Africa Pilgrimage Update #6

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.

 

I should actually write more, but I’m really bushed and we’re getting up in six hours.  So here is a taste of our day today. Highlights included the second Youth Partnership Conference, held at Koche CCAP outside of Mangochi, as well as a trip on Lake Malawi in a small boat that allowed us to view the Lake Malawi Cichlids, swim, and view the African Fish Eagle (the national bird of Malawi).

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this is a huge post.

My day started with a solo walk, whereupon I encountered this Collared Sunbird – a first for me!

The Malawian presenter at the conference this morning was my old friend the Rev. Dennis Mulele. We first met in a famine relief effort in 2003 and he’s been one of my heroes ever since!

Eddie Willson was the Pittsburgh Presenter, and he got things moving in a hurry. Everyone agreed that this was a very energetic and inspirational conference!

Eddie had us mingle around until we found “elbow partners”. Even though I only have two elbows, somehow I wound up with 8 partners!

Small groups work through some of the challenges and possibilities faced by youth in Malawi and the USA.

Our day also included conversation in groups of three or four (or, in my case, nine!).

(Most of) the Malawian and Pittsburgh youth and leaders at the conference today.

Setting sail for an adventure!

Rayna soaking it all up!

Lake Malawi is remarkable for the more than 700 species of cichlids it contains. It is the fourth largest lake in the world in terms of volume.

Feeding the cichlids.

So why not swim with the cichlids?

An African Fish Eagle comes up with some dinner!

The ending of a beautiful day.

Africa Pilgrimage Update #3

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.

Our pilgrimage in Malawi begun in earnest on July 5 as the team woke up to spend our first full day in Malawi (a.k.a. “the Warm Heart of Africa”).  We are spending the first few days of our time here at the Grace Bandawe Conference Center, a lovely venue that is owned and operated by the Synod of Blantyre. Here our team has mostly double rooms and mostly hot water. A few of us have single rooms, and a few of us have experienced showers of, shall we say, a lesser temperature… but hey, the beds are comfortable, the food is delicious, and the grounds are beautiful. The Synod has engaged Ms. Christina Chirwa as the new manager of this place, and she is doing a fantastic job.  One of the new touches that she’s brought is the construction of a brick pizza oven and the service of gourmet pizza to not only the guests at GBCC but area residents as well.

A typical breakfast at GBCC includes eggs, “chips” (a.k.a. French Fries), sausage, fruit, juice, and bread. And, of course, Malawian Tea!

Following breakfast, we walked across the street and were formally greeted by the General Secretary of the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian, Rev. Alex Maulana.  He received us in his office, and then we were guided around the grounds of the Synod.  When the first missionaries arrived in Malawi from Scotland more than a hundred years ago, many of them set up shop on this hill.  They constructed a church, built a school, and began an administrative system the effects of which are still felt today in many aspects of Malawian society.

Meeting in the office of the General Secretary.

This stone cairn was erected on the site where Scottish missionary and abolitionist Dr. David Livingstone was said to have set up his tent on his visit to Malawi in the late 19th century.

St. Michael and All Angels is the “cathedral church” of the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian. It is an intricate and ornate structure that serves a congregation now far too large to fit inside… There our four or five services here each Sunday morning.

We were invited to lunch in the home of one of the pastors in Blantyre Synod, the Rev. Billy Gama.  This gave our team their first opportunity to taste (and I hope enjoy) nsima, the staple food of the Malawian diet.  Nsima is finely ground corn flour that is added to boiling water and made into a very filling paste that is about the texture of really stiff mashed potatoes. Most Malawians will eat nsima every day alongside some vegetables or meat.  Our gathering included not only our team and the Gama family, but several other Malawian guests.  We really enjoyed the opportunity visit informally.

Coleman and Annabel prepare to enjoy a plate of nsima with relish!

The group outside of the Gama home.

The next item on our agenda was to go into town and exchange some of our US dollars for the local currency, Malawian Kwacha.  However, there has been some unrest in the country lately as a result of dissatisfaction with the ways in which the most recent general election was carried out and the results implemented.  This has been seen by various protests and demonstrations around the nation, and we encountered a small group of folks who were in the process of disrupting traffic by blocking a road, and it seemed wise to us to forgo that experience and return to GBCC. That was fortunate, because when we got back, 15 of our missing 17 suitcases had arrived!  Some of the group took advantage of the “down time” to unpack and change clothes, whilst others visited the graves of the earliest missionaries and walked around the Synod complex in the sunset and twilight.

