Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Visiting the Members--George's Post

A.   Visiting the Members in Their Homes

From the very outset, once we were assigned to the Zingwangwa Branch, Carole and I decided that the first order of business was to visit in their homes as many branch members as we could.  Home visits are an integral part of the Mormon experience.  The Priesthood quorums, and the Relief Society organizations, encourage their members to make monthly visits to the homes of their members—such visits being regarded as a critical part of the stewardship we owe to one another as members on the same congregation.  Moreover, we hoped visiting the members would help earn their trust.  The last eight years or so we had spent a fair amount of time attending the San Juan Branch in Friday Harbor, Washington, observing how the senior couples worked in the branch, making connections, encouraging members.  Rightly or wrongly, it seemed as though they spent much of their time tracking down the less active and encouraging members to get out to church and to do their church assignments.  President Monson is renowned for his stories of visiting the widows and less actives when serving as a young bishop in a Salt Lake City ward.  And all of this fit nicely with our desire to do one-on-one service, working in the trenches with individual members. 
It is easy to find scriptural support to justify helping directly individual members and others.  Allaying the needs of those struggling with poverty, hunger, shelter, is called out by Christ as especially significant.  “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:  For I was an hundred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:  Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto unto me…”  Matt. 25: 34-36.  In response to the question “when” they had done this, the King answers, saying “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  Matt. 25: 40.  Extending a helping hand to needy members is fulfilling in part the injunction of Paul:  “That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.  And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.”  1 Cor. 12: 25-26.
Often we hear in the Mormon Church that the ministry is “not about programs but about people” and that well-known theme brings to mind the famous parable of the 99 and one.  “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.  How think ye?  If a man have a hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?   And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.  Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”  Matt. 18: 11-14  The gospel focuses on saving each individual, reaching to each a helping hand in times of need, supporting, nurturing, and guiding.  Each of us is important in the Lord’s eyes and, at some time or another, each of us qualifies as one of the lost sleep, deserving special attention, either because our faith wavers, we are sick, depressed, or sorrowful, we feel alone or discouraged.  Consequently, to administer to the needs of the entire flock, the shepherd must not lose sight of the individuality of each of the sheep, even though the sheep themselves belong to an anonymous and large crowd—the 100 sheep of the parable.  The parable makes this clear.  Those called to care for the sheep must be mindful of each, looking for opportunities to meet the needs of the individual, and not to get caught up in working with programs, watching statistics or catering to the well-heeled, because it is comfortable or easy or they are the most appreciative of the help we might offer.  None of this is possible unless the shepherd knows the sheep in the flock, hence the Lord says:  “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.”  John 10: 14.  It is impossible to minister effectively without knowing the names, challenges and trials of the members of the flock.  Only when that connection is made can one truly succor the needs of others:  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know the, and they follow me.”  John 10: 27.
The twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians supplied the text for the short spiritual thought Carole and I elected to share with members and their families when first visiting with them in their homes.  Paul speaks to two themes in this chapter: first, the diverse spiritual gifts bestowed upon the members of the Church, creating diversity within the Church, even though these spiritual gifts come from a common source; and second, the need for unity in the Church, despite the diversity among the members, which unity was possible only because the members have the common experience of being blessed by the Holy Ghost.   “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”  1 Cor. 12: 12-13.  The Malawians easily grasp the diversity in the Mormon Church when I hold my hand next to theirs, asking them if they look the same.  Even without the little object lesson, they instinctively know how different we are from them: our white skin pales when held next to their rich brown colored skin;[1] English speaking versus Chichewa; raised in the United States, not in Malawi; indeed we come from entire different cultural frames of references, which have little in common.  They know virtually nothing of Western culture, while we, in turn, are totally ignorant of the African traditions important to them and the various tribes from which they have come.  We really like this chapter because of its simple, yet direct and powerful, lessons:  however different the saints may be, they should and can be united because they enjoy a common spirit.  We all need one another, whatever our talents or gifts may be.  No one member can say to the others that he or she does not need the rest.  The weak need the strong, and the strong the weak.  And as fellow saints, we should care for one another, rejoicing with others in times of happiness, and comforting one another in times of sorrow.  We have found the Malawians to respond favorably to this message—they like to talk about the scriptures and are very knowledgeable.[2] 
While the only “azungus” in their meetings are the few Westerner missionaries serving in Malawi, they are very familiar with Westerner missionaries, because they have come steadily to Malawi for years—certainly since the early 2000s--even before the Zambia Lusaka Mission was formed.  Every convert to the Mormon Church (and of course virtually all the members are recent converts) can trace his/her introduction to the Mormon Church to some “azungu” missionary—whether it be an Elder Cunningham, Barton, Barnard, Allred, Sagers or a Sister Getts, Rasband, Browning, Falco or September.  They frequently pull out their scriptures to follow along--scriptures are invariably found in the home, even if they only have a few books on a slight narrow book shelf in the living room.  We try to start and close our short lessons with a word of prayer—to set the tone for our comments and discussion and to invite our Heavenly Father’s protecting hand upon the household.  Naturally we are usually, but not always, asked to offer the prayers—“Sister Beal” being asked to pray as often, or more often, than I.  They are not hesitant to take their part.
