Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday 2008

My favorite Easter Hymn is the ancient Eastern Orthodox Paschal troparion--a brief stanza often used as a refrain between the verses of a Psalm, but is also used on its own during the Easter Vigil. Its authorship is unknown. I first learned and practiced it in 1989 during a Holy Week retreat at Mount Tabor Monastery near Willits in California. As I processed with the Byzantine Catholic monks around the church at midnight, I found myself dancing, kicking my feet up, and trampling down the sting of death, chanting:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

This year I’ll be celebrating Easter in a less demonstrative way at our Presbyterian Church, but enjoying the season nonetheless.

Easter Sunday this year coincides with your anniversary--March 23—and will not do so again until 2160, friends told my wife Rebecca and me. Wow, I thought. Maybe this is not just a coincidence; maybe there’s a message in it. (I tend to reading meaning into calendaric and cosmic events). Rebecca rolled her eyes, but took pleasure in my delight of the auspicious significance of our 23rd anniversary. April 23. Twenty three years. Easter. WOW! I bought a beautiful blue basket flower arrangement: 12 white roses in celebration of our anniversary and 12 purple irises in commemoration of Easter in a perfect mix.

Interesting Technical Notes from Wikipedia:

Easter is the most important religious feast in the Christian liturgical year.[1] It is believed by the Christians to be the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians believe occurred on the third day after his crucifixion around AD 33. Many non-religious cultural elements have become part of the holiday, and those aspects are often celebrated by many Christians.
Calculation of Easter:


Easter on the solar calendar always falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox; the vernal equinox is fixed as March 21. There are some highly technical rules for determining the actual date of the full moon, but when you take all this into account the result is that Easter can never occur before March 22 or later than April 25. Easter has not fallen on the earliest of the 35 possible dates, March 22, since 1818, and will not do so again until 2285. It will, however, fall on March 23 in 2008, but will not do so again until 2160. Easter last fell on the latest possible date, April 25, in 1943 and will next fall on that date in 2038. However, it will fall on April 24, just one day before this latest possible date, in 2011. The cycle of Easter dates repeats after exactly 5,700,000 years, with April 19 being the most common date, happening 220,400 times, or 3.9% compared to a median for all dates of 189,525 times, or 3.3%.

How Easter got its name.

For several hundred years, Easter was not called "Easter." Prior to the fourth century, Christians observed Pascha, Christian Passover, in the spring of the year. Adapted from Jewish Passover, Pascha was a festival of redemption. As Jews, these early followers of Jesus celebrated both their liberation from slavery in Egypt, and their new liberation from the power of death itself.

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, however, the celebration became more and more a distinctly Christian one. But there also developed some disagreement about when and how the holiday should be observed. One of the principal reasons for organizing the council of Nicea in 325 CE was to set a firm date for the celebration.

Though the record is not complete, the church fathers were intent on making the holiday into something that those acquainted with the gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman world be comfortable with. Thus the festival came to be known as "Easter," a name derived, some think, from "Eostre," the Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe; others suggest it was derived from an ancient word for spring "eastre." Without doubt some elements of pre-Christian religious practice have been incorporated into the Easter traditions.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sarah's Email from Malawi

"Greetings from Malawi!! Once we landed yesterday, we had a 5 hour bus ride to the CitiHope guest house. The weather was a perfect 70 something degrees and partly sunny. The magnificence of this place is surreal.

En route to the guest house, we quickly figured out that as you approach a village, you know its coming because of the smell of wood smoke. But what was unexpected along the way was the unmistakable smell of death. I don't know if it was human or animal but it reminded me that woodworking artisans are now primarily coffin makers. Because of the overwhelming need for coffins, woodworking has become the #3 industry in Malawi. And somehow, through all of the disease and death, the people here manage the most brilliant, constant smiles I've ever seen.

Today, we visited Kasasa, a community orphana care center with 115 children in its care. On the way back, I asked Gabriel what it costs to feed the children there. He used his phone's calculator to determine that it costs $5 to feed 115 children 1 meal a day. How can any of us ever look at a $5 bill the same way again?