Some of us visited the Henry Henderson Institute, a school serving students of all grades. Here we are outside the secondary school, under a spreading baobab tree.

A team meeting at GBCC

Our day ended with yet another bountiful meal, a team meeting, and the chance to enjoy each other’s company in a wonderful setting.  It was a good day in preparation for the events of July 6 – wherein we will participate in the first of three “Youth Rallies” to be held throughout the Synod.  More about that in the next entry!

No introduction to Malawian life would be complete without experiencing at least one power outage. Some of us ended the evening by playing “Crazy Dice” with our flashlights…a good end to a great day!

2019 Texas Mission #5

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

There’s a couple of hundred yards of Crooked Creek shoreline in Erie County, PA.

There are my two black chairs right next to my fish tank.

There’s a spot on the road between Liwonde and Ntaja, Malawi.

There’s a room in the cardiac care wing of Presbyterian University Hospital.

I don’t know where they are for you, but I’m betting you’ve got one or two or more… spots from which you have glimpsed the Holy – places to which you have returned more than once because you have found that those are spots where you simply know that God abides, and because you have sensed it there, you think, it’s reasonable to assume that the Presence might be anywhere.  You have places where you have found belief that remind you that you can continue to carry belief even when it seems nonsensical, or wearisome, or simply too heavy.

Most people think that those spots are functional – fishing holes or furniture or paved road or a health care center –  but to me, it’s a place where I’ve fished and heard the voice of God, or the location of some of the most deeply personal and intimate conversations with which a pastor has been entrusted, or the place where I remember the beauty and wonder of the God with humor enough to create Baobab trees, or a spot where I’ve witnessed faith and family and healing that strengthens my soul.

Thursday evening I was privileged to be in one of those spots – a place to which we’ve returned several times over the past few years.  It’s a lovely tree next to a little purple home outside of Mission, Texas.  It’s a tree that has provided me with shade on some really hot days, conversation and friendship on many days, and incredible glimpses of the kingdom on a few occasions.

In 2015 our team worked on a home that afforded us the opportunity to strike up a wonderful relationship with the family who lived there. In the years since then, every single time we’ve visited the Rio Grande Valley – every single time – we have been invited over for conversation and a meal.  Tonight, we visited that family again, and saw more chicken and sausage than anyone knew what to do with.  There was a bigger pot of beans than anyone from Pittsburgh had ever seen before.

We sat by the fire, we sat under the tree, and some of us who were there for the first time engaged in conversation with gracious people.  Others, who’d been there before, took the opportunity to hear and learn and share things that one does with friends in holy places like this.

I heard from one of the young adults in the home that when we were first there, they didn’t know what to make of us.  We sure laughed a lot, and we spilled a lot of paint.  But I was told of how it felt to go from having five people sleeping and living in a single room with a single bed to having a real house, where when it rains or storms, you are safe; of how it feels to be able to go to school and know you have an address; of what it means to be able to think about a future in service to others.

And I was reminded of those holy places in my life, and I thanked God for glimpses into the eternal.

All of the above was just AFTER dinner.  Before dinner, we did a lot of stuff that you’d expect from us this week: painting, roofing, drywalling, laughing, and spilling paint.  Here are a few images of our Thursday, as selected by our team’s primary photographer, Josie.  We appreciate your prayers.

Karren continues to conquer her discomfort with being on the roof by teaching that shingle who’s the boss…

Jon and Lindsay are taking care of the other side of the home…

Our hallway transitions from lime green to sunshine yellow…

Kayla, you really shouldn’t be having this much fun painting the house…

Jessica? Where’s Jessica? The last time I saw her, she went into the dining room with a paintbrush…

Every day we are here, the people of Mission Presbyterian Church offer us a hot lunch. Today, we were blessed to have homemade noodles from our friend Carol. She and her late husband Rog have been stalwart supporters of this mission.

Sacred conversation around the Lord’s table…

And here is the tree that reminds me that God is faithful, even when I doubt. I hope you can sit here one day.

 

2019 Texas Mission Trip #4

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

Today was a great day to be on site as we continued our trip in the Rio Grande Valley.  The sun made an amazing appearance, and we had a lot of pink shoulders and faces around the discussion table this evening. The team that worked up on the roof (which, frankly, was most of our number) made some fantastic progress on the roof.  Meanwhile, a few of us remained inside – which felt increasingly like a cave as the sun shone more brightly. We were able to finish piecing in the drywall that we’d cut out due to flood damage and most of it has a second coat of mud on it already.

