going to get.  Generally, folks have some idea what we’re doing and how to do it… Conversations have been deep and warm, and similarly, if I got on your nerves a little bit on Monday, by Wednesday afternoon I’m literally killing you.  If you like BBQ, you’re in heaven; if it’s not your favorite, you’re ready to change channels; the time together is charging up all of the extroverts and the introverts are simply craving some “me time”…

Today was a great day.  In terms of the work, we have almost finished the exterior painting and knocked out a lot of the interior.  When we left today, the toilet flushed (ending our thrice-daily invasion of the local “El Tigre” Exxon station), the tile was just about into the bathtub, and the doors had all been hung and several were even framed.

In terms of the “chemistry of the company”, well, it’s just wonderful.  We’ve enjoyed Joe K’s amazing cooking skills and laughed at some of Pastor Dave’s hilarious jokes.  Encouragement has been shared, stories told, and our Bible study has been deep and rich.

At the end of the day, we visited the home of a family we were privileged to serve two years ago.  I’ve been friends with Juani and her son Julio on Facebook since then, and it’s a tremendous joy to see that the house to which we contributed has really become a home that sustains a family.  We had a delightful visit, and at the end of the day Juani invited us to return tomorrow for dinner.  Needless to say, we are very, very excited!

Here are a few images to help you get a glimpse into our week…

Joe doing the detail work of cutting in the edges of the closet.

Joe doing the detail work of cutting in the edges of the closet.

Gabe, Kati, and Lauren looking a little too pleased with themselves at the ceramic saw.

Gabe, Kati, and Lauren looking a little too pleased with themselves at the ceramic saw.

Joe K. and Bob (we found him!) installing the water lines.  One of the advantages of this climate is that frozen pipes are just a bad memory...

Joe K. and Bob (we found him!) installing the water lines. One of the advantages of this climate is that frozen pipes are just a bad memory…

Lindsay putting the paint on the door frames prior to their installation.

Lindsay putting the paint on the door frames prior to their installation.

And now Tina trims them to fit!

And now Tina trims them to fit!

Jon is a man who is simply out standing in his field.

Jon is a man who is simply out standing in his field.

Dave applying the trim - a deep purple to accent the slate gray/blue siding.

Dave applying the trim – a deep purple to accent the slate gray/blue siding.

Enjoying a reunion with the Paz family, with whom these six individuals served in 2015.

Enjoying a reunion with the Paz family, with whom these six individuals served in 2015.

There is some debate as to whether it was Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, "An army marches on its stomach.  There is no dispute as to how Joe has equipped us for the challenges of our days...

There is some debate as to whether it was Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, “An army marches on its stomach. There is no dispute as to how Joe has equipped us for the challenges of our days…

A little game of Apples to Apples helps us to socialize...

A little game of Apples to Apples helps us to socialize…

...and meanwhile, back at "Introvert's Corner", a few of the fellows recuperate from an intense day together.

…and meanwhile, back at “Introvert’s Corner”, a few of the fellows recuperate from an intense day together.

Texas Mission 2017 #3

Each year the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights sends a team of adults to engage in service and partnership in mission with sister churches in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  This year, our congregation has “tithed” itself: our average attendance is 120 on a Sunday morning, and we’ve got a dozen adults from our congregation (and our friend Jack from a neighboring worship community).  Tuesday marked the second day of work, and we saw a couple of annual trends come to pass.

For starters, I got lost driving the van to the work site.  It’s about 25 miles away, across a grid of Texas flatland replete with matching HEB stores, Texas Tire shops, Whataburger shops, and an incredible number of billboards… I had driven there once, in a convoy, in the rain… so it’s not surprising that I got lost – and, in fact, I generally do on the Tuesday of these trips.