Another part of our standard routine is to take a photo of the member or the member’s family at the conclusion of our visit.  Digital cameras are a marvelous invention.  Within a week or so of the lesson, we go to a local photo shop and order at least two copies of the best of the family photos, one copy to be displayed on a pin board in the meetinghouse, and the second to be given to the family.  This gives us a natural reasons for a follow up visit to the family, irrespective of how well the first visit went.
Making these first visits is not as easy as you might expect.   In Blantyre, there are no (or virtually no) street signs or home numbers or current city maps showing the various neighborhoods and their street configurations, complicating first-time visits.  The first family we visited were the Bandas who lived on the north flank of Mt. Soche—the prominent landmark on the south side of Blantyre--Brother Banda serving as the Zingwangwa Elder’s Quorum President, and Sister Banda as the Relief Society president.  The Bandas have become the favorites of many of the younger missionaries because they so are faithful, inviting—Elder Banda is musical and a greater music conductor, Sister Banda is upbeat, energetic, ever positive, the two boys—Comfort and Conscious—bright, curious, playful, and Cornie—the three year old—self assured and assertive, a classical youngest daughter in a family of older boys (much like our Mim).  For the last several months they have been raising Emily, 12 or close to 12, Brother Banda’s niece, who has fit nicely into the home, taking on the role of the big sister.  Chisomo Phiri, Brother Banda’s sister, who returned from the Kenya Mission in February, was another household member, until her recent “chinkhoswe” (engagement/marriage) to Amos Monjeza.
Sister Beal made the first point of contact, the first week we were in Blantyre, when she met Sister Banda close to her home, to join with her, the sister missionaries (Sisters Komiha and Rasband) and several other branch women, to make a compassionate service visit to Sister Mkandawire, who had just lost her mother.    Then Elder Banda introduced us to Brother Phiri, who lives just above him on Mount Soche and then, working slowly through the Phiris and Bandas, we were introduced, one by one, the homes of the Malungas, Tellas, Besser Petro, Brother Sangala, Mahsumbukas, Themukas, all of whom live on the ridges and bowls high on Mt. Soche, and whose modest brick homes overlook Blantyre and the plains and hills running to the north.  Without a guide no one could work through the jumble of homes on these slopes to find the members.  Sometimes, if one is close enough to the destination, a neighbor can help you find a member’s home, but the area’s population density is surprisingly high, so locating the right family, among a veritable warren of modest homes, can be elusive.  At first I was reluctant to ask the members, whom I had just met, for help, feeling as though I was imposing, but with time it become clear that they were more than willing to help, the visits themselves helping them to serve and giving them a feeling of accomplishment.  Later in the process, Sunday would be used as the time for scheduling our upcoming weekly home visits with members not yet visited and using a commonly recognized landmark as the rendezvous place.  So Sister James greeted us at the Three Ways market, Innocent Ambali and Louis Likusa at the Chilobwe center, Brother Kunge at the maize mill in Baluti.  Memory Munthali helped us find Joanna Thomas, Brother Mochi guided us to Brother Magombo, and Paul Maso, the younger elders and/or sisters located for us to locate new families—Ethel, the Tsegulas, Enita and Janet, the Nthendas, and Nancy Msoo.  After about three months, we had managed to visit most of the Zingwangwa members and to get their pictures up on the pin board in the foyer of the small meetinghouse.  The Zingwangwa experience was replicated about six months into our mission, once we started splitting our time between Blantyre Second and Zingwangwa.
