God with Us. 

These 10 days have been life changing for us all. Some in big ways, for others it was quiet reminders. 

I asked Bethany to share where she saw God on this trip-and if she had an special moments she’d like to share. She said, “It would be easier to list the times I didn’t see God, because he was EVERYWHERE. He was in the children’s faces-the smiles they gave us as they waved hello. He was in the incredible landscape-the mountains, trees, gorgeous sunsets, rivers. He was in the Mvano-with the women of the Church taking ownership of a girls retreat. He was with us every moment.”

Ben said, “You know, coming on this trip I had a lot of struggles with God. I was starting to question my faith and ask if there was even a God. After this week, I know it to be absolutely true. God is real. He is with us every moment and he loves us uncondionally.”

This was Melissa’s 10th time to visit Malawi. She said, “I need this time every year to ground myself and remember what is truly important in life. Reset my priories. This is my happy place.” 

Scott put it best when he addressed the people of Lisenjala during his sermon, “Please do not think that we come here because we think you need something from us that you can’t do for yourself. We come here to learn from you and to share God together. We need you.” 

The people of Lisenjala live in a way most of us could not imagine. Clothes for many of them are purely something to cover their bodies (and since we were there in the winter-something to keep them warm.) And most of their clothes had holes in them. The poverty level is unlike anything most of us had ever seen before. But their love for God and each other is overwhelming. They have a deep joy that is awe inspiring, especially in the midst of a hard life. They don’t know a stranger. Their children run free and unafraid of being abducted.  Laughter and singing rings throughout the entire village. They choose joy everyday. 

My first post was about being able to leave my stuff behind to follow Jesus. Now as I return home, I realize that my life has far too long been about the stuff. Life isn’t about stuff-that is not what you need to be happy. To be happy, you need to choose joy; you need deep, loving relationships; you need God. 

Thank you, God, for speaking to us all in your own personal way. Thank you for loving us and all of our imperfect parts. Thank you for the chance to serve you and your people. 

Amen. 

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Ahhh…vacation!

We woke up this morning to the sounds of hippos batheing, birds chirping, and spider monkeys playing. It was a little overcast, but overall beautiful morning on the game reserve. After a wonderful breakfast, we jump in the bus to head up the mountain for our safari. 

The drive up the mountain actually took quite a bit longer than we were expecting because we kept spotting animals-like Impala, Baboons, and Cudu! (Also, the roads in Malawi leave something to be desired. Ha!) 

The first portion of our safari was a boat ride down the river. The river was packed with hippos, crocodiles, wart hogs, water bucks, storks, and more! It was unreal. I was nervous we would be attacked and Miranda was upset that the boat did not get close enough to the animals. 

Normally, this park is filled with elephants. However, the elephants were overpopulated and starting to destroy the forest. Last year, they embarked on a massive project to move 500 elephants out of the park. This entails capturing and transporting elephants. (There is a movie on Netflix about the project called 500 Elephants. I can’t wait to see it!) However, because of this the elephants were all in hiding. 

The drive portion of the safari was fun-Miranda road in the tracker’s seat-on the front of the truck! We were disappointed that we STILL didn’t see an elephant. So after the safari, Sam, our guide, took Bethany, Ben, and I off-roading to find the elephants. We were bobbing and weaving through the bush. At one point, I thought we were lost, but never with Sam! And we STILL couldn’t find the elephants. When we got back to the entrance of the park, we got a phone call from the group the stayed on the bus…the saw elephants AND a cheetah right along the main road! Then, when we got back to Kutchire we learned that 40 elephants had just been at the lodge! We ran to the back of the property and luckily found 3 elephants still slowly making their way down the river. They were incredible to see. 

This was our last night as a full group. It was emotional, but wonderful way to wrap up the week. Each night, we shared our highs and lows. Tonight, we also shared how God shaped us this week. It was emotional, but wonderful way to wrap up the week. 

Village Overnights

One of the most special parts of the visit to Lisenjala is the opportunity for us to spend the night in the village with our banjas-family. I was so looking forward to it, but ended up sick all day Wednesday and had to miss it. 😷 Maya graciously agreed to share her experience-the 2nd time with her banja. 

What was your first thought when you walked in to your banja’s home?: I stayed there 4 years ago and thought that the house looked bigger and imporoved from 4 years ago. 

What did you do when you got “home?”: We greeted the family outside of the house and then she gave us a tour. Most of the village,  their entire family, and a ton of children came out to greet us too. They all gave us hugs and made us feel really welcomed. We then had dinner and we fixed s’mores for them. They LOVED the s’mores. We played with the children and took “snaps” of them. They don’t get to see pictures of themselves very often, so they loved it. 

