Pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church in Pickering Ontario, and editor of Sovereign Grace Journal (www.sgfcanada.com)
It is hard to put in words what it meant to leave Canada and to go to the continent of Africa, an Africa I thought I would never see in this lifetime, and possibly only in the new heavens and new earth. For many years Pastor Jim Clemens and his wife Cathy have worked in Malawi with Emmanuel International and have sought to encourage pastors and wives (if possible) to go to Malawi and encourage the church there. Brother Jim, also affectionately known as Jungle Jim, is a very persuasive fellow and after years of prodding finally prevailed on me to make the trip despite my inordinate fear of snakes, lions and crocodiles. With the help of Faith Baptist Church in Scarborough, Grace Baptist in Essex and Sovereign Grace Community Church in Sarnia the funds were raised and preparations made that would land me in Lilongwe, Malawi, and the adventure of a lifetime.
The team consisted of Pastor Kirk Wellum (Sarnia), Pastor Marvin Mountney (Saskatoon) and, who for some strange reason was called Frank in Malawi, Marvin’s wife Robin, and Frank McLaren (Kingston). We met each other on May 9th at the headquarters of Emmanuel International in Stouffville, Ontario. The day was spent packing the many gifts acquired by the representative churches and orientation which instructed us on what to do and not do while in Malawi. Late in the afternoon we all piled into a van and were driven to the Toronto Pearson Airport where our adventure was to begin. I had threatened my congregation I would hide out there for the three weeks until the team returned but the members of the team made sure I climbed aboard.
Arriving at Heathrow in London, England we had a stay over of twelve hours so I left the team members and navigated the London Bus system to visit Pam Fellows’ kin the Pearmans (Beryl and Alan). Actually I was very proud of myself navigating the bus system and thought Africa would be a breeze. I was grateful for the kind hospitality and refreshing stay at the Pearmans. Their son Andrew and his wife dropped by and Andrew shared some of his experiences when he was in Africa. The Pearmans then drove me back to the airport and the second leg of the journey.
The team was all together now and as we boarded the plane we all wondered what was in store for us as we journeyed to Malawi. It was night, unfortunately, so we couldn’t see the great Sahara desert and could only follow our progress across the great African continent by watching the monitors on the screen in front of us. I thought if David Livingstone was looking from above he would have thought we were a bunch of wimps considering the things he suffered to bring Christ to Africa, but that didn’t stop us from complaining about the uncomfortable seats and abominable food.
There was a short stop over in Nairobi, as the sun rose, and then in the glorious African sunshine we rose into the bright blue sky on eagles wings. Below were rivers, lakes, forests and villages with tin roofs sparkling like a South African diamond mine and in the distance Mount Kilimanjaro. It was all very beautiful and we were awe struck as I strained my eyes from 30,000 feet to spot an elephant or lion in fields.
We had hardly slept a wink since leaving Canada, and were running on adrenaline ready for anything Malawi had to offer. I noted a passenger on the plane wearing a baseball cap with his name beginning with Rev. on it, and I asked him if he was going to the pastors’ conference in Liwonde. Why I thought that would be the case I don’t know, but he told me he was from Kentucky and heading back to visit some relatives. I tried then to milk him for information on Africa and how to say hello and what not but he told me politely that he wasn’t being paid enough for that, turned away and ignored me which I thought was rather rude for a Rev!
Finally, we arrived at the airport in Lilongwe (the capital of Malawi) where we knew Jim would be anxiously waiting for us. We were first of all stopped by a medical officer who asked where we were from. The others had gone on ahead of me, and I said, ‘Canada.’ Immediately, the team who had claimed Heathrow as their point of departure, did a U turn and came back realising Robinson had said the fateful word. SARS was in the headlines and the Malawians were concerned about Canadian citizens and the spread of the disease. We then had to fill in some forms and were informed that if we got a fever or any such thing to see a doctor immediately as they had been alerted about the disease. After that customs was a breeze except one of the hockey bags containing gifts for the Pastors was lost in transit. We all felt bad about that and to my knowledge it was never recovered.
