My trip to Malawi started well before I set foot at the airport. It started as I watched my father’s life be taken away from him by an aggressive lymphoma and with his unfortunate passing in December 2015. He was a great father and someone who always gave me support to push further in life, care for people and…. quite frankly…. a desire to see the world. Despite having a stroke in his 30’s and being partially paralyzed, he had traveled to all seven continents. With each trip there was a story. He lived in Antarctica for a year in the 1960s during an early attempt to install a nuclear reactor for research and supply energy to the few residents in the brutal cold weather. My siblings and I found out many years after one of his trips to Central America that he visited a small school and became upset that there was no reliable power for the children. He took personal money and purchased a generator for the school without hesitation. He always got emotional talking about a trip to The Great Wall of China and how Chinese soldiers helped to carry him up the stairs so he could experience the Wall from the top. Events like these from my father’s past kept pulling on me as I reflected on my own life. God has a plan and it is amazing how things can come together.
During the same period my father was losing his struggle to beat cancer I had joined a small group of men at Christ Church of Oak Brook (CCOB). The group was led by Pastor Eric Camfield and we were brought together to review an unpublished book on discipleship. The small group was good, but it was the sidebar conversations that brought me to Malawi. Eric talked to me about an upcoming mission trip to Senegal and all the great opportunities there are to serve the Lord in the mission field. It really resonated with me. I’m sure I wasn’t as focused as I should have been due to the stress of life, but at the time I thought I had potentially put my name in the hat for a trip to Senegal. It filled my mind with something other than sadness about the loss of my father and gave me a positive goal. Then one-day Eric looked at me and said the Senegal team was full, but I would be good for an upcoming trip to Malawi. I’m not even sure I knew that there was a country called Malawi.
God’s plan was right on target. The CCOB team that went with me to Malawi were awesome. We were led by Susan Zidlicky and joined by Jennie and Jim Garst. Each of use had something to bring to the table. Susan is an expert on the mission field. She really knows her stuff and has a heart for serving. Although Jennie was stepping out of her comfort zone, you could tell from the start she was traveling to make an impact. She has a gift for getting things done. Jim brought a strong back, a mind for engineering and the ability to put up with my sarcasm. We were finding ways to serve in Malawi months before our trip. We fundraised and were able to fill bags full of blankets, books, balls, clothes and so many other items to show our love for a country far far away.
The backbone and overall success of the trip goes to Villages in Partnership (VIP). The entire organization is incredible. VIP’s leader, Liz Heinzel-Nelson, has a heart for the Lord that is evident from the first time you speak with her. She cares for each person in Malawi as if they were her child. VIP has developed a network and community in Malawi that focuses on providing for the basic needs of the Malawians with a respect, intelligence and compassion that I wish I could see more of in the today’s world.
Liz brought the best out of the team. We had these great video calls before we left about what to expect. It was so important to understand what we were flying into and how we can serve. She skillfully told four Type A people to leave all our expectations back in Chicago. Malawi doesn’t work on an American schedule. We would focus on relationships and all the tasks would be taken care of in due time. We had our bags packed, our minds in the right place and now it was time to travel.
As much as I want to go through each day of our trip and tell everyone how remarkable it was, I realize that it was done exceptionally by Justin Zelenka, a VIP staff member. Justin met us at the airport when we landed in Blantyre, Malawi and never left our side throughout the trip. We were also joined by two great people from Dallas, Texas. Sydney and Randa joined us in Malawi as part of the VIP team. Both of them have huge hearts for the Malawian people, especially the children. They fit in great with our team and we were so thankful to spend our time alongside them. I’m going to let Justin’s journaling stand for itself, but I’d like for people to appreciate what I learned about myself and the beautiful country of Malawi.