Where did you sleep?: We slept on mats on the floor. Some people’s homes do have real beds, but not our banja. It was like a sleepover! Their home was tiny, but very clean.

What did you do when you got up?: They gave me bread and butter, an orange, and some tea. They also gave me a packet of powdered milk…I wasn’t really into that. 

Overall, what’d you think?: It was a great experience and I am so glad that I did it. They made me feel very comfortable there. I love my banja! 

Transition Day!

Today was our last day in Malanje and our last day directly working with the people of Lisenjala. From here, we get to transition into vacation mode and enjoy the splendors of Malawi! 

Half of our group spent the night in the village last night, so after they had returned and showered we hit the road to Kuchire Lodge on the National Game reserve. I think it’s about a 3 hour drive, but we made quite a few shopping stops, so it’s hard to give an exact time. There are great curio markets all over, where the sell hand-carved wooden items, paintings, jewelry, etc. I got my 2 little girls these gorgeous hand-carved Noah’s arts, with pairs of carved animals and even Noah and his wife! They will be so excited. (Although Maddie-my 4 year old-tells everyone that Mommy is in Africa to see and bring home a Cheetah. There is a chance on the first part…)

We stopped for lunch at a GORGEOUS mountain resort. (Apparently Queen Victoria once stayed there. And Prince Harry was at a place not too far from where we are now a few days ago!) The views we absolutely beautiful. Living in Champaign, Illinois, we would never have a view like this one. I often wonder about people who live in places like this-if they can still notice the incredible beauty. Or if it’s just something that they are used to seeing. It’s also quite an odd feeling to see such incredible poverty on such a beautiful backdrop. I can’t even think of the right word to describe it (and I don’t have any wifi while I write this, so I can’t even look up other options! This trip has forced me to give up-or at least partially-my iPhone addiction. Electricity/wifi/hot water (or water at all) are not reliable whatsoever. They come and go throughout the day. It’s just something you have to get used to…nothing is going to go how you expect). 

After almost a full day of traveling and shopping (oh! I almost forgot to mention. I was left alone on a busy African street to guard all of the suitcases packed in the back of the truck, while the others ran into the store. It was very surreal…I’m not that big of a person, nor trained in any sort of combat. So I’m not sure what my plan was to keep people away. Ha!) we finally made it to Kuchire Lodge and it is absolutely incredible. 

The lodge is on the INSIDE of the reserve. On the way to my accommodations, I had to step around the elephant dung. I keep trying to remind myself that this is just like staying at Yellowstone National Park (which I’ve never done) but that instead of bears, it’s elephants and cheetahs. After dinner, Sam, the lodge owner/our fearless guide/good friend to all of Copper Creek said to me, “Hello. We have a hippo.” (Which is not a phrase I’ve ever heard before.) And he calmly walked us to about 50′ from where we were sitting to see it. 

All of the rooms are individual cabins/spaces, with only screens for windows. I’m staying in a treehouse! Yes, you read that correctly. A treehouse. It sleeps 3, has a bathroom and a shower! I’ve been told to expect an elephant to walk right past my bed at any moment. So crazy! If you don’t know me, I’m not much of an outdoors person. I slept in a tent for the first time earlier this month and vowed to never do it again. I was afraid of the raccoons. And now here I am, in Africa, waiting for elephants to walk past my bed?! Wild. 

Tomorrow, we are going on a safari. I can’t wait to give the full report! 

Mvano Retreat

Today was yet another packed day. We started the morning with a wonderful hike up the mountain. Scott and K led us up to a beautiful lookout point where we could see almost all of Malanje. We continued up the mountain through a waterfall and up a rock formation. For someone (me) who doesn’t hike, it was quite the experience and I loved every second of it!

After our hike, we headed into the village for the Mvano Retreat. The Mvano is a women’s guild in the village. (Our church has a Mvano too! Talk to Abby Hobbs or Bethany Hearn if you are interested in learning more information about the Copper Creek Mvano.) Thirty of their most active members were invited to participate…we ended up with 32 women! And it was another incredible afternoon.

We talked with the women about family planning methods, education, employment, infrastructure, role models, and business development.  We led the retreat, but the conversation was completely led by the women of the Mvano. It was awe inspiring to me to see these women who break their backs everyday just to live (fetching water, wood for the fire, etc), many of them not educated past grade school, discussing business opportunities. We left the day with homework for us all to meet with community leaders, develop a retreat for the young girls in the community and already developing next year’s Mvano Retreat.

In addition to the educational piece of the day, there was a fantastic social component. We played games with the women and my favorite part – all broke into song and dance together – twice! I absolutely love to hear them sing. Picture any type of African music and that is exactly what happens when they sing. I have still to remind myself that I am actually in Africa, listening to these incredible African women sing. And I get chills.

