The picture above is Gibson. He is one of the stalwart volunteers at Ndirande Handicapped Center. Every Tuesday he bikes and walks around Blantyre, organizing and cajoling and just generally being useful to the community that the center serves. He refuses to let me help him because I am the Abusa (pastor) and Abusa’s are not supposed to do manual labour. He will strap a 25-50 kg bag of maize flour to his bike and off he will go. When asked how old he was, with a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “I think I’m 76.”
The other day I received an email from a Canadian colleague giving me some information about an upcoming trip the Presbyterian Church in Canada is organizing to Malawi. Average age of the participants = 74. I joked that I guess this wasn’t a Youth in Mission trip. Here in Malawi, Gibson is the exception rather than the rule. In North American Sunday services there are times when I am the youngest; here in Malawi I am more likely to be the oldest.
Joking aside, while the church in North America has a much higher average age than the church in Malawi, it is nevertheless still the church. That is, discipleship is not age dependent. We never retire from being followers of Christ. There are practical considerations in organizing a trip like this (Malawi is not always the easiest place to get around etc.) but there are a number of strengths that age offers.
First, there is no chance that the participants on the trip will be here to do a “building” project. There are good ways and bad ways of doing building projects as a mission but one of the bad ways is to take labour away from local individuals. It is also bad to import non-sustainable building techniques or methods. Neither of these will happen with this trip. No one expects to swing a hammer.
Which puts the focus on the second benefit – relationships. Malawi is a deeply relational culture. It is also hierarchical and these two go hand in hand. Everyone has a place and it is extremely important to know your place and to relate to those around you in appropriate ways. Getting things done is not the priority; getting to know people is the priority. Those who are more elder are released from “doing” and can really invest in being in relationship with the people they meet. This is a very valuable ministry both for the Malawians they will meet and for the participants.
Not everyone can afford to come to Malawi but that shouldn’t deter those who have the time because of their age from engaging some of the issues involved in doing ministry in Africa. A friend, Ron Mathies, sent along a link to a Third Age Learning seminar happening in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. The line up of speakers is amazing and the topics are relevant to everyday ministry here in Malawi. Perhaps there are other opportunities in your area so that even if your average age is 74 you are involved in God’s ongoing work in the world.