Esther Chirwe sits in a dim, middle-row seat of the chapel, cradling her breastfeeding son with one melted dark-chocolate arm, and a green LDS hymnbook with the other. It’s nine AM, and about 15 people are gathered in this white-tiled room, scattered between the fifty or more chairs. Several young boys sit attentively in the front row. The electricity is out. A stick-thin man in a baggy suit steps to the front of the room. “Good morning, brothers and sisters,” he says, a bit too quietly. “Good morning,” comes the low grumble from the 15 onlookers. In halting English, the man announces the sacrament meeting program, which involves talks by the Relief Society President, Branch President, and the singing of hymns (a cappella) –the same hymns which were sung the previous week. I walk to the front of the room, crumbling hymnbook in hand, and shakily warble the first phrase of the opening hymn. The others join in the singing, and sacrament meeting is under way.
I spent the first 25 years of my life attending very traditional Latter-day Saint wards in the heart of Utah. Everyone was white, spoke English, and knew how to teach a Sunday school class. There were regular Young Women and Relief Society activities, themed around service or homemaking, complete with centerpieces and ‘light refreshments’. Each sacrament service involved a crisp, printed program, well-educated speakers, a variety of hymns and, occasionally, the gorgeous trills of the ward choir, accompanied by one of the dozens of able pianists in the room, wetting the eyes of the congregation. A Utah ward is a well-oiled machine, greased by years of membership, service, and instruction.
For the past two years, however, I’ve been part of a very different church situation. After my husband completed grad school, we moved to Malawi with our two small boys, my husband accepting a position as a cancer research coordinator. Malawi, known as the warm heart of Africa, is a small, landlocked country, sandwiched between Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. Our branch of the church, one of four here in the capital city of Lilongwe, is held in a modest room, formerly the home of the Branch President’s family. They now live in a smaller home, directly behind the church building. If there were a branch directory, it would list hundreds of baptized members, yet each week we start with roughly 15 members in the chapel. By the time I stand to lead the closing hymn, there may be close to 40. Retaining members is a struggle here for a variety of reasons.
Malawi has two official languages. One is English, the other Chichewa. It seems that all Malawians in Lilongwe speak Chichewa, but English is reserved for those with the benefit of a decent education. This causes a minor rift between branch members –those who speak English, and those who do not. Services are conducted in English, so a member who isn’t English-proficient is naturally excluded from lessons and discussions. There is no Book of Mormon in the Chewa language, which creates another barrier to gospel learning. Sometimes a bilingual member is called upon to translate a lesson, but –as anyone who has experienced this knows –the back-and-forth between the two languages disrupts the flow of the lesson (and doubles the time it takes to read each passage, etc). Our branch isn’t without fault, but the active members are genuine and strong.
Only two or three branch members own cars. Some can afford the mini-bus fare to and from the church, but most walk to the church building. Nearly all of the members live miles from the church, and this distance, understandably, promotes inactivity. Seeing the faithful members who do continue to come each week –some, like Esther Chirwe, walking three hours each way with a baby strapped to their back –is a tremendous inspiration to me.
Like most things about living in Malawi, there are many extra steps involved in order to accomplish tasks in the church which, at home in the US, were very simple. One of my callings is the Branch Music Chairperson, and I was asked to begin a branch choir. I quickly learned that not one member knew how to read music, or sing in parts. Although we have a small keyboard, there are no piano players in the branch. While starting a choir felt taxing, the beauty was in the members’ willingness to come and sing anyway.
Our Lilongwe Branch was only formed in 2012, which means general knowledge about the church is still greatly lacking. The same few hymns are repeated from week to week. Relief Society and Priesthood classes often have no assigned teacher (or sometimes someone might pass you a note at the end of sacrament meeting asking YOU to teach the next class!). No particular curriculum is followed. Although the branch members have given and received dozens of talks and lessons about the new ministering program, more than one year later, no assignments have been given. Because visiting teaching and home teaching were never implemented in the branch, the idea of ministering “assignments” is very new and difficult to grasp. Ministering is made more arduous by the hundreds of inactive branch members, many of whom have no phone or simple method of contact. The single primary class is taught in Chichewa, lasting only a few minutes, after which the children run wild, climbing the church lemon trees.
Although the branch feels very different from any ward I’ve attended before, many of the differences are what make being a part of the branch so joyful. For example, while giving a talk in a well-established Utah ward might be quite nerve-racking, giving a talk or lesson in the Lilongwe Branch involves no pressure. My other calling in the branch is the Gospel Doctrine Teacher, and never once have I felt nervous or unqualified like I might feel in Utah, among hundreds of others with immense gospel knowledge. I am a very intermediate violin player, but after playing once in sacrament meeting, a member commented, “That was really beautiful. What is that instrument called?”
It is wonderful to feel useful and needed. Because my husband and I were fortunate enough to grow up in the church, we are able to answer basic questions for the Malawian members, or help model what a Sunday School lesson or Primary class could look like, for someone who has never seen one before.
Although the gospel is the same everywhere, church experiences throughout the world can be immensely different. I couldn’t have known beforehand how much we would love being a part of the church in Malawi. The members are authentic, humble and strong. For anyone, expatriate in Africa or not, who may find themselves in a unique ward situation, we can all take comfort in these words Elder Alexander B. Morrison, a member of the seventy, spoke in 1987:
“In every corner of Africa, there are faithful expatriate members of the Church … I testify they are not there by chance. As part of God’s great and grand design for growth, they have been placed on the frontiers of the Church by divine providence … They are the right people at the right place and at the right time in history.”
I believe we are all the right people in the right places at the right times, if we choose to believe that is true and to do what we believe is right. You and I are not where we are by chance. We can each examine our lives and the people around us and determine how our unique qualities might be needed right here and right now. Let us all choose to play an active and distinctive role in this beautiful work!