I had some pretty emotional moments today too. We were driving into the village and passed a man who’s clothes were completely thread bare. I remember seeing him and thinking about what I could do to help. And Tom, our fantastic driver, pulled over to the side of the road. He just told us that he needed to speak to someone and hopped out of the van. He opened the back-end and handed the man a pair of pants. He did not know this man, but saw that he needed to help and did it on the spot.

God was most definitely at work here today. And I can’t wait to see what comes from it.

Oh – and FYI – the internet here is VERY spotty (so is the electricity and the hot water). I was not able to upload any pictures today. So hopefully more tomorrow.

Learners Retreat

This mission trip is not necessarily what you would typically think a mission trip would be. Before I decided to participate in this mission, I always thought mission trips were about building a home/church/some other type of construction. And while we have done that here in the past, this mission is more about relationship building and providing education. And this mission is just as important to those of us from Copper Creek as it is to the people of the Lisenjala Church.

Yesterday afternoon, we kicked off a 2-day retreat for our scholarship high school students (most of the kids were around age 16). It was a session to talk about how to go from Struggle to Survival to Success. We were lucky to have Shawna DePlonty (Miranda Soucie’s aunt and official Auntie Shawna to everyone) with us to lead the seminar. Auntie Shawna is a professor of business in Canada and she took the seminar to the next level. We talked about Emotional Intelligence and how to regulate your emotions with the kids. We took elements of many of the other retreats each of us have participated in. One of the kids’ favorite sessions was Jennifer Schmidt’s program. She asked each student to write their struggle on a rock. She then gave each student someone else’s rock and asked the students to pray for the person whose struggle they were carrying. The kids built a tower out of the rocks as a symbol of giving their struggles to God. They even took it a step further (completely unprompted) and added a sign to it so that other students who saw the rock tower would know the significance of it.

The overnight portion was a struggle for most of us. Our original accommodations feel through and Melissa did an amazing job at securing us all (the 11 of us from Copper Creek and the 16 Learners whose parents had entrusted us with their children for the night) at the last minute. We ended up staying at 2 different locations in 2 different hostels…accommodations significantly below American standards for acceptable living conditions.

I was alone in a room with 3 Malawi teenage girls; responsible for their wellbeing, as well as my own, in a place completely foreign and terrifying to me. There were times throughout the night that I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it to the next hour, let alone lead a conference the next morning! But, some prayers and maybe some quiet swearing, we all not only made it, but had a very successful conference.

This afternoon, Jen pointed out, that if we can get through a night like that, we can do anything through God. And she’s completely right. I was completely out of my element and scared, but I came through with flying colors. And now I realize that it ties back into one of my favorite verses: 2 Corinthians 1:3-4:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which ourselves are comforted by God.”

God gave me that challenge to again show me that I can do anything I put my mind to and to trust in him. Thanks for the reminder, Lord!

Overall, I think the conference was a success. At the end of the day, we got big smiles and hugs from some of the students – reward enough for us to see them smile.

As I sit here writing this blog (using the solar power energy because the electricity is out – that happens sometimes here), I can hear Miranda laughing from across the lodge. It is an infectious laugh and one that I am so blessed to know. While we’ve had ups and downs on this retreat, we have had each other and God to lean on. Hearing Miranda laugh makes my heart say, “Wow.” Okay – now I have to go find out what was so funny! More tomorrow!!

Church today-all day!

Today was Sunday. And a day full of church services-seriously, it was a solid 6 hours of church. I could definitely not handle that much church every Sunday, but today it was an incredible experience. 

We started the morning at a special service of the Mission Malanje church. There was another group visiting from Belfast, Ireland. They were high school students from the Royal Belfast Academy volunteering in the school and hospital. They have been here for a week already and seemed to really be enjoying it too. 

It was a 2 hour service packed with choir after choir signing and dancing. It was incredible to see. Scott gave the sermon and the Abusa (pastor) summarized it in Chichewa. I was thrilled to get to hear Scott preach here. His messages are even more impactful in a foreign country! (Although his jokes are a little hard for those who don’t speak English to understand. We enjoyed them though!) He spoke about how our hearts go “Wow” when we hold our children for the first time, see our beloved walk down the aisle, when we get off of the airplane in Malawi, and when we are each able to grow our faith by learning from each other. 

From there, we rushed to our sister church, Lisenjala, for another 2+ hour service. I honestly have no idea how long that one lasted. It was a different feeling at Lisenjala-it felt like home. Not that we weren’t warmly welcomed at the Mission Malanje church, it was just much bigger and formal. At Lisenjala, there were familiar faces, names, and even wall decorations that our church has provided. 

