When I first arrived in Malawi in 1988, I was appointed to be an assistant pastor to Rev Dr Saindi Chiphangwi, the Presbyterian minister in Zomba. He took a wise decision not to deploy me at the historic main church in city centre Zomba with its congregation of urban professionals. Instead, he assigned me to an out-station or prayer-house called Sadzi.
The Sadzi prayer house was located in a fertile valley just outside Zomba. It was a semi-rural area and so it introduced me to a community and church life that was much more representative of the regular Malawi context than would have been the case in town. The prayer-house had been started by a few families who were loyal Presbyterians but preferred to have an opportunity to worship locally rather than have to walk the six-mile round-trip to town every Sunday.
By the time I arrived, it counted its members in hundreds and had outgrown the simple mud-brick church building with which it had started. The big project while I was there was to build a much bigger church with fired bricks and a tin roof. The next project after that was to build a manse, which enabled it to become a full-status congregation with its own resident minister.
Returning to Sadzi today, the scene has transformed. In place of the scattered little houses, each with an acre or two of land, that I remember, there is high density housing, including many well-appointed houses, some with cars in the driveway. But by far the biggest architectural development is the building of a cathedral-like church building soaring above the surrounding community. Church life too has transformed.
Seeing the ambitious new church under construction made me think of the building of cathedrals in medieval Europe. There were some all-too-human instincts involved – each city wanting to outdo the others in the splendour of its architectural statement. But it also revealed an age of faith, that would give of its very best to provide for the worship of God. The new cathedrals arising in places like Sadzi remind us of how much we are living in an age of faith today, even though there are some sectors where faith seems almost forgotten. As we seek to find our bearings in our covid-defined reality, perhaps the people of Sadzi have something to teach us about putting first things first.