Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sange #9
I went for a hair shaving today. Grace knew an expert and told Sam the directions. Leaving her house I was uneasy. I felt like we were being sent into a strange world. Neither Sam or I knew who or what this expert was going to be. This was the only time I have ever hesitated with Grace.

Reaching the shop it didn’t sit well. This was a beauty salon, not a barbershop. Fortunately the expert was out; she was at a funeral. Had she been in I would have been forced to sit like a carnival exhibit. The ladies in the shop had already given many glances my way suggesting this was not the place big white men should wander.

Sam knew of another shop so we headed off. Walking into this shop it was much of the same only a little less high end and there were two men working there. All of the clients gave the same look as the other shop, but the stylists started a conversation with Sam. They knew where I should go; I should go see Peter.

Sam knew Peter and was excited to find out he too was an expert in cutting white people’s hair. “You see it’s easy for us. They just shave it off. But with you it’s more complicated.” Being a hairdresser’s son I thought, you don’t know the half of it.

It turns out Peter was more than ready for the challenge my hair had become after three months without a trim, let alone a cut. I kept hearing him say “hair shaving” in my head as Peter started working. He started as he should with the sides and then the back. With this done his rate of speed dropped dramatically. It was now left with the top and I could tell by his technique that “expert” may be a bit of a stretch. So I turned to Peter and said, “lets just take it all down.” With that we were back at normal speed and confidence.

As Peter lowered my ears Sam chatted him up with gossip and helped himself to their razors to trim his aspiring goatee. “Florence,” he said, “she works next door.” I knew Florence was a hairdresser and that she worked in this general location, but I was surprised and amused to think she was just next door. Florence and Chimwemwe have proved the real hold outs in the youth choir. Almost all the others have come to Rev. Hara’s house to apologize. Anthony hasn’t, but I don’t think that will last; Lusaka came with two others to apologize but had to take a call before the apologizing started. Florence and Chimwemwe, though, flat out refused.

“She ran off when she saw us coming,” Sam said. I guess Florence has a habit of running when things get dicey. The image is both funny and sad. “I went next door and asked about her and they said she just left. She knew we were here.”

With my hair ready to pass boot camp inspection, I gave Peter a generous tip and told him he was indeed an expert.

After lunch Sam and I came back to Peter’s shop with my camera. I wanted a picture of Peter. It was a moment to remember. With the picture done, Florence appeared. She said hello and shook my hand. “I thought I saw you before,” she said. “Are there a lot of mzungu that get their hair cut here?”, I asked. She laughed. “Have you spoken with Rev. Hara?” “Yah, three days ago.” With a little more awkward chitchat done I thanked her and walked away.

Later in the day I spoke with Rev. Hara to see if what Florence said was true. It was not. That was my suspicion, or my expectation. Yet, I still don’t understand it. How can truth be so fluid in such a small place? I mean I can’t even get my hair cut in a town of a quarter of million folks without running into one of the fifteen choir members. What sort of world is this that no one believes anyone can just not tell the truth? I would expect truth telling to be tantamount here.

In a moment like this I feel like quite a novice, quite a beginner. I have experienced lies before. Seen people lie to themselves and others. And I know the words of Shakespeare, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. Standing outside of the “hair shaving” shops I felt the dizziness and disorientation a fly must feel in an intricate web.

Extreme Dambo Makeover Edition
I felt like I was in a strange version of extreme home makeover.

I loaded up the ambulance with Kathy, Laura, Zoe, Sam and Rev. Hara and we headed for the dambo. Our purpose was to visit all the houses that received new roofs thanks to the Widow’s Fund and Mark Purcell. We visited six houses altogether and each one had it own surreal quality.

The first house was a kind of showcase. It turns out the widows fund built the whole house. When we arrived the widow came and hugged everyone and there was a lot of “tawonga chomeni” (thank you, thank you so much). We toured the house and thought it was quite nice compared to the other houses we had visited. (Later we would come to find out this widow was the victim of greedy in laws and had lived on a different social level before this. It showed.)

As we were leaving the first house Laura said, “does she have bed nets?” I was not used to offering things, leaving this in the hands of the Malawians it never occurred to me. Of course they didn’t. I asked the widow if she and her six children would use them she said yes. So Kathy got out her small notepad and wrote six bed nets.

At the next house we could see that the house, while improved with the roof was still a bit on the rough side. There were no windows, the chambuzi was a scary sight, and the gaps below the roof were sometimes a foot deep. “What would it take to finish this house?,” I asked Sam. He spoke to the widow: bricks for the gaps and glass for the windows. We tossed in bed nets and a concrete slap for the chambuzi. I handed her 1,000 kwatcha to start her on the purchase of glass for the windows and this was a nice moment.

At the third house we found out that bed nets would be a bit of problem as she and her four grandchildren don’t have any beds. They sleep on the dirt floor. How much are beds? We found this question coming up again in the next three houses. In the last one the widow was willing to forego a bed if she could just have a blanket. (Weeping here is fine.)

The fourth house was when the whole extreme hovel makeover took hold. When I found out she didn’t have a chambuzi, that she just went in the bushes, something just snapped. “If we built a chambuzi,” I said, “where would she want it?” Sam liked this question. After we handed her 500 kwatcha for bricks and mortar and labor to fill the gaps beneath the roof Sam said, “after you leave she is going to dance then cry.”

When we were at the next house, which was literally the next house, we could hear shouting. We looked back and the widow was indeed dancing. Then she did something I have never really gotten used to: she rolled on the ground at our feet. This is a Tonga custom to express extreme gratitude. It is definitely extreme.

The last house a safety code nightmare. It was small, not just in terms of square feet, but also in proportion. The doorframe couldn’t have been more than five feet high. The widow wasn’t much more than four feet and her grandchildren were all small so this was not a problem for them. Here too we tried to find out what it would take to finish off the houses to get them a moment where the widows felt done. I don’t think we provided more than $100 to each, but it was as if it were $100,000.
The roof for each house cost about $500 so our “finishing” touches were nowhere near as substantial. But there was something in the flourish, the lottery win, the dream. Sometimes when I have watched our version of extreme home makeover the extravagance is a bit much. Yet, with our widows today I felt like extravagance was the point. It was supposed to be big moment.

It is a sobering moment, though, when a blanket is a really big moment and a bed is just too much to even hope for.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

To Get a Visa

After the choir sang their last concert in Bennington, Vermont we went for a walk the next morning. There is a great obelisk with a view of the surrounding valleys Scott Barton said we needed to see. As we walked the sidewalks lined with homes older than Christianity in Malawi I got the sense that our young friends were more enraptured by the size of the homes than their history or architectural style.

As their time in the U.S. was winding down, Kathy, Grace, and I were discussing a new, very large endeavor: bringing her daughter Ruth to the U.S. to live with us. Kathy had made this offer to Grace in Lake Clear a few days earlier and had spoken to me about it. We had already offered to fund Ruth to go to high school in Malawi. When Kathy found out that she was not living at home given the persistent harassment of her uncles to clean Grace out yet again, she said, “she should just come and live with us.”

With the challenge of bringing 15 Malawians to the U.S. very fresh in my mind, I tried to explain to both of them that this may take some time, it may not work the first time, and it will be even more complicated in that it will involve schools, medical insurance, and lots of luck with the consulate given Ruth’s age, she had just turned nine.

One year later, after many phone calls, meetings, forms, and long waits the assistant consular of the U.S. to Malawi said, “Mr. Garry, we can’t by law give Ruth a two-year visa, I can only grant one year.” Hence without a lot of fanfare, a great dream was realized. Later that evening at dinner I asked Ruth, “so do you still want to come to the U.S.?” Having lived with us for the last month she laughed and said, “yes” with a sense of determination.

Our first visit to the consulate on Monday was not as fruitful. They didn’t say no, but they didn’t say yes. They said, we need more information. What they really wanted was financial records from Kathy and I that would prove we could fund such a venture. As the consular looked over our documents what bothered him was that we had some money in our accounts. It was recent money was the problem.

Coming to Malawi was funded by the Lily Foundation. Before we left I deposited all the funds that were remaining after the plane tickets, shots, pills, and passports were secured (everyone also got a pair of sandals). Let’s just say, Lily was generous so there was a lump sum deposited just before our departure. He wanted to know about this money. Why would someone coming to Africa to bring back a 10 year old girl suddenly have an infusion of cash?

He was wondering if Ruth was a victim of human trafficking and if I was a kind of modern slave trader. It was at that moment I wished I was wearing my collar and had asked the congressman to draft a letter describing who we are, that I was a known entity in a town, in a church. All he had was a note I drafted on plain white paper and our bank statements.

“What do you do?” he asked. “I am the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Watertown.” Now he had documents in front of him saying that, and I had said as much at least three times in the last five minutes. But he wanted to see if I kept giving the same answer. Finally he said, “how long do you intend to support Ruth’s education in the U.S.?”

This I could tell was a sticky wicket. If I said, “forever” did I mean to suggest that once she was there we would just ignore the residency issues and requirements; if I said for “this year” then our relationship wasn’t as secure as I had suggested in responses. What I said was, “it is our intent to continue to support her education in the U.S. for as long as we can secure valid visas.”

He liked that answer. “We are closing so we can’t process the visa today, but you can pick it up tomorrow.” I thought about saying, “we will be on safari,” but I thought better. “That will be fine.”

Phase three of the sabbatical seems like it is beginning. The struggle of abiding is giving way to the joy.

