June 13, 2005
My computer weather tracker tells me that it is 73 degrees in Pittsburgh today. It would seem that spring is turning into summer. But here in Malawi, fall is turning into winter. It is at this time of year that CCAP members bring forth their first fruits and give thanks for the harvest.
This year, because of the drought, one would think that there is not much to be thankful for. My neighbor told me that last year the garden in his yard yielded 10 fifty kilo sacks of maize. This year he got only three. Now is the time of year when maize prices should be at their lowest, but they are as high as they have ever been and continue to rise. The government’s surplus has been exhausted, and people are struggling to find food. This week in Ndirande, sacks of maize will be distributed at our handicapped session. The people there, who are some of the poorest in the country, have been complaining for weeks about the lack of food. It is a growing crisis.
Despite this fact, we had the opportunity to see a Thanksgiving Service that was filled with joy recently. The Rev. Dr. Silas Ncozana invited the Waynesburg College group to attend a Sunday Celebration of Worship at his “bush church,” Chiphoola CCAP, which is outside of Zomba. It was Thanksgiving Sunday.
As we drove up to the church, our cars were surrounded by hordes of choir members singing a greeting. The students were speechless at this warm, boisterous welcome. Then they got out of the vehicles and joined in the singing and dancing. The path to the church was paved with Mvano, moving in time with the music and containers of every shape and size filled with offerings lined the path. Each bucket of maize or basket of peanuts was decorated with brightly colored flowers. What a feast for the eyes and ears!
After formal greetings were exchanged, and we were introduced to the Session members in the vestry, we were ushered into the Sanctuary and given special seats of honor on the chancel. From there we watched the service unfold. Harvest hymns and prayers of thanksgiving were offered. We were asked to do the sermon, so each visitor spoke about what they were thankful for. I found it particularly hard to speak to people who were obviously faithful servants of Christ about blessings, when it appeared that I had much more wealth than they did. So, I said that I was thankful that God has a view of the “big picture.” Sometimes we don’t understand why sadness, like the deaths of loved ones, befalls us, but we have to trust that God has a plan. I found it very difficult to “preach” to people who were teaching me so much about what it means to be a faithful servant of God.
After the monetary offering was collected, more prayers, announcements and anthems by six choirs, everyone was asked to bring their first fruits to the chancel area. People left the church and gathered their offerings. Women lifted baskets of rice and trays of lemons and papayas to their heads and entered the church singing.
Bushels of maize were dumped in a growing pile in front of the communion table. The biggest, longest, thickest stalks of sugar cane that I have ever seen were brought forward. Home grown beans, greens, cassava and avocados were brought forth with dancing. In the vestry, large buckets of home brewed (non-alcoholic) millet beverage were collected.
All of us, Americans, were struck by the fact that we have so much more to be thankful for than the gathered Malawians, yet they were the ones that were bringing the best they had to the glory of God. Men, women and children kept cramming the isles and coming into the church, with baskets of their finest produce. There was hardly any room left to negotiate the aisles as the elders received the generous offerings.
The most poignant part of the ceremony was the fact that we knew that these people were not giving from their surplus as we do, they were giving God and the Church food that could have fed their families. They did this with great joy. They put us to shame.
Then they fed us. When the celebration concluded with another harvest hymn and benediction, we were ushered into a classroom of the CCAP school. There we feasted on nsima, rice, curried chicken stew, greens and green beans. All of the parishioners were fed as well. The Mvano prepared huge vats of nsima and buckets of greens and beans. It was a time of joy for everyone. I have to say that I never counted my blessings as much as I did that day.