How Pastors in Malawi are United in Overcoming Poverty and Disaster
I recently followed up on an invitation to visit Malawi in southern Africa. Francis, a local ministry leader and I had slowly been getting to know each other via text messages and emails. He’d told me about his work strengthening rural pastors, amidst the poverty, witchcraft, drought and countless other challenges faced by people in Chikwawa.
A hot, dusty town in rural southwest Malawi, Chikwawa was never exactly a tourist hotspot. But in 2015, a massive rainfall brought the town and the surrounding villages to their knees. Raging floodwaters from the nearby mountains washed vast amounts of sand into the river valley surrounding Chikwawa, destroying much of the fertile farmland. Today, it’s a very difficult place to farm, and for most people, farming is the only livelihood they have ever known.
Children playing in front of house. The blue plastic bags on the ground are often filled with human waste, hurled out of the houses, since most don’t have toilets or outhouses.
On a recent Tuesday, we were welcomed by 39 pastors at a small white and turquoise painted church on the outskirts of town. They came from many different denominations but were united in their quest to see hope return to their community. They told us about the great needs, both spiritually, physically, economically, and educationally. We, in turn, introduced them to the discipleship program we use throughout Africa.
We teach churches to integrate evangelism, discipleship, and church planting with community health and development in areas like agriculture. It’s about transforming the whole person! Over the years, we’ve seen this ministry approach free countless families from the shackles of poverty and disease to become healthy followers of Jesus, no longer bound by debilitating poverty. This isn’t some get rich scheme! Just a simple Bible-centered approach to help people live as true Christian disciples, develop enough income to eat a few good meals per day, live healthy lives, put their children through school, purchase basic needs and wants and put something away for a rainy day.
Following the pastors meeting, we visited 9 communities over the next few days, confirming all the pastors told us. We witnessed cases of malnourishment, children with scabies, malaria and other diseases. The unhygienic surroundings and general lack of knowledge about personal hygiene were alarming.
Child with schistosomiasis, a parasitic infection commonly referred to as worms. We saw many cases of this, likely due to contaminated drinking water.
During our visits we sat down and listened to community members — that’s a crucial part of our work. How do community members perceive God, the church, their lives, their health, and the available resources in their community? We learned about their problems, and about the solutions that might exist inside their communities. We learned about the kind of help these communities previously had received from foreign agencies. “They always leave after a while and then things go back to the way they were before,” was a common reaction. I’ve heard the same story retold by people in impoverished communities all over the world. Does that mean that NGO’s and missions agencies are having no effect on poverty alleviation in the developing world? Certainly not! But it’s a cautionary tale that when the work to alleviate peoples’ poverty is controlled by people outside the community, it often takes 10 steps forward at first. After a few years, the outsiders reach their goal and move on to the next project. That’s when communities can reverse course and slowly return to how things were before. Most likely not all 10 steps back, but often 7 or 8.
How can we ensure that our involvement with impoverished communities doesn’t end up in the same boat, taking 10 steps forward and 8 back? I believe the key is to teach and encourage communities to select their own leaders, develop their own initiatives, using their own resources, and more or less do all of the work by themselves. Our work is to help them see that God has given them the ability and the resources to transform their lives and come out of poverty. Change begins with the belief that change is possible!
One of the pastors, Alick, had witnessed the effects of malnutrition in his children. This drove him to build a garden where he is growing tomatoes, papaya and spinach. He is teaching his neighbors to garden as well.
We can’t solve the people of Chikwawa’s problems for them. Because chronic poverty is first and foremost a mindset — a worldview. Many say to themselves “[I have] nothing…at all,” but yet they do have something. Perhaps it looks insignificant, but when seen with eyes of faith it’s more than enough. The 5 loaves and 2 fish looked insignificant, yet when offered to Jesus he took them, blessed them, and fed 5,000.
The mindset that keeps people stuck in chronic poverty is broken when a person’s worldview changes and they begin to see God for all He is, themselves for what God has created them to be, their neighbors as someone to love, and creation as God’s vast storehouse of provision to be stewarded well. Our ministry is to teach and encourage people towards such realizations. We talk about the power of faith! We walk together as friends and encourage our brothers and sisters that God made them in His image; that He has given them intelligence, creativity and ability. We give practical advice in areas like agriculture, health, hygiene, and income generation. But they must step out in faith, gather their families and communities, find the needed resources, and shut the door and go to work. Then, God will multiply.
Every pastor we visited told us that this type of teaching and partnership is exactly what they need. Now we need your prayers! Pray that God gives us and our local ministry friends wisdom on how to train the pastors and communities. Pray that we remain sensitive to Gods’ timing. Pray that God uses these trainings to change peoples’ perspectives. Finally, ask God to multiply everything offered to Him in these communities.