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Young pilgrims journey to Malawi


Pittsburgh and Malawi youth experience the power of presence in partnership

By the Rev. Dave Carver | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Rayna Neszpaul, a member of Pittsburgh Presbytery’s 2019 Youth Pilgrimage to Malawi, learns how to wear a Chitenge — traditional Malawian wrap — as instructed by Edith Makuluni of the Mbenjere congregation of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Ntaja, Malawi. (Photo by Dave Carver)

PITTSBURGH — When Pittsburgh Presbytery’s International Partnership Ministry Team began thinking about a way to  create space for young Malawians and young Pittsburghers to meet together for mutual enrichment, encouragement and growth, the idea for a youth pilgrimage to Malawi was born.

As moderator of the International Partnership Ministry, I led a 16-day youth pilgrimage to Malawi last July. The group included nine young people and five adults, representing five Pittsburgh congregations.

While many youth trips involve engaging participants in a particular task or act of service, we knew we wanted to do more than “arrange a tour” or “plan a project.” Instead, we invited travelers to leave behind the familiar and enter a place that is new and different with the expectation of seeing God at work there.

Partners in the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Blantyre Synod suggested a theme for the youth pilgrimage, “Developing Leadership Through Partnership.” This theme was expressed through a series of workshops on topics such as “Challenges Faced by the Youth in their Christian Life” and “Dealing with Anxiety.” These youth conference workshops, organized by our partners and held in three different communities in the southern region of Malawi, served as anchor points of our experience and allowed our team to step out of their collective comfort zones in many ways.

Gift Phweremwe (left) of the Mbenjere congregation of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Ntaja, Malawi, teaches the game of Mbawo to Rayna Neszpaul and Danielle Sites, youth pilgrims from First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Dave Carver)

At each event, there were 25-50 youth from the Blantyre Synod and nine youth from Pittsburgh, as well as the advisors and mentors. Even though there were cultural and theological differences, the youth were well-received. Everyone came away glad we had taken the time to walk through these topics together.

“I am one grateful mom,” said Susan Williamson of Sampson’s Mills Presbyterian Church, whose 16-year-old daughter took part in the pilgrimage. “Delaney learned and grew so much on this journey both spiritually and personally. She returned with a greater understanding of the world around her as well as a greater understanding of her place in the world. She did a lot of soul searching and made some big life changes based on what she experienced. Every time she talks about the people she met and the experiences, the pure joy she feels is so obvious. This trip was such a blessing and an answer to many prayers.”

In the communities of Mulanje, Mangochi and Blantyre, groups of Malawian and American young people gathered for mornings of worship, large-group presentations, small-group breakout sessions and shared meals. Each youth conference was followed by an opportunity for more spontaneous relational time: hiking the base of Mount Mulanje, swimming in the waters of Lake Malawi or engaging in conversation in Malawi’s busiest commercial city, Blantyre. Along the way, our team visited mission stations, engaged in retreat, stayed in Malawian homes, worshiped in churches and prayer houses and planted dozens of trees.

During a Youth Pilgrimage in July 2019, Takondwe “T.K.” Lanjesi, a youth in Malawi, and Greta Snyder (right) of Bower Hill Community Church in Pittsburgh, plant trees at the Naming’azi Farm Training Center in Malawi. (Contributed photo)

While we were there, our hosts at the Grace Bandawe Conference Center showed us how well their new wood-fired pizza oven works — and we were delighted to sample their success! We worked together to sort through the nearly 700 pounds of medical supplies our team brought with us, using a list of needs compiled by our Blantyre Synod colleagues. Vitamins, gloves, pain relievers, antibiotic ointments and more were organized into suitcases to be shared with Malawians after tropical cyclones Idai and Kenneth  caused catastrophic flooding, death and destruction in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in March.

Pope Benedict XVI summed it up when he said: “To go on a pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.”

