By Erik M. Lunsford
Along a dusty, hot African desert trail in rural Chingale, Malawi, a man carries a small bowl of water from a new borehole well up to the nearby Lutheran parish. The church isn’t far — perhaps 50 meters away. He is careful not to spill it among the scattered fields of planted cotton.
The Rev. Davis Wowa, executive chairman of the Confessional Lutheran Church—Malawi Synod (CLCM), leads Sunday worship in the packed Chingale Wisiki parish of about 400 souls. Under his vestments, he wears a bright white suit with a purple shirt and a matching white clerical collar.
The aisle in the church has long since vanished, as crowds recline on the floor. One of five fellow pastors in the synod, the Rev. Stanford Soko, holds the bowl of water for Wowa, who speaks authoritatively and baptizes 32 children and young adults. The water from the nearby well was funded recently by a grant from the LCMS.
Following the service, Wowa introduces the Rev. Shauen Trump, LCMS area director for Eastern and Southern Africa. Trump remarks on the baptismal well water and gives thanks to the congregation’s hospitality. His address is met with cheerful applause.
The well in Chingale is one of two newly funded wells, which were made possible by LCMS grants totaling approximately $24,000. This village in southern Malawi sits in the valley of a highland mountain pass, marked with flimsy wood-plank bridges and rocky roads where travel is hindered by goats and playing children. The second well is located near a parish in Embangweni, a town in the northern part of the country nestled in a forested area of gnarled trees.
The CLCM is greatly honored to have the LCMS hand in Malawi … [that] above all emphasizes the love, encouragement and advice in the ministry of the Gospel. This is a blessing to us.” —Rev. Davis Wowa, executive chairman of the Confessional Lutheran Church—Malawi Synod
Both wells are built near a Lutheran church and are available to the greater community. Before construction, residents drank from open streams and unreliable water sources infected with water-borne diseases.
Known as “the warm heart of Africa,” the small country of Malawi is home to three tribes: the Lomwe, Tumbuka and Chewa. The country has highland regions with a temperate equatorial climate. Monkeys can be seen crossing the road or trying to snatch breakfast from a hotel café.
The CLCM was formed in 2007 and currently has 11 established congregations and six “exploratory places” in neighboring Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. Although it is not yet an LCMS partner church, the Malawi church is founded on the Word of God and adheres to the Lutheran Confessions and the Book of Concord.
Its pastors are trained with LCMS educational materials in a seminary of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The church faces several challenges, including the need for theological education — one of the mission priorities of the LCMS.
In 2013–14, the LCMS funded two church building projects with the Malawi Synod and two projects to distribute maize to starving church and community members. Wowa said almost 1,200 people in seven parishes benefited from the food distribution. He also was thankful for the growing friendship between the two church bodies.
“The CLCM is greatly honored to have the LCMS hand in Malawi … [that] above all emphasizes the love, encouragement and advice in the ministry of the Gospel. This is a blessing to us,” he said.
Donor accountability also is important, according to Wowa. “In all four big projects done with funds from the LCMS to the parishes designated, we have never received any complaints or question about the funds since they see the materials bought according to the amount requested from [the ] LCMS [Office of International Mission]. We thank God that the four projects have met people’s expectations.”
During a recent trip to Malawi, which included five days of traversing hundreds of miles of rough terrain, Trump traveled with the leadership of the CLCM and fellow LCMS missionary Shara Cunningham. They visited the completed borehole and building projects around the country. Trump also conversed with parishioners, sat in worship services and discussed the challenges of a growing church.
“Wells, famine-relief food, construction projects. These only really — and by ‘really’ I mean eternally — matter when they are connected to the Word of God, to Gospel proclamation and to the church,” Trump said. “Bread feeds the body for a day, but combine that bread with the Word of God in Holy Communion and it feeds the soul forever. Water revives the body for a few hours, but combine that water with the Word of God and one of God’s precious creations is reborn from death into eternal life.”
According to Trump, projects between the two church bodies have helped strengthen confessional Lutheranism in the entire region.
“Confessional Lutheran churches in Africa,” Trump said, “are assaulted through Islam, the prosperity gospel, wrath-based African traditional religions and con men claiming to be spiritual leaders.
Standing with our fellow Lutherans brothers and sisters in Africa through church construction projects gives their congregations and leaders instant credibility — they are no ‘briefcase church’ headed by a scam artist but are well-educated and dedicated servants of the Lord, backed by His worldwide Church.
“Compassionate community-benefiting projects like wells or food distribution draw the attention of a community and identify the Lutheran church as a place where there are Christians who love all people.
“Through community-based and community-benefiting projects, the confessional Lutheran church gains a platform and a voice in the community — a voice through which the Gospel can be proclaimed to the glory of God,” he continued.
Erik M. Lunsford is manager of photojournalism for LCMS Communications.