Later in the day, Joe K. and I were talking and I said, “Yeah, I had a bit of a meltdown and got really frustrated; one of the team could see this happening and took me outside and prayed with me for a moment until I got my mind right…”  Joe said, “OK, well, that generally happens once a trip.  Nice to get it out of the way.”  And we talked about the fact that these trips have a rhythm to them…

The rhythm today was mostly good.  Most of the day, most of our team had meaningful work to do and pleasant company in which to share it.  We primed and painted like nobody’s business; we tiled and hung doors and caulked and plumbed; we met the homeowners and rejoiced at their delight in the progress on the house; we were served an amazing lunch by our friends Grant and Donna from the First Presbyterian Church of Mission; we had a delicious dinner prepared by Chef Joe and finished with another study on the theme of “A Different Kind of Hero” as we read through another portion of the Gospel of John…  Yes, it was a good day.  Here are a few photos to help convey a portion of the truth we shared.

The home was pretty far along when we arrived; here's the front being primed...

The home was pretty far along when we arrived; here’s the front being primed…

...and here's what the back looked like...

…and here’s what the back looked like…

Several rooms inside got a finish coat.

Several rooms inside got a finish coat.

Katie worked on tiling the bathroom...

Kati worked on tiling the bathroom…

And Gabe looks like he lost his rubber ducky...

And Gabe looks like he lost his rubber ducky…

Joe works on connecting the septic line.

Joe works on connecting the septic line.

Grant and Donna served up some soon-to-be-world-famous chicken tacos. It was amazing...

Grant and Donna served up some soon-to-be-world-famous chicken tacos. It was amazing…

The only disappointment in the day was the time that the house fell on top of Bob. At least, I'm pretty sure that's Bob...

The only disappointment in the day was the time that the house fell on top of Bob. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s Bob…

We were able to get a finish coat on the siding on two sides (half) of the home.

We were able to get a finish coat on the siding on two sides (half) of the home.

We didn’t get everything done that we’d have hoped; but we spent good time together; we laughed and we prayed and we just enjoyed our time with each other…  We didn’t finish anything, really.  But we worked.  And we were worked on.  It was a good, good day.

Texas Mission 2017 #2

Yesterday I was pleased to narrate some of the highlights of our first day in the Rio Grande Valley – a day filled with worship, fellowship, food, and anticipation.  Today, Monday, we were privileged to begin to explore and experience a little of the work to which we’ve been invited this week.  We are working with a network of churches and non-profits in the Valley to assist folks in to safe and adequate housing. This year, as in several previous years, we are tasked with helping the family close the gap between the work that a previous group or groups has done and finally entering the home themselves.

That means a bit of detective work… It’s not unlike turning on an episode of a program with which you’re familiar, but you haven’t seen lately.  And you’re in the middle of the episode… and you know most, but not all of the characters, and you’ve got to make some educated guesses as to who belongs where and why.  In the same way, we come into a home in which someone has made decisions about wiring, plumbing, and carpentry – all decisions, I’m sure, that made perfect sense to those folks at the time… but then they had to leave before they could finish.  And we show up, and we’re not exactly sure which wire leads to which outlet, or why the insulation isn’t in that room, and who knows anything about the way that these door jambs are set?  We know something about how to do all of these things, and we can help… but first we have to figure out where things were left.

Today we had the good fortune of beginning that adventure with a rarity – a cool, rainy day.  On the one hand, that meant a lot of muck and mud.  On the other hand, it made digging ditches for the water and septic lines a whole lot more pleasant than it might have been had it been 95° and sunny (the forecast for later this week!).  So we got a slow start – but a positive one – on the home with which we’re working. And it was good.  And, by God’s grace, so will tomorrow be.

We were delighted to have received a dinner invitation from Jose and Secylia and their family.  We were their guests at an amazing little Mexican restaurant in Edinburg, TX.  The food was delicious and authentic and the company and fellowship were even better.  We’re all the better for having shared that time.  This is an example of a friendship that has developed through the years… We have enjoyed time together now and then, and these folks sought to deepen the partnership through hospitality and generosity.  We are glad to be making and sharing more memories…

I’ll close with a few images of the day…

The water line is laid...