Another Roof

When we pulled up to the boat launch for Mvuu Camp the park ranger who was there last year walked over and re-introduced himself. He remembered not only that I came to Mvuu last year, but the people in my group, that I was a pastor, and that it was a different time of the year from when I visited before.

It took about two minutes to get the reason for his conversation. In addition to being a park ranger, he was . . . wait for it . . . an elder in a local congregation and, surprise of surprises, they were building a new sanctuary. “It’s not far,” he said upping the ante.

Now I’ve learned to trust these moments in Malawi. Let them be what they are. If you can stop by, stop by. But also realize that if you agree to a “visit” it may morph into a big deal and a few hours.

My first impulse was to say, “we are on safari,” and to suggest perhaps another time would be better. But there would be no other time, there just wouldn’t be.

To boot, he described his struggle the last year. As he was doing rhinosceros research a branch swung into his truck and literally stuck in his eye. “They sent me for surgery in Blantyre. I am better, but still not all right.” The not all right part was keeping him on limited duty and off the big program and excitement that had been his life. I told Kathy later, this was the clincher for me.

She was not very excited that instead of going directly for lunch, we were headed for a the ambiguity of a meet and greet. It was past 12 and in Malawi you get into the rhythm of three meals with no snacking in between, so she was afraid the troops would revolt if they needed to sit through a two hour long tea service where they were being told again and again how they are “most welcome” and “self-service, please”.

It was indeed a short drive from the boat launch to the church. And true to form there was a very large sanctuary next to a smaller one. The newer one lacked a floor, roof, trusses, windows, and doors. This the elder explained had taken two years. But now they lacked the funds for the rest.

This is a common sight around Malawi. It looks like a build has caught on fire and left a shell, only there was no fire, it was just that there was no money. Given the quality of the soil, clay to make bricks is out everyone’s front door, so walls are not a problem. But the cash to purchase the iron sheets for a roof or the holy grail, iron trusses, this is a big problem. Doors, windows, pews, and a floor are pretty easy to find. But the remaining two items (roof and trusses) are the real cost of construction, which for this church would be about $15,000.

All of this I understood going in. What is still hard to fathom, no matter how many times you do this, is to be seen as a big bucket of money. This was a church in another region from where I work, an elder I spoke to casually once a year ago, but maybe, just maybe, I might just write a check. It could happen.

When the pastor finally came out from his lunch, he was “out” when we arrived, he was just as crestfallen when I described the impression the people in the North would have if I started building churches in the South. Their sadness lasted for about thirty seconds and then it turned to laughter as they did try to imagine it. “I think they would say, ‘we have a few more churches to build up here.’” The North, indeed, has many churches without trusses and iron sheets for a roof.

To this the pastor offered a great comment. “You see we have a problem here with the Muslims. They are growing and if our growth is not as swift they take advantage and ridicule us. It looks like we are not faithful.”

I’ve sat through a lot of church meetings, especially in the mid-West, were a local congregation and its quick growth has been a topic of conversation. There is a kind of envy, but also strange reassurance. “At least someone is doing something right.”

Listening to the pastor I tried to imagine what it would like for the “other” church to be Muslim. And it’s not Muslim in the sense of the great umbrella of American spiritual diversity. It’s Muslim in the form of political consequence, the loss of your daughters to marriage, the potential of radical influences that seem to be brimming in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s a different kind of “other.”

Mvuu Camp
I was nervous driving to Liwonde. We have talked so much and been excited for so long about going on safari at Mvuu. Sometimes the build up can make the actual experience seem like a shadow of what was expected. After all the wait, what if all the animals in the national park had a freak disappearance on our day of safari? I could see the guide shrug his shoulders and say, “the hippos were here yesterday.”

To get to Mvuu you drive south from Lilongwe about three hours. The road is hilly with lots of mountain curves. You are stepping into yet another climate of Malawi. The villages here are built in the valleys and they look like small worlds unto themselves.

Once you reach Liwonde, there are people waiting by the side of the Shire River who know your name and all have matching khaki clothes. Matching clothes is a big deal here. It means something very significant. In the U.S. where people chafe at the idea of uniforms, here it means you are part of something big. And more importantly, you are gainfully employed.

As we loaded onto the riverboat my fears were there again. I knew we would see hippos, but if they could just see one elephant, then the pressure would be off for the rest of the time. We were about fifteen minutes on the water heading north on the Shire when we spotted three elephants getting a drink. We pulled to within twenty yards and all the cameras came out. Five minutes later we were looking at a herd, and then a few minutes after that a large elephant with a broken tusk eating grass at the rivers edge. And then the hippos and the crocodiles started. They glom together and provide an intriguing contrast. The hippos are smooth and round, the crocs are jagged and long.

Unlike previous visits in April where all you saw of the hippos was the top of their heads, in July they were up and walking around the shore, lumbering slowly. The hippos didn’t move if we came up close, but the crocs did. They are less excited about being photographed. Each time they dove into the river and swam past the boat, Ruth asked, “will they come into the boat?” In all we easily encountered two dozen on the way to the camp and her question never ceased. It was clear that safari was more than sightseeing in her mind.

Upon arrival we enjoyed the fine dining the camp provides and everyone was taken aback by the d├ęcor of the chalets and just the atmosphere. After lunch and a swim we headed into the bush for a game drive. We were looking for rhinos and zebra but found only antelope, impala, and elephant. In the night drive, we were lucky enough to spot a civet, jackal, and a white tailed mongoose amongst the waterbuck and the wild boar.

Yet, the real “safari” moment came upon our return just after dinner. Everyone was exhausted after a day of so many sights and I was quick to wave off the guide as he offered to escort us to our chalets. “I know the way,” I said, “and we have a torch.” “No,” he said, “the elephants have taken to walking through the chalets at night, it’s better I go with you.”

Coming around the corner I was getting impatient with his speed and when he stopped on the path maybe twenty yards from where we wanted to go, he said, “there is a large elephant eating in front of Chalet #5.” This was Laura and Beka’s room. And the elephant was literally straddling their porch. We took a vote and this was the most popular moment of the safari.

Later that night Kathy and I were awaken by an elephant eating right outside our window. It was a racket beyond imagination. Still half asleep I started to get up so to shoo it away. Luckily I woke up a bit more so as to remember, the elephant may not take to being shooed.

The next morning Kathy, Beka, Laura and I joined our guide Duncan for a six o’clock bird walk into the bush. As was the case last year, this is a highlight for me. The birds in Africa are shocking in their variety and omnipresence. Everywhere you turn there is an intriguing bird to spot and watch.

After our boat safari we headed out a bit before twelve. We sped down the Shire at a clip. As we did herds of elephants walked in the marshy grasses and hippos and crocs lined all available muddy spots. We watched fish eagles and kingfishers dive into the water. By that point no one needed to stop as we were flush with so many sights. Sometimes the reality is even more than the hype.

Mark Purcell Goes to the DamboOn Saturday we made the drive from Lilongwe to Bandawe. Mark Purcell was ending his trip to Malawi with a few days at the lakeshore and we were to join him. We pulled in around 3:30 and the stress of the drive just evaporated. Oh, the lakeshore.

Mark and his sons, Andrew and James, arrived in Malawi a week before. They spent a few days in Lilongwe seeing the crisis nursery, a few days at Mvuu seeing the elephants, and then four days in Mzuzu being led by Sam and Grace. I gave some suggestions as to where they might lead the Purcells, but it was not necessary.

When we met up at the Chinteche Inn James and Andrew were still excited about the day before. Grace took them to a DPP rally where she was the focus. “So your Dad made a political speech,” I declared. They both smiled and said, “yeah, he did.” “Never thought you’d see that did you?” They both shook their heads and continued to smile.

As we all unwound a bit the details of Mark’s time in Mzuzu started to unfold. They pretty much jettisoned all the sightseeing and got to work. Mark, like the eight ladies from Watertown and Canton, was a bit bothered that we had purchased iron sheets for the widows of the dambo but had yet to get any of them installed. So instead of touring he jumped into inspection mode and then set about hiring contractors. All the ladies of the dambo now have new roofs installed.

One house though was not salvageable. This problem led to negotiations to purchase a few acres on the outskirts of Mchengatuba so this one can, as Mark put it, “just have a whole new house.” I am not sure that dambo has ever seen a day like this one before: the day Mark Purcell came to town.

I spoke with Sam later about the land in question and we believe we can get it for under a thousand, probably around $700. “There will be enough room,” Sam said, “for at least ten houses.” All the teenagers starting tossing around names for this new village. I think “Graceland” is the one everyone agreed to.

Word travels fast in Malawi and its not just the omnipresence of cell phones. “Maurice is insisting that you eat dinner at his house when you return to Mzuzu.” This is the Deputy General Secretary. “He wants you to have dinner with Father Andrew.” We both smiled at this. Such a dinner means the gears of the political machine are starting to turn. I laughed and said, “of course I will have dinner with Maurice.”

I want to say it took Mark Purcell about ten minutes to figure out how much joy can be had in Malawi. The possibilities, the people, the rate at which significant change can occur are truly a lot of fun. I tried to stress to him how we need to get to work on the U.S. side. The church is still the umbrella for the widow’s fund, but we need to formalize it as a nonprofit. We also need to form a board and get everyone on the same page.

When I told him I don’t want the U.S. board to be the decision makers, he smiled. “No, the people here should be making the decisions.” With that I could see he really got the beauty of being a friend of Malawi. It’s about creating the possibility of something and getting out of the way. The women of the dambo are very glad Mark gets it.

