Evangelicalism in Malta
Malta is a Mediterranean island situated 60 miles south of Sicily. Its population is 420,000, almost half of whom live in the capital, Valletta, and the numbers have been swollen in recent years by a stream of refugees from North Africa. Its official language is Maltese but many of the people speak English. It became independent from Britain in 1964 and entered the EU in 2004, taking the Euro as its currency. According to the constitution, Roman Catholicism is the state church and 95% of the population are linked to that denomination. It is proud of the fact that the apostle Paul was shipwrecked on the island although the location of the actual bay where he swam ashore on driftwood with all the other passengers on the boat is debated. Malta claims to be the first Christian country in Europe and some Roman congregations even advertise the Alpha course and show the Jesus film, dubbed into Maltese.
When Maltese American Joe Mifsud was 19, he and his brother were working for the Ford Plant in Detroit, a Christian colleague used to read his Bible in his lunch break at work. Joe’s older brother, also working in the plant, asked him some questions about praying and about praying to Mary, and the man gave some thoughtful answers. Then Joe’s birthday came and his brother gave him a zipped up New Testament which Joe began to read.
An event of recognition took place in the reading and he believed in Christ. Soon his brother also believed, and their parents too. Like many Roman Catholics, he thought at first that he could stay in Rome. He also went around other churches but wasn’t satisfied with any of them. And yet, he was increasingly disenchanted with Rome. The following year, he realised that the obvious church to go to would be the one his friend at work attended, a visit he had been putting off for a long time. Once he worshipped there, he knew it would be his home from then on.
A few years later this Maltese American and his wife felt a call to the land of his father’s birth. And so in 1984 he and his young family arrived on the island. Evangelical witness was desperately weak at the time, there was a tiny Plymouth Brethren assembly of a dozen people, but they knew of no other group of evangelical believers. So Joe began to witness and teach the Bible and gather together a group of professing Christians. To begin with, they met in their home until they were able to move to rented facilities.
In time, God led a Maltese Australian Baptist missionary, Michael Cini, and his wife Rita to move to Malta, visit the church, and get involved in the work. A couple of years later Joe and his father, visiting the family in Malta, were driving along when they saw a sign at the side of the road offering a piece of land for sale. They phoned the number and began to enter into negotiations with the seller, eventually purchasing the plot.
But other problems soon began. No building permit was issued to put up a church building there. They were counselled that no building permit would ever be issued there for a reason: the Archbishop of Malta had full jurisdiction over every church that could be built on the island and Joe and the congregation would not ask him for permission to put up a building. There had been Anglican and Methodist-Presbyterian churches on the island for over a century for non-Maltese military and their families to worship in, but until 1964 when the Constitution of Malta permitted freedom of religion, no Maltese were permitted to worship in them, and policemen were on duty to stop any locals entering the church. When it came to building the church, freedom of religion was a part of the Maltese law and the Baptist congregation sought to exercise their right to enjoy that freedom without having to ask permission from the Archbishop.
However, someone in the Maltese Government was sympathetic with the Bible Baptists’ appeal for permission to build their own place of worship. Curiously, the man was not an evangelical Christian but was concerned about the principle of Liberty. Joe Mifsud had been open with the authorities and had been given a work permit by the government in Valletta to pastor the Bible Baptist Church. In other words, the state of Malta had given him recognition as a minister of this church and there was now a small congregation meeting in the rented facilities. Their legal argument was that the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion should allow the congregation to have their own place of worship without needing permission from another religious authority.
The next year, an amendment of the Mortmain Act was passed through parliament specifically allowing the Bible Baptists to erect a church building, and so over the next few years, slowly but irresistibly, a beautiful high stone building was erected. The first stage was completed in 1994, about 10 years after they first began to meet at the Misfuds’ home. The second stage began recently, in the autumn of 2017. After approaching two dozen builders to take on this work, all of whom refused, the 25th man they contacted accepted the job. The pleasant problem that now faces them is that with 130 and more filling the downstairs sanctuary, they must legally provide better and safe access for the disabled in order to use the much bigger sanctuary upstairs which also has a gallery. A larger legal lift has to be installed, and new access from the top road. They hope that by 2018 all this will be completed.
Until then they continue to meet for Tuesday Bible Institute, an outreach each Wednesday to the smaller Maltese island of Gozo, Thursdays are the Prayer Meeting and student outreach from the nearby vast Malta University, and on Saturdays an evangelistic literature distribution outreach goes on. There are also work and building maintenance mornings which also involve office work by church volunteers. The Sunday Sermon video is made available online and DVDs of the Sunday sermons are given away free. Buses bring individuals to the Sunday services from all over the island and this has to be organised on a service by service basis. The Bible Baptists advertise in the Evangelical Times and people from the UK regularly find their way there by this means.
After his first ten years in Malta, and seeing the erection of the first stage of the building, Joe Mifsud was determined to return to Detroit, leaving the ongoing work to his successor. After a couple of years he visited the church again who told him that they needed him to return to the work. He and his wife also felt that their work there was not complete and so he returned, over a decade ago now, and preaches and pastors there to this day, ‘doing the work of two men’. In the last month and a half, he has been joined by a young Canadian and his family, Joshua Burill, and is thankful for the provision of a fellow worker.
The highlights of the Lord’s Day amongst the Bible Baptists was to sit next to Joe over Sunday lunch while he gave me a history of the Lord’s dealings with him. The auto-worker became a minister of the New Covenant and church planter in the land of his fathers. He talked gently of the way the work in Malta began, the individuals who were brought into the congregation, and how God dealt with them. He has humble hopes for the future and thanks the Lord for the grace that has brought him safe thus far, the same grace that will lead him safely home.
I thought of hundreds of such conversations with men sitting opposite me at meal times in the Bala ministers’ conferences and the Banner of Truth conferences and I reflected on the joy of these chance meetings. We spoke for two hours and I doubt I shall forget the sincerity and meekness and human kindness that sweetened a day when the temperature was reaching the high eighties. For all our travels and grand plans, the Christian life at its best is savouring these brief times of sincere fellowship; how little we know about the kingdom of God in the world today.
After Joe drove me back to my cousin’s apartment on the island, I shook him warmly by the hand and watched with regret as he walked away.
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