True to his word Jim was present and I, for one, was happy to see his smiling face. We were immediately surrounded by willing hands to help with luggage and the hockey bags. I assumed they were all local pastors who had come to help us out and escort us to the ministerial retreat a little way down the road. It turned out that they were just locals making a buck or two by lifting the heavy loads. I realised then that I had to get
over the notion that the pastors’ retreat was not an national event in Malawi.
Jim drove the mission van and I sat in the front while the other team members took their places in the back. Malawi is very beautiful and the sights and sounds were all very wonderful. It was new and exciting and we were all trying to drink it in with one gulp. We stopped for gas and got our first taste of the sellers everywhere present and persistent in Malawi. Of course, we stood out like white greenhorns in that setting. Jim then took the road to our destination and the conference centre in Liwonde. That was the first shock – to see everyone walking the highway or on bicycles and other conveyances, sitting piled high on the back of trucks and Jim driving at breakneck speed. I hung on for dear life expecting half the population of Malawi would be dead or injured by the time we reach Liwonde. Several times I found myself closing my eyes and digging fingernails into the dash as a goat or bicycle would dart across our path. I was also taken by the loads the women carried on their heads, usually accompanied by an infant on their back, yet maintaining an upright posture. Malawians are not a big people but are wiry and very strong. Nevertheless, it was on the first trip that I learned I need not fear the lions or crocodiles so much as Jim’s driving.
Arriving in Liwonde we saw another Malawian feature the market place built right next to the highway. Malawi seems to be a population on the move, and your wonder what they are all doing and where they are going. Cathy Clemens greeted us at the door and it was a grand reunion. We sat down to a lovely supper and after some conversation, found our bedrooms, crawled tinder the mosquito netting and fell fast asleep, while a watchman slept outside to keep us safe. (PS. if Jim offers to cook you some fish make sure you take him up on it as his fish is better than any fish and chip shop I have ever visited). The morning greeted us with an early sun rise, the village rooster crowing and the swish of a broom sweeping the sand court yard outside. An early breakfast and then off to Zomba where we exchanged our American money for kwachas at the local money mart. I had handed the girl four hundred dollars and she gave me thirty eight thousand kwachas. Wow! I was a millionaire and all I needed was a wheelbarrow to haul it away. That done we were taken to the top of Mount Zomba and enjoyed a cup of tea and scone in a beautiful colonial hotel. We were getting a taste of Malawi and learning how easily Africa can seduce you into loving it.
That night we were introduced to the pastors from Malawi and their wives. The gifts were also handed out with a bag of sugar, tea and bicycle tires. After shaking hands with two hundred pastors and their
wives, our hands were sticky with a strange mixture of sugar, tea and rubber. The welcome was most generous as huge smiles and warm looks made us feel at home. The gifts were greatly appreciated as they received clothing and hygienic products. The next day we began our ministry to the Malawian nationals. We spoke through interpreters and thought, in the beginning, everything was being repeated word for word. The jerky first experience went more smoothly when Jim informed us that the translation was general and not particular (probably a better sermon resulted as well). The topics were varied as the team members spoke on: interpreting the Bible; I Timothy; Sermon on the Mount; deacons and elders; and several sermons relating to the Jesus film which was shown every night in the auditorium. After some hesitation, the ministers present welcomed the opportunity to ask questions, and in doing so we realised that the problems the church of Christ faces are universal.
Which brings me to the next topic – food. After each morning session we were invited to dinner with some of the local pastors. The food consisted of sema (white corn, pounded into submission by the women) which we all had trouble with, beans, chicken and boiled cabbage. On one occasion we entered a village where Frank McLaren and I were to speak to those villagers who belonged to the local Baptist Church. The good ladies had been preparing all morning and as special guests, we were taken to a room, apart from the others, but with a few local dignitaries. We sat on the floor as the food was place on the mat. The ever ubiquitous sema was present along with a whole fish and some little fishes in a bowl. I wondered how I was going to handle this, but Jim was sitting beside he, so I leaned over and said, ‘Jim, show the way.’ ‘I can’t,’ he whispered, ‘I am fasting today. ‘You rat,’ I thought, as he then kindly showed me how to eat the fish without having any himself. Sometime later in the day I saw Jim scoffing some cookies in the van and thought, ‘yeah, some fast!’ The fact is they gave us what they had and I am sure if we had remained in the country long enough we would get used to sema and fish.
