Iris Malawi has been going since 2002, when Heidi and Rolland Baker flew in with their bush plane to preach the Good News to the poor. Since then, 400 churches have been planted, 100 children have been brought home and nurtured by Malawian parents, 1000+ children have been educated at the Iris Primary School, and many have completed Secondary school and are now studying at a post secondary level, and the body of Christ is slowly taking root. We are located in Bangula, in the southernmost tip of Malawi, surrounded on three sides by Mozambique. The nearest city is Blantyre, which is a 2-hour drive on a good day.
As I write, we are into a very hot and dry season, where everything is brown, from the bare branches of the trees mercilessly stripped by termites, to the dry grass stalks, to the dust covered roofs of the houses. The wind feels like you just opened the oven door, licking up sweat before it has time to stick. The birds continue to sing, as they gather around even the smallest water source. After lunch, there is a lull on the base in which everyone tries to stay as still and quiet as possible, preferably stretched out on a concrete floor. Around 2, the littlest ones start to emerge, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. When the sun starts to go down, we heave a sigh of relief, as the heat subsides, and the winds lift.
Since we have been here for a long time, we know the secret of what lies hidden and dormant during this season. We know that the dead stalks belie a whole system of roots below the surface, awaiting the first heavy rain. When that first torrential downpour comes, it quickly saturates the dry ground, causing flash floods and devastation, but almost as quickly grass sprouts up everywhere. The earth sheds its dull brown rags in favour of vivid green royal robes. Tucked in among the new grass and fairly bursting out of the ground, are flying creatures of every colour, shape and size, millions of them. Where were they hiding but in the dry, seemingly dead, brown earth? The trees actually anticipate the rain. Each year, I watch as they put out fresh new leaves weeks before the rains arrive. How do they get the timing right? Even the farmers struggle to know exactly when the soaking rain will come.
As we have served here on the Iris base, seasons have come and gone. We have learned to anticipate the heat and the rain, to prepare the fields at the right time, to make sure every child has a sweater just when the weather turns cold (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit). Jesus talked about being able to anticipate the seasons in Luke 21, and he calls his followers to be attentive to what is happening in the spirit in the same way.
At Iris Malawi, our focus has been on discipleship in the family and in the church. We first set about building families where children could receive the love and care they need in order to grown into healthy, strong adults. We started with two homes and brought children home to fill them. As each home reached capacity, we built another home and found more house parents to lead them. Our house parents are key, and we take a long time waiting for the right person. At times, our houses have sat empty while we waited for God to show us wo the parents would be. When you put 12 unrelated traumatized children into a home you do not automatically get a family. It takes time to build those relationships and to help the children recover. It has been awesome to watch homes become families over the years.
With hindsight, the easier part is bringing children home, and the harder part is helping them through their teen years and into independence. Little children need hugs and soap and food and more hugs, and they begin to smile and laugh again. At the beginning, we had entire houses of little ones, and we were busy morning to night providing what they needed. But now, the season has changed. We have a few little ones, who arrive as Social Welfare sends them to us, but the majority of our ‘children’ are in their teens and early twenties. Their needs are different. They need courage to face their own brokenness, faith to walk with Jesus when others are not, integrity to carry them through stormy waters filled with jealousy and deceit.
We have ten young men and women who are in serious relationships, four of whom have chosen to marry. In an environment not conducive to faithful relationship, we need to nurture these young marriages, and call for faithfulness. We have designed a ‘wedding service’ which is inexpensive and possible for everyone. Our desire is that our Iris graduates would choose marriage where most of their peers simply move in together, and most often fall apart very quickly. We do not need fancy, we need real, honest commitment in community.
Work is very hard to find, and most of our Iris graduates will need to farm to eat.
Over the past few years, we have increased our farming activities on the base for two reasons: 1) We want to feed ourselves and become less dependent on foreign sources, and 2) we want to teach our children how to farm in this harsh geographical environment. There have been lots of side benefits. Families have worked together to produce maize, beans, sweet potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and rape. When coronavirus caused a closure of schools, we suddenly had everyone home. Our houses had children from 2 to 25 in the same room and farming provided a framework for reconnecting as a family. We also saw that farming teaches self-discipline, early rising, and a clear expectation that everyone will participate in work.
We developed a data entry business at our Skills Training Centre in order to provide work for youth in the community and on our base. Though this business looked promising at the start, it has suffered due to coronavirus, and many employees have been laid off. We look to God for creative ideas and direction for this business as it continues to function on a much smaller scale. Job creation is essential in this season.
When we dreamed of building families in Malawi, we thought about these original families on the base, but I now believe God was already seeing the young families being born right this minute, and the ones that are several generations to come. Transformation will come as husbands and wives are faithful to each other and to their children.
We have also seen this transformation among some leaders in the church. As they have learned to express gratitude to their wives and children, to serve instead of waiting to be served, and to lead in humility, they are seeing transformation in their families. When a pastor comes home from Bible school and chooses to carry his own suitcase and to greet his wife with a public hug or even a kiss, his neighbours will laugh. But, as time goes on, and he nurtures intimacy and kindness in his family, they will come with questions, and so the fire will spread.
We believe God is preparing his bride in Malawi. This is not a quick journey and it is not for the faint of heart, because God see the generations to come. He is planting seeds today that may lie dormant for now, but will eventually burst forth in vibrant colour. So, as I look out at the dry, brown land before me, I do not lose heart. At just the right time, God will bring forth the harvest.