With few exceptions, our experience in visiting member homes has been extraordinarily positive.  The members are very hospitable, anxious to have us come to their homes, greeting us with open arms, saying “you are most welcome.”  These visit bear little resemblance to what frequently happens in the United States or in many other parts of the world.  The Malawians do not make appointments they do not  intend to keep, and, though punctuality is a serious problem in Malawi, they are usually at home when we called.  They do not hide or slip out the back doors.  They do not leave us with the impression that we are imposing when we visit them.   Quite to the contrary, they treat us as honored guests.  The tradition is to escort us back to our truck after the meeting, even though it might be dark or late or the path rugged or the walk long, another way of showing respect.  Somewhat to our surprise rarely are we offered drinks or food, what would be a customary courtesy in Western countries—we imagine this is because they have so little themselves.  But whatever the reason may be, it is a blessing to us, because Carole and I have tried hard to avoid eating locally prepared foods for fear of getting sick.   Foods are often prepared in insanitary conditions.
Driving to our members’ home is not without its own challenges.  If a member is with us in the truck, guiding us to their home, they invariably lead us down narrow lanes, where it is difficult to turn around, or to get back out without scratching the vehicle’s sides, in an effort to get us as close as possible to their homes.  They have little appreciation for the difficulty of maneuvering cars in tight spaces, because most don’t drive and apparently lack the imagination to anticipate those challenges.  We suspect they find it an honor to have an “azungu” (and especially one with a big, and obviously expensive, truck) visit them—something they wish to “show off” as much as possible.   To my embarrassment, our vehicle now carries a few battle scars from these visits—scraped bumpers, wheel frames and side panels.  The worst came when I was forced to turn sharply to avoid plowing into a small group of kids playing in a narrow turn in the lane and received for my pains a scraped side panel—the accident occurred while driving Brother Tchongwe and Sister Kandioni to see Alfonsina, Sister Kandioni’s daughter, who was then bed ridden due to complications arising from a difficult pregnancy.  These experiences have made me understandably skittish about narrow lanes, so rarely do I start down a back lane without first knowing how much the road tapers at the end and whether there is a space for turning around—backing out is a trying and stressful experience, one to be avoided if at all possible.  Now we usually leave the truck in a safe spot and walk into the neighborhoods, even if the walk is quite long and the path hazardous.  Better to tackle the bad roads on foot than in a vehicle. 
There are however more significant reasons for going into the townships on foot.  First of all, it helps us get a much better perspective on the lives and experience of our members—we learn about the little aspects that make up their lives--where they shop, where the barber shops hair saloons are located, the location of the police station, the local markets.  We see the little kids, with their school bags, returning from the local primary schools, and the older kids, sauntering in small packs, from the secondary schools.  We learn where one goes to purchase Halaal prepared meat, suitable not only for the Muslims but also for those interested in purchasing the best meat.  We find the local bore holes and springs, and can trace the steps of women and small girls carrying on their heads water tanks or jugs.  But as importantly, the walking serves to erode the image, held by almost everyone, of “azungu” missionaries being a bred separate and apart from the Malawians.    We are prepared to go where they go, and to get there in the same fashion in which they get there—on foot, down dusty roads, walking along with others, not sequestered in a truck none of them could ever afford.  We have no illusions that this eliminates the social distance between us, but it does speak to an attitude—we do not consider ourselves “different” from them—unwilling to be exposed to some of the same challenges they face.
Another impediment to visiting the members is the archaic state of the membership records.   Poor membership records is not a unique problem to the Blantyre branches, but it does complicate keeping track of the members.  As evidence, though in Malawi now for nine months, we have yet to get a full membership list for Zingwangwa, working instead of a list of the “elders” and “relief society” members.  We have the same problem in Blantyre Second.  For some reason, we do not have, for each of the branches, lists of the primary age kids, the young women and the young men, even though each of those reports should come automatically off the computer stored Mormon Church membership files.
