1. Decisions of Africans to Serve as Missionaries
The Church will not consider the application of a prospective missionary to serve as a young missionary if submitted when the applicant is 26 or older. This restriction is rarely an impediment for young men and women from Western countries considering mission calls. Usually, if they have interest in being a young missionary, that decision is made well before they approach 26. In our limited experience with African missionaries, and the young members in Blantyre considering missions, age eligibility is more likely to come up as an issue in Africa. The Church appeals to young Malawian men and women; many of the new converts are in their teens and twenties.
Often these young people start thinking about serving as missionaries, even before they become members or shortly thereafter. One might wonder how this could possibly be the case, going from no contact with the Church to a willingness to serve for 18 to 24 months as full-time missionaries, away from family and friends, in some faraway place. Many respond not only to the gospel message but also to the friendliness, smiles, and good cheer of the young missionaries they meet. They admire the missionaries who teach them and find their spirit to be contagious. Quickly they see themselves as wanting to have the same experience—that of teaching and sharing the message of the restored gospel—and sometimes wanting to replicate the life style they see the young missionaries enjoying. One may not, however, serve as a full-time missionary until one has been in the Church for at least a year.
We have found that a number of African missionaries are several years older than their Western counterparts. The age differential is due to the fact that many are new members in the Church, joining after they are already in their late teens and twenties, Africans do not have the same peer and support system for getting them out on missions, and the challenges of getting ready to serve as missionaries are more onerous and time consuming for Africans. Given the Church’s short history in Malawi, it does not yet have many multi-generational members, where parents have been grooming their children for years to serve as missionaries. Moreover, many of our African missionaries come from homes where they are the only members of the Church. Consequently, they cannot look to parents, grandparents or other family members for financial or emotional support, but instead often they choose to serve missions over family objections and sometimes in the face of active opposition. African missionaries can earn some, but usually just a fraction, of the monies needed to support themselves when in the mission field. Going on a mission requires patience and commitment. Otherwise, it is just too hard to get out the door.
At least for those missionaries going out from Malawi, there is also no way they can, prior to serving, earn and save enough money to cover their own mission expenses. The average Malawian earns less than $2.00 USD per day. Compare this with the $300 USD that is the monthly support level the Church requires to maintain a young missionary in the field. As a consequence, for all but a handful of African missionaries (other than perhaps those coming out of South Africa or coming from wealthy families), young Africans need financial help from the Church if they are to serve—such financial support is not branch- or district- based, but instead comes out of the general mission funds of the Church. It is a different calculus for Western missionaries, who usually can fund their missions with pre-mission savings or with financial help from family, extended family or members from their home wards and branches.
One may wonder what impact, if any, the availability of Church mission support, and the perceived quality of mission life, may have upon a young African’s decision to serve a mission. From a strictly Western perspective, it is hard to think such financial support, even if received, or the quality of life one expects to enjoy as a young missionary, would ever constitute an inducement to a Westerner to serve a mission. Missions are simply too hard—knowing the disciple and sacrifice required, a young Westerner would never opt to serve a mission just for the purpose of being supported by the Church for two years. Money alone would never be a sufficient inducement. Nor would a Westerner think that the life of missionary were particularly attractive or better than the life the Westerner would have if he or she stayed at home.
But the same could not be said at least for many poor Malawians. What they likely see in full-time missionaries are young men and women living in circumstances far superior to their own or those of their families. Indeed, they may see the missionary life style as being better than the life they may ever be able to achieve on their own. Missionaries are, by and large, well-dressed, wearing nice shirts, slacks, ties and even suits or, in the case of sisters, nice, even if conservative, dresses, sweaters, and shoes. They have sufficient food, never worry about starvation, enjoy a diet of something other than nsima and porridge. At the Church’s expense, they live in clean, secure apartments, with electricity, in-door plumbing, and water. Some of them have access to trucks; they have an opportunity to travel outside of their home countries; they see more of the world than the average Malawian ever will see. They can get a passport (a valuable asset in Malawi), the purchase of which is beyond the means of most Malawians. For those interested in improving their English, or getting greater exposure to a Western world, they find themselves spending much of their time speaking English and working with Western missionary companions. Out of their monthly missionary allotments (less than $200 per month), they have a little pocket change for incidental purchases. During their missions, the Church takes care of their routine medical and dental expenses.