Following our work day, we were able to spend some time with Daniel Behrens, a Deacon in service to the Anglican Church through a mission called Trinity On The Border.  It was Daniel who gave us the idea to pack the hygiene kits for the Respite Center.  Daniel was eager to see some fellow Yinzers (he grew up in the South Hills) and to share his perspective on the nature and needs of the communities here.  We had a great discussion on the value and purpose of short-term trips like this (I might have said something like, “Seriously! Why should we spend all this money bringing us down here when we could send the money to someone local, who could hire roofers who probably need the work, and who would do it better than we would… because, frankly, we’re not very good roofers?”).  It was a rich time of conversation about the fact that the little house on Rhode Island Drive is not the only that’s getting worked on this week… We are all being shaped.

It’s late – so here are a few photos that will give you a glimpse of our day…

What IS that burning orange ball in the sky?

Jahn and David putting on the shingles…

Brian prepares our next piece of sheetrock…

The roof isn’t THAT pitched, but Josie is creative…

Phillippe, the homeowner, gives me some advice on cleaning the drywall equipment.

Daniel leads the conversation pertaining to Trinity on the Border

2019 Texas Mission #3

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

If you pray, how do you think that God answers prayer?

When do you know that it happens?

Have you ever been around to see it?

Today, we did a lot of work.  More about that in a moment.  I’d like to tell you about the fifteen most significant moments of my day.  If you saw Sunday’s entry to this sequence of updates, you know that in addition to coming to the Rio Grande Valley to do some housing rehabilitation, we came to seek to learn about the experiences of those who are here and those who arrive here each day.  To help us in this we prepared, and asked a lot of friends to prepare, “Respite Kits” for distribution to those who have entered the USA here in Texas and are seeking asylum or permanent residency.  Since we’ve arrived, we’ve been calling folks at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities in McAllen TX.  They didn’t return our calls, and someone suggested that we should just stop by and drop off the kits.

We arrived at the building and saw long lines snaking out in so many different directions. We took our donations to the side door where we were greeted by a volunteer who said, “Seriously? You have respite kits?  We ran out earlier today.  I didn’t know what we would do, but I told my wife, ‘God will get us some.’  And look, here you are!”  We discovered that the reason that they had not been answering their phones was because in the past 3 days this center has received more than 1500 individuals – mostly women with children.  They are at the center for a day at the most, hoping for a hot meal, a quick shower, a new set of clothes (including shoe laces which are taken from each individual at the detention centers), and a bus ticket to the home of a relative or friend while they await the hearings that will determine their eligibility to stay in the USA.

For me, the emotion was so palpable that I * might * have burst into tears whilst talking to a young mother whose children helped to pack similar bags several states away.  There is so much brokenness, so much that is wounded and wrong in our world. And here we are, with our baggies full of toothpaste and soap.  Talk about “the least of these.”  Sheesh.  I mentioned to someone earlier today that one of my favorite characters is Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I felt as though I were charging at windmills for much of the day.

And we worked – a lot – on the house as well.  And we had an amazing dinner with some good friends from the Valley.  And we enjoyed another hot lunch courtesy of our hosts.  We are overwhelmed with blessings.  I’d say more, but it’s nearly midnight and I’ll be up six hours from now ready to start it all again.  So here are a few photos.

Our Respite Bags having been transferred to the incredibly temporary storage bin at Catholic Charities.

Meeting with Scott, the volunteer at the Respite Center who prayed for supplies and then we showed up…

I’d say Gabe’s back is looking pretty great, thanks be to God!

Beginning the process of laying the new roof (yes, we can see it is raining…)

Bob Walters is an amazing person. That is all.

Just a couple of Daves, doing drywall. Nothing to see here…

Josie takes charge with the drywall gun!

Jessica hanging drywall with patience and precision.

Tina learning to tape drywall.

Amazing dinner with long-time friends in a wonder-filled atmosphere. We are indeed blessed.

2019 Texas Mission #2

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

The first day of a construction/service trip is often slow to get going, as we’ve got to get the lay of the land in terms of the tasks that are in front of us, the tools at our disposal, the personnel we have on hand, and the constraints or opportunities any of those afford to us.  Today it felt as though we launched with lightning speed!