Following the pastors’ conference which ended Thursday night with warm farewells, we all went south to a camp ground by Lake Malawi. This lake is five hundred miles long and exceedingly beautiful. David Livingstone travelled down this Lake in his steam boat and explored its length. There was a retreat for the missionaries of the area. The sandy beaches were a delight and the children swam with abandon. For the ‘ex-pats’, as they were called, this was an opportunity for them to get together, enjoy each other’s company and to be ministered to by the team, as many live tinder isolated circumstances. By this time the Seilers had joined us from Mozambique, and we had opportunity to question them about their work and life in that part of Africa. They were delighted to have fellowship with all the folk, and told us that Mozambique is slowly recovering from years of war and drought.
Unfortunately, by Friday afternoon I was beginning to feel ill. I went to bed achy and with a fever, and found it hard to breath. The sight of food was too much. Was this a case of SARS? Should I seek out the local doctor? Kirk and I were sleeping in a tent, and I was up and down all night while Kirk patiently bore my tossing and turning. About one o’clock I felt something crawling over my face, in fact several things. I grabbed my flashlight and waved it around the tent in abject horror only to discover ants had invaded by the thousands. I woke up Kirk who groaned and told me he had to have his rest and to put up with the ants as best as possible, so I slept through the infestation with some success. The next morning I was no better, struggling with a fever and upset stomach, but secretly rejoicing that I was now one of the long list of martyrs to meet my doom in Africa. In order to come to some resolution about my illness, I read the direction on my malaria medication and any possible side affects. I learned that I had everyone of them except the hair loss, and if it kept up, that was probably next. Needless to say I stopped taking the medication, insisting to the camp nurse that I would rather have malaria, but she being rather stern, provided other medication that seemed to do the job, and my health began to recover as well as my appetite.
The second week saw Frank, Jim, Kirk and myself in Blantyre so named because it is was the name of the birth place of David Livingstone in Scotland. The Mountneys had gone north to teach in a mission run by Germans. Kirk would spend the week instructing the students at a local Bible School and Seminary in Blantyre, while Jim, Frank and myself ministered in the villages in south and north Malawi. It was a very exciting time as all the villagers seemed to come out and greet us. In one place the women welcomed us on their knees, and I asked the translator what they were singing. It was a song that simply said, ‘We welcome you on our knees.’ The singing was wonderful as they love to sing and dance as they sing. It was not offensive (even to this dull Calvinist) but very moving and touching. The drum is the main musical instrument, which they play with great verve, while the ladies shake cans with beans in them. I even saw a home made guitar fashioned out of tin. The church buildings are made of baked brick with concrete pews and thatched roofs. The children sit very well while the young are nursed, without embarrassment, except to us Westerners. The meetings are long as it is a special occasion and everyone, elders, chiefs cooks and bottle washers must be introduced. Sometime the formalities took so long I forgot what I was preaching on, yet despite the length they never seemed restive or bored. In fact we were all struck by how cheerful they seemed despite grinding poverty and difficulties in their lives.
I recall one Sunday in particular when we went into the villages to preach. Team members were to be dropped off one by one and collected later. We got lost in the jungle for a time and I was sure we would never preach that day. Finally, when they couldn’t find my village they dropped me and my translator off so we could find the village on our own. I was uncertain and said to Kirk (who had promised my wife he would look after me), ‘Make sure you come back for me!’ We walked about two miles and arrived at the village to a huge welcome. I preached on the ‘foolishness’ of the cross to about two hundred and fifty people. We then went to the chief’s house for dinner. It was here I was introduced to some of the pain of Africa as one fellow told me he had Aids and another that he was losing weight and didn’t know why. We walked back to the village and saw the church full of children. Oh what a time we had. I tried to learn the language, danced for them, and sang 0 Canada and we laughed and laughed. They sang to me in their language (Chichewa) and recited their Scripture memory work. This went on for about an hour and half and I was just beginning to run out of material when the team found the village and we had to say a sad farewell.
