Chiloidateth

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Participants at a “Youth” Discussion.

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

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

The congregation with which I worshiped.

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

Black-Winged Red Bishop

Black Crowned Crane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Report from South Sudan

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

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

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

Rev. Philip welcoming our team at Juba Airport.

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

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

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

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

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

Madut and Thomas

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

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

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

Just a few tourists visiting the Nile…

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

Michael Weller

 

A welcome from Mama Achol!

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

At the Ministry of Health

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

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

Dr. Lanjesi along with Rev. Obat at NTC.

The library at the Juba Campus of NTC.

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

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

The Pilgrimage Continues…Update from Addis Ababa

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My well-appointed room in Addis Ababa!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Africa Pilgrimage Update #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