Friday, April 17, 2009

Annual Church Council

I’ve spent the last couple of days at Ndamera, a small dot on the map at the southernmost tip of Malawi. To get there you have to travel south from Blantyre for about an hour and half on tar road and then another three hours or so on dirt. This was the location for the Africa Evangelical Church’s Annual Church Council meeting for 2009. It changes location each year to different areas so that different churches can host the event and so that no one church has to regularly bear the burden of hosting and providing for so many people.

The local church building was not big enough to handle the meeting or to house so many people. So, the local primary school, which is on holiday now, became the venue. Just over 100 delegates and pastors from many of the AEC churches throughout Malawi came together to discuss issues related to the denomination. I attend this meeting every year as one of the missionaries that works with the AEC and as the head of the mission that started the AEC many years ago and continues to work closely with them.

Like most things in life attending the meeting has its positives and not so positives. I’ll start with the positives:
- Goat and rice or nsima (just found out the other day that goat is the most eaten meat in the world!)
- Fellowship with friends – mostly pastors and evangelists that I only see a couple of times a year.
- Being part of the life and development of the church
- Cultural insights gained from tea time conversations
- Learning more about how local context so affects the types of problems the church faces. There is constant struggle with basic issues like providing for the pastors and constructing basic church buildings.
- Being part of a community. There is a certain sense of togetherness, even in the disagreements, that I think sometimes is missing in our individual focused societies.
- To bed at 8:30

The not so positives:
- Goat and rice or nsima for all meals (except breakfast of course!)
- Camping on concrete floors
- Sitting on hard wood desks for 8 hours a day
- Pit toilets
- The balancing act required to successfully bathe from a bucket in a small wet space without getting your clothes, towel and other things completely soaked.
- Being asked, “When will you have funds to help buy roofing sheets for our church 10 or so times.”
- Getting up at 4:30

The meeting has a function of defining and working out issues for the denomination as a whole. Reports are also given. The head of the church, treasurer, church department heads and local leaders all give reports. This often takes a full day of the meetings. I also give a report. The reports have a role of informing the delegates of what is going on as well as giving an opportunity for delegates to make suggestions about problems identified in the reports. There are also questions that are asked. It is sometimes a public calling of leaders into account.

This year the main agenda of the meeting was to discuss the “Handbook of Rules.” This is a booklet that defines how the denomination functions and sets out guidelines for practice. I often chuckle at the name. Western society has so grated against rules and structures in recent years that I am sure the mentioning of a “Handbook of Rules” to many in western society churches would make the hair on their necks stand up. It doesn’t seem to be an issue for the church here. The Handbook is seen as defining the community. It gives guidelines for how the community should function as well as an identity - our ways of doing things identify us and differentiate us from other groups.

In the discussions, I was pleased to see one particular change. The Handbook had a general statement to say that Christians should not be involved in witchcraft or traditional practices. This will be expanded to specifically name some of the practices that are prevalent in society. It will probably be a long list as each tribe has their own practices, but I am happy to see the church take what will hopefully be a stronger stand on these issues.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

When Death Enters Your House

Following a death, Sena tradition requires that cleansing take place. This practice, known as kupita kufa: that is ‘taking the death out’ or ‘widow cleansing’ is still widely practiced. If cleansing does not take place, it is believed that people can catch death from the widow or others that were close to the deceased. Death can be transferred through using items that belonged to the deceased or by allowing the widow to even wash her hands in your house.

Cleansing is done by an appointed person sleeping with the widow or another designated person a certain number of times in a prescribed way. If this is not done, people are not safe and they could begin to become sick and die. Those who refuse to participate in this are shut out from the community. They are troublesome because they are putting others at risk and aren’t allowing the items of the deceased to be inherited by others because they are considered unclean.

The pressure to participate is enormous. In the context of poverty, the possibility of being shut out of the village community is scary. The village is a safety net. If I have need of something, I can borrow it from my neighbor and in a few weeks time, they will borrow something from me. Everyone helps one another. If I am cut off, I have no one to rely on when needs come my way.

A pastor friend of mine, whose first wife died about five years ago, refused to participate in this. Up to this day, when he goes down to his village area his family refuses to eat with him. Pastor Stazio refused to allow his mother to participate when his father died and his relatives were upset because his father’s belongings could not be distributed. It is not easy to refuse.

