Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Elephant in the Room--George's Post

A.   The Elephant in the Room

The Church will likely struggle to thrive in Malawi fully, until it can help members manage the trials they face due to poverty.  While poverty may cause many to be more God-fearing and open to hearing the message of the restored gospel, it also has the potential of distracting them—many find themselves totally consumed with the search for life’s basic necessities and dealing with the constant, almost overwhelming, challenges of being so poor.    These matters dwarf all other considerations, compromising their efforts to be fully obedient to key gospel principles, such as honesty, being charitable, paying fast offerings and tithing, keeping the Sabbath holy, and putting the Kingdom of God first.  
Within the villages, sustenance farmers spend most of their time eking out a living—yet life in the villages never seems hurried. [1]  Most live hand to mouth, working small plots by hand, and growing little more than they need to feed their families.  Some are able to find odds jobs, such as wood carving, carpentry, and the like, to supplement their income, earning a little extra for cash to purchase store-bought commodities.    In the larger cities, such as Lilongwe and Blantyre, most struggle to find full-time employment.   Steady jobs are hard to come by, even for those with more education and greater personal skills.[2]   Hence, many bread earners devote much of their energy looking for piece work or odd jobs to come up with enough money or goods to feed the family.  
Poverty is so widespread, that being poor is not stigmatizing—most everyone is in the same boat—and a communal spirit tends to prevail, so that the poor are often quite compassionate with one another.   They visit one another when sick, share food, watch out for the children of one another, and even take into their homes the children of deceased relatives and friends.   Yet still life is difficult and crisis is always just around the corner.   It is relatively easy for Westerners to feel great compassion for the poor.  None of us could live as they do and we ache when we see their challenges.   But we have no personal framework of reference for understanding how stressful day-to-day life may be for the poor, though we imagine that we would likely act pretty much the way they do were we to find ourselves in the same position.   It is not too hard to keep at bay our normal Westerner arrogance.   
Thus, it is not surprising that money is never far from the minds of the poor—any little thing they can do to come up with a few extra kwacha (the local currency) may make an enormous difference.   What is less than spare changes for Westerners is enough to supply a meal for the family, purchase some prescription drugs to manage pain or treat malaria, cover the school fees for the semester.  
“Money” issues surface daily in countless other ways.  We learn of members going without prescription drugs because they can’t afford them; and hear of members, even good and faithful ones, stealing tithing funds from the Church’s coffers (indeed neither of us had heard the term “defalcation” until coming to Malawi).    Members try to skim on spending money in variety of ways—flashing others to induce them to return their calls;[3] plugging their cell phones into the socks at church to re-charge the batteries; asking the Church for transport money to attend leadership meetings; coming to Church socials to get a free meal; and using the Church computers for internet searches, resume preparation, and other personal uses.   Institute and seminary attendance rates, each a condition for PEF loans, tend to be considerable higher than those of Sacrament Meetings for the branches.   When giving temple recommend interviews, the question that gives Malawians the most pause is:  “Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowman?”    Anything of value, left unattended at Church for a few minutes—from a cell phone to a pen to a pad of paper—will likely disappear without a trace.   Some poor Malawians see the hand of God, blessing them, if they find something to steal.   Church leaders worry about the members’ self reliance and honesty and are anxious to teach correct principles.   They are concerned about people joining the Church for the wrong reasons and about the welfare needs of the members getting out of hand.   At least in Africa for the foreseeable future, Church fast offerings will lag far behind the costs of covering the welfare needs of the Church in the area.[4]
Poverty, together with all of the related issues, is clearly the elephant in the room for the Church, because so many of the Church’s members are very poor.  What follows is a discussion of the Church’s efforts to help the members coping with poverty and the role the senior missionaries play in the process.  

[1] There are very few commercial farming operations in Malawi.
[2] Most branch members do not have  9 to 5 jobs as we think of them.   Instead they are either still in school, look constantly for piecework or live off the income of some other bread earners in the extended family.  In many cases, we can’t quite figure out how the families make ends meet.
[3] See “_________________________.”
[4] The fast offerings made by the members are used to cover welfare needs.