1. Centers of Strength
A major leitmotif for the General Authorities and the Area Office leaders is that the Church in Africa should grow around centers of strength, as opposed to spreading in a haphazard fashion. A center of strength is thought of as the radius around a meetinghouse circumscribed by those who can reach the building within 30-minutes by whatever is the customary mode of transportation in the area. In Malawi that means walking. This theme is used to determine the areas in which the missionaries proselyte—they are to contact folks within the center of strength and not to spend time working outside of it—even if they somehow find people interested in the gospel in the outlying areas. Missionaries also work around the homes of existing members, leading to the organic growth of the Church.
Missionaries, when doing their ordinary rounds, often bump into potential investigators who come from almost anywhere in Malawi. These nonmembers may be temporarily in town on business, visiting family, or looking for work. Many of them come from outlying villages, major trading centers, or some of the larger cities in Malawi, where the Church does not have established units. Some of them may be interested in the gospel, have family who are already members of the Church, or have received and read the Book of Mormon. Some may already have testimonies and wish to be baptized. And yet, they do not fall within the profile of those the Church is trying to reach at this stage in its history.
The temptation is very strong to disregard the Church’s focus upon centers of strength and to teach and baptize those who are ready, even if they are far away from meetinghouses, or the homes of other members, outside the reasonable reach of authorized priesthood authority. Perhaps behind this sentiment is the belief that God is not a respecter of person, and the gospel should be a free gift to all, especially those seeking God.
And yet, it takes little imagination to conjure up the problems that arise when people are baptized whom the Church cannot easily support. Examples abound that demonstrate the real-life problems. For example, the Church has two wonderful members/families, who live in Bangwe, a larger trading center, outside of Limbe—the Chizola family and Maple Pidani and her two daughters. It takes the better part of an hour by car to reach their homes, located far out road running through the Bangwe market. Each is a wonderful family, and each tries to come into church in Mandala (in effect, our equivalent of a stake center in Blantyre) once every other month to attend Sacrament meeting. For them the trip into Blantyre is a major undertaking—involving a 20 minute hike into Bangwe proper, a mini-bus ride from Bangwe into Limbe, and then a second mini-bus ride from Limbe into Blantyre. Apart from cost—roughly 700 kwacha or $1.75 USD each way per person—it usually takes about 2 to 2 ½ hours. Sister Pidani comes into the Blantyre 2nd Branch meetings, starting at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, and the Chizolas come into the Blantyre 1st Branch meetings, starting at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday. Not surprisingly, they only come to Church on occasion, and it is equally difficult for Branch or District leaders to visit them. Maple joined the Church in England ten years ago when visiting a daughter then living in the mid-lands. I don’t recall the conversion history of the Chizolas—I will need to confirm that with our next visit.
It is not hard for Carole and me to visit them, but it does take the better part of an afternoon. We enjoy getting out of Blantyre, driving through the long market road, and visiting with such sweet members. But then, we have access to a truck and are not unduly concerned about the costs of making the trip—something a local leader would always have to factor in to his considerations. While it is evident that both families have tender feelings about the Church, they certainly have limited contact. Asking local leaders to visit regularly, or to have home teachers assigned to them, is unrealistic, placing too great of burdens on leaders who already have their hands full.
The coordination issues are further amplified when speaking of the members in the Liwonde Group. They are over 2 long driving hours out of Blantyre—and that is just to the Liwonde meetinghouse. Most of the Liwonde members are themselves another hour or so walk from the chapel. So the Church’s concerns about supporting far-distant units are understandable. The Church’s sad experience has been that far-flung still ill-mature units, outside of the reach of constant oversight, have endless problems—teaching of false doctrine; encroachment of native religious practices; theft and misappropriation of Church donations; and emergence of rouge leaders in need of chastisement and correction.
The teaching of the gospel needs to be done in an orderly way. This means it cannot be taken to everyone in Malawi (or certainly, in Africa) at the same time. The Church needs a plan for spreading the restored gospel throughout the continent. Some, who have been waiting a long time for the gospel, will have to wait even longer. Reasonable protocols must be in place to ensure that Church resources—e.g., missionaries, senior couples, local leaders—are rolled out in a manner sufficient to support members once they are baptized. This has led to the “center of strength” approach, which attempts to match resources with local needs. Its application however can lead to painful outcomes, some of which may appear on their face to be heartless and cruel. It is very hard to walk away from someone who is earnestly looking for the truth.
Today there are two larger centers of strength in Malawi—one around the four units in Blantyre, and one around the four units in Lilongwe. One would expect the Church to continue growing the Church in these two larger metropolitan areas for the foreseeable future. Of course, at some point in time, the Church, if it is grow beyond these footprints, will need to spring into other cities, most likely in the Northern Region of Malawi, such as Mzuzu and/or Nkhata Bay, where there are currently unrecognized units of the Church.