The water line is laid…

... as is the septic line...

… as is the septic line…

The heavy rains overnight turned the mud driveway into a quagmire. One good thing about having 13 people on the trip is that we weren't stuck long!

The heavy rains overnight turned the mud driveway into a quagmire. One good thing about having 13 people on the trip is that we weren’t stuck long!

Lindsay and Kati are fitting in a piece of drywall that was inexplicably missing...

Lindsay and Kati are fitting in a piece of drywall that was inexplicably missing…

...while Tina and Jack work to discover the mysteries of the door jambs...

…while Tina and Jack work to discover the mysteries of the door jambs…

The team works together to raise the decking onto a termite-resistant surface.

The team works together to raise the decking onto a termite-resistant surface.

Look - it's a bird! One I've never seen before: A White Tailed Kite!

Look – it’s a bird! One I’ve never seen before: A White Tailed Kite!

...who revealed herself to be a black widow spider. We left her be!

…who revealed herself to be a black widow spider. We left her be!

 

An investigation of a small cobweb near a cactus revealed this little lady...

An investigation of a small cobweb near a cactus revealed this little lady…

 

 

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Texas Mission 2017 #1

In 2009, I had the privilege of joining my friend Stacey and my daughter Ariel on a brief visit to Reynosa Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas.  During that time, we developed an idea in which a group of adults from Crafton Heights could return and engage in a cross-cultural mission experience in partnership with the churches in South Texas and North Mexico.  In 2010, the Church sent a team of 8 adults, and ever since then we’ve been able to enjoy growing relationships with two churches on the Texas side of the border: The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch Faith Community in McAllen.  These two churches have hosted us, fed us, and walked with us as we consider the ways in which God invites us to grow in our understanding of what it means to be one body in Christ.

Each year, we leave Pittsburgh, ostensibly to join together with service agencies such as Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery or Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in order to provide adequate housing for those affected by tragedy.  And we do.  In the days to come, you’ll see photos of us doing something.

But truth be told, I’m here for the food.

Ok, not literally.  But I’m not here only to hold a hammer or a paintbrush.  If that was the only goal, we’d have some cool fundraisers and send a check so that the folks here could hire real painters or drywall hangers.  But we have the fundraisers and send ourselves, because we believe that what happens inside us is as important as anything we might accomplish in the way of home rehab.  And for me, a lot of times that happens around the dinner table as we share stories, remember hardship, and revel in laughter.

Tina learns about Texas hospitality first-hand!

Tina learns about Texas hospitality first-hand!

We arrived in Houston Texas on Saturday morning and drove about six hours south to Mission, Texas.  When we got here, our friends from FPC mission were waiting with beef brisket and smoked turkey and all manner of delicious food.  We shared that meal with our team of 13 and an equal number of Texans.  Sunday morning we had the privilege of worshiping twice: once in English and once in a bilingual service.

In addition to having the largest group ever to travel to Texas, we were greeted by a sizable contingent from First Pres, who prepared and shared a fantastic meal with us.

In addition to having the largest group ever to travel to Texas, we were greeted by a sizable contingent from First Pres, who prepared and shared a fantastic meal with us.

David lays down the blessings at Solomon's Porch (Pastor Danny translating into Spanish).

David lays down the blessings at Solomon’s Porch (Pastor Danny translating into Spanish).

The service at Solomon’s Porch was incredibly personal for our team because David and Joe brought the sermon as they preached about the impact of our recent trip to Malawi (see this post and the ones following for more about that trip!). Our hosts were so moved by the experience that they presented the preachers with a special gift…

Joe talks about the fulness of the body of Christ.

Joe talks about the fulness of the body of Christ.

Evidently, the fee for the preaching that these guys have was communicated from Malawi. Dave & Joe receive their chicken from Solomon's Porch!

Evidently, the fee for the preaching that these guys have was communicated from Malawi. Dave & Joe receive their chicken from Solomon’s Porch!

