Since coming home from Malawi, I have really wrestled with purpose.
I know it’s the nature of a mission trip, but we woke up every day with a very clear purpose: get to know this family, become familiar with this village, hear the stories about this children’s home, teach a seminar about formative assessment. Every day was laid out, and the purpose was clear.
What’s more is that there was so little distracting us from that purpose. With no wi-fi, no cell phone signal, I was never wondering what I might have missed on Instagram. I didn’t think about making a run through a coffee shop or if I should rearrange my bookshelf again. No push notifications about rent payments or daycare payments or emails needed a reply. Of course, I didn’t have to go grocery shopping and while I once hoped to wash some clothes, we didn’t have running water that day.
When we had some downtime in the afternoons or evenings, my options were as follows: walk around and take photos, write in my journal, talk or play cards with my group members, talk to the secondary school students on campus, read book. Go for a walk. Perhaps shower. Perhaps.
In my first few days at home, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the number of choices inherent in every decision. I would buckle myself into the driver’s seat and need to choose: radio, CD, or iPhone? Then, Pandora, Spotify, Songza, or podcast? At dinner time, do I choose the nonstick frying pan or not, and on which size plate should our meal be served? The next morning, it would be time to get dressed, and good grief, my closet. And all of these choices pale in comparison to the complete paralysis I have felt looking at my to-do list and calendar.
While Malawi was certainly emotionally and spiritually overwhelming, it actually felt restful. Life was simple, by necessity and circumstance. I was continually aware of Jesus’ presence in a very tangible way, the Spirit weighing heavy like a blanket, and I know that indeed, He offers rest.
Before we left, my good friend Melissa told me, “You will sense both God’s presence and the world’s darkness more strongly in Malawi. I don’t know why that is,” she said, “but it’s true.”
I’ve been mulling that over since coming home, praying that Jesus will help me feel Him closely again and make me more aware of the need in my own backyard. At times He has, but you know what I think? I think I noticed Him more in Malawi because there were no distractions. No push notifications or tweets to pull me out of each moment, and no caramel macchiatos or craft projects to numb me to brokenness.
As I’m going about my days, I’ve becoming painfully aware that I do so without much purpose. I float from one to-do list item to the next, and I rush from home to work and back again. Don’t misunderstand me–I know that cooking dinner for my family isn’t without purpose. (It’s a grace gift, these two God has given me to love and care for.) Yet, the significant things in my life are mixed in with and overwhelmed by so much meaningless junk and unnecessary excess that I hardly notice them.
I desperately want to eliminate all that excess, so that the things that matter most will no longer suffer under the weight of what matters least. I want each day imbued with purpose, even if the tasks themselves are mundane. I want Jesus, as close as my own breath, He and I, the Vine and the branch.
Our team left Malawi on August 1, which means I’m quickly approaching one month back at home. I’m continually amazed at the impact such a brief trip has had on my mind and heart, my thinking and believing.
Today, I have to tell you about a boy I met.
We spent Friday in the village of Mgwayi, for what COTN dubs “Cultural Immersion Day.” Our team split into pairs, and each pair was matched with a family. We spent the morning with a little girl named Aida and her mother, plus a rotating cast of cousins and neighbors who made their way in and out of our circle that morning. Our mission that day was to simply spend time with this family, learning a bit about the rhythms of their life. We helped draw water from the well, mud the front porch, wash dishes.
As the afternoon approached, we left the village to buy food for dinner. We were sent to the market with a list of ingredients, written entirely in Chichewa, and we went into the market hoping to translate our list, negotiate prices, and come away with the makings of a meal.
On that list? Nkhuku. A chicken.
You should have seen us, wrangling these chickens on the bus back to the village. I wasn’t brave enough to hold the chicken. I completely wimped out. I admit it. So, other team members held their chickens by the feet or placed the chicken in a bowl (had they been smart enough to purchase a bowl with their leftover kwacha). Occasionally, a chicken would “flutter” (as my friend Joanna kept calling it), which would send feathers, dirt, and excrement flying. I rode the whole way with my feet up in the air, afraid of being pecked by the chicken sitting beneath my seat.
Travelling with the chickens was only half of it, because as you might expect, the chicken was meant to be eaten.
My brave partner that day, Stephanie, took one for the team. I stirred nsima over a fire while she bravely did the deed.
(I think the COTN staff, all native Malawians, may include the chicken simply because they like watching a bunch of American’s squirm.)
Eventually, a teenage boy walked over to the hut and offered to help us with our chicken. With excellent English, he introduced himself as Steven. He helped defeather the chicken and he swiftly, deftly cleaned each organ, leaving a full pot of meat ready to be cooked. While our pots boiled away, we began to talk.
“Do you know cat and lion?” he asked.
“Cat and lion?” I was thoroughly confused. Was he asking if we have cats and lions in Florida? Was he wondering if I had seen one since arriving in Malawi?
“Yes, Cat and Lion! And their son, Emerson. They sponsor my brother.”
I almost jumped for joy at the moment, because I suddenly knew what he meant. Steven was asking if I knew Kate and Ryan. (Many Malawians constantly interchange their “l” and “r” sounds. Our team members Lori and Rebecca, for example, quickly became Rori and Labecca.)
Ryan is the middle school minister at our church, and his wife Katelyn works for COTN. As I prepared for Malawi, Katelyn told me to look for the cutest kid in the village. “That’s Mphatso. We sponsor him.”
Sure enough, an adorable little boy in a red COTN t-shirt was standing nearby, playing with the crowd of kids that had gathered. Mphatso.
And this teenager, so patiently and graciously helping us clean a chicken, was his brother.
We talked for a long time that afternoon about football and the Bible, family and friends. I showed him pictures of Evan & Ian, and he asked if I would ever bring them to Malawi. I was so grateful to find a friend in the village from whom I could learn about Malawi and COTN without a significant language barrier. We could talk about more than our age and the number of people in our families.
When I complimented him on his English, he replied, “Oh, thank you! What Chichewa do you know?”
“Me? Oh. I know ‘muli bwangi,'” I said. (That Malawian greeting means, “How are you?”)
“Yeah, yeah,” he replied, “Everyone knows ‘muli bwangi.”
I saw Steven 2 more times during our stay in Malawi, and each time he would walk with our team down the long path from the village to COTN’s ministry center.
“Lindsey,” he said to me one afternoon,” “I want to go to university and be an engineer. I am afraid that if I do not have a sponsor, I will not be able to go to school. Every day, I pray that Jesus will provide me a sponsor, but I do not know what else to do.”
Steven has a dream, but he seemed to lack hope that it would happen.
Joanna ran into Steven and Mphatso later in the week while walking through the village. She started up a conversation with them, and Steven immediately began talking to her about Kate and Ryan. He even pulled out their picture.
Kate and Ryan are so diligent about sending Mphatso letters and gifts often. They are building a relationship with him, reminding him that they love him, pray for him, and think of him daily. When I talked to Steven, his love for Kate & Ryan oozed from every pore. He asked how their son was growing, and did we go to church together, and would I send greetings on his behalf.
And they were not his sponsor.
Steven taught me that sponsoring one child benefits the entire family.
When you sponsor a child, your generosity provides meals, school fees and workbooks, a mosquito net, and more. I’m not sure, however, that resources are the most significant things that sponsorship provides.
When you sponsor a child, it communicates that he or she is valued and chosen.
Sponsorship provides hope.
Steven wants to be an engineer. My friend Michelle was his math teacher for eight weeks this summer, and she will tell you: this boy is sweet and studious. He doesn’t complain when he doesn’t have food or shoes. He dreams and he works.
Almost every day since coming home, I have browsed through the pictures of children waiting for sponsors. Today, Steven’s face was no longer there. Katelyn and Ryan have decided to sponsor Steven, and I am praising Jesus because of it. I know that Steven is praising Jesus as well.
Sometimes, you need hope to keep a dream alive.
That’s what sponsorship provides.
You can browse the list of children needing sponsors, including Steven & Mphatso’s sister, by visiting COTN’s web site here. I can’t even express the hope you will provide to a child and his or her family.
You still won’t eat solid foods. Sometimes, you pick up a cheerio, grasping it carefully between your thumb and forefinger. You gingerly hold it on the tip of your tongue for a moment or two, and then you gleefully throw it on the floor. And repeat.
Let’s be honest about this: you’re going to need to eat some solid food eventually. But for now, I love this because it is so typically you.
You approach things tentatively, observing and contemplating for quite awhile, but once you’ve made up your mind you go for it and do not stop. I could learn something from you in that regard: at some point, you simply decide there’s no use being cautious anymore.
When I was pregnant with you, everyone loved to say, “You won’t even remember what life was like before the baby!” I’ve found that’s not exactly true. I do remember what life was like before you were here. Every once in awhile, your dad and I will reminisce about the days we spent watching Friends on the couch, or decided to run out for Italian ice late at night.
And sure, that was fun, but you know what? Life seems fuller and richer with you in it, Ian. I remember what life used to be, but I’d never want to go back.
This was the year our friends and family gave us enough diapers to last for 6 months.
This was the year your dad and I learned to communicate better.
This was the year we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar a million times.
This was the year our laundry grew exponentially.
This was the year you learned to roll over and crawl and pull up.
When Evan and I were first married, we sat in a “Go to Africa” interest meeting at church and heard about the Teach Team for the first time. I was in the middle of my teaching internship: a baby, really, with a passion for teaching in my bones but no idea what my career might hold. Something in my soul lit right up, and I knew it was for me. Still, each summer I found an excuse (support raising!) or reason (pregnancy!) to bow out.
Let me tell you about the teach team: Each year, COTN’s educational directors provide a topic they believe will be helpful to the teachers in Malawi. In response, Summit issues a call for teachers and others who are passionate about education, and that team heads to the warm heart of Africa to lead a four-day professional development seminar.
I left teaching in 2012 (a year and a half since that first interest meeting) with only one full year under my belt. I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to teach, but simply because I could not turn down the opportunity to work in children’s ministry at our church. I knew it was my next right step; I’ve rarely felt such clarity before or since.
Two years have passed, and I love my job. I think I’d do it for the rest of my life if that’s how things worked out. The truth is, as a classroom teacher, I worked at least 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. I cried every single day. Yes, I was an overachiever and perfectionist and workaholic, and yes, things would be better and different now. If, at some point, God calls me back to teaching, I hope I’ll be brave and obedient, but honestly? I don’t want to go back.
Every career assessment, personality profile, or assessment of gifts and strengths I have ever taken has pointed toward one thing.
I’m wired up for teaching.
Still, like the majority of America’s teaching force, I quit, and since then, teaching has remained this strange, unresolved part of my life and calling.
I wouldn’t have joined the team, but one afternoon I eavesdropped on a conversation between my friend Melissa and our church’s missions coordinator. “We’ll lead seminars on differentiated instruction and formative assessment,” she said, and I couldn’t help but interrupt.
“I LOVE that stuff,” I said.
“You should come,” Melissa replied.
Still, the truth was that I felt like a fraud joining the Teach Team, two years removed from the classroom. It felt presumptive and arrogant to assume I still had something of value to share.
On Day 3 of our seminar, it was finally my turn to lead a lesson. Twenty-four nursery teachers joined us that day, and when I stepped up to speak, it flowed.
I realized then what I hadn’t been ready to admit since leaving the classroom: I missed teaching.
It seems strange to miss something that was so painful most days. I wish I could say, “Nope, it wasn’t for me. I found something better, and I’ve moved on.” I hate living in the in-between, with unresolved tension between what I’m called to do in this moment and what I sometimes sense God created me for.
The time spent in a classroom setting again is one of the reasons I’m so grateful for my time in Malawi. It was so fun to talk to teachers, imagine their classrooms, and problem-solve alongside them.
I’m not working in a school setting and don’t necessarily plan to return, but I sense that my story as a teacher isn’t finished just yet.
Leaving the classroom made me feel like a quitter, but I learned something in Malawi.
I didn’t say no to teaching. I said yes to Jesus, the Infinitely Creative. I can trust Him to weave the disparate parts of my career–children’s ministry and teaching–into a richer story.
I’ve wanted to sponsor a child for a long time. I made excuses about the money and the timing, and I wondered if my small contributions could even make a dent in such enormous issues as poverty and injustice and limited access to education.
Children of the Nations is a child-sponsorship organization that operates through village partnership programs and children’s homes, and their mission is to raise children who transform nations. Our church partners with them in a variety of ways, one of which is sending an annual “teach team” to Malawi. Traveling with this team was the impetus I needed to finally pull out my wallet and put away my excuses.
Just before we left, I sat down with some of the staff from COTN’s Florida office, and they helped me select a child to sponsor. I narrowed down my search criteria and scrolled through the pages of pictures. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, exactly, but I figured it would be difficult to make a bad choice.
Then, I saw her.
I wondered about the missing R in her name and how it was pronounced.
I chose her.
Friday was our first full-day in Mgwayi. All day long, a herd of children surrounded us, whispering “uzungu” (the Chichewa word for “white person,”) and asking, “One picture?” I kept scanning the crowd, looking for a face that matched the profile I had seen on-line, but no luck. So, I asked Davey for help.
The kids know him as Uncle Davey. He’s COTN’s Sponsorship Coordinator in Malawi. In that role, he maintains the relationships between children and sponsors, and he coordinates the delivery of services and resources to children in the program. In Malawi, COTN runs 3 Village Partnership Programs and 2 children’s homes, providing services to several hundred children. If you show Davey a child’s photo, he can easily tell you the child’s name and recount his or her story. His intimate knowledge of the children and their needs is astounding.
“Davey, right before we left, I sponsored a child. Her name is Fotunate. She lives here in Mgwayi. Can you find her for me?”