Agnus Stazio, the wife of late pastor Stazio, has had a couple of hard weeks since his death. First there was pressure from family to participate in cleansing. She refused and left for Muona, the place where Pastor Stazio was serving. Talk about difficult pressure when you are just mourning the loss of your spouse. She heard that a relative was coming to persuade her to reconsider so she came to Blantyre three days ago. She has now learned that another relative took on the responsibility for the death when she refused and so has been released from the pressure to partake.

She is now worried about her survival. Her daughter, Yankho and son, Prince Jr. are both still young. Yankho only started school recently. Agnus is unlike the other widows of pastors in the church. They are all older and have grown children assisting them. She is not yet thirty.

She met with me and the head of the church today to ask for some financial assistance to start a small business. She plans to return to Muona where she and Prince had planted rice before he died. The rice is harvested in June. Prince’s sister is also there. She had been living with them going to school and needs to finish the year there so she can take her exams. After the school year ends, Agnus will probably return to her home village area of Tengani. She wants to start a business selling clothes from Tanzania.

Death is harsh anywhere, but I think that it is harder here where most don’t have the luxury of life insurance policies or a social security system that will help cushion them along till they have had enough time to get back on their feet. You either get back on your feet, of you don’t survive.

  • Pray for Agnus, Yankho and Prince Jr. as they continue to cope with the loss of Prince.
  • I’ll be in the far south of Malawi this week at the Africa Evangelical Church’s Annual Church Council. Pray that the church would make a specific statement about the practice of kupita kufa as they review the church’s book of policies which is used throughout the denomination.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Today I met Damales

I was introduced to Damales today. She is just two years old, was wearing a green dress and wasn’t too sure about this big white guy taking an interest in her. Her story is not uncommon. A couple of years ago, her dad passed away and eventually her mom remarried. When her mom began to get sick the new husband ran away and left them alone living near their grandmother. Last month her Mom died and now her and her four siblings are left with their blind grandmother. Her oldest sibling is a brother who is in eighth grade. This is what has become known as an ‘orphan headed household’. The fact that a category has been established tells you something about its frequency.

Our kids are off school this week. Caleb traveled with me as I escorted a visitor about an hour south of Blantyre to one of our three Orphan Care programs. This was my first time to visit the program at Phingo that opened last year. I had been to the area to preach before and had been there a lot in 2002 -2003 when we ran a large food relief program in the area.

The Orphan care program runs a preschool for children under five, assists orphans in the community with practical needs and scholarships a group of secondary school students. Today we visited the preschool and two homes in the community.

I was really pleased with the project. Gerald Chisale, the Orphan Care Coordinator, really works with the communities that we go into to ensure there is ownership and involvement. Both the building where the preschool meets and the kitchen where the children’s food is cooked were built by the community. The community is also involved in indicating which orphans are most in need. Gerald used to work a similar job with a different organization but was not permitted to express his faith so he joined us a few years ago.

At the preschool we watched as children recited numbers, letters and songs. They went outside to play follow the leaders and a game similar to duck, duck goose called hyena and goat. The children made a circle while holding hands. The one designated as the goat stayed inside the circle and the one designated as the hyena stayed outside the circle or fence. The goat then had to choose a spot to duck under a pair of arms and run around the outside of the circle and back in before the hyena could catch them. After some games, the kids had their meal of vitamin fortified porridge.

As we walked in the village to visit the homes I asked Caleb what he thought of Damales and her family. He said that it would be really difficult to lose both of your parents. He reflected on the fact that he is about the same age as the boy who now has responsibility for his three sisters and grandmother. “It would be really hard” he said. “Beyond that, the boy said that he is number one in his class at school,” pretty significant considering the circumstances.

As we prepared to leave Phingo I felt both good and bad. I felt good that there was a group of volunteers that are looking after Damales and her family. I felt good knowing that they have some food, school uniforms are being made for the kids and Damales and one of her sisters attend the preschool. People are looking out for them. At the same time I felt bad knowing that there are many other areas in Malawi that aren’t as fortunate. We’ve been planning on starting Orphan Care in a fourth location this year, but we’re not sure we’ve got the funds to do it. Pray with us.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Big Sunday

Spent the majority of my day in the township of Naocha at the local Africa Evangelical Church. I was asked to preach at their Big Sunday. I don’t know the history of Big Sunday, but have been to a lot of them. It is practiced throughout the country by many denominations. Big Sunday is a way of raising money – usually for a specific purpose. Today they were raising money for the electricity to be reconnected to the church and for some work to be done on the Pastor’s house.

