28 Dec 2012 – 10 Jan 2013. Personal Reflections by bro Arthur Koh; edited by Ps JJ Lim
This trip originated as a request by Pastor Rex Chitekwe of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Malawi for Pastor JJ to go down to help them with the training of some men who were aspiring to the ministry. Pastor Chris Connors of the EPCA was to have gone down in August, but was unable to make the trip for health reasons.
One of the conditions placed by our Session as well as the Presbytery of the EPCA for approving the trip was that Pastor JJ must be accompanied by another brother. This was where I came in. But there was little to prepare me for the remarkable experiences and labours that the Lord would by His providence bestow upon us.
The main objective for this trip was to provide theological training for those aspiring for the ministry and to assess their suitability. Another objective was to survey the situation there to see how we can be of assistance to the brethren there.
Pastor JJ and I departed Singapore at 5 pm on Friday 28 December 2012. The journey would take us slightly more than 25 hours with 4 hours flight to Hong Kong, 13 hours to Johannesburg (South Africa) and 2 hours to Malawi.
By the mercies of the Lord, we arrived at Blantyre Airport safely on Saturday 12.30 pm. Malawi is 6 hours behind Singapore.
We were received warmly by Pastor Rex and Pastor Precious at the airport. They had helped rent an old car for MK8000 (US$25) per day. The car came with a driver Mr Alick, though we had to pay for petrol at the regular rate of MK610 (US$1.80) per litre. The car would never be allowed on Singapore roads. Its windscreen was cracked, its battery was weak, its air-conditioner was broken, its roof was leaking so the seats were usually wet, the door panels were coming apart and one piece had to be carried in the boot etc. But it worked well with some nudging and push-starting when necessary. To rent a similar car from AVIS would have cost US$110 per day, and AVIS charges a further US$0.70 per km traveled. So the savings would come up to more than US$100 per day; and we needed the car for 12 days! I personally felt that the minor inconveniences were worth the savings of more than USD$1,200.
As the team-treasurer, I had asked if it were possible to buy the Bibles immediately as I did not want to carry the US$1065 designated for Bibles for an extended period of time. I had also hoped to disburse the other funds entrusted to me soonest possible. However it was a Saturday and both the Bible Society and the banks were closed so we could not convert the dollars we had into Kwachas! We must remember in future arrive on a weekday during work hours rather than a weekend. This is important if we intend to carry large amount of cash to buy Bibles. Better to be carrying bibles than cash in a land where the threat of robbery is not to be underestimated!
We stopped at a supermarket to get groceries before heading for Luchenza, a more rural area. Along the way we saw many people selling vegetables and other goods along the road. We arrived at Mudzi Lodge at Luchenza about 5 pm and received a very warm welcome from the members of the Luchenza congregation. They had waited for us patiently since 12 pm!
Exhausted after a long day of travelling, we decided to retire early. We wanted to be fresh for the Lord’s Day. But hardly had we fallen into deep sleep when we were rudely awoken by a loud banging on the door. There were apparently a few people outside. Someone shouted from outside: “Open the door! We’re the police!”
It certainly did not sound like the police, and so we refused to open the door! But within a minute, they managed to bashed through the door with a concrete slab. Three men each armed with a panga knife (machete) burst into the room and demanded: “Where is the money?” Pastor JJ perceiving that they must have somehow got wind that we were carrying a large amount of money decided to hand over his money pouch which contained a smaller amount for his personal use. He was hoping that they take the money and leave. But a second robber confronted me. “Where’s the money?” he demanded. Threatened with the large knife, I thought it best to surrender the money. I kept saying “I’ll take, I’ll take” but providentially the robber was standing between me and the luggage where the money was, so I was afraid to walk towards the bag. The robber got impatient and started to search my abdominal area. Apparently they knew that tourists often keep their money in money pouches tied around the body. But thank God I had decided not to sleep with the money tied around me. After all, who would expect to get robbed while sleeping?
So the robber did not manage to take the US$1,065 meant for Bible purchase and the US$500 for miscellaneous expenses, plus the US$290 meant for the family of the late Pastor Macgriva plus my personal money! Thank God for that. They did, however, get away with pastor’s laptop and external hard disk, as well as my backpack and Pastor’s backpack that had his passport, camera and other items.
As soon as the robbers left, we committed the matter to the Lord in prayer and then called Pastor Rex and Pastor Precious for help. They arrived within 45 minutes. However, when they arrived they did not say anything, so we were not sure whether they were the robbers, and thus did not present ourselves to them. They on their part, when they saw the bedroom door ajar and did not see us, feared the worst and thought we were kidnapped! They went to the police.