O Gondwe
I had an epiphany Sunday morning. I wish it had come as I was listening to a sermon or enjoying the sound of the waves beating the shore of Lake Malawi, but alas, it was not. The epiphany came when the church elders invited me into the vestry, saying, “bring your case with you.”

Most pastors here carry a leather briefcase which holds their bible. My gut told me, they are going to ask me to preach.

Inside one of the elders started with apologies. “Rev. Gondwe is in Lilongwe. He didn’t tell us you were coming. All of our ladies and most of our people are at another prayer house this morning at a fundraiser.” The picture went from bad to worse when he said, “we have voted that since you are here you should take the service.”

I have preached with a few hours notice, but only in Malawi have I experienced the pleasure of a few minutes notice. They took pity on me and made one of the elders do all the logistics and keep the service flowing. Had this been my first trip to Malawi I would have refused. Now though I know better and I just smiled and said, absolutely I will.

As the service got started I tried to craft a message in my mind. I took the passage the elder was going to preach and figured the congregation and I would just “listen” to it together as if it were the first time for both of us, which was true.

The elements of the service were as free flowing and bizarre as usual. A staff member from the synod was in attendance and had brought a nice mirror for the church. I was directed to pray over the mirror and give it a blessing. Later Mark Purcell told me he was duly impressed that not only did I do it, but had something cogent to say. I told him I have blessed a lot of things, but this was the first mirror. (I also told him boats are my favorite to bless as it’s always followed by a party.)

During the offering came the epiphany. Had I done my sabbatical at the lakeshore how I had intended, this would have been my lot. All of a sudden the image of Norman Hara came to mind. For six weeks I have worked with him and spent time with him and never did I feel dumped upon or used. In fact, it has been just the opposite. He has made sure that my time in Mchengatuba is not grunt work or that my presence is an excuse for him to let me take over.

I knew in an instant that had I come to the lakeshore for the nine weeks I would have been working all the time. This would have been very problematic given the intention of my sabbatical. In Mchengatuba I haven’t been working; I have been abiding. Sometimes the abiding has been bitter like the night we met with the choir; sometimes the abiding has been joyful like the moment Sam and I walked the dambo. Be it hard or happy it has been abiding.

Staring out at the congregration and remembering the words of the elders, “he didn’t tell us you were coming,” I thought, “Gondwe, Gondwe.” One Sunday was annoying. Nine would have not been any fun at all. What abiding reveals never ceases to amazes me.

We stayed an extra day at Chinteche on the lakeshore. It hit us: the fatigue and the motion and the change and the sense of being gone. When I asked if there was room for another night, there must have been something in my voice, because the manager seemed pleased to say, “yes.” I was pleased as well. We needed another day of being on the beach, eating delicious food, and enjoying the sound of the waves at night. The weight bringing the exhaustion wasn’t one thing; it was a moment of too many things.

I’ve tried to balance the two intentions of the sabbatical. The first intention was to learn more of Malawi than can be achieved in a two-week visit. This is my fourth time in Malawi and at this point I have exceeded the amount of time spent in the last three trips combined. I have now been around long enough that the rhythm of life is coming into focus; the friendships made in the past are being tempered by real life; and, most importantly, a complex culture is coming into view in ways I scarcely could have imagined.

This has proven rather straightforward. I imagine it may have been forfeit if I had withdrawn, hiding myself away behind the gates of the McGill house. Yet, except for a few days of illness and two days of exegetical work on I John, I have made sure to be in the midst of people and places so I know more than a kind of cursory impression. The secret it would seem to ethnology is the same as being a pastor: show up, be in the midst, and listen.

The second intention of the sabbatical has not proven as easy. Bringing my family into nine weeks of Malawi so they can share this part of my life has not been as obvious as amateur anthropology. With their suitcases came our life together; with their passports came emerging identities and complex relationships.

It’s fair to say, I am a better pastor than parent, a better preacher than a husband. In this I am well within the experience of many men I’ve met. Deferring attention because there is more work to be done; being absent is excused as part of the job. Being together in such a different place, being part of every step and dust up has been a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t part of the sabbatical I asked the Lily Foundation to provide and First Pres to support. Yet, in some ways it has been even more revelatory than being immersed in a different culture. This “part” has made many things very transparent.

Anthropologist might call this a “liminal” experience. Liminal is when we are taken to the edges, the edge of meaning where we can see ourselves and our life in a way that is profound and insightful. Another anthropologist might call my ramblings about our time in Malawi as “thick.” Thick in the sense that there are so many layers we are sifting through, so many parts of our life being exposed at one moment, it is rich and all too clear.

Being so exposed, so transparent can be just a bit on the taxing side. There was the drama of trying to be a family in a new house, a new city, a new country, and a new continent. That was a bit of a stretch. Add to this the absence of all the creature comforts like friends, phones that work, television, and a newspaper that is delivered to my door at 4:00 am so I can read it at 4:30 each morning (not to mention a second newspaper that comes in the mail that I can read over dinner until Kathy chastises me). I’ve whined enough about driving that it need not be explained here, but I now long to drive on paved roads where there are no chickens, goats, bicycles, or children darting about. Each one of these has uncovered or revealed something in us, in me.

We’ve talked for a few weeks now trying to imagine if it would have been easier if we would have done this or that. Yet, the conclusion we seem to reach is that nine weeks in Africa is a kind of challenge that has proven as enlightening as taxing. There was some heavy lifting that just is what it is.

So an extra day at the Chinteche Inn was, shall we say, a very good idea. It was a great idea because we are not done yet. We are only 2/3 of the way through our time. That there will be more insights, more moments of “ahahs,” and more times where I stop and say, “I didn’t see that before” is pretty much a guarantee. Be that as it may, it is good to just be on the lakeshore for another day and rest a bit before the next round. Seeing this much of life is a gift, an extravagant indulgence that surprises me each time I think of it. It also comes with a heavy dose of emotional baggage.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sange #7
Preaching in Bandawe is always an adventure. Rev. Gondwe doesn’t stand on a lot of protocol in terms of order. If you are taking the service he pretty much throws you in. So I was prepared for nothing being prepared when arrived to preach on Sunday.

Some might consider the lack of preparation Malawians bring to their life a kind of laziness, or at least a lack of appreciation for details. There is some of that. Malawians will be quick to castigate each other for being lazy. When I hear this I know I am in another culture. “Lazy” in America is a pretty serious accusation. We work hard to use it sparingly and restricting it to a specific event. A second grader may be told that their lack of effort on a project was “lazy”, but if that teacher were to tell a parent their child is lazy, there may be some sparks.

Yet it is nothing for a Malawian to chastise a colleague for being lazy, for a pastor to exhort a congregation not to be lazy, and I have read in the national press calls by the President for the people to rise above laziness. I can’t imagine President Bush suggesting the rebound of our economy hinges upon our ability to not be lazy.

My text for the morning was John 15, the Abide in Me passage. The sermon emerging from this passage had two purposes. The first was to explain why I didn’t come to the lakeshore for my sabbatical. There had already been some confusion when I appeared in June. Bandawe was for all intents and purposes the place where I felt at home. Why wouldn’t I come home if I were going to live for 10 weeks in Malawi?

Abiding I explained is about not being at home, its about losing your home or giving it up: it is about being displaced. The Holy Spirit told me, I said, if you want to understand abiding you need to go to Mchengatuba. As this was the promise I made to my home congregation (I will spend the summer learning what it means to abide), I felt bound to follow the direction. At this point I interjected the story of Jonah saying this is where I wanted to be. All the Malawians needed was the reference and they got the point. When I told them I was a bit nervous when I get too close to the lake as the fish are quite large, they really laughed.

The second point of the sermon was what I learned about abiding in Mchengatuba; I learned about sange. Working from the theory that in Bandawe there is a greater sense of community and deeper family relationships that keep sange more at bay, I told the congregation that most likely sange was not a problem here. There was a lot of chatter as I continued. (Perhaps there is not as much community as I thought.)

As the service was winding down, Gondwe went to the lectern and gave an impromtu sermonette about sange. In fact he said sange is not a problem in this congregation, but it is a huge problem in the presbytery. Again the ladies from Northern New York were being given a glimpse of Malawi you don’t see on safari. Gondwe went into great detail about his experience of sange.

After the service two men from the church approached me as we waited for lunch. They wanted to expand my understanding of sange. “You see, we’ve heard about Mchengatuba. It happens,” he said, “because people believe they will get rich if they go to the U.S. They believe they will come back with pockets full of money and extravagant gifts. And when they don’t their friends and family believe they are holding things back from them.”

With this the wires started to cross. One of the parts I truly admire in this culture is that if you have something you share it. There are no “leftovers” here. If you come into some money, you don’t save it, you help others. Some might suggest the down side of this is that it erodes initiative. The sense of dependence doesn’t work well with the motivation necessary to succeed, say, in business or in a career. A shop owner who “shares” all their goods is quickly out of business.

Yet the person who does work and does succeed and saves money in this culture becomes a kind of cultural deviant. And so in Mchengatuba as someone succeeds and they don’t simply “share” but save or invest, they are in a cultural sense out of step, or in moral categories, doing what is wrong.

Now the picture of a twenty year old who concocts a story about a second check from the U.S. and seeks to claim money given to the church has some clarity. They were supposed to come back rich. If they don’t get some money some place no one will believe them when they say, they don’t have any thing to share. And the idea that someone’s success is only a real blessing when it’s shared.

Sange #8
It was about responsibility, Rev. Nkhoma said.