We’ve been invited to help a homeowner recover from some pretty intense flooding that hit this area last year.  This part of Texas is flat – I mean, FLAT. And we are essentially at sea level, even though we are so far inland.  That means that when an area gets hit by a hard, heavy rain, it can take some time for the water to get anywhere. As a result, homes that are built on a slab are at risk of flooding.  Such was the case in the property we went to today.

The remedy for this kind of flooding is to remove the bottom two feet or so of drywall so as to reduce the likelihood of mold or mildew setting in and causing long-term damage to either the home or its inhabitants.  Some of our group spent much of the day measuring and cutting through drywall and trim in order to accomplish this.  The rest of the team was sent up top, to remove the shingles from the roof as we anticipate replacing it later in the week.

It was a great first day of labor, and a better first day of coming together as a team and a community.  There was a lot of laughter and encouragement; some of us (I’m looking at you, Karen!) faced our fears and scaled new heights – literally – in order to work on the roof.  All of us enjoyed a delicious lunch of “Grandma’s sloppy joe” and, my personal favorite, GRAPEFRUIT PIE!  We first had this southern delicacy years ago, and my friend Martha made TWO of these treats for the group, along with a couple of blackberry pies.  If I was on my game, you’d see a picture of us, and these pies, and there would be lots of smiling involved… but the truth is that I was so engaged with visiting, listening to stories, and, well, eating that I didn’t get any.  I’m sorry about that, because those are shots I’d like to have some day, and maybe you’d like to see them.

We are eager to get back out there tomorrow and discover what is waiting for us on site and in our lives.  Until then, we are deeply grateful for the chances we’ve been given to be here and to be together.  Here are a few images from our day…

Starting the day in conversation and prayer with our team and members of the community here who have rallied to support us.

Kayla and Jessica preparing to remove the trim on the lower part of the walls.

Lindsay making sure that the lines are straight and the surface is prepared for the new drywall.

Karen wasn’t sure she could get up on the roof – but once she got there, she was unstoppable!!! (Oh, yeah, Jon, Bob, Tim, and the rest of the crew were there too!).

Clearing the old shingles off the roof was tedious work, and we were glad for the cool (64°) temps.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that the roof was in fundamentally good shape. We didn’t have to replace any of the wood, which was good for everyone!

There was a slight “wardrobe malfunction” as Kayla’s boot – practically new! – blew out. Fortunately, there’s duct tape for that…

2019 Texas Mission #1

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  In 2019 we have returned to the scene of most of those trips, the small city of Mission, Texas.  Here, as we enjoy the hospitality of our partners at the First Presbyterian Church of Mission, we’ll join forces with other mission networks to work to rehab a home that has been damaged by recent flooding.

We were commissioned in worship on February 10 and left Pittsburgh on the 16.  We flew to Harlingen and drove the final 45 minutes to Mission, arriving after midnight on the 17th.  Today was a day to get acclimated in several ways.  We joined our friends in worship, and then we visited the small chapel called La Lomita.  This historic site offers us a chance to think about the Christian virtues of hospitality, welcome, and faithfulness in the small things that shape us in large ways.

Lunch was a sumptuous affair at a local Mexican restaurant and then the team divided.  Bob, Lindsay, and Jahn went to the grocery store to equip us for our first few meals at the church, while the rest of the team visited the Bentson-Rio Grande Valley State Park located just a few miles away.  This is a sprawling area of trails and scrub that offered us the chance to soak up some warmth, to stretch our legs, and to see a few birds.

The visits to La Lomita and the State Park were bittersweet in that both of these areas are destined to be closed to the public as a result of construction of the proposed border wall that is currently a matter of no small debate. It was difficult to be in these places and to think of the fact that in years to come such will be inaccessible for political reasons.

Our dinner back at the church was fantastic, and we ended the evening with a rousing game of “Codenames”.

We appreciate your prayers!  Check back tomorrow for a glimpse at what we shall encounter next!

Amongst all the luggage we brought were three large cases of “respite kits” to be distributed to those seeking asylum in the USA. These small hygiene kits were assembled by dozens of volunteers in Pittsburgh and will be distributed with love.

The Chapel of La Lomita

Lunchtime at Tacos La Silla!

Lunchtime at Tacos La Silla!

A Crested Caracara keeps a watchful eye on our group.

Walking through Bentson-Rio Grande Valley

If you don’t know this game, you should! Codenames!