A brief encounter with EPC Malawi from 6-17 Aug 2011, by Rev JJ Lim, reproduced with permission. Picture from publicdomainpictures.net.
When I was a young boy, I kept many aquarium fishes as pets. Some species were quite rare and expensive, and so I would covet after them, and then greatly treasure them whenever I had saved enough to buy a pair. One such species is known as the Malawi Golden Cichlid (Melanochromis auratus). This is a beautiful fish, usually bright yellow in colour, with a couple of black lateral stripes along its flanks. It originates from the hard water of Lake Malawi in Africa. I remember as a child, dreaming of one day visiting Lake Malawi to see the beautiful cichlids in their natural habitat.
On August 6-17, 2011, part of my dream came true! No, I did not get to see Lake Malawi, much less the beautiful fishes. But I experienced something better. I saw beauty that touches the soul and brings a tear to the eyes.
The Republic of Malawi is a landlocked country in south east Africa. It is bordered by Zambia to the northwest, Tanzania to the northeast, and Mozambique on the east, south and west. Its size is over 118, 000 km2, with a width of about 150 –200 km, and a length of 800 km. Three quarter of the land is flanked by Lake Malawi on the East. The island of Singapore (50 km across) can fit snugly into the width of Lake Malawi at almost every point.
Malawi was formally a British colony, so about 60% of the population can understand some English, though the percentage drops drastically in the rural areas. Most people speak and read Chichewa. This is the same in the churches outside the major cities so that all sermons have to be interpreted from English.
Christianity was first introduced to Malawi by David Livingston and other missionaries working in the lakeshores in the late 1800’s. Despite an initial hostile welcome, it is estimated that today about 75-80% of the population are professedly Christian. That would, however, include Roman Catholic and all sorts of cults and syncretistic pseudo-Christian groups.
EPC Malawi (EPCM) was constituted in 2008 when a group of pastors who had met at a certain Bible conference years earlier were convinced that they needed to leave their denominations in order to work together for the furtherance of the Gospel in all purity. They were providentially led to seek help from EPC Australia (EPCA) by means of the internet. Eventually with the help of elder Peter Torlach and the materials sent by the EPCA, the pastors began to teach aspects of the Reformed Faith and the congregations began to grow. The pastors had earlier worried that the introduction of the Reformed Faith might drive the people away, but their fears were unfounded as the denomination became one of the fastest growing churches in Malawi!
Today there are 5 presbyteries, Luchenza, Phalombe, Zomba, Liwonde, and Shire Valley. Most of these congregations have a few congregations, each with between 100-400 adult members apart from the children. There are currently 5 ordained ministers of the Gospel, namely: Pastor Rex Chitekwe, Ps Precious Kanyowa, Ps Royd Waya, Ps Jack and Ps Magriva of Mozambique. Pastor Geofry Sakhura passed away to glory in September 2010. Of these, only Pastors Rex, Precious and Royd can speak English fluently.
I arrived at Blantyre Airport on 6 Aug 2011. The customs officer had never seen a Singaporean Passport before and so asked me to retrieve my baggage before getting my passport back. For a moment I thought they were going to repatriate me as one officer after another shook his head after looking at my passport. Thankfully, they eventually decided to let me go when they did not know what else to do. But the custom officers (six or seven of them) who inspect the baggage wanted me to open up my bags. I was a little worried that they might find trouble with all the medicine and saline bottles and syringes I was carrying. But providentially, elder Phil Connors and Pastor Rex appeared just in time to rescue and received me! I thanked God silently in my heart for his deliverance.
Pastor Connors and brother Jonathan Burley had gone with the rest of the pastors to visit a couple of churches in the Mulanje region.