Scott again gave the sermon, Melissa gave several prayers, Steve also gave a prayer, and Bethany and I (Erin) gave readings. It got exciting when they announced a different scripture than what I had prepared, but Melissa had me covered and no one knew that I had been planning to read a completely different verse! 

At this service, there was also a much stronger feeling of community. At times, it even seemed like a town hall meeting. There were several more choirs that sang-each more incredible than the first…which we were actually the first ones to sing. We had prepared to sing “I have decided to follow Jesus” in both English and Chichewa. But they requested 2 songs, so we threw in “This Little Light of Mine” at the last second. (Plans, scheduled, and times are very fluid here. Everyone has had to learn to think on their feet and go with the flow.” Our song was mediocre at best, but they appreciated our effort. The children’s choirs and the one with the drums were much more impressive. Think of an authentic African singing group and that is exactly what it was. I couldn’t believe I was actually seeing it live!

After the church service, the women of the church had prepared a wonderful meal for us. And then we had to rush off to start the learners retreat-an overnight retreat for our high school scholarship students. More about the Learners Retreat in the next post. 

Hike, Pray, Love.

Today was our first full day in Malawi and boy was it packed! I have to keep pinching myself to believe it is all real. Today was so packed. It started with a 5 mile hike up a mountain. I have never hiked a mountain, in my life. And I decided to pick my first mountain to be in Africa! I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been much of an outdoorsy person and I am now considering it. At the top of the hike (not nearly the top of the mountain) we jumped off a 20 foot cliff into a FREEZING lake. It was terrifying and absolutely thrilling. It took me 5 minutes to stop shaking after I jumped.

After the amazing hike and swim in the lake, we had to run back down the mountain to visit the village and Lisanjala Church. We drove down a “road” that continued to get more remote and difficult to pass as we went. When we pulled up to the church, we were greeted by a majority of the congregation singing and dancing. We got hugs from everyone. It was the most warm and welcoming greeting I’ve ever experienced.

We then split into small groups and were given tours of the village. I do not think I could ever describe it fully, but it was nothing like I expected. Dirt paths – not even roads. Handmade (every inch, including making the bricks from hand) homes. Chickens, dogs, and children running free. As we walked, our group grew with children and women from the village.

But by far, the best part of the evening was the dinner at the Abusa’s home. He is the pastor for the church and basically the leader of the community. His home is very large and beautiful. It even had electricity! We filled his living room with our team and their church leaders. As we waited for dinner to be served, we all shared our favorite Bible verse. It was an incredible experience – being able to see the power of God directly transcending lands and languages. The Bible is the same Bible – the same word of God in English or Chicheowa (the language spoken here in Milanje and the villages). It has the same impact on people of any color, nationality, sex, or age. We were able to directly relate to each other and our struggles and joys through our love of the Bible and especially God.

It is incredible to see that these people, who have so little in terms of material possessions, have such large faiths. It was only my first time speaking and being with them, but it their love of God overflows from them.

Tomorrow is another full day. I’m exhausted, but can’t wait. Oh – and did you know that we’re in Africa?! I still can’t believe it.

Welcome to Africa! 

Eyes are a little less bright and bodies are a little more ragged, but we have made it to Kenya! And for several of us, it is our first time on the African continent. As Melissa pointed out, we have been on 3 continents in 28 hours. Wild! 

Most of us had a tougher time sleeping on the last flight. We had some turbulence and most of our internal clocks are way out of whack. But the good news is only 1 more flight until Malawi!! 

PS please excuse this post…like I said, we’re all SUPER sleep deprived! Ha!

Cheerio London!

We made it safe and sound to London. We have a LONG layover here. Luckily, Miranda booked us a few hours in the executive lounge where we could shower, relax and have some great food! 

For me, though, it was a strange dichatimey to know that we were relaxing in a beautiful lounge with every amenity you could ask for while traveling to a community where their electricity is spotty. However, at this point, I can identify with the luxury living in the executive lounge better than the 3rd world living in Malawi. I have no idea as to what to really expect. I have my preconceived notions and what I’ve seen in pictures, but I am guessing those are different than reality. 

We’re finally off to Nairobi. (Our flight was delayed an hour, but as the captain put it,”at least we did not have to de-plane.”) It’s another 8.5 hour flight. We met some great Brits and South Africans on the plane. They were putting the full court press on their contacts (one had a daughter who is an air traffic controller!) to get us off the ground. And finally succeeded! 

We’ve got movies, books, and snacks. Say some prayers and we’ll be in Africa soon!