How much success have we had from our home visiting?  In about three months we were able to visit the homes of most of the fairly active members of Zingwangwa,[3] and to populate two pin boards in the small foyer with member pictures and a few photos of branch activities—baptismal services, branch socials, returning and departing missionaries, and young adult activity climbing to the top of Mt. Soche.  No longer are we compelled to call upon members and the full-time missionaries to help us find members not yet visited.  We can usually get a sense for where they “stay” by triangulating from other known positions—commonly recognized landmarks or the homes of other members we have visited.  Some families we have visited many times—either because they are so welcoming or have special needs or are conveniently located close to other members—while others we have seen only once or two.  For example, now it is harder to get out to see the Nthendas because, after the destruction of their modest home in Manja, they now “stay” in a neighboring village, not easily accessible by car, out by Limbe, almost an hour and a half walk from the Zingwangwa meetinghouse.  We have also found that visiting specific members goes in spurts—often without any particular rhythm or reason—for a while we will catch the Makawas whose home is high up Mt. Soche, almost directly above Chilobwe Center, reading with them out of the Book of Mormon—and then not see them, other than at church, for weeks.  And, at least as far as Zingwangwa is concerned, our home visits have tapered off considerably over the last four months, coinciding with our beginning to visit the members in the Blantyre Second Branch and assuming the office responsibilities for Blantyre.  The other day, when sitting in Sacrament meeting, I was thinking how Carole and I needed to track down a couple of regulars attending in Zingwangwa, whose faces were familiar but whom we had yet to visit—prior to that we knew almost everyone coming out to church, other than the new investigators, who flood in and out of attendance.
Perhaps home visits shouldn’t make as much difference as to how I interact with members but I have found they do.  Once I have been in their homes, my relationship with them is transformed, and theirs with us.  The week after the visit they light up when they see us in church.  Suddenly, the connection is personal.  It is as though they then have a claim on me, and one on them.  No longer do they come up as an anonymous face, without a history.  Instead, we know where they live, how many children they have, whether they live with family or friends, what village they are from, how long they have been in the church, whether they do piece work or have a full-time job.  We can envision their home or living circumstances—whether they have electronics in the house—one of the signs of prosperity—or whether they have a concrete or packed dirt floor—whether the parents have accepted or are fighting their membership in the church—if they are thinking about going on a mission or plan to continue in school.  With this knowledge, the nature of our personal prayers change—no longer do we speak in generic terms of “blessing” the members of the Zingwangwa Branch—but instead of blessing the Ambalis, helping Angela get better, comforting the Nthendas over the loss of their home, supporting Brother Mpamba as he struggles being separated from his wife, asking for the Lord’s help in getting Khama out on his mission.
This approach to service is personal, one-on-one, hands on, and rewarding, but it is not “leveraged.”  It is not the same as training the District Presidency, providing district-wide training to priesthood leaders, working with the primary-age children on Sunday or even speaking in Sacrament meeting—each an activity that simultaneously reaches out to a broader audience.  And often it is hard to see how much impact we are having, a theme I have touched upon before.  From experience we know we can almost “badger” a less active member into attending church for a while by visiting them over and over again, but they may not continue attending once the visits drop off.  Yet we always harbor the hope that our little encouragement creates a tiny fire able to sustain itself and grow even once we are no longer supplying the kindling. 
One of my greatest fears is that, as our administrative loads has expanded, the office duties will force too much of a cutback in our home visits.  It has certainly had that effect, but we are trying to strike a better balance. 

[1]We look sickly when standing side by side with Malawians.    On the other hand, their facial features hardily show up on photos, unless the lighting is just right.
[2]One of the mandatory subjects in the primary and secondary schools is “bible knowledge.”  As a consequence, Malawians, both young and old, are generally better versed in the stories of the Old and New Testament than folks back in the United States.  They recite passages of scriptures, know key phrases in the bible, better than most in the United States, because much of their school instruction requires routine learning and memorization.
[3] Activity levels are erratic.  Many members make it out to Sunday meetings once or two during the month.  There are only a few families and individuals whom you can count on to be there week in and week out.  This is even true of the branch leaders, who are often absent without explanation.  It is equally true that families who have not been out for months suddenly resurface and begin attending once again, as though they have never been gone.  Sometimes it appears as though there is little rhythm or reason for the attendance patterns.   Illness certainly plays a role—almost everyone has what they describe as bout of malaria from time to time, and frequently kids and mothers, sometimes even the fathers, leave for extended stays in the villages.  They go to the villages to plant and harvest maize, to visit an aging grandmother or aunt or uncle.  Funerals or preparing for national school exams are often given as common excuses for extended absences, and most accept these as good reasons for skipping church.