And, at the end of the day, what is the actual “cost” to them for having this better life style for two years. They lose a couple of years of potential school—they tolerate a delay in getting an education, holding down a job, or starting a career. This may not be considered much of a sacrifice for those who don’t know what they want to study, are not likely to find employment, or can’t conceive of any kind of meaningful career. Moreover, at least from a distance, the work required of missionaries does not seem to be particularly taxing. They have daily study time, walk around talking to people about the Church, meet with local members and leaders, and attend regular Church meetings. Occasionally, they became involved with service projects. But whatever it is they are asked to do, it is never the backbreaking labor of young Malawian men. Young elders don’t get their hands dirty stacking and moving bags of charcoal, don’t carry heavy loads on their backs and shoulders, and don’t work in the fields, digging furrows, hoeing, harvesting crops, and shucking corn. Sister missionaries do not go to the local bore holes for water, carry buckets of water on their heads, wash clothes in polluted neighbor streams, or are saddled caring for babies, infants or children. Some, especially those who don’t yet appreciate the single-minded dedication required of missionaries, may think of this as a reasonable exchange of services for benefits. We suppose however that the hard facts of missionary life quickly disabuse them of that notion.
At the end of the day, both Western and African missionaries may initially decide to go on missions for the wrong reasons. However, many missionaries, who start missions for the wrong reasons, end up getting a testimony, serve faithfully and come home capable of being great supports in their local congregations. While Western missionaries are not apt to be tempted by the material advantages of mission service, there are certainly aspects of missionary service—unrelated to the selfless service of God and fellowman--ggthat might tempt them to serve for the wrong reasons. Some may go because they can’t think of anything else to do. Why not take some time off after high school or a year of college to get a break and think about their options. They are not anxious to start or continue college, can’t decide what they want to study or what kind of job or career they would like to hold. Some may be intrigued with serving in a foreign speaking country or somewhere outside of the United States in order to learn a foreign language or have a cultural experience. Some may be under considerable pressure from parents and extended family to continue the family tradition of missionary service or from girlfriends who have decided that they will only marry a returned missionary. But the distractions for Westerns, though equally potent, are not primarily “economic” in character, distinguishing them from some of the factors that may likely seduce the young African considering a mission.
Do some of the economic factors or life style considerations mentioned above actually corrupt the behavior of young African missionaries? A few anecdotal stories we have heard suggest that some African missionaries do serve for the wrong reasons and abuse the financial support they receive from the Church. On occasion, an African missionary serving in South Africa, when released from his mission, does not return to his home country but simply disappears in South Africa. South Africa is the economic giant in southeast Africa, offering employment opportunities not present in other poorer countries such as Malawi. Some African missionaries have saved a portion of their allotments to buy expensive electric gadgetry, extra clothes or cell phones; some send a portion of their allotments home to their families (not an intended purpose of the funds), just like Africans working outside of their home countries send money back home to support their families. An African missionary, after being released, returns to his mission field, using his still valid work permit, and then disappears. But we have no way of knowing how serious these abuses may be, or whether they are any more problematic than the problems raised by Western missionaries.
Since our arrival, just 11 months ago, we have witnessed a number of Malawians from the Blantyre District head off to serve as missionaries: three from the Zingwangwa Branch—Maxwell Mbera to the Mozambique Mission; Memory Munthali to the Zimbabwe Harare Mission; and Khama Gangire to the South Africa Johannesburg Mission (though serving now in Lilongwe, as he waits for the South Africa visa to issue); two from the Blantyre 1st Branch--Felix Paul to the England Manchester Mission and Herbert Chazuka to the England London South Mission; and one from the Ndirande Branch—Agnes Chirwa to the England Birmingham Mission. Some of these prospective missionaries we got to know pretty well before they left. One does not always know what is deep in someone’s heart; yet at least from the outside these missionaries appeared to be dedicated and going on missions for the right reasons.
 For example, in order to go on a mission, the Church requires the applicant to get a Malawi passport (something none of the prospective missionaries would be able to acquire on their own), a police clearance, medical and dental examinations, the assemblage of school and other records, and the completion of a rather lengthy missionary application form. It is amazing how long it takes for a young Malawian to get through this somewhat simple, if paper intensive, process. Several trips from Blantyre to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, may be required to complete the process. Moreover, once a mission call is extended, the prospective missionary may have to wait months to get the required visa to enter his or her mission field. Prospective missionaries rarely have the clothes required, so they have to work with the branch president to come up with a plan for funding those purchases as well.