Linda Potter asked him to explain how someone like Grace, a professional with tons of connections who is now running for parliament, was still without the leverage necessary to keep her in-laws from cleaning her out. How will this end was Linda’s point.

Rev. Nkhoma never ceases to amaze me how he can clarify a cultural issue using history and how Malawi has changed in the last thirty years.

“Before the cash economy,” he said, “a man had a hoe, an ax, maybe a canoe or some nets. These were his ‘possessions.’ This is what he used to provide food for his family. When he died and his brother came to take them, he was saying, in essence, ‘I will uses these to provide for you as your husband did.’ Taking the possessions were a promise that he would be responsible for his sister in law and his nieces and nephews. He would use the hoe to bring them a harvest; he would use the canoe to bring them fish. In taking them he was keeping them alive and now seeing them as his own. It was about responsibility.”

In the last twenty years, arguably, Malawi has moved more and more from a purely subsistence economy, where cash was very scarce, to a cash based economy. People are still very much involved with subsistence, but with an ever present element of supplementing their income.

The first three weeks we were in Malawi, Sam kept apologizing for the absence of his mother. She is in Msimba. What she was doing was bringing in their crops. They live in an urban place with everyone looking for work, but they also have crops in a field in their home village. The crops are brought in to feed their family through the year, but you can’t live on nsima. You need more. In Mchengatuba that means you need cash.

Cash, while it is becoming more and more a part of the culture, is still hard to come by. You may need to send your husband to South Africa to work; you may need to pick tea at abysmal wages; you can try your hand at “business.” With any luck you will succeed. With success comes cash and with cash comes stuff. It is not uncommon to find a television in a Malawian home. It only gets the one free channel of bizarre public television but it’s on all day. It’s not uncommon with success for someone to have furniture in their living room, a stereo. They have stuff.

I will never forget being in a home in Kabwanda. It was a mud house with mud floors and rough openings for windows. There was no furniture. Everyone slept on the floor. But in the corner was a television and a stereo run off a car battery. The husband was in South Africa.

Now, when a husband dies (which is very common for the men coming back from South Africa; you can get a job there, but you will most likely become infected with HIV/AIDS as well), when a husband dies, his brother doesn’t come to take on his job in South Africa, he comes for his stereo. When a brother dies who had a good job in a city, his brothers don’t come for his hoe and his canoe, but the dining room set.

Sange, when coupled with a cash economy, quickly eliminated the role of responsibility that came with the collections of a brother’s possessions. The only problem is that the widow is now just left without anything. And if sange is really in play, she is left homeless as the husband’s family takes over his house and kicks out his wife and children.

It’s hard to say when this became a norm. I want to say I am just scratching the surface of a huge cultural shift. Hopefully this is a bad phase, a cultural crisis that will find a resolution. I hope.

Phase Three

As August is closing in our time has started to take on shape.

The first three weeks, phase one, were a kind of crash course, bronchitis fueled, struggle. There were a number of moments where Kathy and I wondered if a sabbatical where I explored my interest in the ancient near east or Italian food may have been more “sabbath” like.

Sitting at the American Embassy yesterday we rehashed this. The intent of the trip was to deepen my understanding of Malawi and it’s culture so our mission work would have greater clarity and purpose, but also for my family to share this direction. If we are going to keep working with the Malawians, especially raise a Malawian child, we need to understand what this means as a family.

In phase one, I don’t believe we achieved these objectives. What we encountered in the first three weeks was what it meant for Americans to live in Malawi. The McGills offered this picture in spades. They made clear all the hidden costs, the web of decorum and protocol that defines a culture that cannot begin a meeting on time, and the many of the dangers. A part of me wonders if we were too informed. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Yet, I am glad we had these pictures as the success is much sweeter each time we navigate the dangers.

Phase one was also just really, really stressful. Driving in Malawi is not something you come to enjoy in a few weeks. Just last night as we drove from Lilongwe to Mzuzu the car in front us had to dodge a violent brawl and then a nearly run over a drunken man who staggered into oncoming traffic. That’s just the extra fun of one drive. The usual subjects of stress (livestock, bikes, tobacco trucks, pedestrians, children playing, potholes that are crater like) are just part of getting from here to there.

Phase two was about being hosts. The ladies from New York arrived with our “girls”. All of sudden we had two groups we were keeping track of. Laura, Zoe, Beka, and Chelsea had one schedule and the widow’s group had another. They all did great and were a blessing, but all of sudden we were interpreting Malawi to others instead of trying to understand for ourselves.

In this we did learn a great deal about what it means for us to do mission in Malawi. And my family has now had a profound experience. The fellowship of friends from home also diffused some of the stress of immersion. It was during this time that “sange” started to emerge. I truly don’t believe I would have ever begun to understand this complex layer of Malawian culture on a two week visit. It came first as a warning from the McGills, “sange is a big problem here.” And then it came like a tidal wave, a kind of cathartic eruption in the village of Mchengatuba.

And now we are heading into the last phase. What it will hold is starting to emerge. It seems as if we are finally ready to just enjoy the people and the places. Our guard isn’t completely down, but we are heading into the fruit of abiding. Jesus said in John 15 “abide in me.” He said this on the night of arrest; he said this to people just before he was crucified. And John wrote this to Christians who were being expelled from their church home and thrown into the chaos of being displaced. Yet, John 15:11 says, I say this to you so my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” This to me is the other side of abiding.

I am not sure what form this may take, but it seems to be the theme of phase three. Abiding is about being displaced, and enduring, and trusting in the midst of chaos; yet, it is also the mysterious way in which joy is to emerge. Again, abiding is word that doesn’t disappoint. There is a reason John chose this image as a way of defining the church. As I look to understand what it means for the church to be in mission, abiding seems to provide a powerful answer.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Opportunity Bank Came to Mchengatuba.

I am still trying to convince myself this happened. When Linda Potter wrote me months ago and said she would like to hook up with the folks from the Opportunity Bank when she is in Malawi, I thought, that will be nice. Futile, but nice.

In the last few years I have become a bit jaded about any preexisting organization. I don’t want to sound like a paranoid, on the fringe protester, but I have lost a bit of confidence in the “institution.” If I am not growing it, making it from scratch, or doing it myself, why bother? This has become my question after trying to start with the larger group, the denomination, the established folk. So the idea of trying to bring in an established bank into our fledgling widows organization sounded like recipe for frustration.

In the last too weeks of working with them the experience has been anything but. In fact things have really got cooking was a whole lot of progress and wonderful . . . well . . . opportunities. The first bit of progress was that the local Roman Catholic priest who heads up the benevolence ministries of the diocese said he would love to come with the staff member who works in Mchengatuba for a meeting with the Opportunity Bank and our Widows Organiztion. And the local Presbyterian pastor said, “I don’t know the priest but I would like to meet him.” They were both really excited about the Opportunity Bank coming out to Mchengatuba; and at the end of the meeting they both agreed to work with us.

When we actually all sat down with the branch manager and the loan officer (Wilson and Peter) the excitement continued. The more we talked about setting up a local committee that would seek out and screen potential micro credit clients, and this committee would recommend projects to a widows organization board, and this board would have the choice of offering an endorsement to the bank made everyone excited. “And the bank is not bound,” I said, “to make loans simply because we endorse them, but simply sees our approval as a recommendation.” There were lots of nods around the living room of Grace Chiumia.

A little more than a year ago Grace and I were sitting in the living room of Jim and Jodi McGill where we negotiated the first step of the “widows fund” as it was then called. Grace was quick to suggest micro lending and everyone said, too soon, too early. I still believe that was the case. The biggest reason we gave Grace then not to rush into micro credit is that you don’t want to be a bank.

Yesterday that is exactly what I said to the folks from the Opportunity Bank. “I don’t want to be you; I am pastor; I don’t want to be a banker.” But I would love for the some of the funds that have been donated to help widows in Malawi be utilized as micro credit loans. They are eager for a chance to move out of extreme poverty and a micro loan has proven a very effective tool to do just that.

After our quasi board meeting, Wilson and Peter met with two groups of widows and discussed the potential of one selling beans in the market and another selling poultry in Mchengatuba. I am not sure of the outcome of these discussions, but I do know what came of their meeting with Grace and her business partner, Sam Chirwa, to discuss the next step for the preschool they have opened: pre-approved. That was a great sign given that we have not yet deposited any money in the Opportunity Bank.

When I am wrong I tend to be really wrong. How great it has been to be really wrong about this one.

The Malawian Lens

Linda Potter is a “mama molesia.” In the U.S. she is a life coach, a business woman, a Christian, a mother of three, Mike’s wife and much more. But in Malawi, she is “mama molesia” (the pastor’s wife).

Being a pastor’s wife in sub-Saharan Africa carries an enormous amount of weight and responsibility. A pastor’s house, or manse, is part conference center, part vestry, part city hall/dining hall, and, when it’s not being used for these, a home run by the mama molesia. Most families in Malawi have between six to eight children. Add to this being a pastor means you have a steady job with an income so you are obliged to raise nephews, nieces, and grandchildren in addition to your own.

I am not sure if Linda would let it go uncontested in the U.S. that she is “just the pastor’s wife.” In fact most people in Canton who know her wouldn’t let that stand, but in Malawi, “mama molesia” is enough said. The crowd always ooohs when her title is given.

It is a safe guess that Linda, and her seven travel companions from Northern New York, weren’t ready for the way they would be interpreted as they sought to interpret the fledgling widow’s fund that was begun in Watertown in 2006. Yet again and again I have watched them see themselves through the lens of Malawian eyes.

