Imagine standing in an open field without a tree in sight. All around, the wind kicks up loose dirt, sending it flying into your eyes. The unrelenting sun beats down, making you even more uncomfortable. Garry and Ruth Prieb and five Fresno Pacific University students faced these conditions June 29-July 13, 2017, on a mission to serve refugees in the Dzaleka United Nations Refugee Camp in Malawi, Africa.
The students all felt God called them to this mission. Some had always known they wanted to go on mission trips while others were unsure. In the end they were all glad they took this unique chance.
“I figured, why not take this opportunity to not only experience another country and mission but to learn firsthand about what refugees face?” says student Breyona Midgett, a senior from Fresno majoring in kinesiology.
The warm heart of Africa
Malawi is a small country located in southeast Africa, bordered by Zambia on the northwest; Mozambique on the east, south and west; and Tanzania on the northeast. People flee to this peaceful nation in the thousands from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and other nations, seeking refuge from conflicts.
The FPU Office of Spiritual Formation organized the trip to Dzaleka, the largest refugee camp in Malawi, with 33,000 people from 10 countries crowded into 2.5 square miles. The refugees had experienced numerous atrocities before coming to Malawi, hoping to find peace. It seems that they came to the right place, for as Garry Prieb learned, locals refer to Malawi as “the warm heart of Africa.”
Prieb knows the region well, growing up in a Mennonite Brethren missionary family in DR Congo before becoming a pastor, church planter and head of a missions organization. A 1971 graduate of Fresno Pacific and 1984 graduate of what is now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, Prieb joined the FPU Advancement Staff in 2008 as director of church relations, retiring in 2016. Garry’s wife and trip co-leader, Ruth, is a nurse.
The group began with children’s ministry, showing the love of Christ to 120 young people ages 4-12. Covered in dirt and some suffering from disease, 50 children came to Christ while the FPU team was there. When the group moved to youth ministry, instead of participating in activities and games, the youth wanted to share their stories and talk about what life was like in the camp.
One man from Tanzania shared his story of leaving the militia to protect his family. His parents and brother were killed, and he went on the run, fleeing from country to country. The militia found him one night and beat him almost to death, but he managed to keep running and made it to the refugee camp.
A highlight for Prieb was teaching on trauma. The refugees told him that they had all been traumatized before arriving at the camp, and then “re-traumatized” afterwards.
“Their houses burned down, [they experienced] inter-tribal fighting wherever they had been, their families decimated, parents killed…they come to this refugee camp and they’re traumatized all over again because they are seeing the same people that were killing their parents,” he says. Moreover, many have been at the camp for over 10 years and have made unsuccessful attempts to move to countries overseas. This leaves them feeling very hopeless, according to Prieb.
Both students and refugees benefited from the mission. Michael Thompson, a Fresno senior majoring in biblical and religious studies, was given opportunities to preach. For two days in a row, he shared the gospel in a village known for the practice of animism, polygamy, sorcery and Satan worship. Over the course of that time, 50 people came forward, renounced those ways and came to Christ. From the five places that the team visited, a total of 400 people came to Christ, and today local pastors continue to lead spiritual growth classes.
From refugee to church planter
One of those local pastors is a man named Safari. Once a refugee in Dzaleka Camp himself, he has planted 33 churches in Malawi. Prieb asked Safari to cultivate the seeds the FPU team planted, to put roots into the new believers and help them grow.
“They have to become strong Christians…so when the winds or the waves of various things come along, they won’t fall away,” Prieb explains. Thompson calls Safari an amazing leader.
The team encountered more than people in need of ministry. Intercultural major Samantha Witt and other female students got a real taste of another land, coming face-to-face with an elephant on their way to the dining room. The animal was being chased from a pool and was just as terrified as they. It took a couple steps toward them with a panicked expression, then retreated without causing harm. The shaken young women made it to the dining room, encountering only a warthog on the rest of the way.
“The group of girls I was with and myself were all scared to death. I saw my life flash. It is a cool story to tell now, but it was one of the most terrifying moments of my life,” admits Witt, a sophomore from Vista, California.
In the end, Thompson felt he learned more than he taught during the trip. Preaching without a lesson plan and other experiences increased his faith, made him rely on the Holy Spirit and realize how faithful and loving God is, always providing his people with what they need.
The team also learned not to judge the Africans’ by their lack of wealth and possessions.
“A lot, myself included, think…Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world; we’re so progressive and so literally rich in comparison to this poverty-stricken country, that we’re going to go in and we’re going to teach them a lot of things. In reality, I was taught so many things,” Thompson says.
Most important was not what the team did, but the relationships that they made on the trip. They now have faces and emotions, and even a few ongoing internet contacts, to connect with Malawi. Seven people’s two-week trip brought new hope and life to a grim place, and that hope and life are still spreading through the rest of Malawi like a fire.
By Francesco Parisi