As soon as we got out of the airport, we headed for a shopping centre. Blantyre is a relatively well-to-do precinct, so the supermarket was quite well-stocked, though everything cost surprisingly as much as they do in Singapore or Australia after currency conversion. Phil needed to buy some provisions for the team as well as to prepare for the trip to the Shire Valley. Our Australian brethren would be heading there after I return home. Conditions would be much harsher there, so they had to prepare essentially to camp out in the open. We bought tents, sleeping mats, a gas stove, cooking utensils, etc, etc.
Providentially, when we got back to the Mudzi lodge where we would be staying, the other van arrived with the rest of the pastors and I enjoyed a warm welcome of handshakes all round. But nothing was to prepare me for the welcome we would receive at the congregations which we would visit over the next few days.
The first congregation I visited with our Australian brethren was Thundu EPC in Phalombe, on Lord’s Day, 7th August. The 15-seater van was packed full. In addition to the team, and the pastors, there were 2 other elders, Pastor Precious’ wife and daughter and Pastor Royd’s wife and daughter. We enjoyed a happy and profitable time of fellowship all the way. The scenery was spectacular. But the conversation was even more worthwhile as Ps Connor and I engaged in theological discussions with Pastor Rex and Precious. At times, however, the corrugations of the dirt road rattled the old bus so loudly that conversation had to wait for a smoother patch of road. The whole journey took about three hours. We were told the pastors often have to cycle on such roads for many hours to reach the congregations they minister to.
The congregation was already standing outside the church building waiting for us when we arrived. As soon as the van came to a stop, the whole congregation started singing enthusiastically. “Tate ndamalinga…” We are told that they were singing words to the effect: “God our Father is so good to bring our visitors here to encourage us.” It was a moving and unforgettable experience.
When the singing stopped we were ushered into the church hall. It was a simple shelter cobbled together with straw and bamboo sticks covering a wooden frame. The seats were made of compacted mud. As was their custom, the womenfolk, many dressed in uniform white and blue, sat on one side of the hall with the children, while the men, many dressed in suit and tie, sat on the other side. Apparently each Christian denomination in Malawi informally adopts a dress code for the women to wear when they come for worship. For the EPCM, it comprises a white headdress, white blouse and long blue skirt.
The worship was simple. Pastor Rex called for worship in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then there was reading of scriptures, prayers and singing of Psalms without instruments. Yes, EPCM has already adopted Purity of Worship as a church after reading some of the materials which were sent to them. They had not been able to translate the book of psalms into singable Chichewan, so they sang from the psalm portions found in their regular songbooks.
Each of the visitors were then asked to introduce themselves and to give a word of encouragement before Pastor Connors was invited to preach with Pastor Precious interpreting. After the sermon was completed, another psalm was sung before the service was concluded with a benediction. But the meeting was not over yet. Pastor Rex started to call for each group in the congregation which wanted to present an item of celebration. First, the women, then the men, and then the youth. Each group sang and danced with great exuberance and joy unseen anywhere else in the world that I have been to. All their songs had biblical themes related to the Christian walk and spiritual battles. Then the children as young as two years old were invited to come forward. They had no prior notice, nor practice, but Pastor Rex set himself as the choir master and led them to sing. And boy, they sang really well! And as Pastor Connors put it: “The African rhythms, melodies and harmonies are simply glorious. This is an awesome and utterly delightful experience that brings tears to the eyes.”
This experience was repeated at each congregation we visited. It was so at the Zaone EPC in Zomba, three hours North which we visited on Monday, 8th August. In this congregation, there were a number of members who were converted from Islam. Again it was repeated at the Khanyepa and Muhasuwa congregations in the region of Chiradzulu, which we visited on Tuesday, 9th August. I had the privilege of preaching in one of these congregations, and to give a word of exhortation at the other. It was slightly different, however, when we visited the Namiwa congregation near Luchenza on 11th August. This was Pastor Rex’s main congregation. To his own surprise, about 200 people from his congregation came out to the main road to welcome the van! They were dancing and waving boughs of Mango and Yellow Oleander and singing “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The van had to crawl along as the children were surrounding the van, and old women were wiping it with their shawls. The whole experience was moving and surreal.