“Mzungu” is the most common title they each have received. Mzungu is the word for “white person.” At the village of Mzenga as they listened to political speeches for an upcoming parliament seat, their white skin was mentioned numerous times as a kind of shocking occurrence. That white people would come to Mzenga was hard to fathom. With my family and the ladies altogether, we equaled 15 mzungu. One or two would have brought the village; fifteen brought people from all 32 areas of this remote nook of Africa.

To be seen as an honored guest, to be as someone who needs a seat on the dais, to be praised as a kind of wonder of the world is to be seen through a different lens than these ladies are use accustomed. (Later that day, a persistent comment was, “now we know what it means to be hounded by the paparazzi.)

Yet, perhaps the most profound and new way of being seen was to be seen as the one who can bring about a new world.

During the rally, a young person was invited to give a list of grievances. It was a moment to make a pitch to the visitors. The young man chosen to speak made two requests: they need an ambulance and they need a high school. You can’t walk to any hospital and many kids are walking more than five miles to school each way. Now the first one is approximately $50,000. I know as First Presbyterian in Watertown “topped up” the funding for one this year. A secondary school . . . I want to say is somewhere between $75,000 - $200,000. (That’s quite a bargain for an entire school when you remember your last levy and what it bought.)

I am not sure if the ladies from Watertown and Canton fully understood that they were being asked to fund these projects, but in fact, that is exactly what was happening. They were seen as the ones who can bring these things to Mzenga.

The longer I spend time in Malawi the more this interpretation challenges me. My first response is to laugh when I think of how little chance there is that I could just write a check for $50,000 let alone four times that amount. Yet, the real challenge of these kinds of requests is the knowledge that “we” can bring this about if we chose. If we believe it is the right thing to do, we could very easily transform Mzenga with an ambulance or a school. It is really far within the realm of the possible.

I hope at some point each one of the ladies from Watertown and Canton will begin to see themselves as the Malawians see them. They are hope; they are someone you can ask to change the world. And this world looks a lot different when you realize what a difference you could make if you chose to try. It doesn’t look easy, but it does look doable. At least one young man in Mzenga truly hopes they see the world the way he does.

DPP Oye!

The district political leader shouted, DPP oye!
And the crowd responded, “Oye!”
“Dpp, oye!” he charged them again.
And then he introduced the candidate, “Grace Chiumia, oye!”
“Oye!” They answered with a frenzy.

The ladies from Northern New York (Heather White, Rita Gefell, Rene Waterbury, and Liz Bonisteel of Watertown; Linda Potter, Vicky McClean, Katrina Hebb, and Ellen Grayson of Canton) had strayed a bit from the standard tourist path. Malawi often presents these “alternative” tours and a political rally supporting their friend Grace Chiumia for a seat in parliament is definitely off the beaten path most visitors trod in the warm heart of Africa.

In March of this year Grace came to Watertown and Canton to prepare the ladies for the trip to Malawi in July. The purpose of their trip was to interpret the widow’s organization Grace has developed with our funds. Upon her arrival in the North Country she was quick to broach an issue with me: with how I would feel about her running for parliament? Would I see this as a good thing?

Her face lit as I said, “you are the sort of person Malawi needs to build the future. Do you need me to make speeches? I will do it.” We laughed at this, but I wasn’t joking. I had all confidence that during my sabbatical, at some point, I would be saying, “vote for Grace” to a crowd of Malawians.

True to form, after a two hour drive into the bush and with all the introductions made to the few thousand people who had gathered on the football “pitch” in Mzenga; after all the people went wild seeing my wife, daughters, and the “ladies” from New York wrapped in chintengis (bright cloth worn as a skirt) imprinted with the face of the president of Malawi, I began my speech.

I asked if the people could help me understand the politics of Malawi. Were there politicians here who liked to hear their voice? Were their politicians who lined their pockets? Were their politicians who just like to sleep instead of work? To each query the Malawians gave a tentative “yes.” They didn’t know exactly where I was going with this. Should they tell the visitor their real interpretations?

Finally I said, are their politicians who will work hard, not make promises they can’t keep, and give their life so others would see a better future? Before they could answer I said, “look no further here is one.”

I explained my relationship to Grace and her selflessness. But what truly needed to be said was spoken before all the speeches: she is someone who brings the unimaginable- a whole band of Americans to a remote village; she delivers a group of American’s to Mzenga of all places, a group whose only motive was to help the most vulnerable in their midst the widows. That is gold in Malawi. I am pretty sure I really didn’t need to stump, but there would have been great confusion had I not spoken. No matter. Malawians love speeches. And if the truth be told I would do it again, and most likely will. “Vote for Grace; vote for Grace!” I said before I sat back down.

The frenzy of the thousands, the five different speeches, the dancing, the singing, the dramas, were just a bit different for the visitor. This was not a church event; this was not a business meeting: this was a rally. Again and again I spied our “ladies” and my family; their eyes were wide.

As we left the rally, it was clear that we were in a different place. The van with the ladies was bedecked with three boys would had jumped on the bumper for a ride. As we drove away through the dispersing crowed they kept shouting in Tonga, “Grace has already won; Grace has already won.” This I hope is a true prediction of the vote count. Yet, as bizarre as the scene was for the ladies, as much as they might have wondered what other world they had stumbled into, it was clear they were a part of the hoped for victory, a part of something amazing.

“DPP, oye!”

What do you like most about Malawi?

That was Katrina Hebb’s question to me as we drove out of Mzenga in the rain through the tea plantation.

I thought and thought and thought and finally said, “I’ve never thought of it; I’ve never asked myself that question.”

Now if she had asked what are the things you like about Malawi . . . no problem. Beer is cheaper than water. People say yes and no when answering one question in the same breath. The lakeshore. The way a conversation is a kind of expectation and an art. I love that being in a hurry is really distressing to people. Although it has taken awhile to learn how to enjoy it, I find great pleasure that all plans are tentative and subject to great delays and postponement with non chalance.

This list can go on and on. But what was the one thing I like the most? The dirt road was very slick so I needed to watch where I was going, but soon the answer came to me. “What I like the most is that you can change things, make a difference and its not Herculean, its not beyond everyone’s imagination. You can build an entire school for a fraction of the cost of a house in the U.S.” In fact a school is about the cost of a luxury car, maybe a little less.

My visits to Malawi and this thing I like the most has come with a cost. Now, as I go about my day and face the choices of life I am presented with a question carved in relief from the extreme poverty of Africa: do you really need this? The answer is most often “no.” I don’t need new golf clubs; I want them, but I don’t need them. I don’t need more clothes; I need to give away more than half of what I already have. I certainly don’t need a twenty dollar bottle of Le Crema pinot noir. (Well that is unless I am making the petit peas and pepper bacon carbonara. Paradox always has a place where wine is concerned.)

The tension of this question is a result of counting kwatcha. The exchange rate in Malawi right now is 140MK/1US. A bottle of beer is 50MK- thirty-five cents. A night at a beach resort with breakfast included 3,500MK or $25. I bought a lovely wooden bowl today for $10. Something like this would sell for $50 in the US or more. My point is that a daily part of life in Malawi for an American is to count kwatcha. Usually your are left with an impression: it can’t cost that little.

The glory of the bargain, though, wears off when I realize I pay each of our staff less than $50 per month for full-time employment. All of sudden the bowl which I got for a steal represents nearly a week’s wage. I think of what I earn a week and consider “would I buy a bowl for that?”

I wouldn’t but I am starting to think I don’t want to buy an athletic field for a high school for a million dollars either. I balked when the wood carver started the bowl at twenty dollars. “Please, please,” I said, “be reasonable.” Such a price is gouging; it was. Yet, what about Chivumu Primary school and their desire for a “football pitch” (soccer field)? Would I balk if they needed $1,000? No. Would I wonder if they could get it cheaper or if they really need it? No. $1,000 is doable, a great investment in a community.

Counting kwatcha has given rise to what I love most about Malawi: you can make a difference here for under a million. You can build an entire school for under $50,000. You can build dormitories, auditoriums, churches for something close. The annual cost for the malaria program at Ekwendeni is less than $4000.

It’s not the bargain that has the greatest appeal; it’s how it reminds me and inspires me to do something. “You can do it” is what I hear so often in Malawi. That the Holy Spirit says this to me is like the bottle of pinot noir, quite a paradox.

Abiding in Malawi is powerful. It upsets the apple cart in ways that need upsetting. We need to see our opulence and our decadence as unacceptable. Unacceptable not because someone else could use our money or needs our stuff or can be helped if we just didn’t buy $50,000 cars. We need to see it as a choice on our part. Can we make a better choice?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sange #6

I think the Holy Spirit has made a crack in the wall of “sange” surrounding Mchengatuba.

The first came at Mestard’s house. Mestard, Grace has told me again and again, is one of the “good ones.” On Sunday night the ladies from Canton and Watertown gathered at his house for a dinner. While they were eating the head choir director of Mchengatuba showed up.

In short order he set out on an hour long speech of repentance. It was tearful, impassioned, and full of promises that he had seen the error of his way. He was not a member of the choir that came to the US but he had stood in solidarity with those who had told the lies. Now, after the sermons, he said, he has seen the falsity and he is ready to repent.

One hour is a lot of repentance.

The second crack in the wall came from Timothy. He called Grace’s house about midnight and said, he was sorry. He should have told the truth, and now he will. Grace told him not to bother her. If he wants to confess he should go to Rev. Hara and tell him he is sorry. I was proud to be her friend when she told me this.

