“I’m asking Kingdom Workers if there is opportunity to continue helping other people. Together with the volunteers, you should help others as you have helped my son.” – Annia Liat, mother of a child with cerebral palsy and epilepsy in Malawi.
Three years ago her son Aubrey wasn’t able to walk, speak, or contribute to the work around the house. Like so many children with disabilities in Malawi, Aubrey was loved by his family but posed a challenge to give him proper care. Now he attends school everyday, has made hundreds of bricks to help expand his grandmother’s home, and enjoys studying math.
One afternoon in late July, I had the pleasure of spending nearly three hours with Annia and her family. Kingdom Workers sent me and our videographer (Brian) to interview various people in the program and capture their stories.
Brian and I spent two weeks shadowing the dedicated volunteers from the Lutheran Church of Central Africa, Malawi. Our brothers and sisters in faith have diligently pressed forward in their ministry to reach families who others have shunned. Disabilities in Malawi are often viewed through traditional lenses such as the belief that a disability results from one’s sin.
“Our aim is that these people should hear God’s word and understand that they are children of God. They receive salvation like anyone else. This disability ministry is so important because we read that God wants everyone to be saved. This means everyone, even the disabled,” explained Pastor Petro after a Sunday worship service where a disabled child was baptised at the Namiwa congregation.
The growing number of Lutheran volunteers are reaching out to this population to teach them of God’s love for all his creation. Along with sharing the saving comfort of the gospel, they are training these parents to use various physical therapy exercises with their children.
In America we enjoy a robust support network of doctors, therapists, and educators trained in working with people with special needs and their families. There is a full suite of resources available to help a person make progress and mark success. It isn’t the same in Malawi.
Due to social stigmas and the lack of support, many of the children in Malawian villages don’t understand how to interact with a disabled person. We visited a boy named Samuel. His cerebral palsy isolated him, and he was often badgered by the other kids. As a result, Samuel developed violent reactions when provoked. The cycle of heckling and self-defending applied to everyone around him, save his best and only friend Amos. Amos was kind to Samuel, and that gentleness was reciprocated.
One of the elements of Kingdom Workers’ ministry to people with disabilities is working with the broader community on social inclusion. The children around Samuel didn’t understand how and why he was different. As the Holy Spirit goes to work in his village, we pray that the children learn to extend grace to Samuel and any other person who is different from their normal.
As I write this, there are over 400 people with disabilities in Malawi being served spiritually and physically by about fifty volunteers. Every case is unique and presents its own challenges. Cerebral Palsy, Downs, Epilepsy, Hydrocephalus, and many other conditions illustrate the broken nature of our world. God’s people are stepping up to infuse His grace in the communities around them. It was humbling to spend time witnessing mature Christians practicing their faith. It is invigorating to see the Malawians connect the disabled to Jesus Christ. After all, as the ministry motto states, “There are no disabilities in heaven.”
MALAWI :: Margaret was born with disfigured feet that make it difficult to walk and perform daily tasks, and she cannot work. Although she can walk, she relies heavily on her family to help around her home. She has four grown children, and has been a lifelong member of her local LCCA (Lutheran Church of Central Africa) church. In addition to Sunday services, she attends the Worship at the Cross Services where she receives encouragement and support from volunteers and other members of her community who are disabled. She has drawn personal encouragement from the message that God looks at the heart, and not the outside appearance.
Reaching Malawi’s Disabled
In Malawi, being born with a disability does not mean the same thing that it means in the United States. For those living far from a city, access to medical care, special education, or physical therapy is very limited or nonexistent. Disabled Malawians also typically face negative stigma and misunderstandings from their communities. Since arriving in Malawi in early September, we have been privileged to meet and work with groups of Malawian volunteers and pastors who are trying to change that.
Four rural Lutheran congregations in southern Malawi have been utilizing training provided to Malawian lay volunteers by The Lutheran Home Association - Jesus Cares Ministry and Kingdom Workers to bring the gospel message of hope and human value to those with disabilities. Many of the disabled reached are children, and to many, the truth that Jesus loves and cares for ALL little children is new information.
As this ministry has developed, Kingdom Workers Malawi faces a unique challenge. How do we respectfully work within a community to break down harmful stigmas against the disabled that have existed for many generations? Wrestling with this question has led us to work with local and international experts to educate Malawian lay members on the causes of disabilities. When this education is not available, harmful beliefs arise as why a child was born disabled that can lead to further marginalization. Further training will equip these lay volunteers to work with the families of a disabled child to improve the at-home care given to the disabled.
