May 5: The Journey Begins

The Youth in Mission participants and their Malawian friends.

The Canadians gathered their bags (at least those bags that had made the three-plane journey from Canada to Malawi) and emerged from Chileka Airport, blinking in the sudden light. Several people were there to meet them: Rev. Paul Mawaya, youth director for the synod of Blantyre, Linda Inglis and Rev. Ed Hoekstra, Presbyterian missionaries, and five Malawian youth who would be spending the first portion of the trip with their eight Canadian counterparts. Shyness and thick accents punctuated the introductions.

Only days before, the eight Canadian youth and two leaders had met for the first time. They had traveled together from Toronto, through London, England and Johannesburg, South Africa, to reach the tiny landlocked nation of Malawi. They were still only acquaintances, really, trying to get to know each other.

Now they and their Malawian cohort would be thrown together in unfamiliar places for days on end. Would they all get along? Could they break through their initial unease? Would the Canadians ever be able to pronounce Madalitso’s name?


Rev. Paul Mawaya

As the first afternoon together began to sink toward its end, they were led through a piece of history. At Blantyre synod headquarters, as they sat around a table with glass-bottled sodas in hand, Rev. Paul Mawaya began a story.

It was in that very room, he said, that Scottish missionaries gathered to write a letter calling for an English protectorate to defend the colony—which was then known as Nyasaland—against a possible Mozambican-Portuguese invasion from the south.

Malawi shares the largest strip of its boarder with Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, with Malawi’s border dipping into its southern neighbour like a finger.

He led them a few metres from the offices to the feet of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church, a building not made by professional builders, he says, but “by the grace of God” through hands with little construction experience. Linda Inglis, a missionary from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, jokes that the church is called “all angels’” because “they say the angels are holding it up.”  The red bricks and stained glass windows are now bowed in places, and a number of metal rods support the walls from inside the sanctuary. But the church  boasts a congregation of about 10,000 on its rolls, and runs six services each Sunday to deal with demand. It is the second oldest building in Blantyre city, built between 1888 and 1891; its top floor served as the country’s first theological college where its first two Malawian ministers were trained.

St. Michael and All Angels' Church

Just beyond St. Michael’s stands a more recent church building, a whitewashed, round structure. Paul describes a situation that could have easily been plucked from the experience of the Canadian church—in hopes of attracting more youth, contemporary services are held in the neighbouring building. But it’s not just young people that come, he says; you can find people from all ages in attendance. The contemporary services are conducted exclusively in  Chichewa, which is one of Malawi’s national languages.

He says a recent estimate suggested 60 per cent of Blantyre’s churchgoers were youth between the ages of 15 and 35.

“There’s always a struggle with youth in the Malawian church,” he told the delegates after dinner. “In synod and presbyteries, at all levels of the church, they want to do something, but the church will say: ‘It’s not your time’ or something to that effect. … What you’re going to find is there’s a lot of energy from our youth.”

Rev. David Livingstone, who Paul credits with “opening Africa,” based his work on three concepts which remain visible in the Presbyterian church today: Civilization (which included education), Christianity and Commerce.

The synod boasts about 500 congregations, which must have at least 200 members each, and 600 prayer houses, which are smaller gatherings often linked to congregations. Although prayer houses are foreign to the Presbyterian Church in Canada, they are an important part of Malawi’s church. The synod also runs over 250 primary and secondary schools, although it does not have an affiliated college.

One of these schools is the Henry Henderson Institute, which consists of a primary and secondary school on the Blantyre mission’s property. The student’s voices can be heard from Grace Bandawe, a hostel where the youth are staying while in the city. The hostel can house about 100 people and is operated by the synod as a money-making venture.

In the evening, the group visited the home of Rev. Ed and Jackie Hoekstra and their sons Jake and Nico, a missionary family from the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Ed works as an associate minister at St. Columba, a large church in Blantyre City, and also leads a weekly Bible study at Chichiri Prison. Jackie is a full-time volunteer and is involved with several organizations at work in Malawi.

As the group sat down to tea and cupcakes, the oldest of the two Hoekstra boys currently living in Malawi wandered into the room and stopped suddenly.

Jake and Ethan Brown, one of the Youth in Mission participants, stared at each other. Then they embraced. The two had met and become friends at Canada Youth 2009 and, although Ethan knew Jake lived in Malawi, he never expected to meet him during the trip.

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About Connie Wardle

Connie Wardle is the Presbyterian Record's senior writer and online editor.