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.

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