January 17, 2009. Our first full day in Malawi. This is a continuation of the previous post. Please read it first.
Yesterday I wrote about the experiences prior to the day we first arrived in Africa and a little bit about that first day. Today marks 12 years since our first full day on the African soil!
After a night when we could barely sleep because of the heat, emotions and all the questions, we woke up early in the morning by the songs of the birds. The rainy season is hard but beautiful. Hard because the rains ruin houses and roads. Hard because microbes and all insects grow and multiply like crazy, especially mosquitoes that carry malaria. But the rainy season is very beautiful because everything is green, everything is alive, as if all nature is happy.
So, awakened by the singing of the birds, we soon realized that we had arrived safely, that we were in Africa. I can’t even explain the multitude of emotions and thoughts to you, but we were happy to be on the mission field. We didn’t have breakfast, we didn’t have coffee with us, we didn’t have anything. In fact, the conditions were difficult at first. I mentioned before that the first night we were in the dark, and that’s because no one cared to make sure the electrical part was working. Today I think this was done intentionally, but it doesn’t matter anymore. We didn’t have a fridge, a stove and not even a fan – they wouldn’t have worked anyway.
So when it was 8 o’clock, I knew the shops and banks were opened, and I went to the town of Zomba to exchange some money and figure out where in the world I have just arrived. I will never forget this experience: I was walking around the city (there were no sidewalks then) and everyone was looking at me. The city of Zomba is not necessarily small, it still has almost 100,000 inhabitants, but even today it seems that everyone knows everyone. Every new person is immediately noticed, and so it was in my case. I took a short tour of the city, went to a few shops and through the market but these things shocked me: the abject poverty and the fact that everyone turned their heads after me.
I can’t say that I am a shy person and, until then, I have spoken in groups of people several times, but that experience was too much. I exchanged some money, at one point the power situation at the house got sorted out and I remember that one of the first things I bought was a fan. It was so hot for us and Lita, being pregnant, was having an even harder time with the heat and the humidity.
After a long day that I will never forget, evening came and I CRIED. Yes, I was the first to be overwhelmed by all the emotions and I remember wanting to go back home; the first day in Malawi left me speechless, powerless and I was ready to give up. My precious wife, Lita, encouraged me in those moments and we decided to stay for another day. In a few days she would be overwhelmed by emotions, and I would be the one to pick her up.
We learned many lessons in those early days in Malawi, lessons that we still apply today. You know how it is in life, from some we learn what TO do, and from some what NOT TO do. This was our situation then as in the first few months we had many negative experiences, experiences that made us better, more faithful, stronger and better prepared for the ministry that was before us.
I’ll just give you a few, brief examples. Given my wife’s family – her father being the founder of Hope for the Future – many people feared us and feared our purpose there. We have been called “Tom’s spies,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and many other things. Several local Malawian churches were warned about us just before we arrived in Malawi. Many never even gave us a chance, but hated us from the very beginning, even before they knew us.
Then there was the situation with the way we were received – I can’t say welcomed – at the mission house and with the hardships imposed and created intentionally, in order to make us leave. Time passes but it covers nothing, and many things come to light after months or even years.
Difficulties came from some locals turned against us, from some nonbelievers who hate Christians but, the worst of the worst, from some fellow brothers. In fact, today, if you were to ask me, I would tell you that most of the problems on the mission field are caused by other missionaries / workers.
Last but not least, we also had several difficulties caused by the churches which were supposed to be supporting churches. I mentioned yesterday that we travelled throughout Romania and received many promises. Well, we went to Malawi with 100% in promises, but after only a few months we were left with about 40% real financial support. And this hurt us a lot, because there were churches that said to us, “Go to Africa, we will be with you” and after we got there, our brothers forgot about us. I heard all sorts of reasons: “it’s winter and we have expenses”, “spring is coming, we have to remodel our sanctuary”, “we didn’t know what we’ve signed up for“, “we can’t do it anymore”, “our people decided to focus our resources on local ministries” and so on. Sadly, some churches never even responded back to my messages.
From 2009 until about 2011 our life was not easy, but I don’t want to sound as if I am complaining, but to show you that God was with us! Indeed, if He had not been our support, we would’ve left a long time ago for we had all the reasons in the world to do so, but a thought kept me on my feet every day: “The Lord has called me here and I am leaving only when He calls me to leave.”
Paul said, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And in need we have been, many times. We ate polenta, because we felt like it, but for lack of anything else. There were many times when we did not know where the money would come from, how we would pay the bills or how we would do the work but God was with us and He always gave us enough grace for that day.
Believe me when I tell you, there were months when I borrowed money from the local people. Instead of me helping them, they helped us so I could feed my family and do ministry. We have been sued, we have been threatened with eviction from the mission house, we were left without a means of transport at some point and I had to walk several miles to the different villages where the work was. We were cursed by healers, we were attacked by thieves and things were stolen from us. We felt forgotten, ignored, abandoned and alone.
But all this was not by accident or by chance; even though some wanted to do us evil, God had something good for us. How else could I have learned that when all you have left is God, you realize that God is all you really need? This lesson alone would be sufficient, but there are many more:
- we have learned to be welcoming to guests. After being received as enemies or spies, we decided to do our best to welcome everyone who comes to us. In 2013 we had the first mission team and, before their arrival, we put windows at the entrance to their apartment. We stayed there in 2009 and yes, we didn’t have glass in those windows. Moreover, we make sure that the water flows, that our guests can take a shower, that they have food and a minimum of comfort. We do not operate a 5 star hotel but we will not create artificial weights for anyone. Ever.
- we have learned to love the local people. When we arrived, we kept hearing that Malawi was dangerous, that we shouldn’t open our house to anyone, that everyone wanted to steal from me, that everyone was looking to take advantage, and so on and so forth. We have learned that every person is an individual, a man or a woman who can be good or bad. I gave everyone a chance and I trusted them first, so that later I could be surrounded by people I could trust!
- I learned the importance of a family! At the end of the day, whether it is easy or difficult, someone who loves you unconditionally is waiting for you at home. This is a blessing hard to put into words.
- I have also learned the lesson of loneliness, a lesson very few ministers know. When you want to be close to God, you inevitably move further and further away from other people. Physically you are still there – for this is the nature of ministry – but there is a different kind of separation. When you seek His will and seek Him, those around you are automatically left behind. Our Lord experiences this, Paul did so too. I have met a few pastors who understand this but very few missionaries. These are things that can’t be explained, they have to be experienced.
- we have learned to rely on God. People, even well-meaning ones, can make mistakes. And I am sure we did wrong to others, so each of us must put our faith on the Lord. It’s easy to say “I trust in the Lord” when I have money in my account, when the fridge is full, when I know for sure that the money is coming at the end of the month, when my parents are close or when my friends are ready to help. It’s a different story when you’re in the heart of Africa, alone.
I could still write, but I’ve already made this too long. I will end with this thought: we celebrate 12 years of ministry in Africa, 12 years in which God has been faithful and has taken care of us every day. I think this thought includes everything I said and everything I didn’t say.