A. Helping the Liwonde Group Members
1. First Introduction to Liwonde
Sitima Village, a typical poor African village clinging to the north side of the Upper Shirer River, an hour’s walk outside of Liwonde, is the birth place of the Church in Malawi, where the first native Malawians joined the Church in 1992, more than a decade before the Church took root in Blantyre. Within a few months after the first baptisms, the Church grew from just a few members to a congregation of over 200—with stories of villagers waiting all day for their turn to be baptized. The history of the Church’s growth in Sitima Village is extraordinary—the tale of miracles in the wild of Africa—with a little something for everyone—committed and enthusiastic missionaries; mass baptisms of humble African saints; an earlier charismatic leader with great faith and passion; the emergence of false doctrines and heresies; great apostasy, later excommunications, and the split of the early congregation; the notorious theft of Church property; and lastly, the painful but necessary retrenchment of the Church, scaling back the Church’s ambitions to something more manageable. Indeed, the Sitima Village experience, together with possibly similar ones elsewhere in Africa, is likely the genesis of the Church’s current policy in Africa regarding “centers of strength”--mandating that the Church grow only from established centers of strength where there are sufficient priesthood leaders steeped in the gospel who are able to teach others correct principles, guard against the pernicious encroachment of false doctrines and heresies, introduce and strengthen basic Church culture, and ensure that the Church stays on the strait and narrow path. Understandably, the Church has no appetite for repeating the sorry, and painful, experience of its early history in Sitima Village.
Today what was the Sitima Village congregation is now the Liwonde Group, a congregation of some 30 households (many of whom still live in Sitima Village) of members, recognized as a Church “group” (not a branch or ward), operating under the priesthood auspices of the Blantyre 1st Branch. The Branch President of Blantyre 1st is the presiding priesthood leader, but the group itself holds Church services week to week under a three-person presidency—the group leader, Brother John Benjamin, and his two counselors, Brothers Petros Napier Namabande and MacNight Landinyu. No full-time missionaries are stationed in Liwonde, but once a month the Blantyre Zone Leaders, sometime accompanied by a District or Branch leader from Blantyre, visit Liwonde to provide support. When the Merrills were on their CES mission, they would also make it to Liwonde monthly to help train and support the group’s seminary and institute teachers. Since most members come from villages outside of Liwonde, few speak English well, and most of the service is in Chichewa, translated to English when English-speaking visitors are in attendance. The group has a wonderful building, constructed a year or two ago, a large meeting hall, with three classrooms at the back, and a dais in the front for the speakers and those conducting the meetings. The building, marked by a sign, is on the left hand side of the main road from Zhoma to Liwonda, roughly a kilometer south of the bridge crossing the Upper Shirer River leading into the market town of Liwonde.
Our first exposure to Liwonde came on a wet, gray, blustery Sunday in January 2015. We decided to accompany Elder Barnard, one of the Blantyre Zone Leaders, and President Makunganya of Blantyre 1st on what would be the January monthly visit to the Liwonde Group. We saw little of the countryside in the early morning drive, the clouds and mist clinging to the hills, leaving little visibility. It had rained heavily the week preceding our visit, engorging the small streams feeding the Upper Shirer River, cutting off all of the small villages on either side of the river from Liwonde, to all but those who had small boats. Only six members managed to make it to Church that Sunday morning; so not surprisingly, both Carole and I had an opportunity to speak. It was an intimate setting, but left us with little feel for what the Group might look like on a normal Sabbath.