Hmmmm... Seems like food is what brings us together. Another church, another amazing plate of BBQ!

Hmmmm… Seems like food is what brings us together. Another church, another amazing plate of BBQ!

After worship, the members of Solomon’s Porch presented us with a meal consisting of… wait for it… beef brisket and smoked turkey and all manner of delicious food.  More than that, they gave us the gift of themselves in conversation and partnership.

The morning service in the new worship space being built by Solomon's Porch

The morning service in the new worship space being built by Solomon’s Porch

The CHUP team in the entry to Solomon's Porch

The CHUP team in the entry to Solomon’s Porch

Following the meal, our team visited La Lomita Chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande and marveled at the history of this area.  We were further blessed to wander around in 85° sunshine at the Bentson-Rio Grande State Park.  Some of us caught a glimpse of a bobcat, and all of us enjoyed the wind and the sunshine.

La Lomita (the small hill) was first built in 1865 It was an important site for the Calvary of Christ, the Oblate missionaries who rode up and down the Rio Grande Valley visiting widely separated Catholic churches, baptizing newborns, performing marriage ceremonies and blessing the dead.

La Lomita (the small hill) was first built in 1865 It was an important site for the Calvary of Christ, the Oblate missionaries who rode up and down the Rio Grande Valley visiting widely separated Catholic churches, baptizing newborns, performing marriage ceremonies and blessing the dead.

Inside the tiny chapel at La Lomita Mission.

Inside the tiny chapel at La Lomita Mission.

That's the Rio Grande behind us. It's a river.

That’s the Rio Grande behind us. It’s a river.

We didn't see too many birds in the park today, but this black-crested titmouse stopped by to say "hello".

We didn’t see too many birds in the park today, but this black-crested titmouse stopped by to say “hello”.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We ended our first full day in Mission by listening to a concert by a local Barbershop chorus.  We are constantly grateful for the ways that joy finds its way into our experiences here… and hope that these stories and photos will prompt you to think about your own journey this day.

We were surprised and delighted to be invited to a concert by "The Men of A-Chord", a Barbershop Chorus. The venue is the First Presbyterian Church, where we are staying.

We were surprised and delighted to be invited to a concert by “The Men of A-Chord”, a Barbershop Chorus. The venue is the First Presbyterian Church, where we are staying.

Report from Malawi – 8 January 2017

On Christmas Day, 2016, a group of five young adults and I embarked on an African adventure that was over two years in the making.  Carly, Katie, Joe, Rachael, David and I are pleased to be in Malawi for nearly two weeks embracing (and being embraced by) the gift that is the partnership between the churches of Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA) and Blantyre Synod (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian).  Here is part of our story.

Having been refreshed by time at the lake and as a team, on Saturday morning 7 January we headed south to explore the last two days of our time in Malawi. As we drove from Mangochi to Blantyre, we made several stops. One of these was at the Naming’azi Farm Training Center. This is a demonstration farm and educational facility used by the Synod of Blantyre to help local farmers learn the best techniques for animal husbandry, crop rotation, natural weed and moisture management, and more. Because a significant partnership has recently ended, there is not much actively going on at Naming’azi at the moment, but it remains one of the best ideas going – God’s people grappling with issues of food production in an era of climate change and increased attentiveness to the problems associated with chemical used in agriculture.

The Naming'azi Farm Training Center sits at the base of the massive Zomba Plateau. Here David and Joe tour with BSHDC Director Lindirabe Gareta

The Naming’azi Farm Training Center sits at the base of the massive Zomba Plateau. Here David and Joe tour with BSHDC Director Lindirabe Gareta

From there we proceeded to the region around Chileka, where we were honored to visit a support group for individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS. The village where we were hosted is one of many that is home to such groups across southern Malawi. The Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission (BSHDC) invites community members to form such peer groups in order to promote awareness, reduce stigmatization, enhance adherence to drug therapy treatments, and monitor individual concerns at a local level. One concern that has been noted is that many of these families struggle with nutrition, particularly for their children. Using funding provided by Pittsburgh Presbytery’s International Partnership Ministry Team, the BSHDC is making bags of specially-enriched corn flour called Likuni Phala available to families during the “hungry season” of January and February. This flour contains corn, soya, sugar, and vitamins and is extremely effective at forestalling malnutrition (especially in children). We were surprised not only to be present for a distribution, but to have a role in it.

