Having returned from my most recent mission trip to Malawi, just one week ago, I am still reeling from culture-shock, jet-lag, and temperature change. Only days ago I was enjoying 95 + balmy breezes, bright sunshine and tropical flowers. Now, back in my home town of Champaign, I am forced indoors by freezing rain, only to be surrounded by catalogues and newspaper supplements vying for my Thanksgiving-to-Christmas dollars. Ten days ago I was helping to provide clean, safe drinking water to remote villages in East Africa. Today, I am sitting at my computer, wondering what to do with myself. Two weeks ago I was residing in Malawi, one of the poorest nations on the planet, regularly eating nsima and ground nuts, and hearing reports about the worsening famine. Today, I find myself in the wealthiest country in the world, scheming about how I will avoid over-indulging in all the sumptuous treats which will be offered during the next month-and-a-half. The contrasts, which are so striking, give me ample reason for pause and reflection.
What did I do in Malawi? Did I make a difference? These are difficult questions for me to answer. As I ponder them my thoughts are drawn to the shallow well sites, where I have participated in countless dedications. “Ucindami kwa Chiuta” is written in wet cement on every top slab protecting the uncontaminated well water beneath. “Glory to God” is the translation from Chitimbuka, and it is what is prayed at the completion of every Marion Medical Mission shallow well. Accompanying that prayer is always a gift. Even from the poorest of the poor, Malawian villagers show their gratitude by offering a symbolic gesture, a portion of what little they have. It is this part of the dedication ceremony which chokes me up most. The poorest of the poor, like the 14 households of Kondowole Nguluge village, giving out of their desperate poverty to me, the rich American who couldn’t possibly need any material thing. Yet, after participating in scores of these mini-celebrations over the years, I still must work to hold back the tears each time I am offered the traditional chicken, ground nuts or vegetables. Although it would be disrespectful to refuse these gifts, my heart is made heavy by the great paradoxical disparity. What sense does it make? I have been asking myself this question since 1999, when I participated for the first time in a M.M.M. trip to Malawi.
An answer finally came this year during one of the final days of my journey. It came unexpectedly at an ecumenical worship service which I and some of our team attended in Lilongwe, prior to our flight back home. As I peered around the vaulted sanctuary of the Capital City Baptist Church that day, I made several observations. Amid the uplifting songs of praise, I noticed flags of many nations hanging in a room full of light, with huge angled beams converging at a single high point; and at that highest point, a cross, symbolizing Jesus Christ, our substitute, the sacrificial lamb. As I joined with other believers of diverse ethnic, racial and denominational backgrounds, singing songs of thanks and praise to our God, I understood something. My meager offering of worship and praise was most likely received by God the way gifts at the well sites were received by me… as gestures of gratitude and love. God certainly does not need our praise, any more than I as an American needed to receive a basket of ground nuts. But, out of our great poverty of spirit we humbly offer our gifts of worship and praise, the sacrifice of our lips, to the One who created and owns the entire universe. How can we say thank you to the One who gave his all so that we could be reconciled to God and to one another? There is little we can give, out of our great poverty, that could express our debt of gratitude, better than tender acts of love toward Our Father and all His children. Like the basket of peanuts offered at the well dedication, it wasn’t much, but it was all the village had of value. So, too, are our will and our lives offered to God in service: not much, but all we have of value to offer. Not unlike the impact of those gifts given by poor villagers, I believe that God is likewise moved. Moved by our willingness to withhold nothing from the One who has everything!
So, in answer to my questions about what I may have accomplished in Africa, whether or not it made a difference, I will end with a quote attributed to Mother Theresa:
“There are no great deeds,
only small acts of kindness,
done with great love.”
To God be the Glory! Ucindami kwa Chiuta !