While all of this was transpiring three other developments were afoot. The first was that I had Sam take me to Florance’s house. Her sister was out in the yard doing laundry. Fortunately I had our daughter Laura bring me business cards when she came. “Can you give this to Flora,” I said. “Tell, her, I came by.”

Next we did the same at Seke’s house. He too wasn’t in. His siblings told me they would give him the card. When I repeated the instruction the boy with card flashed his eyes at me to say, “I speak English, you Mzungu.” At Lusako’s no one answered the door even though people were home. I left the business card in the crack in the door.

They worked well. A special meeting was called and gathered at Lusako’s house. Here Ephriam, Florance, Seke, and Lusako met to discuss the cards and the invitation. All of the choir was invited to meet at the church at 5:30 tomorrow night. The cards, the invitation, the presence of the ladies from New York. The speculation here ran rather wild. I know because there was an inside source and well . . . Lusako lives right next door to Grace. Malawi!

These developments also prompted a few more threatening e-mails to Grace. She was in “trouble”. We heard about the trouble quickly. Florance convinced one of the mothers whose child attends the preschool opened by Sam that the school was in fact an orphanage I funded. Her tuition payments was a big scam. Orphans go there because of donors. Her child was being seen as an orphan. It worked. The mother pulled her child out immediately.

It seems the cracks in sange have yet to reach the core. There may need to be more.

The Showdown

In July of 2007 fifteen Malawians came and electrified Presbyterian churches in the North Country. They sang twenty concerts and twice with the 100+ voices of the Northern Choral Society.

I will never forget the concert at First Presbyterian in Watertown. The evening was electric and wild and culminated in a conga line that transformed our rather pristine sanctuary.

Most of the choir members were young men and women in their late teens or early twenties. In their home church of Mchengatuba they are know as the “praise team.” It didn’t take long before they were part of our homes and hearts.

One parishioner came to me in tears near the end of their tour. “I was frustrated with you,” she said. “We made a place for them to sleep at the church, but again and again they were sleeping in people’s homes. I didn’t understand until they were with us. They are our kids now. They are part of family.” Her words were true then and now.

This was the rationale I gave to the General Secretary of the Synod of Livingstonia upon my arrival in June. “I need to visit them all in their homes because the people of the North Country would never fathom that I came here, spent two months in their hometown, and didn’t go to say hello. They just will not understand.”

I had to make this argument with a sense of gravity and necessity. It was a tough sell. What sounded so simple was actually very complex.

Upon their return one of the choir members concocted a story that Rev. Hara, their pastor who came on the choir tour to New York, was given $12,000, which he was supposed to split between the choir members. Now back in Malawi, she claimed, he had pocketed their money.

Before they left the U.S., there were signs that a couple of choir members were looking for an angle on the funds that were donated at their concerts. Twice I had to explain to them that each one of them had received in the form of a plane ticket, accommodations, food, excursions, and gifts more than $4000 each. I tried to reiterate to them my pledge to the U.S. Ambassador to Malawi that I would not pay them money as that would break the condition of their visa. I conveyed to them my pledge to the customs officials in New York that in charging for the Northern Choral concerts I was not hiring the choir.

I have been in Mzuzu now for one month and I have seen every member of the choir still living in Mchengatuba (Wezi, Ephriam, and Kondwani have moved away). But I have not fulfilled my intention of visiting everyone in their homes. And the reason is very simple: a home visit could be fuel for the fire.

The fire culminated at two moments. The first was a mob. Sam Chirwa showed me the size of the crowd that surrounded Rev. Hara’s house when Florence Mahoney offer the lie: he has taken our $12,000. The space where the mob had surrounded their home would easily accommodate a few thousand people. When I tried to imagine what it would be like to have my house surrounded by a few thousand angry people the danger started to emerge. The second was a demonstration. Florence and Chimwemwe led the charge of a second mob to their house, this time taking the furniture from the manse and throwing it on the lawn. Telling the Hara’s they must leave. So the idea of simply stopping by for a pastoral call carried with it some danger.

There is a powerful force in Malawi and it’s called, “sange.” In English it comes close to envy, jealousy, and greed. Yet it is a kind of hatred that fuels the most bizarre acts. Mchengatuba, I have discovered, struggles mightily with “sange.” With very little effort “sange” took a lie and nearly ruined lives.

That the people who have perpetuated this tale often sit in the front pews of the church on Sunday morning should offer a glimpse of how powerful it is.

In the last month, I have spoken on this issue numerous times to gatherings of church members as well as preaching on the topic twice. I have been forthright with the elders of the church that I am here to make matters better not worse, but at some point we need to sit down face to face. This lie involves my word as well. (Although, I don’t put my “suffering” anywhere near what the Hara’s have endured.)

I know the truth as do thousands of people in Northern New York. Many people know how hard it was to pay for all the expenses and how surprised everyone was that there was money left over after the choir tour was done. And it was printed in The Watertown Daily Times that all the proceeds were for the building of a new sanctuary in Mchengatuba. That is the simple truth.

Tonight we are all supposed to sit down together. All the choir members have been invited with the elders and deacons of the church for a chat. I am not sure who will show up. I am not sure if this invitation will help or not. I do know I have one month left to dig deep down on this one. The ones who told the lies, the ones who let the lies be heard as truth, and the ones who told the truth are all quite clear. What is not clear is this: what will the community believe? Sange is really, really powerful.

My sabbatical theme is abiding. Abiding, at first, conjured images of a happy place, finding a peaceful way of living. After quite a bit of reflection it has come clear to me that I am indeed abiding in the midst of this “sange.” And even though “abiding in sange” is neither happy or peaceful it is close to what Jesus was calling his disciples to do. It is close when you realize he said “abide in me” on the night before his betrayal, arrest, and then crucifixion. I think I am getting close to what he meant by “abiding”.

When the dust settled

When the dust settled the issue that rose to the top wasn’t the lie seven of the choir members told about the Reverend stealing money; it wasn’t the rumors about what was said in the U.S.; it wasn’t the sad state of the choir after all they had been given, how they had squandered an enormous blessing by clouding it with falsity; it wasn’t even the fact that all their foolishness had culminated in two mobs and denigrated the character of many with lies; when the dust settled, it was that all of this has been going on for a year.

The elders of the Mchengatuba Church were crestfallen, embarrassed, and angry the more the choir members tried to explain their “confusion.” The story was that in the U.S. I gave Rev. Hara two checks: one for $10,000 for the church and another for $12,000 for the choir members to split. Ephraim gave the longest, most carefully crafted excuse. He said that I had confused them by talking about money; they were Malawian and they don’t understand such things; they didn’t fully understand what money I was talking about. I reiterated my claim, “did I tell you on two occasions that no money was to go to you; money can only go to the church?” I went one by one with each concurring. To Ephraim, I again made him confirm this and I said, “it is one thing to say, ‘we misunderstood’, it is quite another to accuse your pastor of stealing $12,000.”

Most of the talking during our meeting was from the elders. All of the choir members who are still in Mchengatuba were there, including the two who didn’t corroborate the lie (Fatuma and Mestard). There were a few comments by the choir members. Mostly though, they were there to listen.

Perhaps the most intriguing moment was when Chimwemwe’s father, an elder, spoke. Now this is a man who has orchestrated not just a few rumors and accusations against the minister and was the “adult” supervision hatching the plan to throw all of Rev. Hara’s furniture on the lawn. He spoke for about ten minutes suggesting that he had taken the role of peacekeeper, trying to reconcile the choir to Rev. Hara. His most bizarre claim was that the choir had incurred great expense on their trip to the U.S. so it was fitting that they would need funds to recover those costs. No one believed him.

I asked the choir “who paid for your plane ticket?” “You did,” they said in unison. We went through the list of all potential expenses and each garnered the same response. Finally I said, “the only expense that was to be your part was the visa application. That was what you offered to pay. Who paid for that?” “You did.” (When we got to the food and clothing issue the ladies from Watertown suggested the costs were more than money. The choir knew what this meant: the care, the kindness, the hospitality. I knew then I didn’t need to conjure guilt in the choir members who had caused trouble. Just looking at Liz Bonisteel who did their laundry for three weeks was all it took for most.)

All together the meeting lasted nearly three hours. Once it had been established that no funds were to ever go to the choir and that they had heard this twice, explicitly, the real issue rose to the fore: how long the elders had let this go on. The last hour was mostly speeches they offered promising to resolve this once and for good. “It is wrong that we have waited until you are here to finish this. This has became a black cloud on our church. We have let this become our reputation.”

One of the last elders to speak gave a rather heartrending appeal that now I was seeing Malawi. This is who Malawians are, he said. “No,” I countered, “this what people do when they fail. It is nothing more.”

Just prior to this speech, Seke stood and spoke. He said, this problem has turned a good thing into a bad thing. The trip to the U.S. was like a dream and now we have spoiled it. For this he said, I apologize. His apology was not accepted. “Before you apologize to us, you must apologize to the Reverend,” was the sentiment of all. He said nothing more.

This was Rev. Hara’s cue. Here was a man leading his seventh church, the clerk of his presbytery, father of eight, an unblemished record in his profession. When things got crazy and the lie was spread and the synod was asked to remove him, they stood by him. “If we remove the pastor, we will close the church,” was the answer from the church’s hierarchy. No more requests were made for his departure.

