A change of plan meant that Ruth and I had the opportunity to travel with Michael Priestley and his ZM driver Anthony, to visit five ZEC churches in the Mulanje area east of Blantyre.
Michael is the sort of older Christian who is a challenging example to us all. He must be well into his seventies and he has been visiting Malawi from England for 23 years. Initially he came with his wife Joy, they fell in love with the people and the place, and even after her death eight years ago Michael has been coming back regularly to buy and distribute bibles in the local Chichewa language using money gifted by Christians in the UK.
It was a great excuse to get out into the Malawi countryside which proved very different from Kenya. Almost every scrap of land seems to be under cultivation in this densely populated land with little houses scattered everywhere. Whereas Kenya is full of wood/mud huts or stone/concrete houses, Malawi is a land of brick houses. Indeed most houses look like they have risen straight from the soil they stand in, with the family cutting clay straight out of the land, building the unfired bricks into their own kiln, and firing the bricks of their house right there on the spot.
Our trip east also took us through expansive tea plantations towards the huge natural rock formation of Mulanje Massif which is all the more impressive because of the way it rises straight out of the flat plain of Malawi. It reminded Ruth and I of the stunning landscape of Yosemite in California that we enjoyed last summer, and my hill walker’s eye couldn’t help but try to work out the best way up those steep stone buttresses. Maybe I will get the chance to walk there some day.
Over the next few hours we visited each of the churches in turn. They were quite different in many ways, ranging from an established congregation still meeting in a school hall, to newer congregations with large cool church halls of their own. But in many more ways they were very similar. Each one gave us such a genuine and warm welcome that you felt immediately at home as the people sang wonderfully rhythmic songs of welcome in Chichewa. In each one church leaders and members eagerly gathered to hear Michael speak about the Gospel and present 30 bibles to churches where only a handful of bibles existed. And in each one, the pastor’s family, out of the very little they had, gave us such wonderfully refreshing hospitality – including too many packets of biscuits!
Ruth and I had heard a lot over the last few days about the state of the church in Malawi from the General Secretary of ZEC and the Principle of the bible college, but this was our opportunity to gain an invaluable “grass-roots” experience. The day re-enforced so many lessons from God over the last few weeks: that God’s work is done in the simplest of church buildings in Africa as it is in the grandest of structures in England; that people such as us and our local hosts who have so many differences of colour, culture, wealth and education can immediately bond through the indwelling of the one Spirit and the lordship of the one Christ; and that faithful men in worn clothes, living in mud brick 2 room houses, are often the most inspirational and noble men of God.
Of course we also saw great need. We saw churches with hundreds of members with only a handful of bibles between them; churches where one pastor was overseeing a big church and 4 or 5 daughter “prayer houses”; a church where the community’s life had been changed by a well, turning a 15km trek for water into a short stroll.
The beautiful simplicity of worshiping God in a simple concrete floored, wooden benched, brick walled, tin roofed hall was overwhelming. The lack of electricity, amplification, PowerPoint and electric keyboards was refreshing. The unaccompanied, harmoniously rhythmic, worship songs were moving.
Certainly Ruth and I finished the marathon day with our recently acquired “head knowledge” of the church in Malawi enhanced with the beginning of a “heart knowledge” of the people and pastors on the ground. We certainly saw why Malawi is called “the warm heart of Africa”, and perhaps began to gain some real understanding of where our gifts and skills might serve these wonderful people and serve Christ’s Kingdom.
As we finished our last visit, the pastor turned to Michael and asked Michael if he remembered him. Three years before, Michael had presented each of the wives of the graduating pastors at the local evangelical Bible college with a bible. One of these women had been the Pastor’s wife and she wanted Michael to know that she still treasured the bible, and that inside its cover she still saw daily the dedication in memory of Michael’s wife Joy.
What a moving tribute to one man’s quiet and faithful service over the years. This summer it seems that God has been repeatedly showing Ruth and me (in Ireland, in Romania, in Kenya, in Malawi, in reports from Peru) that He doesn’t so much work through the flashy or the self-important but through those who have least materially, and think of themselves to be the least spiritually. It is those he will surprise by saying “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40) and “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21).