June 17, 2018, Growing Some Shade in a Dark Place – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000085
Last week, as you all probably know, Karen and Lucille and I were away at our diocesan Convention. Convention was extra-special this year, because this year marks the 150th anniversary of our Diocese – and also because our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, was here to celebrate with us. But what always makes Convention interesting and valuable every year is that we have Bishops and Priests and lay people join us from all around the world, so that we get to hear about the experiences of the Body of Christ in all different situations and conditions. It’s easy, most of the time, to forget how big and how diverse this family is that we belong to. It’s very easy to think of the Church as just the little group of people and practices that are familiar to us.
This year, in addition to our own Bishops Bill and Dan and the hundreds of Priests and Deacons and lay people from around our Diocese, which is a big one, we welcomed brothers and sisters from Ireland, from the Arctic, from Madagascar, and from Malawi, as well as the Roman Catholic Bishop from the Catholic Diocese of Albany. It made the weekend a very rich experience.
But what I wanted most of all to share with you today was what I learned at a workshop I attended with Sister Martha from the Community of St. Mary in Luwinga, and Bishop Fanuel, who is the Bishop of Malawi. If you remember, just a few years ago Mtr. Miriam, from the Convent here at the Spiritual Life Center, came here to St. Philip’s to share a new work that the Sisters in Malawi were beginning. From a tiny group of just a few sisters who had come here to the states to be trained, the Community was establishing a presence among their neighbors, and they were beginning a ministry to the children in their area, and especially to the many, many orphans in their part of Malawi, which is the sixth poorest country in the whole world. And as a church, we pledged to support that new work then, and have been supporting them, financially and in prayer, ever since then.
In the parable we read today, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a seed that starts really, really small, and then grows and grows and grows and puts out branches until all the birds of the air can come find a place to rest. That’s exactly the kind of growth at work in the ministry of these African sisters. And this is something that we are a part of, through our prayers and through the donation that we send each month as a Church. You see in the bulletin every week that we pray for the Sisters in Luwinga, Malawi, but that feels awfully foreign and far away – most of us probably would have trouble finding Malawi on a map very easily. So I want today to tell you a little bit about this work that we have the honor of supporting. (show the map: Malawi, Mzuzu, Luwinga)
The Community of St. Mary in Luwinga is still very small – besides Sister Martha there are four other sisters, one novice, and three aspirants. That’s just nine women. Keep that in mind as I tell you what they do – and I’m only giving you some highlights – I don’t even have time to tell you all that she told us about. I was stunned, listening to Sister Martha quietly and simply talk about their work.
The main mission of the Sisters, besides being a worshiping community that follows all the daily hours of prayer like our Sisters in Greenwich, is for children. One of their main ministries is to make sure the many orphans who live in their part of the country are taken care of, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Right now there are about 150 orphans that they are watching over. Sister Martha explained the reasons why there are so many orphans. The big reason is the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has devastated so much of Africa. But even without that, Malawi has suffered years of droughts that have caused widespread famine, and in such a poor country there isn’t good health care available.
Bishop Fanuel told us that just twenty years ago life expectancy in Malawi was 35 years. With UN programs and other outside help things have improved quite a lot, and the AIDS epidemic is much less of a threat than it was, but even so life expectancy today is only about 55 years – compare that to about 79 years here in America.
The Sisters find children in need of care by going from village to village and talking to the chiefs. They look for any vulnerable children, not only orphans, but children from very poor families, or children with only one parent, and they are committed to care for each child from the time they are tiny babies until they’re ready for college and beyond.
They aren’t able to house so many children, so what they do is to arrange for every child to be housed, usually with extended family, but the Sisters provide everything that’s needed for the child’s care, including clothing and food and whatever money is required for the child to attend school. I was flabbergasted to learn that what that means is that the Sisters make the clothing, even their school uniforms, and the food that they provide is the food they grow themselves – because they grow all their own food.
They keep in touch with every child, and each child comes once a month to the Convent for teaching, and so that the Sisters can get to know them better. They’ve also formed a children’s choir that sings traditional hymns, but with African instruments. And of course the Sisters have made beautiful costumes for the choir children to wear. They have built an elementary school that starts at kindergarten age to they can make sure the children are getting adequate nutrition as well as education while they are very young. Children whose families are able to pay a little help to support the school, but all other children go free.
A lot of the Sisters’ work is to make sure the children, especially the girls, are able to get an education as they grow up, because the challenges that they face are immense.
Sexual abuse is a huge problem for girls. Sometimes there is abuse in the extended family where the girls are living, and the Sisters have a place at the Convent where those girls can stay, to be safe, and to receive the counselling they might need.
Sometimes girls just disappear, because they have been sent away into forced marriages, often as young as 14 or 15 years of age.
Sometimes the extended families, who are poor themselves, will take the clothing and food and money the Sisters provide for the orphans and give them to their own children.
Drugs and alcohol are problems, as they are here, especially among the boys.
Transportation is a continual problem.
Sometimes families just refuse to allow their children to attend school at all.
And then there is the problem of the cost of higher education. It costs $50 a month per child for secondary education, and a lot more than that for college. The challenges seem impossibly huge. But the Sisters believe strongly that without education there will be very little hope for these children’s lives, or for change and improvement in the community at large. And those nine little women, by the grace of God, are making a difference, one child at a time. Sister Martha showed us a photo of a young man they sent off to college who got a nursing degree. In the picture he’s holding a baby he’s just delivered. Other young men and women have gotten degrees in agriculture or teaching, and many of them are coming back to teach the children in their villages.
Those are all signs of that kingdom life – tiny seeds that grow: one day at a time, one child at a time, by faith and an incredibly lot of hard work. Those nine holy women are praying and teaching and farming and sewing: planting the seeds of the love and joy and abundant life of the kingdom into the soil of poverty and disease and violence and death. And the kingdom is growing. And we, here at St. Philip’s, we get to be a part of that amazing work as we give what we can, and as we keep them all in our prayers. We should not take that lightly. Maybe we can give more. Maybe as individuals and as a church we can be more faithful in our prayers for the Sisters and for those children. And I have no doubt that we will see the kingdom spread out its branches even more, to provide shelter for all those in need of rest.