Part of the communal support group for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Part of the communal support group for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Sharing some Likuni Phala in the community.

Sharing some Likuni Phala in the community.

One of the benefits of a trip like this is to be able to call attention to challenges and possible responses. Here I am talking with the Malawian Broadcasting System television and radio teams at the food distribution center.

One of the benefits of a trip like this is to be able to call attention to challenges and possible responses. Here I am talking with the Malawian Broadcasting System television and radio teams at the food distribution center.

On Sunday, we achieved our goal of sharing in worship with an urban congregation. Unlike Mbenjere CCAP (where we visited on 1/1), St. Michael and All Angels CCAP is comprised city dwellers who are significantly better educated than the average Malawian and many of whom hold key positions in the nation’s business, governmental, and philanthropic communities. We were asked to provide leadership for the 8:30 service (one of five worship services at St. Michael’s each Sunday), which meant that each of us had a reading, and I preached and led the prayers.

Preaching at St. Michael and All Angels church in Blantyre.

Preaching at St. Michael and All Angels church in Blantyre.

Katie reads from Philippians 1 at St. Michael's.

Katie reads from Philippians 1 at St. Michael’s.

I was delighted to run into Glomicko Munthali, who I believe was the first chair of the Blantyre Synod Partnership Committee in 1991.

I was delighted to run into Glomicko Munthali, who I believe was the first chair of the Blantyre Synod Partnership Committee in 1991.

Following the worship, we were treated to an amazingly delicious Farewell Luncheon hosted by the Blantyre Synod Partnership Steering Committee. During their speeches, members of this body, along with General Secretary the Rev. Alex Maulana, expressed their deep appreciation for the presence of a youth missionary team from Crafton Heights and they expressed a desire that the vision and diligence of this group (especially in terms of fund-raising and preparation) might serve as an encouragement to a group of Malawian young people to embark on a similar journey. A personal highlight of this occasion was the fact that Davies Lanjesi made a special effort to include Mrs. Sophie M’nensa, and she and her grandson Gamaliel were able to join us for both worship at St. Michael’s and the banquet.

With the Revs. Billy Gama and Alex Maulana along with Davies and Angella Lanjesi at the farewell luncheon.

With the Revs. Billy Gama and Alex Maulana along with Davies and Angella Lanjesi at the farewell luncheon.

With Sophie and Gama after the luncheon.

With Sophie and Gama after the luncheon.

Continuing to tell the partnership story: here Rachael and I are interviewed by Blantyre Synod Radio.

Continuing to tell the partnership story: here Rachael and I are interviewed by Blantyre Synod Radio.

Our travels concluded with a stop to visit my old friends Silas and Margaret Ncozana in their modern/traditional Ngoni-inspired home in the Chigumula area. Here, we shared much laughter, deep appreciation for the work of partnership in our own lives, and an expression of the challenge that lies in front of all who would serve the Lord and his people. The young people were grateful for the Ncozana’s hospitality and humor; they listened to a few more stories about the old days in the partnership, and heard Silas charge them to become leaders in the days to come. It was a beautiful ending to a good and rich journey.

Sharing time with Silas and Margaret!

Sharing time with Silas and Margaret!

Silas shared with us the Ngoni tradition in which he said that anyone who was a witch was forbidden to enter the home. Each of us drank from the gourd - and a witch would die immediately. We all lived, and later discovered that the beverage was a home brew made from baobab fruit.

Silas shared with us the Ngoni tradition in which he said that anyone who was a witch was forbidden to enter the home. Each of us drank from the gourd – and a witch would die immediately. We all lived, and later discovered that the beverage was a home brew made from baobab fruit.

