September 21, 2008

Presbyterian Partners From Malawi Arrive in Pittsburgh

By Matthew Santoni

Waving the flags of Malawi, about 30 Pittsburgh Presbyterians filled baggage claim J at Pittsburgh International Airport with a traditional Chichewa song of welcome for missionaries concluding a 19-hour flight Friday.

In their native tongue, eight men and 18 women from Malawi were greeted before being swept up in hugs, kisses and praise, kicking off a two-week visit from Africa that organizers hope will deepen a 17-year partnership and reinvigorate the Presbyterian church at home.

"It was a grand welcome," said Andrew Maere, deputy secretary- general of Malawi's Synod of Blantyre, which runs 430 Presbyterian churches and 600 smaller "prayer houses" in the southern part of the central African nation.

The partnership that brought them here pairs 39 Presbyterian churches around Pittsburgh with churches around Blantyre, sponsoring the exchange of hundreds of missionaries and hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid.

The church is losing congregants in the United States, but it's thriving in Africa, said Nora Goetz of Turtle Creek, co-chair of the partnership program. Malawians are able to show the Pittsburgh Presbyterians a deeper faith and their more exuberant form of worship, she said.

"They are clearly doing something right, because their churches are growing by leaps and bounds, whereas ours are shrinking," Goetz said.

Waiting for the bus to take them from the airport, two of the women led the group in a song telling people to be pleased doing God's work.

"We live with safeguards to fall back on like insurance and savings. All they can do is trust the Lord," Goetz said. "They know a lot more about faith than we do."

Since the partnership began, the Pittsburgh Presbytery has tried to incorporate some of the spirit of the Malawians' worship into their own contemporary services, said the Rev. Dan Merry, pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon.

The Rev. Bill Paul of Ross said he got the idea to co-found the partnership in 1991 after several years of missionary work that included trips to Mexico, India, Nepal and Pakistan. His experiences -- including sharing a meal and discussing faith with Mujahadeen fighting Soviet forces then in Afghanistan -- convinced him he wanted to do more.

"I vowed to do all I could to introduce the world to the people of the Pittsburgh Presbytery," said Paul, 73. "You get an experience like that, you get back and share it through photos and stories, and people's hearts are just opened."

Individual churches can join with others around the world, but the Malawi partnership was the first effort involving the whole Presbytery, he said.

In the town of Domasi, the partnership built a reservoir to bring in fresh water from a mountain stream -- saving the town's women a four-mile walk, Paul said. They refurbished and expanded a school, restored the church and built a new health clinic. In 2003, a family at Shadyside Presbyterian Church donated enough money to add several buildings to a nursing school in another village, including a dormitory and a lecture hall.

Not all of the "cultural exchange" will be aimed at bettering the churches, Paul said. On Sunday the 13 host families will be encouraged to watch the Steelers game with their guests, and Monday and Tuesday might be spent touring the city.

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