I’ve found myself explaining what I do an awful lot these days. People are discovering that I live in the Ottawa area so assume that I must be done with my work in Malawi. If people think of missionalary work at all, they intuitively understand that missionalaries need to be in another place. Inherent in the word is a “sentness” a going from here to there. Not being in Malawi means I can’t be a missionalary anymore.
Except that’s not the case. Before the COVID, globalization already played with our collective sense of space. This new creation, cyberspace, came into being without a definite location or concrete properties. When we left for Malawi, two veteran missionaries had a warning for us: because of technology we would be expected to be both in African and in North America at the same time. We would not root in Malawi nor could we flourish in Canada. One recounted sending an annual report back as his only communication with the national office. The rest of the time, he was lost in his work and firmly rooted in the community he served.
We would never have that. The past three years, we’ve always had one foot in Malawi and another in Canada. We settled and threw ourselves into Malawian life. At the same time, I was an active part of the PCC. We lived between and betwixt in a kind of non-space created by technology.
Many churches and businesses are beginning to experience the limits of this kind of non-space. Zoom worship and meetings work well for people who already know each other but less well for first time meetings in cyber space. Livestream encourages a consumer mentality that distances the viewer from the event. It may deliver content, but its connection is weak without face to face relationships backing it up.
The question becomes whether or not I can be an effective missionalary if I’m not there. I think so. As my senior colleague said the other day, “You have dirt, Malawi dirt, on your feet.” Recently I went to clean a pair of dress shoes and discovered that she was more correct than she thought; I found dirt, Malawi dirt, on my shoes. I have the face to face relationships. I know my colleagues well and I know the struggles that they face. Just as when I was Malawi I had one foot in Canada, so now I have one foot in Malawi.
For the next two years I will be a missionalary from my home office. My work for Zomba Theological College (ZTC) will involve supporting their research mandate through finding ways that international partners can support individual scholars and library resources. I will also be launching the e-learning component of the college including a broader digital strategy. For Theological Education by Extension Malawi (TEEM) I will edit a series of 26 workbooks and help create an introductory Bible curriculum focused on Acts and the epistles. All of these are easier to do here in Canada where I have reliable internet and electricity, but all of them will have a direct impact on both of these institutions.
The picture above is an example of what I will do. Before leaving I had started to organize research colloquia where faculty and outside guests could present work in progress. The COVID struck, shutting the school down, just as we were getting going. Under the able leadership of Professor Ken Ross, one of my faculty colleagues from Scotland, they have started again. Three times now people have presented papers before a live audience, via Zoom, and via WhatsApp. Rev. Dr. Takuze Chitsulo, the Principal of ZTC and pictured above, started the series off by talking about Malawian political rhetoric using Biblical allusions. Then Prof Ross and an outside Lecturer, Dr. Mvula, introduced the group to theological perspectives on Malawian politics. Yesterday the Rev. Dr. Kapuma presented a research paper on issues facing widows in Malawi.
My support started the series but now my role is to find ways that we can effectively use technology to have these talks heard by many more than can gather at ZTC. The research is timely and powerful. The church in Malawi needs to wrestle with it, and by finding ways to get it off of the campus there is a possibility of real change. Ironically, I am better situated to do that from Canada than in Malawi. So, I’ll be a missionalary for the next two years, working in Malawi from my office in Ottawa.