The church building had been destroyed during a storm in the summer months, so we gathered at its ruins. A shelter had been erected for the pastors and visitors, but the rest of the congregation sat uncomplainingly on the ground on broken bricks in the hot sun!
After the usual welcome songs and greetings, I was asked to preach. Providentially, the first passage that came to mind when I was asked to preach was Matthew 6:13-27, and I was able to borrow the boughs of two children standing in front of me to illustrate that only true faith will produce good fruit. The Oleander shrub produces a poisonous fruit. It will never produce good fruit like the mango tree! In order to make sure that they are good trees, the members of the EPC must know the Scriptures and learn it well that they may be as the man who builds his house upon the rock and not on sand!
Feeling the Ground
The Conference was scheduled for Friday, 12 to Monday, 15 August. Before the Conference, on 10 August, Pastor Connors and I spent much time talking with the pastors and ministerial students to ascertain their level of understanding in regard to the Reformed Faith. What we discovered quite surprised us. We discovered that their understanding of the biblical faith was rudimentary at best. Calvinism was practically unheard of; and the Commandments of God were neither known nor taught for the most part. One ministerial student who understood English thought that justification refers to God creating the world, whereas sanctification refers to evolution. Perhaps it was just a momentary confusion.
Upon further inquiries, we discovered that the majority of the members of the church did not own a Bible. Most could not afford to buy it, we are told. Most of the elders and ministerial students did not have Bibles! And when Ps Connors and I had the opportunity to ask the congregations where we were asked to preach, we discovered that there were only 3 or 4 Bibles amongst the hundred or so adults gathered in each congregation.
It is a small wonder that they did not know where to turn to when a passage of Scripture was referred to! And not only did they not have the Bible, they have not have the opportunity to attend any systematic instruction of Biblical truths. Though they had the Westminster Shorter Catechism sent to them, they had not been able to use them effectively at all due to various limitations.
It was then that we felt it necessary to divert some of our funds to buy Bibles before the conference. We bought 50 copies from the Bible Society of Malawi, and asked Pastor Rex to send a message out to the elders who would attend the Conference, that they should bring a Bible along. We were to later discover that many of them were not able to, and would have had no Bible to follow the lessons if not for the Bibles which we purchased.
Also, when we discovered that most did not have the catechism, we requested for Pastor Rex and Pastor Precious to organise the pastors to try to translate at least the first part of the Westminster Shorter Catechism into Chichewa. They had only two days to do that, but it was necessary if the conferees were to benefit from the lessons. Thankfully, Pastor Rex was able to find an old translation of the catechism that night, and the next morning, they were able to reproduce 200 copies for the conferees after seeking approval from Pastor Connors.
The conference was held from in the ASTEPI (Arts Science and Technology Private Institute) in Luchenza. This was apparently neither the first nor the second choice for the venue, and had to be arranged at the last minute due to some problems with the first two venues. But it turned out, providentially, to be the most suitable venue by all counts.
At the first session, about 150 elders and pastors and a few women were in attendance. Another 50 or so would arrive over the next couple of days so that all in about 200 benefited from the conference.
Pastor Connors started the conference with an introductory lecture on the subject of what is Reformed, and how the Church is to be the pillar and ground of the truth. I then followed up with a talk on how the Shorter Catechism provides us with a “form of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13) which is to be memorised and taught in the biblical way of questions and answers. The Chichewa-English dictionary which we purchased the day before proved very useful during the speeches, for at some crucial points we were able to make sure that the words we used were accurately translated. For example, we were able to say that the word ‘form’ (Greek hupotupôsis) carries the idea conveyed in the Chichewa word ‘dongosolo’ which means pattern or system.
