It was great to be back into our church visits so soon after our return to Malawi when on Sunday 27th September we had the opportunity to accompany Pastor Mulamba of Mulanje ZEC back to his Mpala Prayer House which sits several kilometers along a dust road south of Mulanje trading centre and near the Mozambique border by the Ruo River.We had last been at Mpala back in January at the peak of the flood crisis when we distributed emergency aid to the prayer house members as they struggled to find their feet after fields had been destroyed and many houses damaged.
Once again we received a warm welcome with one of the choirs – in their shiny ‘uniform’ – singing traditional songs of welcome as we met at the house of the founding elder of the prayer house: Mr Smart Norman. Then it was off to the ‘prayer house’ that turned out to be a couple or tarpaulins stretched across wooden frames under a grove of spreading trees.
It was certainly wonderful for Myles to have the opportunity to preach in such a quintessentially African setting, sitting under trees that shaded us from hot blue skies. This had the added advantage of providing readily expandable accommodation for the visitors from neighbouring churches who turned up. Because it turned out that – unbeknown to us – we were the ‘star attraction’ for a ‘Paper Sunday’ to help fund the building of a prayer house for Mpala so they have a proper roof over their heads.
Under the trees
We in the West are rightly emphasising that the church is the people not the building, and in a post-christendom Europe starting to free ourselves up for radical church planting by arguing we should be meeting in homes or community halls rather than investing in bricks and mortar. So the initial, romantic reaction of the Westerner is to ask: Why put so much effort into building yourself a prayer house when you can meet under a tree? But this is just another example of our thinking needing to be contextualized. You only need to have lived through one rainy season to know that relying on trees for shelter has its severe limitations! With a small prayer house having as many as 100+ in the congregation, neither is it an option to meet in a rural Malawi home that typically has a total floor area about that of the average UK living room. And with no public buildings other than churches in villages the option of renting a hotel room or a village hall is a non-starter.
Ostentatious but sacrificial giving
Now we have to admit that the approach to giving in the Malawi church is probably one of the biggest culture shocks we have faced since coming here. This is not a culture of quiet anonymous donations via bank-to-bank transfer after a subtle hint from the front about a need of the local church, or of a cheque in a brown envelope surreptitiously exchanged in a handshake. No, this is a culture of the most ostentatious, public, and rhythmic giving!
The case for giving is very publicly and forcefully made and then someone will stand at the front of the congregation with a big basket. Individuals or groups will then have their name called out and they are expected to dance up to the front and rhythmically and flamboyantly toss their gift into the basket one note at a time – having previously exchanged their money for a pile of 20 MWK notes (the smallest denomination and roughly the equivalent of a 2p coin) to get the maximum impact.
A Westerner brought up in a culture of “don’t let the right hand now what the left hand is doing” can feel very awkward to say the least. But get over that and you begin to be overwhelmed by the communal generosity as people from different denominations and churches gather to sacrificially help each other out. Remember this is a community struggling to keep its head above the water, hit by flood, desperately looking forward to the next harvest, feeling real hunger, and only able to afford a few kg of maize at a time, now that maize prices have almost doubled.
My topic for the day was “Treasures in Heaven” based on Matthew 6:19-24, emphasising the need to invest in eternity and to avoid trying to serve two masters. Perhaps the message was already understood, because in one sitting this small group managed to gather enough money to fire the pile of bricks that had already been moulded out of the clay we sat on and were sitting behind us ready to go. We later heard that the bricks had been fired the following week. It remains to be seen how quickly this fellowship will take to raise the money for the roof trusses and – the most challenging piece of all – the ‘iron sheets’ used for the roof.
We had one final surprise that day as we discovered that a group, led by their elder Mr Paulo, had traveled from Solija Prayer House in Mozambique – just on the other side of the Ruo river – to see us. We heard that their prayer house, attached to Mulanje ZEC even though the relationship crossed an international boundary, had about 120 members of which 70 are adults.
It was great to learn more about ZEC’s activity in northern Mozambique, but in the end they too wanted to talk about iron sheets. It transpired that this group had just built their prayer house for the third time. The previous two times, without an iron sheet roof, the heavy rains had destroyed the walls and they had had to start again. The sheer tenacity of this small group of Christians – who were willing to “try, try, try again” – was overwhelming. Once again we were left with that terrible dilemma; knowing that in absolute terms the cost of the iron sheets for Solija was not huge but that Zambesi Mission, working through ZEC, had so many in need of this kind of support that prioritization was a job worthy of Solomon!
We travelled home wiser, humbled, and conflicted. But we do hope and pray that before we leave Malawi we will see both Mpala and Solija prayer houses safely roofed!