Big Sunday takes place after the normal Sunday program and can take on many forms. Sometimes it is as simple as a set of special offerings. Sometimes it is as elaborate as a mock wedding where people celebrate by throwing money at a pretend couple – usually two small children from the Sunday school. It may consist of various singing groups being involved in activities to raise money. Food is almost always involved – the women of the church prepare food at home and it is then sold by the plate after the service. It may include a raffle for items ranging from bubble gum and balloons to cell phones. Today it was a mixture.

Money was collected to begin the program. Tickets for a raffle began to sell. Today the items included plastic bowls, an iron, a set of glasses and pitcher, a carafe and two cell phones. The cell phones, the iron and the pitcher and glasses were the items of excitement.

The youth choir was called to the front to sing. They had to pay some money to begin. As they sang, the audience could approach the MC with money and suggest all kinds of things. One can pay to change the song, to add members of the audience to the choir, to make people sit down, just about anything that you can think. I was quickly required to join the youth choir. Caleb soon joined me. I was about to pay to sit down when someone added more money and I had to stay. I was saved a couple of minutes later when someone came in and paid for everyone to stop and go eat.

Lunch was paid for by the plate. About a dollar would buy you some rice and a choice of beef or egg. For extra money you could buy cokes or French fries or some special meat that was being grilled outside.

After lunch everyone came back in and singing continued with the women’s group and youth choir again. Then there were some competitions. Which geographical area of members could give the most money? Caleb and Benjamin entered a competition to consume a bun and coke the fastest, but didn’t even come close. Then came the raffle draw and the end of the program. We left Naocha around three o’clock.

In all, the church raised 52,000 Kwacha or about $370 dollars. This was a real success considering that an average week’s offering might be about a fifth of that.
Random Cultural Remark – Technology and culture often go through a period of adjustment as new technology is integrated into a culture. The unwritten cultural rules (tacit culture) and etiquette of cell phone usage are still being worked through in Malawi. Since I was to be preaching today, I was standing at the front with the Pastor as he was leading a hymn. His phone obviously began to ring (left mine in the car) and he promptly left the pulpit to take the call. I was left standing at the front alone. For those of you who know me well – you know I enjoy singing, but I am probably the last person in the church that you want leading the music. Luckily, much to my relief, he returned before the hymn finished.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thoughts from SIM Global Leaders Gathering

Ryan’s summarized notes, conclusions and reflections from the recent - SIM Global Leaders Gathering

- SIM is struggling to continue to respond to the times. Over the past couple of decades, SIM has changed significantly and is continuing to change. Mergers with numbers of other missions, a major mission wide review and the more recent opening of avenues for missionaries from nontraditional sending locations to join into the work of SIM is continuing to push the mission’s thinking and challenge the existing mission structures. While it is a struggle, it is better than stagnation.

- While changes in recent years have opened more opportunities for those from non-western nations to join SIM, more needs to be done to help bring a true sense of belonging and ownership. Genuine listening and realistic workable solutions need to be sought. The issues are complex and cultural perspectives play a significant part in the working through of these issues.

- Diversity is one of the core values of SIM. This should lead in the direction of continuing to diversify the membership of SIM. A question of how much simultaneous change an organization can cope with needs to be dealt with. While diversity brings a richness of perspective and beauty it can also increase the potential for misunderstanding and conflict. Too much focus on making an overly diverse organization function could distract from the main mission.

- We run the risk of focusing too much on the “go” command of the Great Commission, which can focus on activity; rather than focusing on the “come and follow” command to the disciples, which focuses on our relationship to the Savior. (Rev Zac Niringiye)

- The changing world context requires a new global missiology. The old wine skins will not suite the new wine. New wine skins are required from new wineskin makers. The new wineskin makers need to rely on the skills of the old wineskin makers. (Pastor Oscar Muriu)

- There is a constant struggle to find leaders (the workshop on Leadership: opportunities and approaches to development, r
etention and succession/transition ) looked like it was the most well attended, showing a felt need among the leaders of the mission.

- Many SIM countries are working on reviewing their strategies. Many are working to reach unreached peoples. Leadership needs are many. Asia related work is growing quickly and in new ways (BAM, establishing new fields) Creativity is evident throughout the mission from both the sending and receiving sides.