Last weekend Zambezi Evangelical Church was joined by friends from Zambesi Mission and other friends from around the world to celebrate 125 years since Zambesi Industrial Mission was founded by Joseph Booth. It was a time for a typically Malawian celebration: a riot of joyous colour and song combined with heartfelt praise, thanksgiving and worship.
The celebration had really started during the week preceding the Mitsidi event, as our good friend Mike Beresford, the Mission Director of ZM, joined with ZEC pastors and members to cycle on typical Malawian single gear ‘pastors bicycles’ from Nsiyaludzu in Ntcheu district (where from 1895 ZIM was instrumental in bringing the gospel to the Ngoni people of what was then called Southern Ngoniland) to ZEC’s Mitsidi headquarters near Blantyre where in 1893 Joseph Booth established his first mission station. Mike was joined for part of the way by Colin Stonelake, the ZM Treasurer. The last day of this marathon cycle was a procession for the few miles from Limbe to Mitsidi that turned into a very Malawian cavalcade of police cars, cyclists, runners and trucks full of bands and singers. It certainly got the first day of the celebration off to a joyous (and noisy) start.
We had fairly limited parts to play in proceedings. History geek Myles had been working on a pictorial history of ZEC, pulling together information from the few ZM records that survived the WWII London blitz, various history books and material from former ZM missionaries. But at the last minute an opportunist thief ran off with Myles’ briefcase, PC and history display so this will have to await another day. However, our involvement in the ZEC Celebration Choir supporting Pastor Victor Zuze was a bit more successful with weeks of practice culminating in a performance of two Chichewa language songs on the Saturday and one English language song on the Sunday. Our respective roles would be very familiar to our Mickfield Evangelical Church friends with Ruth doubling as pianist and choir master and Myles as stumbling tenor. Victor wanted a choir singing in the style ZEC had in generations past and that certainly seems to have been successful given the enthusiastic reaction of the most senior of pastors.
The Celebration Choir nicely complimented the more traditional African styles of the church choirs and the upbeat gospel sound of the youngsters in the very polished Celebration Praise Band.
While Saturday had more of a festival atmosphere, there was still powerful preaching from the Chairman of the Synod, Pastor Jo Tsokalida. In meetings and one-to-one situations Pastor Tsokalida is deceptively quiet but once he is preaching he is a different man! He held enthralled the thousands that sat in a dusty natural amphitheatre and Myles for one could not help looking out at the sea of faces and thinking of Jesus preaching to the crowds by the Sea of Galilee.
When we arrived at Mitsidi on Sunday morning we saw even bigger crowds of folk, as people had continued all through Saturday to flow in by minibus, bus and truck from across the country. With such a beautiful climate and with people so used to hardy living there is less concern than in the West when it comes to accommodation. However, it did mean Mitsidi gave us a graphic picture of what the Israelite campsite in the wilderness must have looked like, as smoke rose in the morning air from each church group as the women cooked their meal over a three-stone fire.
Sunday was really the culmination of the celebration and a more formal affair than Saturday, but still full of colour and joy. The guest of honour was the Hon. Kondwani Nankhumwa, MP, Minister of Local Government and Rural Development who represented His Excellency the State President Prof. Arthur Peter Mutharika. Straight after arriving, Hon. Nankhumwa met with ZEC Synod leaders, ZM leaders and local dignitaries as – together with Mr Stein Willumstad of Norwegian Church Aid – Hon. Nankhumwa officially opened ZEC’s new hospital at Mitsidi. The building and the basic equipment has all been provided by Norwegian Church Aid and will be of huge benefit to the vast area of western ‘Blantyre Rural’ that until now has been serviced by a 1970’s maternity clinic.
Soon afterwards the main section of the celebration started: a service of thanksgiving to God for his work in Malawi and elsewhere through ZEC. Choirs sang wonderfully, the congregation sang with gusto, and the word of God was proclaimed forcefully as is the trademark of ZEC.
The high spot for most ZEC members did not seem to be the big dignitaries, but the return for the event by Rev. Abraham Folayan and his wife Ruth from their home in Nigeria. They lived for nearly 17 years in the house we have lived in the last 3 years, with Abraham teaching at the Evangelical Bible College of Malawi and being instrumental – among other things – in starting the extension course there. Over the years we have found that just to mention Abraham and Ruth’s name to ZEC folk is to hear tales that just radiate love and respect for the couple. And now we are seeing first hand why.
Abraham’s much anticipated message was a great encouragement to the gathered masses as he focussed on the importance of the gospel in our lives as individuals, and in the message proclaimed by us collectively as a church; pointing out that this gospel should be communicated through word and deed.
It was also exciting to hear prayers said in Chichewa, Chitumbuka, Portuguese and isiZulu to reflect the presence at the event of ZEC members from all corners of Malawi, and from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Places where ZEC congregations flourish.
As the event drew to a close, we reflected on how many familiar faces had greeted us over the two days as we walked down the lunch line or wandered about, and we came away encouraged by how God had allowed our lives to be touched by so many pastors, leaders and churches over the last three years. We felt that in a way this great celebration marked the beginning of the end of our time here in Malawi as we move into a phase where we spend more of our time finishing off and handing over, and as we begin to look back at what God has done in the last three years and looking forward to what he might have in store for us in the future.
And in many ways that is exactly what ZEC was doing as well this last weekend as it looked back and looked forward. So Hon. Nankhumwa caught the mood of us all so very well when – in the final stage of the celebration with speeches from various dignitaries – he chose to read from 1 Samuel 7:12. For surely it was an “Ebenezer” moment for both ZEC and us as together we looked back to say “Thus far the Lord has helped us”, and look forward in faith, seeking to continue ‘Stepping out with God’ for his kingdom’s sake.