Since my first visit to Malawi in 1995, I have sensed that God’s self has been revealed in quiet conversations and raucous worship services. I have learned there are ways of glimpsing life, living gratefully, and trusting in God and neighbor that are more readily experienced when we can step away from what we perceive as “normal” and look at life with fresh eyes.

One of the Scriptures to which we referred often during the pilgrimage was I Samuel 7, where the old prophet makes the children of Israel haul a giant rock out of the Jordan River. He names it “Ebenezer,” or “stone of helping.” In his sermon that day, Samuel points out that his group of pilgrims is neither where they started nor where they would end up — but that it was important to recognize that “up to now, God has helped us.”

Youth pilgrims from Pittsburgh Presbytery in front of St. Michael and All Angels Church, a congregation In the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Blantyre Synod. It’s also called the Cathedral Church. (Photo by Dave Carver)

Did the worlds of our pilgrims get smaller, or bigger? How do you measure that kind of thing?

“I have found friendships in people with whom, before Malawi, I may never have even said hello to,” said Greta Snyder, 13, Bower Hill Community Church. “I have been finding that I’m constantly trying to find Malawi — to keep my body where my heart is, at least as much as possible. Every day, I increasingly feel Malawi breaking and then filling my heart. Nothing seems quite so clear anymore. I went to Malawi hoping to gain some, even if very little clarity. I came back to learn that for all you learn, the more you find you don’t know.”

She said her pilgrimage to Malawi has taught her a few things, such as:

  • No person, idea or place can be all good or all bad.
  • We know so much less than we think we do.
  • We stand to learn a lot from the most unexpected of people, if we will only take time to listen.
  • Most people are blind to the truth about others and, often, even themselves.

How glad I am to share the knowledge that for my young friends, a pilgrimage to Malawi is indeed an “Ebenezer stone” as they continue to walk in paths of faith, hope, gratitude and love. It seems this journey has been a marker for them to remember who they have been, even as they anticipate that which is still to come.

Pittsburgh Presbytery and partners in Malawi and South Sudan have a longstanding three-way partnership. Learn more by visiting the partnership website.

More youth testimonials:

“I’ve been thinking lots about how almost every product I buy or use is at least in some part brought to me by the hands of underpaid and undermined workers around the world.”
Annabel Degenholtz, 14
Youth Pilgrim to Malawi, Africa (2019)

East Liberty Presbyterian Church

“Having the chance to stay with some of the families was such a great experience. I learned how to make nsima, a traditional staple food in Malawi, from my host family. I learned that we might live very differently but we also have so much in common.”
Danielle Sites, 16
Youth Pilgrim to Malawi, Africa (2019)

First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights

“I had been hearing about Africa’s increasing economic and technological development in recent years, and feared that, when combined with the demographics of the mission team, the trip would turn into a kind of luxury foreign vacation only vaguely reminiscent of a spiritual pilgrimage.”
Chloe Snyder, 14
Youth Pilgrim to Malawi, Africa (2019)
Bower Hill Community Church

“I am trying to incorporate these lessons into my everyday life: Be thankful for everything; who you are, what you have, obstacles you have overcome, the people you have in your life … whatever it may be. And give out of love, not just because it’s what we want … It is what we need.”
David Salinetro
Youth Pilgrim to Malawi, Africa, at age 18 (2016)
First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights

“It was a wonderful experience as a teen to see how connected we, as Christians, are all over the world and how we truly have brothers and sisters in Christ everywhere. I think the most important lesson I learned was to appreciate everyone’s differences and see that the world would be one boring planet without those differences.”
Jennifer Davidson Bryer
Youth Pilgrim to Malawi, Africa, at age 16 (1995)
Advocate for mission, Sunset Hills Presbyterian Church

World Mission has created a Short-Term Mission Toolkit to help trip leaders and participants prepare to engage in cross-cultural mission.

 The Rev. Dave Carver is pastor at First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights in the Pittsburgh Presbytery, where he has served for more than 25 years.

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