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Presbyterian pastor: Don’t fear the ‘E’ word

The Rev. Dr. Cheni Khonje leads a webinar for ruling elders and deacons on the joy and responsibility of evangelism

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Thursday’s webinar was the most recent in the Leader Formation series offered by the Office of the General Assembly.

LOUISVILLE — Along with easing any tension over their task as evangelists, on Thursday Dr. Cheni Khonje taught a crowd of nearly 200 ruling elders and deacons some new language around the concepts of “welcome” and “relationship.”

Khonje spoke for more than an hour as part of the most recent Leader Formation webinar offered by the Office of the General Assembly. Martha Miller, manager of ruling elder resources and educator certification in OGA’s Mid Council Ministries, hosted the webinar, “Breaking the Myth of the Presbyterian Fear of the ‘E’ Word,” which can be viewed here once it’s ready.

Khonje was born in Malawi and became a political refugee when she was less than a month old. Along with her siblings, she grew up in Lusaka, Zambia, and Hilversum, the Netherlands. They moved to New York City when her mother began working with the United Nations.

Khonje, who recently joined the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, is a graduate of Chadron State College in Nebraska and holds a master’s degree in medical microbiology from Long Island University. She graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from United Lutheran Seminary.

During Thursday’s webinar, Khonje quickly got about the work to, as she put it, “bust the myth of Presbyterians being afraid of the ‘E’ word.” Indeed, “Presbyterians have a rich history of welcome … I believe we can live into our quest to answer Christ’s call to make disciples of all people.”

Scripture abounds with stories of people enthusiastically sharing God’s good news. In 2 Samuel 6:14, David dances before the Lord with all his might. In John’s gospel, Jesus invites his disciples-to-be to “come and see,” calling them by name and even renaming one of them.

“You, beloved elders and deacons, have also been called by your name,” Khonje told those on the call. “By electing you to serve God, the church is affirming what Christ and the Holy Spirit are already doing in your life. Everyone is called to evangelism. It’s a matter of how we act, and not necessarily what we preach.”

The importance of the individual approach to evangelism can be found in Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria and Philip’s with the Ethiopian eunuch. “Examining our history as people who have been able to embrace the invitation to evangelism,” Khonje said, “we will discover our destiny and what it is we are supposed to do.”

Khonje traced some of the history of the spread of Christianity into her native Malawi and some of its neighbors, including Tanzania and Mozambique. Scottish missionaries were among those arriving after David Livingstone, who died in Zambia in 1873 after contracting malaria.

“The Scots loved Malawi. It is mountainous and hilly,” Khonje noted. The city where she was born, Blantyre, was named after the Scottish city where Livingstone was born. She credited Presbyterian missionaries with helping to end the slave trade in the region.

The Rev. Dr. Cheni Khonje

Her great-great grandparents helped to build St. Michael and All Angels Church, a church constructed in 1891 that’s still standing near Blantyre, Malawi. About 350 types of bricks comprise the building, according to Khonje. Church services were conducted in the Yao language, “and missionaries learned different languages to help with those church services,” Khonje said.

Khonje herself was born into a royal family, and yet she became a refugee at only 28 days old. The name “Cheni” means “mother of a nation.”

“That’s a heavy load to carry,” she said. Her middle name, given to her by her grandfather, means “peacemaker.”

“Faith in Jesus is made manifest by how one strives for justice and peace in God’s name,” she said. “The work of the evangelist is in sharing the love of Jesus by making sure the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed and the sick are cared for.”

“Cultural compassion,” Khonje said, “is essential for successful mission.”

When Khonje’s family became refugees in Zambia, her grandparents learned to speak four of Zambia’s 72 languages “so they could continue to be elders in a strange land,” Khonje said. From a Yao perspective, “culture is communal. We are part of a larger family.”

“Kalibu” is a Yao word for welcome “that embodies an invitation to join a group or family in a radical sense,” Khonje said. If you walk by someone’s home and the family is about to sit down to eat, someone will call out “kalibu” to invite you inside. Meals “are a communal thing,” she said.

“Ulongo” is a concept that explains blood relationships. A Yao speaker doesn’t use “friend,” but rather “brother” or “sister,” she explained. “My father’s brother’s children are not my cousins. They are my brothers and sisters,” she said. The same is true of her mother’s sister’s children. “Ulongo is a strong bond. It’s blood-related,” she said. “The relationship never ends.”

Khonje closed by asking people on the call to consider how they might answer two questions:

  • How do we lead the church in responding to Christ’s call to share the gospel?
  • In what ways can we share the good news without using words?

The next Leader Formation webinar is scheduled for April 27. It’ll cover theoretical and practical realities of caring for one another in the church. Watch for more information here.

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