At the end of the meeting I did see the real Malawi. After all the shouting and speeches, empassioned pleas to move on, to be better than this, or as one elder said, “pass the test” everyone shook hands. Even Chimwemwe’s father came and shook my hand and said, “thank you.” Now I have all confidence that this man will continue to cause all sorts of trouble. It will take more than $10,000 and a few months of an American pastor walking around to change his heart. But here he was shaking hands as if we can all work together. That, I have come to see, is Malawi. This is a village. There is really no place to hide and the long dance of being people who are a church will go on.

One of the meanings of abiding is part of our slang, “I just can’t stand it.” To stand something is to abide in it. I was humbled with how little I wanted to stand for, how little foolishness I was willing to abide. Some might contend the absence of money creates the inability to live private lives so the Malawians must abide with each other. I don’t believe this. I believe, for good or for ill, they are a community. At the end everyone shakes hands.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Bank

The Opportunity International Bank is there for people who are living in extreme poverty. It’s their motto, their purpose. In spite of this I was suspicious. Malawians I had spoken to expressed disdain that the rates were too high the terms too short for them.

We went to the Mzuzu Branch which has been up and running for the last four months. The location of the bank is wonderful: it’s right in the heart of the business district of the town, not far from the central market. It was as if they were saying, we want to be in the middle of everything, where the people are.

This was the exterior. The interior seemed to argue the opposite. There was a tiny waiting room with one window to a teller. One chair in the waiting room didn’t suggest a homey feel. In fact, it suggested you won’t be here for long so don’t get comfortable.

True to form we were not there for long. Linda Potter, Katrina Hebb, Rita Gefell, and Heather White and I were whisked from room to room until we came to land in the big conference center. (Maybe that’s the point. Once inside, you are made to feel like you are really in.)

The ladies were there representing the Widow’s Fund; I was there to offer interpretations. It takes a while to learn the nuances of a Malawian negotiation. For instance, a Malawian will say yes and agree to things they have absolutely no desire to agree to or to offer, but it is more polite to say yes. Usually it takes about three stabs at an issue, coming at it from different angles, before you can be sure that what is being said is what is really meant. It may sound strange or untruthful, but it is not intended to be.

We were greeted by Wilson and Peter, the branch manager and the lead loan officer. We offered general chitchat for a time. The conversation was staying in the “this is what we are here to do” category, so I decided to up the ante a bit. “This is what we are looking for: we would like to develop a relationship with groups or individuals whose business has a positive impact on widows or empowers widows to move out of extreme poverty. We would like to invest between 5-10k annually for loans that would have a more generous rate than you are offering and with longer terms. Our funds would be more of a first step for widows, a kind of venture capital. We would like you to work with them and our organization so we don’t reinvent the wheel of micro finance.”

I told Linda Potter later that this was the point I thought we would be given a polite invitation to leave. Most organizations work hard to establish a focus and a set of goals, and Opportunity Bank is very much in this ilk. They are there for the establishment of small businesses that need a short term loan to improve their business. That they do this without real collateral or the markers a traditional bank likes to see, and that they offer business training with their loans that far outweighs the value they receive in debt service is what makes them a radical and promising element. But they are not there for the person who just wants some money or for the people who are just getting started. And that, unfortunately, is where our widows can be found.

I told Linda, “this is when I thought they would start talking about their goals and giving us a sense of ‘if you want to work with us this is what we offer,’ but they said the opposite.” They did. They said, we want to work with you.

Now it could be that we are taking all the risk and they are getting a very nice screening of future clients, but such things are not always enticing enough for a company to work outside their box. “And the widows of Mchengatuba are outside the box,” I told Peter and Wilson at the end of our meeting.

Leaving the meeting Wilson offered to come and meet our groups we have identified as potential “clients” for micro lending. This was big- he wanted to come to come to Mchengatuba and meet the widows- this was probably the biggest step we have seen with the fund so far. I love being wrong when its something like this. And I was wrong.

Later that evening Sam Chirwa told me, “I don’t think they would have invited Grace and me to the big conference room.” “Partnership, Sam. Partnership seems to open doors.” He smiled.

Micro lending sounds glorious until you start to walk through places like Mchengatuba and you see the complexity of extreme poverty. When I met with the women who want to open a chicken and egg business they were very transparent about the dangers that would arise. Getting along with each other, profit sharing, securing their merchandise from the constant threat of theft, and on and on. Despite this, though, they are hungry for a chance.

And their chance is $700 U.S. for two years. This is what we will try to develop for them next week. The interest rate is yet to be determined, but it will be lower than the 12% for four months the Opportunity Bank would have offered them. It may not sound like a lot, but it represents two years of income for the average Malawian. Take your annual salary, double it, and think about trying to repay it in four months. That’s daunting.

Sange #5
I was excited when Katrina volunteered to preach. In four years of doing this, she is the first layperson who said, “preach? I’ll do it.” That was nice.

What was better was her sermon. She preached like a Malawian and then in pure revival fashion had them demonstrate their understanding of the sermon with an act of devotion. She asked Rev. Hara if she could stay. He said yes.

Katrina took the Tambuka service and I took the English one. The English service is shorter and more staid. I wanted her to experience the pure chaos that is Tambuka worship. My hunch was that she would blend; I think its one of the few guesses I’ve made lately that panned out. She told me, “I’ve preached six times before and it always takes me like 20 hours to prepare.” I just grinned and gave a Malawian grunt, “uhhh.”

I had shared with the Widow’s Group the experience with “sange” and how it is so pervasive in Malawian culture. There is a sense of wanting others to fall who have gained so to equalize them, return them to their place in misery with everyone else. Mchengatuba, I theorized, seems unique as there are so many layers here for sange to take hold.

The passages I selected for the early service were the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis Six) and the reflection of I John on the passage (I John 3:11-17). It was my intent to suggest that Mchengatuba could mirror John experience of being cast from the synagogue when they move to their new sanctuary. “My hope for you is that when you leave this sanctuary you leave all the sange here.”

Katrina took the same passages and preached a metaphor of planting seeds and caterpillars to butterflies. At one point she said, “do you have butterflies here?” I leaned over to Rev. Hara and said, “isn’t Malawi known as the ‘Butterfly Capital of the World?’” He nodded. Unless it was rhetorical she had stumbled onto a deep point of contract.

At the end of my sermon a choir jumped up and sang a “sange” anthem; at the end of Katrina’s they were waiting with a kind of reggae jumping “sange” song. Needless to say the message connected. A part of me had been reluctant to preach repentance here. The voice inside my head said, “who are you?” At the end of the services there was a new voice that said, “isn’t the voice of the stranger revealing?”

After the first service Lusako made a point to come up to me and say thanks for the message. Man, Malawi never disappoints in the keeping you on your toes.

After the second service we had lunch at the manse. During the time of speech making I made a point to say, it’s time for some visits, visits that may not be pleasant. “I’ve learned through Malawi that important things can come from hard ones. Grace was cleaned out and from this a widows fund was born; I was going to spend my sabbatical in Chivumu on the lakeshore, but when I heard of all the troubles that were coming to Grace and Rev. Hara I came to Mchengatuba and I am glad I did.”
In the same way sange, which is bad and evil and destructive has unwittingly created a door to enter the heart of this hard scrabble shanty town which is blessed and cursed with a young church.

Timing is Everything

In the early ‘90s as Banda was divesting himself of power as a 30 year dictator, Dr. Fred and Nella Stone came to Malawi. They came at just the right time.

In 2005 I made my first trip to Malawi. This was beginning of Bingu’s presidency and hopefully the first of two terms. It was a hard time to come to Malawi as it was reeling from three solid years of drought and ten years of mismanagement by Muwezi. Each year as I have returned it was as if the country has been healed, reawakened, made to live again. As Bob Dylan said, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”

One of my side projects this summer has been to scout the lay of the land for the presbytery of Northern New York as they are set to reestablish their partnership with the Synod of Livingstonia in 2009. A few days ago it hit me, the presbytery just never got a good break. And it was nothing more than timing. They started with a joint business venture that went bust and tried to develop their partnership with the North at a time when politically, economically, socially, and even physically Malawi was at it’s lowest ebb. They came at just the wrong time.

In 2003, I heard Rev. Nkhoma preach in Peru, New York. His message was very simple, things are getting very crazy. The Libyians are trying to steal the election and Muwezi is trying to rewrite the constitution to be another Banda, but this time turn Malawi into the kind of place we see in The Sudan. Not good.

Sitting in the pew I distinctly remember thinking, “are you out of your mind? A small presbytery in Northern New York is going to wade into an African presidential election to thwart the designs of radical Islam? Not a chance.” I’ve said before and will say again, I am now ready to say, do you need me to campaign, give money, politic? I am ready for all the above. What a difference five years and four trips to Malawi has made.

In 2009 the Presbytery of Northern New York will send a group to “discern” whether or not to renew its partnership with the Synod of Livingstonia. This could be the best of times or the worst of times. The determining factor will be how much it wants to help the North fight off the influence of radical Islam in Africa and who the new General Secretary will be. But if it comes unprepared to stand in solidarity with the challenge Libya and others represents, its overtures will be met as nothing more than cash. And you want to be much more than cash here. You do.

At the home of Mr. Mkandawire this became flesh. “We pray for you since 9/11.” This is good, but what is better is the Malawians in the North do more than pray. They work to protect their country from becoming the place where the next terrorist cell emerges. That’s a lot of hard work.

Next summer the presbytery of Northern New York will send a group to “discern.” I hope when they come they have a good idea of the stakes. For in 2009 the stakes will be high.

