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Innovative pastoral preparation in Zambia

Mission co-worker teaches sustainable agricultural at Chasefu seminary

by Patrick Cole | Presbyterian News Service

Charles and Melissa Johnson, mission co-workers in Zambia. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – At Chasefu Theological College in Zambia, future pastors learn to tend the soil as well as nurture Christian faith.

“Chasefu’s introducing sustainable agriculture courses that will help seminary students better care for their families when they become pastors,” says Charles Johnson, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker who teaches the agriculture classes. He added that they will also be able to teach communities techniques to boost crop yields and reduce hunger.

Congregations in Zambia are growing rapidly, but pastors receive only modest compensation in this impoverished south-central African country. Sometimes one pastor in the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Zambia synod must serve several congregations whose combined membership can number in the thousands. Training pastors to help communities boost food production is one way the synod expresses its holistic vision of the gospel. The Synod strives to reduce rampant poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition as well as high rates of malaria and HIV/AIDS.

Charles and his wife, Melissa, arrived in Zambia in 2016. Since their mission appointment, Charles has been delving into research from organizations devoted to agriculture in the developing world and learning from local people.

“I’ve got to take my experience and fit it into the way things are here,” Charles says. “It’s possible to do, but it takes a lot of observation and listening.”

Charles brings decades of experience in farming and agribusiness to mission service. He grew up on a 2,000-acre farm in South Texas and earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and a master’s in business from Texas A&M University. After college, he spent a several years in banking, but in the 1990s he returned to his agricultural roots. He became president of a company started by his mother, Patty’s Herbs Inc., which grows and sells culinary herbs.

While he hopes to help Zambians improve food production, Charles emphasizes he is not teaching novice farmers. “Pretty much everyone here grew up around agriculture. It is part of life. People depend on it for survival.”

Charles says one challenge he faces is adjusting to the technology commonly used by Zambians. When his inaugural class planted its first crop, red onions, a plow pulled by a team of oxen turned the soil and planting was done by hand. “I’ve driven some pretty big tractors in my past, but I had never plowed with oxen,” he acknowledges.

The onions will be sold and the proceeds will benefit Chasefu. Providing financial support for the school is another aim of the sustainable agriculture program. It also offers learning opportunities for smallholder farmers in the region through the Chasefu Model Farm.

While Charles stays busy with agriculture, Melissa helps the synod’s Health Department provide educational programs for health care workers and communities. In addition, she assists the department as it strives to grow its capacity.

Melissa draws on her experience in health education and advocacy that she gained from 18 years of caring for the Johnsons’ disabled son, Holden, who died in 2005. She also draws on organizational skills she honed while serving as an administrator in a large San Antonio law farm.

“I am working to help provide programs that will educate and empower women, improve maternal and child health, and address the prevention of diseases like malaria, diarrheal diseases and HIV/AIDS,” Melissa says.

Both Melissa and Charles say they seek to facilitate ministries that will continue after their time in Zambia ends. Meanwhile, both sense a strong call to serve in international mission.

After participating in short-term mission trips in Vietnam, Peru, and Congo, Charles discerned that God was leading him to long-term mission service. “I had never seen severe poverty and malnutrition like we saw in Congo,” Charles says. “I was really affected by that. When I got home, I started thinking, ‘I’ve got a background in agriculture. Maybe I can help.’”

Melissa says her interest in international service was stimulated years earlier after two people in their congregation, Northwood Presbyterian in San Antonio, visited Kenya on a short-term mission trip. “As they were telling their stories of the trip, I had a very strong sense that was where I supposed to be: I was supposed to be in Africa.”


Presbyterian mission co-workers are fulfilling their call to mission service around the world. Through Easter Sunday, April 16, mission co-workers will benefit from a matching gift campaign. Click to learn more.

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