As we prepare to pack and weigh our bags in preparation for the longest flight these young people have ever known, we are filled with appreciation for the opportunities we have had, and we ask your continued prayers as we seek to continue to learn from and grow into these challenges. I will say again that I cannot imagine this trip having gone better – the hospitality was amazing, the team was pliable and energetic, we grew in our understanding of so much – it was all simply beautiful. I hope that these few blog postings have given you at least a little bit of a window into the richness of this experience for this team. Thank you so much!

Report From Malawi – 6 January 2017

On Christmas Day, 2016, a group of five young adults and I embarked on an African adventure that was over two years in the making.  Carly, Katie, Joe, Rachael, David and I are pleased to be in Malawi for nearly two weeks embracing (and being embraced by) the gift that is the partnership between the churches of Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA) and Blantyre Synod (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian).  Here is part of our story.

We left Ntaja on the afternoon of 4 January, and drove to Liwonde, the site of one of Malawi’s National Parks. On property adjacent to the park, my old friends Sam and Lonnie Ncozana have opened up the Kutchire Lodge. This proved to be a wonderful jumping-off point for a day of fun and adventure after the formalities and responsibilities of the previous week.

Sam and Lonnie Ncozana

Sam and Lonnie Ncozana

We stayed overnight (the girls were given the “treehouse” lodging, while the guys had a safari chalet to share. Each of these was essentially open air – that is to say, there are fine screens as well as mosquito nets, but no glass. It was a little frightening for the team, at times, to fall asleep with the sounds of the African forest all around us – but it was a delightful experience we’ll not soon forget.

The Treehouse at Kutchire. The blue is the mosquito netting and the lumps inside it are some of my favorite people in the world.

The Treehouse at Kutchire. The blue is the mosquito netting and the lumps inside it are some of my favorite people in the world.

On January 5 we had a brief boat safari as well as a jeep drive through parts of the Liwonde National Park, and it was a real thrill for all of us. Seeing so many animals in the wild – from tiny Malachite Kingfishers to elephants and hippos – was simply marvelous.

The Malachite Kingfisher - my favorite bird. For the first time, I saw a pair together!

The Malachite Kingfisher – my favorite bird. For the first time, I saw a pair together!

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Have you ever seen a hippo jump? Look closely - none of this one's legs are touching the ground as he races into the Shire River.

Have you ever seen a hippo jump? Look closely – none of this one’s legs are touching the ground as he races into the Shire River.

January 6 we spent on the shores of Lake Malawi, engaged in a retreat/day of reflection. We might or might not have expanded the definition of “reflection” to include hiring a local gentleman to take us out to an island a mile or so offshore where we were free to admire amazing birdlife, see the beautiful Lake Malawi cichlids (fish), and take a swim in the lake.

Heading toward "Bird Island" for a swim!

Heading toward “Bird Island” for a swim!

I’ve asked each of the young people to offer a reflection for this issue of the blog. There was no assignment other than simply writing a few sentences saying something about their experience. I am so proud of the way that each of them has wrestled with trying to see things from a variety of perspectives and has tried to enter so deeply and fully into this experience. I am eager to see what they might say six months from now!

9joegreetingFrom Joe: With so many new sights and sounds, traveling to a new place can be easily overwhelming. Myself, I’ve always wanted to see the world. I have always been interested in the languages, cultures, foods, and different lifestyles of the world. My time in Malawi has been a perfect way of feeding that interest, as well as helping it grow into a passion. The people of Malawi have been nothing but kind, courteous, and lovable. For instance, we stayed with a man named Davies, whom loaned us his vehicle without question. So many good people have opened their homes and their hearts to us. Something interesting about Malawi is that nobody expects you to even attempt to speak to them in their language. I don’t know all of them, but I do know a few small phrases in Chichewa that will make any Malawian happy. Asking them how they are doing is a great way to get a smile and and unexpected giggle out of someone. As for the food we have been blessed to feast nightly, and it never disappoints. Being able to experience the different aspects of life in Malawi has been very eye-opening to me, as I had no idea the highs and lows of a country that is sometimes ranked as the poorest in the world. I love Malawi and I love the people of this country. It makes me happy to say that I feel like they love me just as much.