After making the necessary police reports and assisting with the investigation, we were driven to Pastor Rex’s brother’s home at 4.30 am. Pastor Rex’s brother, a deacon in the Namiwa congregation had gone to Blantyre for work and had agreed to let Pastor Rex’s family and the two of us stay in his home for the duration of the Training Course.
In the days following the traumatic experience, I occasioned to reflect on it.
Did God plan for this to happen? Of course He did. Though the experience was unpleasant, we were sure it was always for God’s own glory and for the good of his children.
Perhaps it was so that the saints might be encouraged by our cheerful countenance despite what had happened on the very first day of our arrival. Pastor Rex and Pastor Precious were rather concerned that we would not go back anymore to help them because of what had happened. But we could assure and encourage them that we believe that everything was in the sovereign hand of God.
When Pastor was teaching WSC 1 (on enjoying God) and WSC 7 (on God’s decrees), he could hardly have a better example to use than the robbery that just happened. Real life experiences speak much more than theory. The students could see that we do not merely preach the sovereignty of God, but conduct our life in full conviction of His sovereignty.
That God is a prayer-hearing God. We prayed as did the brethren of EPC Malawi for the passport to be found. Amazingly, the Passport was discovered by the police on Tuesday! Apparently, the robbers had abandoned the items not useful to them in some isolated field; and some villagers chanced them. The also recovered some of Pastor’s books and thumb drive. The Lord was very gracious to hear our prayers! Though Pastor had begun the process of having replacement travel documents sent to him, the courier cost would have been exhorbitant, and there was always a risk that the documents might not arrive on time before we departed from Malawi.
The robbery was, moreover, a real reminder of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 6:19-20—
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
Oh how the lesson was pressed home in my heart that every believer should seek to use his wealth for the extension of God’s kingdom rather than hoarding it. And how little time we have left to do that! When the robbers came in with the machete, it did occur to me that my life could end there and then. What a sober reminder that life is short and can end any time? How then am I using my time and my wealth?
First Sabbath Worship
We visited the Luchenza Congregation on our first Sabbath. A congregation of about 50 adults and children came for worship. This is a small congregation worshipping on the plot of land that has been purchased and designated for the Training Centre. The congregation appears to have been formed partly for the sake of the members of the Namiwa congregation who stay nearer to Luchenza; and partly to take advantage of the land purchased. They worship in a small thatched shelter, which providentially had the water-proof sheet on the roof stolen the same night we were robbed.
Pastor JJ preached a sermon from John 3:1-8 on the need to be born again. If more people in the land were truly converted, there will be much less of theft and robberies!
After the service, we took pictures of the land bought for the training centre and student accommodation. The church is awaiting funds to build the building. Approximate cost is MK 2 to 3.5 million (US$6-10 thousand). Renting of accommodation for the students at the conference cost MK120,000. In other words, rental for 20 to 30 such conferences would come up to the cost of the building! The training centre can also be used as a worship hall for the Luchenza congregation, a meeting place for the presbytery or synod, and serve as a “church base” where the EPCM can store items such as Bibles, catechism booklets etc. As of now, such items are all placed in the living room of the house of Pastor Rex’s brother.
At night, pastor JJ had private lessons for Pastor Rex and Pastor Precious on the WSC Quiz which he had set earlier. It was a very profitable time. Prior to the lesson, Pastor Precious just managed to score about 50 to 60%. The next day when he did the quiz again, he scored 100 out of 107. No doubt small group tuition will prove to be more effective than a classroom setting, though it will take up much more time.
After the robbery, our first priority was to convert the cash into Bibles. Providentially, we had Monday to do so, as the students needed a day to travel from their homes and to settle into the dormitories at the conference centre.
We had to drive about 2 hours from Luchenza to the city area where we converted our USD to Kwachas before heading to the Bible Society. The Bible Society was actually closed for stocktaking and the staff members were about to head for home for the New Year long weekend! Thank God they willingly waited for us.
PCC contributed US$1,065 (MK 368,490) for Bibles. The Bibles were listed at MK2,100 each and was scheduled for a 20% price increase on 1 Jan 2013. Thank God that despite that, the manager agreed to give us a 13% discount, so that each bible cost us MK1,827. We purchased 202 copies.
There are 15,000 adult members spread over 82 congregations and many could not afford Bibles.
Interim Training Lectures
The training seminars was scheduled to last seven days beginning on 1 January 2013. Pastor JJ had planned to teach the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Apart from the 5 existing Pastors, about 30 men applied to attend the course. However, only 25 men came.
A typical day starts with one of the ministerial students taking a morning devotion after which pastor JJ will give his assessment on the student’s sermon. Pastor JJ would then conduct WSC lessons for the rest of the day. It was a very intense schedule starting 8 am everyday and ending at 7 pm. On Day 3 and Day 6 we ended lesson at 9 pm and the last day, 10 pm!