Over the next four days, the two of us would rotate to speak and to answer questions, with Pastor Connors taking the heavier load since the conference is organised by the EPCA. I must say that Pastor Connors is one of the most able, accurate and passionate expositors of the Reformed faith I have ever worked with. And work together, we did. When one of us was speaking, the other would write the bible-references or specific phrases on the white board in Chichewa. This would prove very useful for the conferees, who would diligently take down everything written on the board. Indeed, we soon discovered that diagrams and illustrations drawn on the board were absolutely necessary if we were to convey the truth to the listeners effectively. And our Malawian brethren would often show their appreciation for what they have learned by clapping and calling out thanks to the pastors. On several occasions the whole 200 stood and cheered when one of the glorious concepts of the Reformed Faith came home to their understanding. It was indeed most encouraging to have such an enthusiastic response to the teaching.
Many expressed their great appreciation for the speeches, with some sharing poignantly that they have never received such solid and systematic instruction in the Word in the decades that they have been Christians.
The questions that were posed also demonstrated the point. While many of the questions arising out of the lectures indicated that they were grappling with the truths being conveyed, there were also many questions which arose from the confusing ideas that they had gathered over the years. For example, there were questions about polygamy; about whether it is permissible for a husband to employ another man to give his wife a child if he is unable to; about whether Adam and Eve sinned by way of adultery because they were naked; about whether Christians should be circumcised, and whether the church can have initiation rites for their children coming into adulthood; about the 144,000 in Revelation; about wearing of mini-skirts; about whether Christians may eat pork; about the necessity of keeping the Ten Commandments, etc. These are all good questions, but at times it can be disconcerting when they are asked at the end of a lecture on a totally different subject. But we felt it important to answer them because they were issues burning in the heart of some of our brethren that would distract them from the truth if not dealt with. And do not these questions show the urgent need for systematic instruction in the word so that false teachings can have no footing in the heart of the members of the church? Thankfully we were able to answer most of the questions that were posed. However, we had to skip some written questions due to time limitations.
The conference ended with a quiz chaired by Ps Rex. Ps Rex divided the audience in half and put them to the test with questions related to the lessons learned during the conference: Quote the answer to the first catechism. What does ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ mean? What does ‘Sola Scriptura’ mean? How many persons are there in the Godhead? What is the error of Nestorianism? What is the Apocrypha? Which verse in the Bible teaches us that we are saved by grace through faith? etc.
Pastor Connor’s account of what happened does not fail bring a smile of reminiscence no matter how many times I read it:
The rivalry was fierce, the race was neck and neck – going right down to the wire. And the banter between the groups was merciless! When someone got an answer wrong his own side would groan and berate him and the rival group would howl with derision and the mistaken answerer would shrink down and we felt sure that if an African could blush he surely would have been as red as a beetroot. But they always came up smiling! After about 40 minutes it came down to the last question – and when it was answered correctly the winners erupted with jubilation – they sang and danced around the hall while the other side sat in stony silence and looked straight ahead! Rex consoled the losers by assuring them that they lost because they hadn’t worked hard enough in listening to the speeches and assured them that he would be praying for them not to lose next time, then presented a cheap plastic clock to the winning side – announcing grandly that this magnificent time piece is telling them that “it is time for Malawi to hear the Reformed faith that we have received at this conference.” That brought the teams together again – for another celebration!
Our Malawian brethren know how to have fun. They are passionate and enthusiastic in all they do. They know how to celebrate with joy, sincerity and spontaneity. They also know how to mourn with great dignity, solemnity and orderliness as we saw in the funeral where elder Phil and I had the privilege to minister in. One cannot help but think that we can learn much from them when it comes to a life of joy, contentment and gratitude in the Lord.
The needs of our brethren in Malawi are great. There is great poverty in the land and amongst our brethren in the EPC. None of the members in the church owns a car. The car that was used to fetch me to the airport belongs to the employer of a friend of Pastor Rex from another church. He had attended some of the lectures at the conference and assured me that he was looking to join the EPC. But the poverty of the members will remain unchanged.