David with Gift, one of the Youth Leaders at Mbenjere

David with Gift, one of the Youth Leaders at Mbenjere

From David: Where do I start? There is always so much to talk about to keep this short. We have traveled all around Malawi to places like Blantyre, Mulanje, and Ntaja. We have seen people with so much and people with so little. We have seen people taking care of few children and some taking care of 20. There are so many struggles people go through here and the list just doesn’t stop. But what I’ve noticed is that the people are happy. People still possess so much joy when there is such a lack of “stuff”. People here have made sure we have something to eat before themselves, or even their children. It is hard to experience when you are in the moment, but when you look back on it later in the day it starts to make sense. They are the hosts and we are the visitors. They make sure we have more than enough food, more than enough water, more than enough of anything. They give us everything to make us happy and that makes them a blessing. Anyone can give up $5 when they have $500, but they will give you $5 when that is all they have. God, bless them all, and everyone here in Malawi.

The girls and their "mom".

The girls and Mrs. Tongwe, their “mom”.

From Katie: In the days leading up to our trip to Ntaja, I was very nervous about everything that could possibly happen upon our arrival there. The drive up Saturday was quite a challenge between the fear of the unknown and being extremely tired. In addition, it was long, hot, and uncomfortable. I rode in a minibus with some of our hosts along with David and Joe. I was frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t drive up all together and didn’t understand why we needed to be picked up in Blantyre anyway. When we got to Ntaja, I realized they came out of hospitality and excitement. Although I was annoyed, I came to see that it is just part of the culture. When we got to the manse, we were greeted by our host families and waited two hours for a meal during a blackout. After eating, we were taken to our host “homes”. I was thankful that Carly, Rachael, and I were all in the same house – we had a small room of our own with a single bed and two bunks. The first night was very difficult for us as we tried to navigate the small space and endure the heat. I thought that these four days would be the longest ones of my life. As we got to know the host families, we were more and more comfortable with our situation, and it got better and better. We enjoyed long conversations with our “brother” and the neighbors. When we gave our gifts, we could easily sense how something so simple meant so much – and they were all hung up when we got home. We received chitenges and were taught how to wrap them. I never thought I would be sad to leave. Our “mother”, Mrs. Tongwe, said that she just waited for us to get back every day. On Thursday afternoon, I cried while saying ‘goodbye’. The family meant a lot to me and based on the 3 messages I have already received from Mrs. Tongwe, I think we meant a lot to them as well.

The folks from Ntaja waving as we depart.

The folks from Ntaja waving as we depart.

From Rachael: Our first few days in Malawi I felt like we were just going with the flow. We would wake up and do so many things, shake a ton of hands, and always be hours late. But when we got to Ntaja, that changed. The first night there was overwhelming – the power was out and it was very hot. At one point I was sure that there was no way I would make it through the next four days. But as the days went on, we found ourselves waiting and sitting more and more in between our planned activities. We took advantage of the “down time” we had to build friendships – even while we were walking in some difficult places. Those were the moments that made saying goodbye to our sister church so hard.

9classroomFrom Carly: Since I want to be a teacher it was interesting (and a little difficult) to see this classroom. I loved seeing how well-trained these first or second grade students were, and how much they were engaged in their learning. It was hard for me to see more than 100 students in a classroom, each of them sitting on the floor and none of them having their own books. I could never imagine teaching like that. One of the young women we met, Jean, gave me some thoughtful gifts, so I thought it was only right to give her my Jerusalem Cross necklace in return. I could tell how much she enjoyed it as she clutched it. That made me feel so happy.

Carly and Jean

Carly and Jean