The stakes are so high I will encourage my congregation and others in the presbytery who are deeply invested in Malawi to negotiate partnership agreements of their own. The reason: an organization that meets four times a year with spotty attendance of its members might not be prepared to move as quickly and as intentionally as our “partners” might need. This will not prove popular on the U.S. side, but so be it. For me it’s a question of timing. Now is not the time for bureaucratic slow play. I believe Malawi will grow and human rights will prosper and people in extreme poverty will rise beyond it with democracy. In 2009 Malawi will choose if this is the course it will take. What a time to be in the midst. In such a moment its good to remember: timing is everything.

Friday, July 11, 2008

July 11

It was my third trip to Kabwanda.

Two years ago Grace took us out to see this remote village as way of understanding the way the hospital must go to the people in order to combat malaria. Two hours into the bush and the car getting stuck in a ravine let me see the reason hospital must go to the people.

Kabwanda, once you get there, is lovely. They have a nice school, maize mill, and a church under construction. (They have the iron sheets and trusses so it’s just a matter of time. There pastor just died so the matter may be a bit complicated.) The newest addition to Kabwanda was the construction of a clinic. Grace turned to me and said, “you built this.” By “you” she meant America. “I don’t take credit for the federal government,” I said, “but I will pass on your sentiments.”

The latest loss, other than the pastor, is the headmaster, Kenneth. Kenneth has been reassigned and there is a new man. Where Kenneth was very down to earth and personable, the new man headmaster is reserved and somewhat formal. Formal seems a bit strange in Kabwanda.

We traveled out with the widow’s group from the US. Upon our arrival hundreds of children surrounded the cars. One kid caught my eye: he was wearing a small box as a hat. Malawians carry every thing on their head, so a box on someone’s head wasn’t strange. What was strange was that the box was turned upside down.

After the tour of the new clinic where everyone enjoyed the sight of the weighing station for infants we headed back to the school for a time of song and dance.

We opened up with speeches of course. The Canton ladies have the speeches down. Katrina, especially, gets right into the spirit and seems to enjoy the give and take. (Although they all turned a bit ashen when they were told the “sermon” time is awaiting them on Sunday.)

After the speeches there were poems and women’s dances. Almost all the ladies at one point or another were brought into the circle to dance with the women of the village. The drummers would slow between each song and then pick up a new rhythm, this rhythm would be matched with a new step. There would be a moment of chaos as our ladies would look for a leader to follow as the new direction started.

The highlight of the dancing though was the Ngoni dances we had learned to enjoy from the choir. The boys came out in the warrior dress and started singing the chants that, at least for me, seem ever in my head. Rev. Hara jumped in and joined the boys and kept perfect pace.

As we were driving away Laura reminded me of what Grace told her last year. Half of Kabwanda has HIV/AIDS. “It’s crazy to see the happiness with the dancing and the singing and know what they are facing.”

Sange #4

I field tested a theory tonight. We were at Sam’s house for dinner. His father and I were deep into an hour long discussion regarding the church and my time there when we drifted into the visits and the question of “sange.”

After he affirmed the depth of the challenge and spoke about how it related to our recent challenges with the choir, I asked him this. “It seems that Mchengatuba is unique in that when I go to the bush, like Kabwanda it’s ‘same, same, same.’ When I go to the neighborhood where the McGills are at it is ‘same, same, same.’ But here in Mchengatuba there is a lot of difference. There are some with very little, some with a little more, and then some with a good deal more. Do you think that makes sange more powerful here?

Yes. It is more powerful here.

The conversation then drifted back to the church and its dynamic. The church like the village itself is complex. It is a young congregation, but it has a seasoned pastor. Rev. Hara served six congregations before this one and he was not swayed as easily as some would have thought.

Mr. Chirwa related a session meeting where some of his detractors aired their grievances (mainly that he wouldn’t give them the roof money). “When they were done,” and at this point Sam’s dad offered the dialogue in a great impression of Rev. Hara, “I’ve very much enjoyed your talking. You talk and talk and talk.” I can see Norman saying just this.

“People are always surprised when someone stands their ground.” Mr. Chirwa’s eye got a bit bigger. “Yes. Yes, they were surprised.”

He went on to describe the conversations Norman has related to him regarding our time. Norman and I have spoken about the way you must see the church as not your own, but at the same time stand firm for what you believe is right. Doing what is right for the church is not always popular or serves the interests of people who feel entitled that some part of the church be theirs to control or be to their benefit.

And then I brought it full circle with the choir. “I don’t believe the choir was the reason for the problems,” I said. “I believe they uncovered problems that were already there.”

“Yes. They were already there.”

“That is why I must visit every family.” He nodded in agreement. It would be very easy for the sange that swept some of the choir members after their return could fall back on them in spades. In Malawi, envy is not just wanting what someone else has it is wishing them harm because they have you want.

Talking with Mr. Chirwa my fear that has lingered without a name came to the fore. I was afraid that a juvenile mistake on their behalf would bear the brunt of mistakes much more profound. At the end of our conversation this is where we lingered. And I think this is what made him believe what I said when I promised to keep working with Mchengatuba. “The choir was door, not an end. We need to keep working together, to build a partnership. It wasn’t the intent of the choir, but their foolishness has actually brought us together in deep way.”

Whatever happens I am finding sange to be quite a window.

An Abiding Thought

A wise man once described grief as relearning the world. Well, no one has died- that is the good news, but I feel like I am relearning the world.

When you move to a new town you need to learn the roads and major thoroughways and what not. Here I needed to learn how to drive. I’ve got the roads down. There are not that many. I am even learning the spider web of Mchengatuba and in our drive out to Kabwanda I was proud that I remembered the way. It’s not directions I needed to learn, its how to drive in the midst of madness.

Tonight I told Mr. Chirwa, I am getting the intersection after the dambo down. “You need to watch the bike taxis to see if they are going to look before turning. That’s the key.” He smiled in a way that said I was actually learning. But it’s not just the bikes, it’s the people, and if you are driving in the afternoon, it’s the kids getting out of school. A little later it’s the people getting out of work. And then at six it’s all the people coming home late from work because they went shopping. Ten o’clock in the morning is the safest time to drive. Other than that, you are on your own.

Shopping here for Kathy is not just finding the right store; it’s learning a whole other way of finding what a family of nine needs. I love the central market, but that’s because I take my camera not a shopping list. Add to this she isn’t shopping for what she will make, but what Mr. Nyasula needs. It’s not a list really, but a whole new relationship with food and commerce and people.

I love the fact that Mr. Nyasula makes tea whenever I carry in the teapot. I’ve actually dreamed that at some point in my life this would be the case: hot beverages would just be made for me all day long- although in the dream it was with coffee, but that doesn’t matter. Yet, even this perk is balanced by putting together the butter sandwiches and tea for the watchman at night. It is the easiest thing in the world, but it just changes the way I end an evening. For twenty one years my day was done when children are tucked in. Now it’s not done until I take three tea bags and put them in an orange plastic cup with a spoon. Again, it doesn’t seem like much, but it is a kind of relearning, recalibrating. I end my day with a man over a small charcoal fire who more often than not refers to me as “master.” (Yeah, that one is as weird as it sounds.)

The more I have reflected upon I John and what he meant by abiding in Christ, the more I am convinced that he was calling upon early Christians to relearn their world. They were being thrown out of the synagogue by people they thought they knew, hated for proclaiming a message of love, and trying desperately to understand what it meant that Jesus was alive after he died. These three changed everything. With them they lost their culture, their safety, and any semblance of an order.

Abiding, by its definition, is trying to rest in a foreign place. Abiding isn’t about being at home, but finding the sense of home when you are lost, traveling, or otherwise displaced. To abide is to be at peace when you are a stranger or estranged.

I wish I could say this is why I chose to come to Malawi, but its not. I thought abiding was about not leaving home. Trying to find the opposite I stumbled into what it actually is. This is what I have come to call the Holy Spirit: finding your way home while being lost the whole way. Stumbling into this place we have lost our culture, often times the feeling of ease which is what we feel when we are safe, and any notion of order.

This is where the people were at when John was speaking and he said, abide in God. I asked God that I would understand what abiding means. You must be careful for what you wish.

Now here is the good news. Abiding is for a time. That is the really crazy insight that has took hold this week. Abiding in God is not forever. When John records Jesus as saying, abide in me, he isn’t saying move in and stay. He is staying weather the storm in me, find refuge in me; pitch a tent, but don’t build a house.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says, the eternal has been put inside of us, but we don’t understand it. I read “I abide in me” and sense it was Jesus I immediately jumped to forever. What is eternal is tough to grasp and where it can be found is tough to find.

Abiding is all about getting through the problem. Each of us has had a moment where you needed help and then you say, “I am fine now, I can do the rest.” Abiding is the moment where you needed the help; it’s not the rest.

We can recast the words of Jesus in John to be this: when you need to abide, abide in me. This is what we implore our friends, if you need something, call me.

And this is where abiding starts to become clear and really dicey. It ceases to be a kind of “serenity now” place we just find, or a kind of magic power to endure. It’s all about friendship. And it’s about trust.

When people lose the ones they love the weight of the loss is poignant in friendship and trust. When you have defined the world with someone, through someone, and then you lose that person, you need people to help you relearn the world. In the end you will need people who will help you abide in the midst of grief and come out on the other side. Without being too reductionary: you need a friend you can trust. If you read John 14-18 you find a lot about friendship and trust being spoken by someone who would die in 24 hours.