From Gilbert to Mzuzu, with love

Small rural church in SC steps out on faith to fund school in African village

By Jessica Connor

GILBERT—What happens when you mix God, a village in Africa and one rural South Carolina congregation who opened their hearts to the Spirit?

At least for the people of Kabanda village, outside Mzuzu, Malawi, you get a brand-new school and a place to worship the Lord who made it all happen, courtesy of the willing souls at Pond Branch United Methodist Church, Gilbert.

Propelled by a firm call to help their Christian neighbors 8,000 miles away, Pond Branch collected more than $20,000 to build a school for villagers outside Mzuzu ”a staggering amount for a rural, sometimes-struggling church like Pond Branch. Most of the money was donated in just one month s time.

It was just an immediate response: we have to help, and this is something we can do, said Charlene Dunbar, chair of the missions committee at Pond Branch, who brought the idea to her congregation after a visit there in January 2013.

Construction is going on now, and they hope the school will be complete in May.

From a well to a church to a school

It all started when the Rev. John Culp, pastor of Virginia Wingard Memorial UMC, Columbia, found out his infant granddaughter Reagan had cancer. Culp decided to dig a well for the people of Mzuzu, Malawi, in Reagan s honor; Reagan, 3, is now a survivor.

Later, churches throughout the Columbia District of the UMC chipped in funds and took aid to Malawi one step further, together building Mzuzu UMC.

Pond Branch was one of the churches that helped build the church, and the response from the congregation was far more than Pond Branch pastor the Rev. Michael Bingham anticipated.

John Culp was trying to get each church in the district to give $500 to help raise the money, and when I brought that up to church council, someone said, ˜How about you take up a love offering instead of us writing a check? Bingham said. We raised just under $1,200, far exceeding it, which kind of shocked everyone.

After all, Pond Branch is a small church with limited funds, and at the time, money was extremely tight.

When a team was sent in January 2013 to witness the building of Mzuzu UMC, Pond Branch sent two of its own: Dunbar and her teenage daughter, Jordan.

While they were there, Dunbar got to see something that horrified her: a tiny school on the outskirts of Mzuzu, with unfired clay bricks for walls (fired bricks are extremely expensive in Malawi), a dirt floor and an unsteady roof with a log and some timbers jammed up trying to hold it in place over the children s heads.

It was just falling apart, Dunbar said.

Yet the school was thriving despite this. Eager children gathered around their teacher, who only had what would be the equivalent of a second-grade education in the U.S., learning facts and figures by rote because they had no school supplies beyond a tiny chalkboard and a stick used to draw concepts in the dirt floor.

It touched her heart.

We got to meet these children, and they were precious, Dunbar said. They just wanted to come up, hold your hand, walk around with you, and we just felt this was maybe what we were meant to do.

God s plans

Back in the U.S., Dunbar and Jordan took the Mzuzu School Project to their church. At first, they thought they were just going to raise money to help build a roof for the school.

But God had other plans. The building was disintegrating because of the unfired bricks, which would crumble as soon as Malawi s rainy season hit.

They needed to replace the whole school. The total estimated cost? $10,000.

For a church of their size and finances, $10,000 was a huge amount, Dunbar said, But our mission team at our church decided to put our faith in God that the money could come in and we would commit to taking this on.

It became a church-wide commitment.

Pond Branch member Ann Amick was one of those people who became integrally involved in the effort ”something that astonished Amick herself, who said she d never had an interest in international missions before.

But again, God had other plans. Soon, he would open Amick s eyes and heart in a way that would utterly transform her and the Mzuzu School Project forever.

At a presentation in church one Sunday, Dunbar showed members a photo of a Mzuzu child holding a pet rock and a string ”his only toys in the world.

It is the most captivating photo, and it became almost a haunting in my heart and mind, Amick said. I said ˜Let it go; there are so many people in need. You try to talk yourself out of it.

But then several weeks passed, and Amick started waking up at 3 and 4 a.m. with the Mzuzu School Project on her mind, wondering how her church would be able to raise that much money for the children.

I kept saying, ˜Lord, I m not part of the missions team, I don t have to be concerned about the fundraiser. I didn t know what in the world was happening to me; I didn't have a connection, Amick said. But that picture of the child kept coming back into my mind.

After several mornings, God did His work, showing Amick the church needed to have a fundraiser. They would sell Mzuzu School Project Building Blocks in memory of or in honor of someone.

Pond Branch meanwhile had adopted Ephesians 2:19 as their missions Scripture: Now; therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens with the saints and the household of God.

Their household extended to Mzuzu, Amick said: We are responsible for the little ones ”not just the neighbor, but those miles away.

It was approaching Christmastime when the fundraiser was rolled out, but even Amick was surprised at the magnitude of success. The fundraiser brought in about $18,000 ”far more than Amick ever imagined.

The first Sunday of December I was standing before the congregation asking, Amick said. The last Sunday I was standing before them literally crying because the goal had been met and then some.

Evidence of God at work

It wasn t only the building block funds that helped the school. Children at Pond Branch got involved, too, filling medicine bottles with quarters that they would dump into a big collection box each Sunday. It became a learning experience, with children taking home photos of their Mzuzu brothers and sisters.

The children coming every Sunday with their medicine bottles filled with quarters was a huge testimony to everybody
, Dunbar said.

By December, they had more than double the cost of the school construction.

Culp said the way Pond Branch stepped up to follow God s call ”from the children to the adults ”signifies the church s commitment to faith, as well as the connectionalism that defines the UMC.

We plant one seed and follow the dots, and everything just kind of connects when you ve got love and faith, Culp said, calling the Gilbert-Mzuzu connection modern-day mission work. It shows that we are global Christians helping Christians 8,000 miles from here. ¦ I think it s neat that a small church in South Carolina can make such an impact on a small community in Mzuzu.

Bingham said evidence of God at work shone throughout the entire process ”not only the way God spoke to Amick and the way the church responded financially, but in the timing. Shortly after Christmas, just after Pond Branch learned they had raised more than two times what was needed for the school construction, Bingham received an email: there had been a devastating storm in Mzuzu that blew the original roof off the school; could Pond Branch send some money now?

We believe God moved in our hearts to answer their prayer before they lifted it: not only can we help you, but go build it! It s bought and paid for! Bingham said. This is astonishing.

Dunbar agreed: God knew what was going to happen to that school and He d already made provision to take care of it.

Greatly needed

Initial funds reached the village in mid-February, and the bricks have been fired for the foundation. Dunbar said Pond Branch plans to send her and Jordan, now 17, to dedicate the building and celebrate when it is complete in May. In addition to a school, the building will also serve as a place for villagers to worship on Sundays.

With the extra funds raised, Dunbar and the team hope to take books and other school supplies to the village. Eventually, they hope to fund a vacation Bible school or other educational assistance.

The teacher has a piece of chalk she draws on the floor with, and a stick and one tiny chalkboard; that's all she has ”no desks or chairs; they all sit on the floor, Dunbar said.

Extra school supplies would give the teacher additional means of working with the children, which is greatly needed, Dunbar said. In Malawi, the education system is limited; elementary schools are typically the only education children receive. There are few preschools, and when children reach age 14, they have to pay to go to school. Most cannot afford this, so they drop out; many girls get married after age 14.

Getting this early education is going to be critical for these kids, Dunbar said.

Anyone who wishes to learn more about the Mzuzu School Project or help in any way should contact Dunbar at 803-685-5707 or [email protected] .

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