Volunteers come from rural areas and are largely subsistence farmers, which means time devoted to this ministry is time away from growing food to support their households. They sometimes walk several kilometers to visit someone who can’t travel, and transportation to areas outside of walking distance can be a challenge. When the rains come, these routes can be impassable. And yet in spite of these challenges, in our short time here so far we have seen volunteers pool their money to be able to buy small, useful gifts for those they visit. We have seen them use creative ways to present bible stories so that their audience can understand. Seeing this type of local initiative is both encouraging and humbling, and a powerful testament to how God is moving through His church.
Spring 2016 :: Liana Tyrrell, Kingdom Workers Community Development Manager: Malawi
What makes a ministry locally sustainable? Part of it is empowering people to do spiritual and physical outreach in their own communities. This type of empowerment leads to more people demonstrating the gospel. That is exactly what Kingdom Workers volunteers are doing in Malawi.
In late 2015 and early 2016, groups of Malawian Lutherans from the Lutheran Church of Central Africa (LCCA) were provided with training on how to provide basic physical therapy to children suffering from physical disabilities in their communities. The program provides much needed spiritual support for these families. More importantly, it became obvious that reaching out to help our neighbor’s physical needs could be a direct link between them and the Church. In short, more could be done to fulfill Kingdom Workers’ mission statement – to address “spiritual and physical needs in communities around the world.”
Since the Malawian volunteer teams have been trained and empowered to provide home-based care to the disabled, there has been amazing results in a short time. At a recent workshop, volunteers shared the blessings they are seeing as a result of this ministry. Here are a few things they shared, in their own words:
“All the centers (teams) mentioned children who are now able to walk because of the program.”
“Personal hygiene among the children has improved so much.”
“One child has now been enrolled in school.”
“More parents are coming out on their own to bring their children with special needs to the program.”
“More people have joined the church because they say the church is practicing their faith by actually teaching and interacting with people who are marginalized in the society.”
Volunteers also shared examples of specific children who have benefited from the home based care. They told of Chikondi, a child with cerebral palsy who is now able to walk as a result of the therapy. Or Zione, a girl with Down syndrome and autism whose family was so lost on how to care for her that she had previously spent most of her time alone in a nearby forest. Now, her family has gained confidence in how to love and care for her. She now spends her days with her family instead of alone.
More work remains to be done. As the disability ministry becomes increasingly well known, more parents are coming forward with children who could benefit from the program. Each one of these children represents a family that, more than anything, needs the encouragement that their disabled child is a beloved lamb of God. Praise be to Him that the volunteers from the LCCA congregations are able to spread that message, and address physical needs while doing so.
Spring 2017 :: Dan Tyrell, Field Manager : Malawi
Aubrey is twelve years old and, like many participants of the Disability Ministry, has cerebral palsy. Until recently, he couldn't walk, talk, or eat by himself. His mom, Esther, did everything she could to take good care of her son, but was unable to work because of Aubrey's dependency. That, along with the stigma in Malawi against people with disabilities, made things extra difficult for her and her children.
When Disability Ministry volunteers arrived, Esther doubted that physical therapy could help Aubrey, but they convinced her to try. Between their weekly visits, Esther repeated the exercises with Aubrey. Slowly, he began to gain the use of his body. As therapy continued, Aubrey attended Worship at the Cross services, which provide modified worship opportunities for people with disabilities. It was there Esther learned Aubrey’s disability was not a sin. Through meeting other caretakers of people with disabilities, she began to feel less isolated.
Now, incredibly, Aubrey digs a vegetable garden for his family. He is talking and attending school, where his favorite subject is Math. Aubrey is part of the 80% of participants who now have a chance at a healthy, happy future.
Esther runs a small business selling bananas. She wants to speak out to other parents of disabled children and tell them not to isolate their children. She encourages them to attend Worship at the Cross, where over half of the people who attend feel more accepted by their community. She urges Kingdom Workers volunteers not to stop their important work among the disabled of Malawi. Aubrey gains more control of his body everyday, and the family continues to grow closer to Jesus.
Africa Programs Manager: Malawi
Community Development Manager: Malawi
New Bikes for the disabilities ministry volunteer teams. These bikes will help them reach disabled people who live far from the church or in hard to reach places. Some people served by this ministry live so far away from the teams that they can only be visited once every two or three months. The goal is to increase the amount of times they can hear a worship at the cross service and receive encouragement.
KW works closely with The Lutheran Home Association’s and local experts to train up these volunteers. The Jesus Cares Ministry is a great blessing to the soul care of disabled people in Malawi.