Mission co-workers continue to serve Zambia from Atlanta

Charles and Melissa Johnson: “We’re still working. It’s just harder”

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Health Department team makes a presentation of masks and washable, reusable feminine hygiene kits to the Lundazi Correctional Facility. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Charles and Melissa Johnson served as ruling elders in their home congregation, Northwood Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, and now as mission co-workers in Zambia. In both places they found joy and strength in the strong sense of community that surrounded them. Now sheltering in place in Atlanta at Mission Haven, short-term housing for mission co-workers, they are busy staying connected to partners, supporting churches and finding that sense of community in new places.

“We join a different worship service virtually each Sunday,” said Charles Johnson. “We have also participated in Bible studies, minutes for mission, and even a story hour for children. We asked what we can do for them and offer our prayers of support for their community. We tell them, ‘We are all in this together.’”

The Johnsons attended an online service of Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. The Rev. Ashley Rossi’s daughter, Magnolia, sings ”Jesus Loves Me” during worship via Zoom. (Photo by Charles Johnson)

The Johnsons serve in Zambia at the invitation of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Zambia Synod, working to expand the Church’s efforts in its holistic ministry of community development, food security and improved health. Charles serves as a development specialist and Melissa is a health education program facilitator.

With a degree in Agronomy from Texas A&M University and years of experience in farming, Charles’ work is focused on developing an agricultural income — farming for profit to help sustain Chasefu Theological College in Zambia. He is also an instructor in sustainable agriculture at Chasefu, teaching students to feed their own families and providing them with knowledge of new farming techniques to lift up their new congregations and communities. He also works with Chasefu’s model farm project, a training center for small farmers.

Melissa is working with the CCAP Zambia Health Department to facilitate the development and implementation of health education programs that have been identified to improve maternal and child health, to address hygiene issues of girls and women, and to raise awareness about nutritional needs of children and adults.

In late January, the Johnsons began hearing about the new virus hitting China. By late February, the virus was beginning to take hold across the globe. On March 13, even though there were no cases yet in Zambia, the Johnsons made the three-hour trip to Chipata to stock up on groceries with the intention to shelter in place. They had received word from a Peace Corps friend that there were rumors that the Peace Corps was pulling volunteers out of certain countries. They soon received word that the Peace Corps was immediately evacuating all volunteers from Zambia and an email from PC(USA) asking about their thoughts about the situation.

Although they wanted to stay in Zambia, Charles has a medical condition that puts him in a high-risk category. Through tears and conversations with the Africa area office and mission personnel, they made plans to leave. Because their departure required a 12-hour drive to Lusaka to reach an airport, they planned to depart on Thursday and drive part way and arrive in time for their flight on Friday. Late Wednesday night they received word that their flight had been changed and they would need to drive straight through on Thursday.

Emily Teerink, a Young Adult Volunteer serving in Zambia, had also been notified that she must depart Zambia before the end of her second year of service.  The Johnsons reached Emily at her going-away party and told her the plans had changed and they needed to pick her up before dawn the next morning for the drive to Lusaka to catch their flight.

They awoke Thursday morning to an email from regional liaison Douglas Tilton informing them that South Africa was closing its borders and that they might not be allowed to transit through Johannesburg on their way to the U.S. Working with the South African Embassy in Lusaka, they were able to get clearance since they had not recently been in the U.S. They were on the last Delta flight out of Johannesburg to Atlanta.

“We packed light,” said Charles. “The U.S. has the best health care in the world, so we thought we would be going back by June or July. Instead, things are getting much worse in Georgia, much like Texas, Florida and California.”

Charles has been unable to send lessons to students but has been working via WhatsApp with the CCAP/Zambia General Secretary in areas such as harvest of crops at Chasefu and construction of the storage facility. Melissa has helped the CCAP Health Department learn to navigate Zoom so they were able to participate in the rollout of a new strategy for Days for Girls, an international health and hygiene program for women. The CCAP program temporarily quit making hygiene kits and started making masks. They donated 150 masks and 40 washable, reusable feminine hygiene kits to the Lundazi Correctional Facility. An additional 1,000 masks were made and distributed to several CCAP/Zambia secondary schools.

Melissa worked with the CCAP Health Department to help craft a proposal to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to help provide COVID-19 brochures and education, handwashing stations in some of the most vulnerable families and personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies for the three CCAP rural health centers.

Melissa said CCAP has been working to educate Zambians about truth vs. myths about coronavirus through a WhatsApp group. Some of the false information circulating among the community were that only white people could get COVID-19 and that the virus is caused by 5G networks. Melissa and her co-workers have been able to help end these rumors and educate the community about the virus and how to prevent it.

Charles’ mother, 92, has recently recovered from COVID-19. A childhood friend was recovering and then had a stroke. He is in serious condition in South Texas. Both the number of positive cases and the mortality rate is rising in Zambia as well. Lundazi is near the Malawi border. When the Johnsons left in March, there were no reported positive cases in Zambia, but friends there have told them that there are now two cases in Lundazi as a result of several people attending a funeral for a person who died from the virus in Malawi. It quickly spread when they returned home.

“At first it was a virus impacting China, but very quickly it was impacting people we know,” Charles said. “It reminds me of the beginning of the HIV-AIDS epidemic.”

Melissa and Charles Johnson, mission co-workers serving at the invitation of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Zambia’s Synod since 2015. (Photo by Katie Rhodes)

The Johnsons are grateful that they’re able to be near family. Their daughter and son-in-law graduated from Georgia Tech and decided to remain in the area. Charles and Melissa have been able to see them by practicing appropriate social distancing and mask protocols. Unfortunately, the virus is gaining ground in Atlanta again, so they soon may need to return to not even going out to shop for groceries. Right now, their focus is on their partners and the churches who support them.

“We are still doing the work that is important to us,” said Charles. “It’s just a little more difficult right now.”

If you’d like to have the Johnsons as your guests on Zoom, email Charles.Johnson@pcusa.org.

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