A Christmas Story from Zambia

A letter from Nancy Collins serving as Regional Liaison for East Central Africa, based in Zambia

December 2015

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Dear Family and friends,

For the past four years I have celebrated Christmas in the U.S.A. Last year my goal was to attend as many Christmas performances and activities as possible. I managed 11 events during Advent. I spent Christmas Eve with my 21-year-old son Charles and Christmas Day with Charles and my brother David’s family.

This year I am celebrating Christmas in Lusaka, Zambia. I know in past years there has been a Christmas musical performance at the Anglican Cathedral here. If it was held this year, I missed it. I dusted off and set up all my Christmas decorations. The house looks nice. One evening when the power was on I listened to a Christmas music CD. But these things were not very satisfying. This is the first year son Charles and I will not be together on Christmas. I have had moments of panic and grief about being in Lusaka by myself at Christmas. The pull of Western style Christmas traditions, and of family fellowship, has been very strong.

Chilenje family

Chilenje family

Last week one of my Zambian colleagues asked me how Christmas is celebrated in U.S.A. I wasn’t sure I could explain in a way that would make any sense to him—buying the Christmas tree, all the decorations and lights, shopping for Christmas presents, wrapping, Christmas cards and letters, the baked goods, the special food, the family gatherings, the performances and festivities. My colleague told me that in the rural area of eastern Zambia where he grew up Christian families would gather on Christmas Eve at the local church to sing hymns and carols until daybreak, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ with their joyous music and dancing. Then, if families could afford it, they celebrated Christmas by buying rolls and sugar so they could have bread and sweet tea for breakfast. Normally families—including children—went without breakfast. Financial resources were too limited for a breakfast meal. That was—and still is— Christmas in rural Zambia. The contrast of Zambian Christmas and American Christmas is striking—and painful.

I find that the discipline of partnership and of accompaniment with our international church partners calls for great patience and perseverance on my part. I have to be willing to risk leaving empty spaces for God to fill, and that can be scary. Sometimes it takes an act of will on my part to be obedient to what God is teaching. I think this Christmas is one of those moments.

On Dec 20 I assisted Rev. Joseph Chilenje, his wife, Miriam, and their four children as they moved into the partially finished manse of the CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian) Chilenje congregation in Lusaka. Rev. Joseph finished his Bachelor of Theology (B.Th.) studies here at Justo Mwale Theological College in Lusaka in November, and he was assigned by the Synod to serve at CCAP Chilenje. The Chilenje congregation is an old one, but one that has struggled with conflict. This has affected its growth and its ability to support a pastor. Rev. Joseph is the first full-time pastor the congregation has had in many years.

Rev. Joseph received a diploma in theology in 2008 from the College of Theology in Ekwendeni, Malawi. Between 2008 and 2014 he served two rural congregations in eastern Zambia. In 2014 the Synod awarded him a scholarship to obtain a B.Th. at Justo Mwale. In 2015, while continuing his studies, he was assigned to serve as interim pastor at the CCAP Chilenje congregation. CCAP Chilenje has been my congregation for several years, so Rev. Joseph has been my pastor this past year, and Sunday mornings, since we were neighbors, I frequently took him and his family to church. The church is about 15 miles away from Justo Mwale, and I used the travel time to ask Rev. Joseph questions about how the church is organized, to get clarity on various activities, and to understand why many offerings are collected during the year. Worship is conducted in Nyanja and Tumbuka languages; there are many aspects of worship I do not fully understand.

Rev. Joseph and Miriam packed all of their household possessions Friday night Dec 18. The open-bed Mitsubishi canter truck—the common mode of moving households here in Zambia—arrived Saturday at 3 PM, just as heavy rains began. It was agreed the truck would return Sunday morning at 7 AM. It arrived at 11 AM. My contribution to the move was to drive the family to CCAP Chilenje after the truck was packed. On the drive to the manse I asked Rev. Joseph about the Sunday morning worship service on this Sunday before Christmas. He expected that one of the congregation members would have preached in his stead.

Congregations in Zambia are responsible for providing housing for their pastors. The Chilenje congregation struggled to raise funds to complete a two-bedroom manse for Rev. Joseph and his family. Despite last-minute efforts in December, the manse was not completed even to the minimal degree targeted. The concrete block exterior and interior walls were built, and the concrete floor was finished. Due to a miscalculation, two of the iron sheets for the roof were missing so puddles of rainwater stood on the concrete floors of the kitchen and the children’s bedroom. There were exterior doors, but no interior doors. The walls and floor of the parents’ bedroom were very nicely plastered, but since the concrete was still wet the room was unusable. The bathrooms and kitchen were empty of fixtures and appliances. The family will use the ablution block at the nearby church building. There is no running water or electricity. Miriam will do her cooking outside on a small charcoal brazier. The promised iron window frames and glass panels for the windows of the sitting room and parents’ bedroom failed to materialize, so the window spaces were filled with additional concrete blocks. Other windows were covered with empty maize sacks. I was dismayed.

Partially completed church

Partially completed church

However, the members of the congregation who spilled out of the church to welcome the pastor and his family showed no consternation. “We have lived in such places before,” one of them told me when I commented on the status of the house. Men and women gathered around the Mitsubishi truck to take bulging suitcases or pieces of furniture into the humble little home. Joseph and Miriam oversaw placement of the items. Eager hands made short work of the unloading, and the church members all crowded into the little house along with the jumbled belongings to sing to God and to praise him for his love and graciousness, and to pray for the well-being of the pastor and his family, for resources to complete the house, and for the unity of the congregation.

So this was my “worship service” on the Sunday before Christmas. This was how I worshipped God that Sunday. This was how God chose to fill the empty Christmas space in my soul. There wasn’t any organ music or special anthems by a robed choir, but there were beautiful voices raised in glory to God. There weren’t any Christmas poinsettias or Christmas garlands or lit candles, but there were many outstretched hands willing to be of service. There was no sermon, but there was love and hope and the power of the Holy Spirit and a chorus of prayers lifted to God. I could not help thinking about another Joseph and Mary and their humble Christmas dwelling.

Thank you for this opportunity to serve God in this place, at this time.  If you have not already made a commitment to this work, please prayerfully consider joining with me and our East and Central African partners in ministry in being a part of what our Lord is doing in this part of the world!

Merry Christmas. God bless us every one!

The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 154

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