Lessons were conducted in English with Pastor Rex and Pastor Precious taking turns to translate. Pastor Precious was translating most of the time as Pastor Rex was busy with admin matters and also trying to locate Pastor JJ’s passport.
The students on average only have secondary education with a few exceptions with higher education. From the sermons preached and my observation of the class, it is clear they have a poor understanding of the Scriptures. There is much work to be done.
Life & Death
On Friday I attended the funeral of sister Chrissy who passed away while pregnant with her 7th child. She was in her thirties and left behind 6 young children. We were told that pregnancy related deaths were common in Malawi. Unfortunately her unbelieving husband had deserted the family and gone away with another woman. He was not present at the funeral.
I had the opportunity to understand more about the way of life of the villagers there. Most would do farming and grow their own food. Planting season is from December-January while harvest is in April. This harvest is supposed to provide food for the whole family for one whole year. In other words, it is very important that the family has money to buy seeds and fertilisers before the planting season or they risk missing the planting season and not have food for the whole year. After keeping what is able to sustain them for a year, the balance of the crop would be sold and the family gets about MK30,000 (less than US100) for other expenses for the whole year.
On a separate occasion I was told the average family gets by with MK2,000 a month – so this figure seems to be fairly consistent. Most cannot send their children to secondary school because it costs MK60,000 a year. When I entered the house of Chrissy’s mother, it was just four walls and a roof with no rooms and no furniture.
Although the believers at EPC Malawi were poor, I observed a Christian joy and warmth not commonly found in Singapore. They seemed eager to learn the word of God. I was particularly encouraged to see many toddlers primary school children answer catechism questions enthusiastically. What the members of EPC Malawi need is for more faithful men to be trained in the word of God and to preach the word. There will be those in the villages who are illiterate and so the preached word will be the only means of them learning the word of God. I thought about the life of the average Singaporean Christian. We have so much materially, but it seems (I speak for myself) that we are quite far from having such Christian joy.
Worship on the Second Sabbath
The second congregation we worshipped with was at Namiwa. This is a larger congregation. However the thatched roofing of the shelter leaks, so many of the men did not turn up because of the rain. Pastor JJ preached from John 10:27-29. After the service, we visited the half-completed church building. The brickwork is apparently completed with the contribution of their members – I was told they gathered MK900,000 for the brickwork. They are not able to fund the building of the roof which costs MK2 million.
The Harvest is White
There are 15,000 adults in the EPC Malawi. This is an immediate harvest field in the sense that there are 15,000 members awaiting instruction in the word of God. There is no way 5 pastors can minister to 15,000 so the need to train faithful ministers is urgent. Imagine the effect it will have if the 15,000 members are taught the truth of God’s word and they in turn tell others about Christ. I see the zeal and love for Christ in the believers there. What they need is for faithful ministers to open the word of God to them that they may have faith that is founded upon knowledge.
To facilitate this, there appears to be three immediate needs:
First, there is the urgent need for a Training Centre with Student Accommodations. This centre will serve various other purposes as we have alluded to earlier. We estimate that this will cost perhaps US$10,000.
Secondly, there is the urgent need for motorbikes for the pastors. There are currently five pastors overseeing 82 congregations. For example, Pastor Rex has 6 congregations. He walks or cycles long distances and can preach only one congregation on Lord’s Day. So his congregation only sees him once every 6 weeks. With a motorbike, Pastor can visit those in need at a faster pace.
The existing pastors are quite old (in their 40s or 50s) and their health will deteriorate very quickly if they have to walk long distances. Pastor Precious, for example, is already suffering from knee injuries that make walking painful.
Each multi-terrain motorbike that is suitable for their use would cost MK2.2 million or US$6,500.
The third need is for a Missionary House. Ideally this should be in a walled compound built near a local member who can assist and speak English. It is estimated that this will cost about MK4million or US$12,000.
Pastor and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip despite the few hiccups. Although the Missionary work in Malawi was initiated by the EPCA, we felt much at home in our labours. The EPCM saw us as theologically one with the EPCA, and we felt at liberty to advise and counsel on various matters knowing that the EPCA and PCC are very much like-minded.
This trip was right from the start intended to provide a stop-gap interim theological training until Pastor Chris Connors is well enough to go down again. Upon the request of Elder Peter Torlach, the chairman of the EPCA Malawi Mission Committee, we have also done some assessment of the ministerial students to ascertain their suitability to continue training to be pastors and we have laid out a course of action for the follow-up training of the students.
It is our prayer that Pastor Connors or another EPCA minister will soon be able to lead another team down to continue with the work. But it will indeed be a privilege for PCC to continue to assist and support the work as the opportunity is accorded us. This is a mission field opened by Christ our King. It is worthy of our support materially, ministerially and financially whether directly or through the EPCA. Amen.