When our son and sons-in-law were visiting, we told them not to be surprised if someone approached them as we were walking. It didn't take many minutes for us to lose Tomicah and sure enough, he was back talking to someone about the Book of Mormon. As I said...this is not the normal mission experience, at least it wasn't so for our children when they served. It is easy to find people here to talk to, but the difficulty comes in finding people who would be committed (not unlike every other mission I suppose).
Malawians have a long history of Christian church attendance and affiliation. David Livingstone ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"), known much more as an African explorer, originally was sponsored by the London Missionary Society and was himself, a Scottish Congregationalist. Blantyre is named after his birthplace in Scotland. Following the arrival of Livingstone, Scottish Presbyterian churches established missions in Malawi. In 1876, the Church of Scotland set up a mission in Blantyre.
St. Michael and All Angels church was built from 1888 to 1891 and was constructed on the original site of the Scottish mission. It was not until we attended a burial at the nearby cemetary that we saw it because it is not in the heart of town, and sits back off of a main road. It was constructed of bricks that they made and fired, just as they do today, and the reverend that designed and oversaw the construction had no formal architectural training! I'm sure the Malawians had never seen such a building.
Today this is the home of the Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central African Presbyterian (CCAP), the largest of the Protestant denominations. Everyone knows what CCAP is and many families go back several generations as Presbyterian (though I am not sure they would recognize it as Presbyterian, just as CCAP).
Most members attend a congregation that is closer to them than the large original church.
We pass this on our way top the Zingwangwa building.
The Roman Catholic church also has a large presence in Malawi. CI (Catholic Institute) is used as the name of an area and a landmark in Blantyre, and is not far from where we live.This is the original building and we frequently pull into the parking lot to drop members off or pick them up because they live in the CI neighborhood.
Across the street, they have built a new church, and it is probably the biggest in Blantyre. St. Montfort parish has recently celebrated it 100 year anniversary.
After the CCAP and Catholic denominations, I am not sure which groups are the largest, but the Seventh-Day Adventist church has a large presence and is obvious because their members attend church on Saturday, their Sabbath.
Many of the church names we recognize.
Almost everyone that we meet identifies with a church. AND we have met several who have started their own church. We have fun looking at the various signs in the neighborhoods of the different churches.
I was a little nervous one day when we came across Brother Chimaliro painting a new sign on the street for the above church. (He's a painter by profession).
MIckey Mouse? on a church sign?
But when he had finished, I could see that on one side it was proclaiming a nursery school for children and on the other side, it announced the name of the church.
Of course, this is my favorite sign (also painted by Brother Chimaliro). It means that we no longer have to tell investigators that the Zingwangwa building is across the street from the "dead truck".
(That was actually the description on the church web site! - remember no addresses!)
Sometimes when there are upcoming religious conferences, there are bills plastered all over Blantyre for advertising.
Oops! This one didn't get posted in the best place! Consequently, it wasn't up very long.
Periodically there are large billboard proclaiming visits of traveling preachers.
In addition to the Christian churches, there are also mosques, ranging from very modest to quite beautiful, in most neighborhoods. About 15-20% of the population is Muslim. I love hearing the calls to prayer by the muessin five times a day.
Even though the churches must compete for membership, we very rarely hear negative things said about our church, or any other for that matter. I can think of two occasions where we were treated with great respect by others.
One, we recently attended a large funeral for the brother of a member and it was conducted by an Apostolic group. When we arrived to visit with the family the night before, the lead pastor made a point of telling us that they were honored and blessed by our presence. The following day when we arrived for the funeral, I went inside the house and sat on the floor with the women in the room with the casket. George sat outside with the men under a tree. I had brought my scriptures and was going to take them out and read but all eyes were upon me and I was afraid that the lead pastor would ask me to preach. He did thank me for being inside and said "the master" was sitting in a good spot outside.
Another time we decided to drop in on a member and there was a weekly Pentacostal neighborhood service going on in her living room! We were immediately invited in and given the most comfortable chairs. The head preacher said that God must have sent us and asked us to participate with them. We just watched their very lively service. At one point, George was asked to preach the word of God and he did! - even quoting Doctrine and Covenants 76:22-24. As they reached for their scriptures to read along, George told them to put them down because they wouldn't find this in their Bibles.
It is refreshing to find a people who have no hesitancy in talking about spiritual subjects. Speaking of the people in Africa, Elder Jeffry Holland said in an interview:
“The memory I always have is the spirituality of the people. That is a little hard to convey, unless you have been here, unless you have seen firsthand their goodness, their faith, and their spiritual gifts.”
All one has to do is attend a Fast and Testimony meeting in one of the Blantyre branches, and any one can feel the wonderful spirit. Many are just waiting to hear a message that resonates with them and when they hear the gospel message, their hearts are touched immediately.
We may be in the warm heart of Africa, but it is just that much warmer when people recognize us as being missionaries from a church that has "Jesus Christ" in its name. From the ladies who check us out at the supermarket to the farmers in the vegetable markets to the people who greet us on the street, we are treated with great respect.
I feel very, very blessed to wear a badge every day that says "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints".