Acts 22: 44–47 – or something very like it!
FATHER JUSTICE MSINI is a young FiF priest in Malawi. Trained at Zomba Theological College, he assisted in the parish of Mangochi, a strong Anglican centre at the southern tip of Lake Malawi, before moving to his present responsibility for Chiradzulu parish. In one direction from his home lies the formidable Chiradzulu mountain, in another the city of Blantyre-Limbe, to the south the Mulanje massif rising to over 9000 feet, and to the east Lake Chilwa. This is the Shire Highlands where the first Bishop of Central Africa, Charles Mackenzie, based his tragically short-lived mission. The account of my visit to that site, and the discovery of a living Anglican congregation there, was reported in New Directions in June 2000. I had no idea then to which parish it belonged, since most parishes here cover wide tracts of countryside: Father Nasoro, for example, at Zomba has some thirty outstations up to 25 miles away.
But a letter soon came from Father Msini (having read his New Directions), introducing himself as the priest for Magomero, and inviting me to assist him at the forthcoming opening of the new church just outside Milepa. In two years, it should be explained, he has built four new churches, and has the bricks ready for a new school near his home. In the same time he has baptised 1321 new church members (spread among his 20 congregations) and presented 334 for confirmation. On Saturdays, in case he is insufficiently stretched by his parochial duties, he serves as the acting Youth Chaplain for the diocese. One of his young parishioners, Daniel, is now a first year ordinand (and so was able to guide me successfully through the maze of country earth tracks and lanes).
Having left home at 7.15, we dropped off some concrete window grids for Milepa Rectory en route, and reached the church to a tremendous welcome by the Mothers Union at 9.30. Mine was the only truck there, most had walked but perhaps seventy or eighty had cycled (to judge by the stacks of bikes). We entered the building, which was packed to the doors, to singing and the sound of drums. The women were placed, as is customary, on rush mats to the left, with men on the right. The village chief (often responsible for donating a site to the church) had a place of honour at the front on a bench, along with lay readers and other church officers.
This was no ordinary mass, but to any visitor from England even the usual Sunday celebration would seem quite extraordinary here, so full of life and vitality, pulsating music and rhythmic movement. Here, in addition to my words of encouragement on a landmark occasion, we also enlarged the Mothers Union by enrolling about thirty new members (a rosary is placed around their necks as the words of reception are spoken), and then licensed some seven new lay readers, whose main tasks are to lead morning / evening prayer, to conduct funerals, to visit the sick, and to keep the priest aware of pastoral circumstances. It was evident from some of the names that Father Msini has received not a few Roman Catholic converts e.g. three new M.U. members were called Theresa, and one was Immaculate, while he also mentioned a group of Muslims had come asking to be initiated. So, in a traditionally Yao (Muslim) area, and in a district which gave birth to the present R.C. Archbishop of Blantyre, the Anglicans here under their dynamic (but very relaxed and friendly) priest are now renowned for their lively and welcoming witness to the faith.
Father Msini and I concelebrated (although he graciously allowed me to sing the Chichewa preface!), and after communion there was the usual multitude of children and infants in arms to bless. At many services, although not on this occasion, individuals or couples often come forward at this point for a special prayer of thanksgiving or request the laying on of hands for healing, for guidance or for strength. Before the mass ended – and it was now past noon – Sarah and I were invited to sit in front of the altar to be welcomed properly! About half the congregation seemed to disappear outside, returning with their home-grown gifts. One by one they came forward to greet us, each one proffering a cabbage, or sweet potatoes, or cassava, or tomatoes, or new laid eggs. There were even three hens and a cock, all alive but thankfully with their legs trussed. Knowing how little they could afford, it was deeply humbling to see their generosity: yet we realised much better why theirs is a rapidly growing Christian community. Of course there were then speeches and photographs, and a lunch of rice and nsima (maize), with goat’s meat and tanaposi (cooked green leaves – but I doubt my spelling here!), and afterwards a truckload of young people to take back to Kachere on the tarred road where they could catch a minibus. Fortunately they were able to share some of our twenty plus cabbages and four dozen eggs, and the rest we distributed later in the day back in Zomba. (The eggs we kept were delicious, but experience has taught us that free-range poultry develop impressive muscle tissue, so these we passed on to those with stronger teeth.)
If any FiF parishes are looking for a twinning arrangement, Chiradzulu would be ideal. Their needs are great: they work hard, for example, to mould and bake the bricks required for building, but cement and timber and roofing sheets are beyond their means. Something as basic as a decent paten and chalice would also be immensely appreciated – at our mass, we had to press a plastic lid into service to hold the hosts. Please be in touch, if you can help, with my bishop James at firstname.lastname@example.org, or with me at email@example.com. For myself, this visit to Milepa made me begin to think that perhaps Luke was not, after all, exaggerating when he wrote Acts 2.44-47. I would love more people to be able to share that pristine vision.
Rodney Schofield teaches at Zomba Theological College, Malawi