There are so many stories that impacted me during my time in Malawi, but I’d like to share two of them. Our group had the chance to have lunch with villages on a couple of occasions. What happened when we showed up with goat and chicken meat was very much like a Christmas Day dinner. As is the tradition, the woman cooked and the men… well… the men sat away from the women and talked. We can figure out if this was a good or bad cultural activity another time because what happened with the men is important. Prior to one of our lunches, we were able to sit on the floor of a partially built clinic. The floors were concrete, no electricity, no glass in the windows and they made due with some stools and blankets for the men to sit on. The women were outside under a tree cooking the food using “three-stone” fire pits. The conversation was simple at first. Men like to talk about the weather and crops. But during this gathering I had saw an elderly man sitting off by himself. I asked one of the Malawian VIP staff who the man was and I was told it was a vice-chief of the village. I apologize that I don’t know his name, but I’m sure I never said it correctly and wouldn’t do it justice if I tried to write it out.
I decided to move over to the man and introduce myself. He spoke English, which boggles my mind how I can come from the United States with only English and this man who has never lived with electricity and water can carry a conversation in at least two languages and probably more. As we spoke his eyes were mostly closed and his voice was low. We found out a little bit about each other. Most of the focus was on me and where I was from. As the vice-chief became comfortable with me, his questions became more direct. He asked if I was a Christian and about my faith. He asked me where I was lived and about my family. Then he opened his eyes and looked directly into my eyes with a strong and sincere stare. With a strong clear voice, he asked, “How are you going to bring God’s blessing to me?” Wow. My answer didn’t matter because he was asking about my intent and my actions. Where was my heart and how was God being glorified by my actions? To me, this is an unspoken question that many Malawians are asking of all missionaries. The question wasn’t about gifts or trinkets. It was about faith and love. Just as Liz had prepped us before we left, we were going to focus on the relationship and the material stuff will take care of itself. The vice-chief got me one last time before we started to eat. He gave me a warm smile and said, “Don’t forget about me.” I promised him he would not be forgotten, but it is a real question for people in need. A simple visit and a nice meal is a great day, but he lives there every day and wanted to know that people from other countries care about him in a Godly way. We ended up having a wonderful time of fellowship over the food (only because the women are superstars and did all the work) and leaving the village with smiles and great memories.
My second memory was replicated multiple times in the fields of Malawi. On the first full day in Malawi we had the chance to visit a farmer and we had a tentative idea that we were going to work in his field. Frank, a Malawian VIP staff, was an expert in conservation farming and wanted to discuss with the farmer a way to keep moisture in the field during the dry season. Our job was to clear a field of agricultural waste left behind after the harvest and remove the ridges in the field to make it flat again. It’s no big deal for someone with a tractor, but all we had were some basic hand tools. When I say basic, I mean basic. They were heavy sticks with a large blade attached to it. It worked as a hoe and a hammer. What farmers can do with that hand tool was impressive.
The experience really became surreal after about 30 minutes into the field work. Forget the fact that the Malawians didn’t have on shoes and that they were out working us like Lebron James playing my 10-year-old son in basketball. What was special was that we had member of the Malawi VIP staff with us named Mada. I was in a field with the farmers, their neighbors, VIP staff and Jim trying not to complain and enjoy the day. We weren’t expecting any lunch and there was no water for our Malawian friends near us. Jim and I had some bottled water that we kept in the van just in case, but we didn’t want to drink it in front of everyone. Then, out of nowhere, Mada starts to sing. When I say sing, I mean with a voice that should be in the soundtrack of a Disney movie. As she was clearing the field her voice was so joyful and full of praise. As if there was a producer off to the side, all the Malawians start to sing along. It was magical. There was not interruption of effort, just praise to keep people going. I asked Frank what the words meant. He laughed and said that the lyrics mean that if the world would end today they would be thankful to be with each other. What a powerful moment. This song was sung in many villages by many people. People with so little are so thankful to be alive, enjoy what they have and share the day with each other. I smiled every time I heard the song. It, to me, is the soul of Malawi.
Everyday in Malawi was filled with memorable experiences. We visited schools, made bricks, fixed a bridge and visited with the neediest of the Malawians in the rural communities. I came home feeling good about the world and feeling I’ve traveled further in my walk of Christian faith. I’m thankful for my CCOB teammates and the Malawians I was fortunate enough to meet. I hope and pray that I can return and continue learning from them and sharing God’s love.