“Oh! Fotunate? Oh yes.” He looked at another kid and said something in Chichewa, sending her off on an errand to find Fotunate.
Some time passed. We continued cooking our dinner and spending time with the family we’d been paired with that day, but Fotunate never came, and eventually I started the walk back to where our team was staying.
I was a long way down the path, talking to a new Malawian friend about what he wanted to be when he grew up, when I heard my name being shouted in the distance.
“Lindsey!” someone called. “Fotunate!”
I ran back and sure enough, there was my girl. Fotunate. She was wearing a green dress, slightly worn, and a bad cut was scabbing over near her right eye. Her hair was shaved close, and her smile was faint but sweet.
While Davey acted as translator, she told me about her family, and I shared pictures of mine. She never spoke above a whisper, so I leaned in close. She held my hand and hugged my waste, and the red dust settled at our feet as we talked. Fotunate. There wasn’t much for us to say, culture and language and age getting in the way. “Tionana mawa,” I promised. “See you tomorrow.”
As our time in Malawi wore on, I met so many children. We played silly games and chatted about school. They gave me their best “sakalela” and I took their picture. A few times, I connected with a child strongly, and I wondered, “Should I have waited to choose a child? Maybe I should have waited.”
A boy named Steven told me that he hoped to be an engineer. He prays for a sponsor every day, so that he can be certain his education will be paid for.
A preteen girl named Ivy joked with me, saying “21” when I asked her age. The two of us just collapsed into a fit of giggles.
A four year old name Rashidi sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for me and refused to let go of my hand.
Fotunate barely whispered.
I don’t know her hopes and dreams. I don’t yet have a good sense of her family’s stories.
But we colored a butterfly picture together, and she repeated my son’s name as she looked at his photo.
And I chose her.
Evan and I are looking forward to sponsoring her for many, many years, Lord willing. We are praying for her every day.
One day, I hope we’ll go back to Malawi as a family and meet her again. I’ll stand in awe of the woman she’s become and tell her I’ve read every letter she sent. She will still be missing the “r” in her name, but she will not have missed out on a quality education and she will not have missed a meal.
I still have so much to say about Malawi, but here is the most significant thing I learned. Here is the thing I most want you to hear:
God is at work in the developing world, and He is working through child sponsorship.
God is at work in me, and He is working through child sponsorship.
If you do not currently sponsor a child, I’d encourage you to take a look at the children available for sponsorship through COTN by following this link.
Several days have passed, and I’m thinking the window to write relevantly about this has probably passed. Still, as Emily likes to say, I need to write in order to know what I think. And I’m still thinking about Robin Williams.
As a freshman in high school, I sat on my friend Katelyn’s bedroom floor and watched Dead Poet’sSociety for the first time. I’m sure it’s cliche, but that movie reached down into my angsty teenage soul and held on tight. I didn’t identify it at the time but looking back, I see how my desire to teach in a classroom can be traced back, in part, to John Keating: his intellect, his humor, his kindness, his warmth.
A few days ago on NPR, Morning Edition played a clip from that movie (the part when Williams’ character jokes about kids kicking copies of Byron at him). I sat in my car driving to work, and my eyes filled with tears.
I instantly felt guilty.
I’ve heard many stories on NPR lately–Israelis & Palestinians losing their homes and businesses, Iraqi Christian children systematically beheaded, fathers and mothers succumbing to ebola–and I didn’t cry once. It’s not that I cared less, but I somehow felt less.
I am ashamed to admit that, but I suspect I’m not alone. I’m sure some of it stems from our disconnected, entertainment-obsessed American culture, but I think there’s more.
Here at home, I’ve been isolated from war and poverty. I don’t fear terrorists marching through my neighborhood with machetes and IEDs. I don’t know the pain of watching my entire city die of the same disease while the hospital shuts down because no one can help.
Within the past year, two people I worked with took their own lives. They were both parents. They were both wise. They were both teachers, one from a pulpit and one from a classroom. Neither could overcome the darkness that engulfed them.
My sister graduated from high school in May. At the bottom of the program, a small note honored a boy who would have walked across that same stage had he not killed himself a month earlier.
I don’t understand these tragedies at all.
The characters Robin Williams played–John Keating, Patch Adams, Peter Pan, Sean Maguire, the Genie–all epitomized warmth and kindness. I watched them and wished they would jump off the screen and into my own schools, hospitals, and family; I desperately wanted to play those parts myself, in my real, unscripted life.
Robin Williams was really a stranger, but it doesn’t feel that way, because he shared art with us.
When the art someone shares reflects the person I most want to become, and when it lends the world the same laughter and joy and kindness that I too want to give… well, I don’t know. It’s a great loss.