On a regular basis, Rev. Thokozani “Thoko” Chilembwe bikes 43 km to get to one of the prayer houses that he pastors. 43 km on a bike that is decades old and needs repair. 43 km on a “road” that is really just a traditional dirt path that 4×4 trucks have created. 43 km in 35 Celsius wind that kicks up dust thick enough to clog most air filters. Once he gets there he stays wherever he can find a place, likely with a family who will attend the prayer meeting the next day. In all probability, the family will give up their best (maybe only) bed for him and cook their best (maybe only) food for him.
On Sunday, Rev. Thoko will conduct a service of worship. A small group of believers will gather at a brick prayer house. He will pray and preach. They will sing and dance. Then he will go and visit families, encouraging them, and consoling them. The prayer house is in the middle of a heavily Muslim area so there are daily consequences to living there as a Christian. This little group of believers will also make plans on how to reach out to their Muslim neighbours with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
After all of this, Rev. Thoko will stay another night. Then, on Monday, he will bike back to his home on the same 43 km dirt path. He will return to his wife and family having exerted a great deal of energy simply to conduct a service of worship, visit some families, and to encourage evangelism among those who don’t know Jesus.
When I tell people about ministers, abusas in Chichewa, like Thoko they immediately want to help by giving some material resources. That is great. Thoko has started a fundraising campaign for a reliable motor dirt bike to make his life a lot easier. Purchase and maintenance take resources. Some people will even go a little deeper and think about how to support the economic development of the people that Thoko stays with. An immediate response by some is to think of a development program that can help. This also takes material resources and a great deal of time. All of this is great and the PCC is doing a lot of this through Presbyterian World Service & Development.
Missed in this is the essential work that Thoko is already doing. Besides the fact that he is being faithful to the Gospel call, he is playing an essential but often unacknowledged role in that community.
Malawi is undergoing a monumental societal change. Old social systems, both traditional African society and British colonialism, have run up against the forces of globalization and like every other place, this conflict creates uncertainty, fear, and social dislocation. People struggle to understand the world around them and in this confusion, they fear that they will get trampled or forgotten. Older ways of understanding the world, like when the rains will come and how people should interact with each other, are coming up against forces beyond their control, such as climate change and social media. When ways of making sense of the world are all in flux, the places in which people found comfort before are hard to find.
A factor in this dislocation sometimes missed by those in the West is that until recently, there was a kind of “sacred canopy” covering Malawian society. This is a culture where, until very recently, the spirit world and the physical world interacted in tangible and real ways. An illness could plausibly be treated by modern medicine or by the charms of a traditional herbalist. This is because the illness could be caused either by bacteria or by a curse. The spiritual and material function side by side in a unified whole.
Increasingly though, the relationship between these two worlds–the spiritual and the material –is getting strained. When the sacred canopy is coming apart, when the forces of globalization (which surely include climate change–something that the people here keenly feel, for they know that Malawi is getting dustier and windier each year) are destroying the foundations of a somewhat tenuous social system, then aid and development are not sufficient. In the rural areas where the effects of these changes are felt but few of the benefits seem to accrue, they need a people gathered around the promises of a gracious God to make it each day. In urban settings, the church is the frontline of trying to make sense of the onslaught of global media and changing generational expectations. The dislocation that the people feel must be countered by something stable, like the Gospel, and that Gospel will only make itself known through the church.
I’ve been working my way through Charles Taylor’s opus A Secular Age. The language of “sacred canopy” I used above is Peter Berger’s and Taylor uses some of that. I think that Taylor goes deeper. He traces how secularity even became an option that people could imagine. In the words of a scholar friend of mine, Malawian society is a “dizzying confluence of almost simultaneous modernity and postmodernity (of some sort) and postsecularism” with a dose of charismatic prosperity gospel combined with African traditional religions. Taylor is helping me in trying to parse out and understand how Malawian society is dealing with this monumental change. I haven’t finished my thinking yet but this I know: people like Thoko are doing essential work and deserve our full support.