To quote Pastor Connors again:
Africa is a strange and harsh land – and its people have a stoic quality, resilience, and quiet dignity that is hard to fathom. We have seen Christian women who walk 15 kilometres to market with heavy baskets of produce on their head, only to carry it all home again in the dark when it didn’t sell – and do it all over again the next day. We met a minister who rides his push-bike [i.e. bicycles] for two days both ways to preach to one of his congregations each month. We have seen push-bikes that have been ridden so far, with loads of 100 kilograms up to 100 kilometres, that the pedals are worn clean off and the shafts are paper thin – and still they press on. We have met whole families of fine children whose Christian mothers and fathers have died of Aids. We have met ladies who have borne the load for so long that they cannot stand up but must walk bent over. And these are the people rejoicing and dancing to see us and have us preach the gospel in their midst. These are a remarkable people. It is very humbling to be among them. Somehow our lifestyle in Australia [and Singapore] with its affluence and comfort seems almost obscene in comparison.
But that notwithstanding, I sense that what they really need is not material wealth. We cannot help them to improve their wealth by donations or we may inadvertently export the scourge of materialism which will, no doubt, eat like a canker on their life of contentment and reliance on the Lord.
What our brethren need is the Word of God! They need instruction. But even more urgently, they need the Bible. It was estimated that to equip every family with a Bible, they will need at least 500 Bibles. Each Bible costs US$7-8.00. They will also need help to print the Catechism and Psalter in Chichewa when it has been translated.
Then there is a need for training for their ministerial students. At the moment more than 10 young men have indicated their desire to serve in the ministry. But they need training! We need to pray that the Lord will provide the means for a facility to be raised and a man (or family) to be stationed there to help facilitate the training of these students and even the existing pastors and elders.
The pastors have spoken on numerous occasions of their urgent need for motorcycles to help them in their work of overseeing the 4 or 5 congregations that they each look after. According to brother Jonathan Burley, the secondhand, 250 cc motorbikes, that he looked at, which he thinks might be suitable for them, cost about US$2000. None of the pastors can ever afford to buy them of their own accord, for they are not receiving any salary from the church, but are living off their own subsistence garden.
We think that if the ministerial students are trained and installed in the various congregations to pastor the congregations, then the need for the motorbikes will diminish greatly. But in the meantime, it would appear that the existing pastors may need help if they are going to minister effectively without detriment to their health and the health of their congregations. But are motorbikes really the best solution? We need to join them to pray not only for the Lord’s provision, but wisdom on how to go forward.
I went to Malawi, desiring to be a blessing to the brethren. I return conscious of the fact that I have received more from the trip than I was able to give. I have learned, for example, that to be Reformed does not mean that we must be staid and stiff. And I have been convicted upon reflection, of how we are often too self-conscious that we fail to express the joy we ought to have as those who have lives abundant and free in the Lord. When I was a young Christian, I used to think that dancing was evil and sensual and Christians should never engage in it. I have learned that Christians whose lives have been renewed by Christ can enjoy spontaneous singing and dancing too, especially when it is in celebration of the Lord’s goodness. No, I still believe that Christians should not engage in evocative and sensual dances. The Malawian brethren were dancing in exuberant display of joy. No, I did not dance. Sadly, I could not get myself to. No, I do not think we should ever dance in formal worship, and the EPCM brethren do consciously avoid doing so too. But have we not lost something of the joy which the Old Testament saints exhibited and our Malawian brethren experience, when we tie ourselves down with too many strictures outside of worship for fear of excesses? May the Lord help us to re-orient our attitude to a more biblical one!
And may the Lord also grant us that we may be of some help to our brethren in Malawi together with our brethren in EPC Australia. The Lord has blessed us so that we may be a blessing. It is more blessed to give than to receive. May our King who laid His life down for us lead and guide us as we seek to share with our brothers and sisters in Malawi something of the bountiful blessings we have received from Him! “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Mt 9:37-38), even as we seek to support the labourers in their labours for His glory. Amen. Ω