I came here to be, as one of my favorite Sanctus Real songs is called, "The Face of Love". What has amazed me is that I am seeing it everywhere I look. Talk about reverse mission!! Tomorrow, we may visit a hospital/clinic. I can't wait to meet up with God here, too!"

Sarah 's Photo Album of Malawi

Sarah’s Album - Malawi March 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008

Robby's Reflection

As far as nicknames go, the “Warm Heart of Africa” is just about the best I’ve heard. Never have I experienced genuine, sincere, nonstop warmth like I have in Malawi.

From the moment of arrival in this beautiful, lush, country of 13 million, you can expect to be treated like family. Not that I’ve grown cynical and wary of excessive hospitality on my travels—okay maybe a bit cynical—but there is nothing disingenuous about Malawian warmth. Even the people who don’t want to sell you anything are warm.

Despite their country being broken in so many ways—rampant HIV/AIDS and the resultant orphan crisis, insecure food supplies, insufficient water and grinding poverty (rated 164 out of 177 on the 2007 Human Development Index), Malawians maintain a dignity, pride and joy that almost seems surreal. They’re battered, tattered but nowhere near shattered. What keeps them together you might ask? In a word…Christ. In two words, I would say Christ and hope.

The people of Malawi exude the love of Christ. They are peace-loving, kind and in many cases, heroic. When we met Mary at FOMCO, one of the places Hopegivers supports in Malawi, heroic was the word that kept coming to my mind.

With four children of her own and an unemployed husband, Mary might not seem the ideal candidate for full-time volunteer work. But that’s what she is and what she’s done five, sometimes six times a week since 2004.

Started in 2000 in response to the overwhelming number of orphaned and vulnerable children in their small village outside Mzuzu, FOMCO (Friends of Mchenguteuwa Care Organization) began as an emergency feeding and care center for the area’s neediest kids. It started small, with just a few women cooking whatever rice the community could donate. Over time, more children started showing up and the demand for food outgrew the actual supply. Unsure of what to do, the women of FOMCO prayed.

The answer to their prayers came in 2005 in the form of rice, courtesy of Hopegivers International, Citihope International and the Taiwanese government. “This food has helped the work grow by leaps and bounds here, now we’re able to serve 200 children five days a week,” said Mary, who often also comes in on Saturday’s to help plan the week’s events.

I was curious as to what motivated Mary, who was obviously poverty-stricken herself, to take on this sort of selfless, difficult and time-consuming commitment. Her answer was as beautiful as it was unsurprising for someone who’s committed their life to Christ and His teachings.

“For the sake of the children it’s worth it. These kids need someone to look up to and someone to take care of them. There are so many orphans here who just wander around with no care and nothing to do, nothing to eat all day. We’re working for our future generation, that’s why we do this.”

Mary is just one of the heroes I met in Malawi; while FOMCO is just one of the community-based, locally-driven initiatives we had the pleasure of visiting. We visited many people like Mary who choose to be in the trenches everyday—and who choose to put into action what they say they believe. Feeding the hungry, teaching the uneducated, changing diapers, protecting the vulnerable, binding wounds and sacrificing so much for someone other than yourself or your kin—what’s more Christ-like than that?

At FOMCO alone there are 35 regular volunteers, mostly women, who take it upon themselves to care for the orphans and vulnerable children of their community. Every day, they take care of kids like Loreena, an orphan currently staying with her feeble grandfather who’s unable to work or care for the girl. 200 kids just like Loreena—who otherwise would wake up every day wondering where their next meal’s going to come from—are going to eat today. They have a safe place to go. And thanks to ongoing help from mission organizations like Hopegivers and CitiHope, thousands more across Malawi will grow up to be heroes themselves some day. That’s something to be excited about.

Robby's Blog

Wow, what a blessing it is to be back in Africa. So far I've gone from ATL to DC to NYC to Dakar Senegal to Joburg to Mzuzu, Malawi--where we're spending the week. So yes, I am now in Mzuzu, Malawi with some good folks from CitiHope Intl. (our main Malawi partner) and other orgs that are helping to care for orphans and raise AIDS awareness here.

Malawi is a small sliver of a nation of 13 million near Zambia (one-time home of the great adventurer Stew Hill), Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and several other places whose GNP is dwarfed by that of Mountain Brook, AL.

Malawi is a terribly poor country where some 80% of the population relies on some form of agriculture for survival. You can imagine the suffering that ensues from droughts, floods, a poor harvest, price fluctuations etc. For a morbid point of reference, Coffin-making is the number 3 industry in this country.

Malawi has also been hard hit by HIV AIDS. I think something like 1 million of the population is infected, and another 1 million are AIDS orphans, which is just a little bit ridiculous. There are many villages where there are only children and very old people left, all the other folks have died. Despite the immense suffering here, Malawi is known as the Warm Heart of Africa, and for good reason.

Malawians are quite simply the most gracious, kind, welcoming people in the world.
Our lodgings here are quite lovely. I'm amazed at how Malawi, one of the ten poorest countries of the world, appears light years ahead of Haiti infrastructure-wise.

FYI, I ate a fish's eyeball on my first night here just to show I was serious. It wasn't bad as far as fish eyes go but the retina was a bit chewy.

The work HG supports here is nothing less than outstanding--we're supporting orphanages, medical outreaches, community outreaches (food, education etc. for vulnerable kids), a prison ministry, well drilling and something called Hope Scholarships, which give older orphans a chance to pursue an education. We went to a church today where several of the beneficiaries were, and I was absolutely blown away. They all spoke beautiful English, and were looking forward to pursuing degrees in things like forestry, accounting, business administration and human resources. What a beautiful thing to see hope restored in these folks' lives. What a beautiful thing to see what a difference a bag of maize or rice makes.

Read more of Robby's blog on Hopegivers website:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Stacy's Reflection

The most astounding part of my mission to Malawi was discovering the “richness” in faith and the joyfulness of its people.

This photo is of a little girl, an orphan, whom I had the pleasure of coloring and drawing pictures with during my visit to FOMCO. Until she took me by the hand to walk with me, I did not realize that she was missing two of her fingers on her left hand and a terrible scar was left behind. Honestly, would you have been able to guess the amount of tragedy she has suffered just by looking at that beautiful smile?

This is a 16-year old boy, the youngest of four, seen here with his 62-year old mother, abandoned by his father. When I approached him, I grasped his hand and started telling him my name and talking to him. After a moment, an older gentleman approached me and advised me that he wouldn’t be able to talk back to me! However, as you can see in the picture, his smile is worth a thousand words! Let us learn from these heavenly smiles and thank God for each and every blessing we are given!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Missions Accomplished

Palm Sunday. The 2008 CitiHope Mission Team has accomplished their respective missions in Malawi (March 4-14), summarized below:

Sarah Harrington
(front left), an ambassador for the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, assisted Don in reporting on the HopeHome project her organization is funding, visited prisoners, volunteered at orphan care centers, and filmed and documented the PACCT program and the mission trip activities for a future video presentation. Sarah also agreed to find new sponsors for some of the children and youth in the Mzuzu UMC who need nutritional supplements and educational scholarships at part of the HopeHome project.

Donald Messer, Professor Practical Theology at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and Director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, saw and evaluated the HopeHome project funded by the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund; participated in and presented an HIV/AIDS session on the “Alphabet of Life” to pastoral leaders attending the PACCT event, and preached on Sunday in Mzuzu United Methodist Church—a church comprised mostly of orphans and vulnerable children and their guardians.

Robert Robinson, a pastoral counselor working with at-risk children and adolescents, presented an introduction to pastoral counseling at the PACCT event, visited prisoners, volunteered at community Orphan Care centers, and sponsored a single mother and her children who needed a dry and safe place to live.

Chappy Valente, a businessman from North Carolina, sponsored a new village well, assisted Tackson with shopping and cooking for the team, visited prisoners and volunteered at orphan care centers.

Robert Brumberg, Mission Outreach Manager for Hopegivers International, witnessed first-hand the needs of the children his organization is sponsoring, visited two HopeHomes and interviewed the orphans and guardians his ministry has funded, broke ground and dedicated with prayer a new village well project in Euthini for which he found a sponsor.

Stacy Radmore, a Deacon at Oxford Second Presbyterian Church in New Jersey, was invited to participate in the Presbyterian Church service on “Deaconess Sunday” in which the women led the worship. As a leader in the Presbyterian Women's Fellowship, she engaged in the work and fund-raising efforts of the Presbyterian Women’s Guild of the Livingstonia Synod of Malawi. Stacy also visited prisoners and volunteered at orphan care centers where she delivered needed school supplies, knitting yarn and needles, and other CitiHope donations.

Michael Christensen, Director of the Shalom Initiative at Drew University and project director for CitiHope’s PACCT program, served as group leader for the mission team, coordinated the Village Well community development project, documented the installation of the village well in Zowe, hosted and co-facilitated the fourth PACCT program event, preached in Mzuzu UMC, and held an information meeting with UMC leadership for a new Shalom site in northern Malawi.

With the mission accomplished, its time for each member of the team to reflect on the trip and post a ministry experience on the blogsite.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Safely Home

Our flight was delayed in Lilongwe, and we had less than one hour to make our connection in JoBurg, but we all got on board the full flight to JFK.

Chappy was feeling better and on the mend. All of us dreaded the 18 hour flight home, but we made it safely home.

But our luggage didn't make it back with us. Hopefully tomorrow it will be delivered to our front door by South Africa Airlines. Time now to recuperate from 25+ hours of non-stop travel, and then I'll upload more pictures and commentary this weekend.

To those reading this travel blog who have followed our daily activities and prayed for our safety and success, I thank you. Our joint mission in Malawi was accomplished.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Time to Go

Lilongwe: Having survived the long (5hr drive) from Mzuzu to the capital city of Malawi, our team is preparing to depart for Johannesburg. Because of Chappy's condition, we decided to try to make a short transit connection in the airport and fly straight through to JFK rather than spend the night and do a sight-seeing day in Johannesburg.

I took Chappy to the Adventist Clinic this morning to get a doctor's signiture on the airline medical form certifying that he was "fit to travel" but required some assistance to get on and off the plane and to make the connection.

Because of time restraints, Chappy was moved to the front of the line to see the doctor. I was struck by the positive, cooperative attitude of the receptionist and nurses, and the understanding of other patients. Every in Malawi smiles back at you, without exception. The doctor was especially warm and friendly, helpful and empathetic. After a few tests and questions, he concluded that Chappy did not have malaria but some kind of intestinal bug that lots of liquid, antibiotics and rest would cure, gave his some meds and send us on our way. All for about $30. (What can I say, this just not happen in New Jersey).

I asked Dennis, "why are ALL Malawians warm and friendly? Why no social unrest, civil war, and tribal conflicts in Malawi? Why does Malawi have the reputation as the "warm heart of African?"

I guess I expected Dennis to say that Malawians were friendly because most were Christian, thanks to the successful missionary activity of David Livingstone and other missionary activities in Malawi in the 18th century. Instead, he explained that the ancient tribes that comprise contemporary Malawi believed that they were all children of the One Father, that they knew that all tribes were connected to each other and were able to get along, and that most Malawians were careful not to harm others. Long before Christianity, people were superstitious enough to fear what would happen to them if they harmed another, and thus had by nature happy hearts and friendly attitudes toward one and all.

Well, whatever the case, it was sad to leave the warm heart of Africa for the cold winter of the northeast United States where not everyone smiles.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Last Day in Mzuzu

Team Health Report: Chappy today has fallen sick with dizziness, nausea and bodily weakness. All week he has been guardian of our food supply, market shopper for adequate greens, and gourmet advisor to our house cook. Now all he wants to do is lay down or sit and get through it. Five out of seven of us have had bouts or been on the edge of minor sickness, but spirits remain high and focused on the mission.