Another memorable occasion occurred when brother Kirk, Frank and myself visited the local prison in Blantyre with the prison chaplain Pastor Chicwandli. The prison has about four hundred inmates and to enter it was quite an experience. As the prison gate shut I prayed to the Lord that this would not be the day the prisoners decided to riot. We met the prison warden, who was a little man in an ill fitting uniform, but he told us, ‘Preach the Word because these men need the Gospel.’ We sat with the prisoners in a room in which at least seventy five were present. They sang with such enthusiasm and a fellow beat the drum until the handle flew off. We spoke to the prisoners who appreciated our coming and shared this comment, ‘They think we are animals but we are not. We are human beings.’ Three of them sang a song, ‘Where do we find Jesus?’ The singers walked about everywhere trying to find Jesus and could find him nowhere. Then they picked up my Bible and waved it high and said, ‘here is where we find Jesus!’ This was all translated for our benefit. When I spoke, I thought of some way to reach across the barrier and make contact with the prisoners, something we might have in common. I was going to tell them my son is a prison guard but it was one of the few times my brain informed my mouth to be quiet. We were all struck by the harshness of prison life, and how some have not even been tried in two years. Pastor Chicwandli was a real life line to these men and their desperate families.
The third and final week we travelled north to Mzuzu and the home of Pastor Lancaster. The north of Malawi is not as populated and looks very much like Canada. They have planted pine trees from Canada and are very proud of their northern forests. In Mzuzu a three day conference was held, and the newly built church was dedicated. We visited a local village and saw a school of two hundred or more children. The facilities were very poor, with few textbooks or black boards, but we brought many books and pens for the students, and also two soccer balls. They love to play soccer and I often played with them on warm sunny afternoons. Their skills, even as children, would be the envy of any soccer nation and to receive these soccer balls for the school was heaven.
At the village we preached to one of the smaller crowds. But the local chief was so happy to see us and spoke to us with tears in his eyes saying, ‘Once I was lost but now I am found’. This meeting was interrupted by the women (who sit on mats during meetings) when they went screaming and running in all directions. At first I couldn’t figure out what was going on until a snake darted out from one of the mats. The men chased it with clubs but the snake moved mighty fast and escaped.
One of the practical things we were able to do was to pay for Pastor Lancaster’s house. It was built under a program called ‘habitat for humanity’, and his dear wife was so proud of her red brick home. This house would seem a little primitive to us but to them it was one of the better ones. He had to pay for it by buying one bag of cement a month. When he started a bag was two hundred kwachas but had risen to eight hundred and he was falling into arrears. So we pooled our resources and for five hundred dollars of our money bought out the mortgage. It was a happy day for he and his wife and meant the churches resources could now go into the school and other projects.
Following, our ministry in Mzuzu we drove back to Liwonde for our departure. In the process we stopped at a beautiful resort along Lake Malawi and stayed the night. We swam in the Lake, read and relaxed on the beach. It was quiet and very peaceful. Everything seemed to fall in place, and the hard work of the previous weeks felt rewarding and satisfying. We saw God’s hand at work and the kingdom of Christ ever increasing. We were warmed to find brothers and sisters of the cross living and loving Jesus: to know we would meet in glory and have all eternity to spend together: to see how so little could go so far in a country like Malawi and how they had gained a measure of contentment not easily found here in the West. The need is great but our resource is as theirs, the triune God. Contacts have been made, prayers ascend that did not ascend before, and gifts now can be sent with the joy of knowing that they will bring praise to the hearts of God’s loved ones in that country.
Jim and Cathy have carried on a loving ministry in Malawi and have been greatly used of God to strengthen and establish the work of the Spirit in Africa. The country is very religious, and to gather a hearing is relatively easy as there are few distractions. The Jehovah Witnesses are everywhere as are the Moslems and other sects, but Christ does have a people, and his elect are being wooed and won in that nation as in every nation in the world. I will never forget Malawi. The joy we had in service; the fun and the laughter; the child who sidles close to you and holds your hand; the night at the Italian pizza place where we sat by the pizza oven warmed ourselves and ate one of the finest pizzas on earth; the hawkers and sellers; the starry nights at Lake Malawi; the black faces with beautiful white smiles; the smells and the pain of hurt; a leper’s hand reaching yours while his face glowed with the joy of the Lord; but through it all the hand of God saving and keeping his people.
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