This isn’t the way we thought things would be.
I hate surprises, so let me give it to you straight.
We are leaving Malawi next month.
Now that I’ve delivered the punchline, let’s roll this back a bit.
Flashback to 2018. Pre-pandemic. Pre-us-in-Malawi. Life was normal. And by “normal,” I mean our family of five was knee-deep in the process of quitting jobs and selling a house and closing out our lives in North Carolina. We were grieving the losses of all that we were leaving behind and were filled with an even greater anticipation and excitement for what was to come. This was it! We were finally moving overseas. Malawi or bust, y’all.
And lest you think this was a haphazard, starry eyed decision, let me assure you- at the risk of sounding a bit too big for my britches- we were as in-the-know as any VERY GREEN brand new missionaries could be. We had engaged in raw, brutally honest conversations with people from multiple organizations and contexts about the good/bad/ugly of missions. We had received excellent, comprehensive training from our church and organization. We had read the books and could quote When Helping Hurts. And spent years processing big thoughts about motives in going, fears in going, all of the things about going. We talked it out, sorted it out, prayed it out. Ad nauseam. And now? ‘Twas time to go.
So, off we flew to Malawi, a small landlocked country in southeast Africa. A former British colony, having gained its independence just decades earlier in 1964. A country with loads of missions history, the most notable, perhaps, being David Livingstone I presume.
We arrived in Lilongwe standing on the shoulders of many who had come before us. Many who had sacrificed greatly to be here and who put in the work. The history was rich and complex, messy and beautiful. Any history that boasts decades upon decades of Western presence in a developing, post-colonial context is bound to be complicated. However, as it turned out, even our best efforts to educate ourselves pre-arrival did not prepare us for the cognitive dissonance that would soon ensue.
Because, here’s how it went down. We landed. We bounced around from church to church and met pastor after pastor, new friend after new friend, and we were quickly slapped in the face with the reality that “OH HEY. The Malawian church is actually CRUSHING it.”
I distinctly remember nearly being brought to my knees in embarrassment and shame early on in our time in Malawi when, upon stepping out of church, I felt surprise. Surprise that I had actually gleaned something from the sermon. That was indeed a low point and a feeling that I am deeply ashamed to admit now, but I think it’s crucial to call a spade a spade and to acknowledge that kind of attitude for what it was. What it is.
A Western-centric view of Christianity that presumes that we Westerners can do it best. That we have a corner on the Christian church.
Let’s remember. I had read the books and studied the articles. I had asked the hard questions, and still- this kind of “Hi I’m new here! LET ME HELP YOU!” mindset was just so… natural.
And that’s where the cognitive dissonance came into play. We came to help but quickly realized that the Malawian church has everything she needs to help herself.
I came with a stethoscope and degree and eagerness to spare, and it soon occurred to me that my volunteer work in a clinic could simply take away a paying job from a very capable Malawian clinician.
We came ready to preach the gospel to the nations only to see the Malawian church raising up their own church planters and missionaries.
“We’re not needed here,” became our refrain for a while. And it was true. But it was a partial truth at that.
As time went on, and as we watched money and short term teams flow in and out of the country… as we went deeper in language and culture and our eyes were opened to widespread vestiges of colonialism… as we saw our Malawian brothers and sisters speaking truth over us and getting after it for the gospel… we realized that it’s not simply that we’re not needed here. Even more painful to admit, our conviction quickly grew into the hard reality that we- in the role we were here to do- could actually be harmful. That our very presence could be slowing down the forward movement of the gospel and the spread of the church.
Again, this, my friends, is a massive topic to attempt to address in a tiny blog post. Volumes upon volumes have been penned on missiology and strategy and dependency and all of that.
However, for our family, it did not take a PhD or decades on the field to become utterly to-the-marrow-of-our-bones convinced that the best way for us to love our Malawian brothers and sisters and the most practical way to show them the dignity they deserve is by getting out of the way and letting them run with it.
Without our watchful American eyes peering over their shoulders.
Without us imposing our programs and structures and ideas on their unique beautifully Malawian context.
Because “we know better.”
Or because we hold the purse strings.
This, for us, became a dignity issue.
Here in Malawi, there’s this “poverty of self” mentality that we hear semi-casually tossed about frequently. Early on in our Chichewa lessons, we were told quite explicitly, “We Malawians look down on ourselves. We think we need help and that we cannot do things on our own.” Few things have haunted me over the past years quite like this. Because we began to see that the longer we stayed- the longer we continued to do work that our Malawian brothers and sisters were completely capable and often better at doing- the more we communicated that the Malawian church needs us. This is a message that has been communicated overtly or indirectly for years through our lingering presence and our open wallets, and it’s a message that, I believe, has only perpetuated this poverty of the Malawian self. And the thought of contributing to that kept me up at night and led to hours upon hours of “what are we even doing?” conversations.
Because my eyes and thoughts can’t help but fall on name after name of pastors, mentors, teachers, and friends who are faithfully and sacrificially serving the Lord, pushing the gospel forward, bringing hope to the hopeless and healing to the sick and the gospel to their villages and beyond. Co-laborers who are emptying themselves daily to build the kingdom of God. I daily observe and benefit from the resiliency, strength, intellect, and ingenuity of our Malawian brothers and sisters and want absolutely no part in minimizing this through my insistence on helping. On staying. Albeit, in a country and with a people that I have grown to love in ways that I never imagined possible.
But, alas, it is precisely because of this love that we are leaving. Because we believe in the Malawian church, and far be it from us to communicate a message any different. If eyes are falling upon us as providers, we have failed. If expectations are resting upon us to be the go-ers, we have failed. If we have perpetuated systems in which our presence provides ministries with more legitimacy than the spirit of God himself, we have failed.
And if we land here- if missiology or strategy or our own convictions become the central focus and talking point on our leaving- we have failed.
Our central goal as we wrap up this beautiful season here in Malawi is not to revel in some big mic drop moment. It’s not to make a point. It’s not even to heap praises upon Malawi and her massive strengths. Our central goal here is to lift high the name of Jesus. Because it is HE who is our good and faithful provider. It is HE who is using the Malawian church to reach their villages, nation, and world. And it is HE who set his spirit upon our friends in the Malawian church and said, “Tiyeni. Let’s go.”
And so, as they run hard and fast, we Allisons will step to the side with tears of joy and gratitude and mourning, and we will forever be cheering them on and shaking our heads in disbelief that God allowed us the absolute privilege of a lifetime to live here and catch a glimpse of the flourishing of the Malawian church.
I cannot tell you how tricky it is to use a medium like this- like this blog- to convey our hearts and convictions. This is a matter that’s highly nuanced and better communicated over a cup of Rooibos tea, and the intention is certainly not to paint with broad strokes. I am super cognizant of the fact that other missionary friends are likely reading this, and I just want to make it crystal clear that I, in no part, am making sweeping generalizations. I’m not suggesting that all missionaries should be out of Malawi- or similar contexts- but that it would always serve us well – any of us, regardless of profession or calling- to routinely re-evaluate the “how”s and “why”s of what we do. How do we best show the love of Jesus while honoring the imago dei and upholding the dignity of our national partners? There are exactly zero easy answers, but for our family at this time, the decision was painfully clear.
My sincere hope is that there would be Christians of all races, nations, and tongues living together in Malawi and around the world. Christians living with intentionality and hearts set on loving those around them well. No need for fancy titles- just disciples who make disciples.
In Malawi as it is in Heaven.
So be it.