After returning from the remote villages where the CitiHope Village Wells program is underway, we enjoyed our last day in Mzuzu and prepared to leave to Lilongwe. Time for one last walk through the central market and the filling station hub across the street and around the corner from CitiHope's Mission Center.

And finally, some down time under the thatch hut in the backyard.

Gabriel, Dennis, Chewana, and Taxon have hosted us with grace and enthusiasm, and we all are grateful for the incredible hospitality extended to us.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Euthini Village Needs a Well

Then we visited Euthini village where we broke ground for another well to be installed as soon as the rainy season ends this Spring. The new village well will benefit over 1000 villagers and is sponsored by Hopegivers International. Robby Bruberg, representing Hopegivers, breaks ground with village leader.

Chappy Valente prays for the future of the Euthini Village

Zowe Village Well

Today we visited the remote cluster of villages called Zowe, where CitiHope installed a deep water well sponsored by Mike Rose and his friends from New Jersey.

Now 1500 villagers have access to clean, fresh water instead of having to drink from mud holes.

Lack of Fresh Water

Most of the villages in Northern Malawi lack clean potable water from a fresh, reliable source. This is why 1 our of 5 children die before the age of 5 from preventable, waterborne diseases.

Contaminated water typically is collected from stale ponds and muddy streams.

During the rainy season in Malawi, surface water can be collected from mud holes.

Women(not men)often have to walk miles to collect clean water from the nearest well, and carry heavy containers on their heads back to their own village.

Remote villages without wells require 4x4 vehicles to visit, which we borrowed from the Presbyterian Women's Guild in Mzuzu.

Monday, March 10, 2008


In preparing for the fourth training event for our Pastoral and Congregational Care Training (PACCT) program, I wrote this little dittie and emailed it to Gabriel, our Country Director:

Mobilize the PACCT Committee
Assemble all the troops
PACCT IV is on the loose!

Moira Chimombo is coming
as is Dr. C. and his team*
Dr. Gaston stands ready
with angel Gabriel abeam

March 10 is the date!
But where shall we meet?
How shall we proceed?
And what shall we eat?

At the end of the day
when all is said and done,
We finally will have the Program
that shall not be undone.

The day of training unfolded beautifully. The PACCT Committee decided to meet in the comfortable conference room of St. John of God hospital in Mzuzu. A total of 22 participants from the previous workshops arrived ready to do good and important work.

Draft #1 of the PACCT Traning Manual was reviewed and revised page by page, section by section, to every one's satisfaction. Fascinating questions and issues surfaced such as the role of persons with HIV as trainers in the churches, and whether circumcision really reduces the chances of AIDS infection, and how to stop predatory behaviour in the public schools, and more than I can't share on a blog.

Lillian, an AIDS activist, herself diagnosed and coping with HIV/AIDS, leads a discussion at the training event. She also serves as Chair of the Presbyterian AIDS Program in Malawi and board member of CitiHope Malawi.

Dr. Andy Gaston, Medical Director of the Presbyterian AIDS Program, leads discussion on what sections of the Training Manual should be removed and what should be included in the final version.

Dr. Donald Messer presented a compelling summary of the "Alphabet of Life" including the ABC's of AIDS prevention and DEF of Development, Equality of Gender, and Development.

Bob Robinson, a pastoral Counselor from Baltimore, offered an introduction to Pastoral Counseling with attention to developing empathetic listening skills.

Rev. William Mumba engages in group discussion over the problem of stigma in the churches.Bring forth the Training Manual

PACCT participants are ready for PACCT V --a 5 day training the trainers event--in June after the revised Manual is ready. What delighted me most was to hear all the participants claim ownership of the Training Manual that was two years in the making: "This is very unique. This is our manual. We produced it. It's not top down but bottom up", etc. They are rightfully proud of what the group has produced as AIDS prevention curriculum for the churches.