Founded on Rock: Mozambique Mission

July 25-August 12, 2012

by Linda Miller

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” Matthew 7.28-29

When Leah and Dave Preston gave a “Moment for Mission” about their plans to build a church in Macia, Mozambique, I felt a call to volunteer. Mozambique is a Portuguese-speaking country, and I have studied the language since graduate school. Having just retired from Queens University of Charlotte, I decided to challenge myself. Building a church in an impoverished African country was just that! While I could use my rusty Portuguese, I had no building skills! That had been made abundantly clear to me in previous PPC mission trips to Georgia, John’s Island,  and Hurricane, WV. However, on those trips I learned that there are always tasks to be done, such as picking up roofing debris on the ground while others build the roof.

I flew to Johannesburg, South Africa, with the youngest member of our team, Katie, from another Presbyterian church. PPC members Heather Preston and Danielle Kunkleman had arrived ahead of us. Leah Preston gave all four of us a huge treat: a tour of Kruger National Park and nearby natural attractions. The long day we spent in the park yielded sightings of the “Big Five” animals everyone wants to see (lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros), plus many others.

After we enjoyed that experience of a lifetime, we got down to work. We joined Dave Preston and other team members in Nelspruit and crossed into southern Mozambique. The paved road gave way to a sandy track through the countryside, where we passed sugar cane fields and cattle walking by the road with their herders. Arriving in Macia, we drove to the campus of Volta a Biblia, a Bible college training Mozambican ministers. They lived there with their families while attending school. We rented one building with five dormitory-style rooms. Leah and Dave stayed in their camper trailer, an amazing contraption that opened up in several directions, as we all pitched in to get things set up. We had the use of a dining hall–shared with some of the many chickens and geese that roamed the campus. Supplies were unloaded, stored, and locked in one of the five rooms. Across a sandy, tree-shaded yard stood a shower building with five separate stalls. Students built wood fires each evening to heat the water. Each day when we returned from the worksite we appreciated those hot showers!

On our first of eleven construction days, Heather and I estimated the church would be approximately the size of our sanctuary. It is on a raised foundation, and measures 50 by 100 feet. It is twelve feet up to the eaves, with three double doors, twelve windows, and a cross made of glass blocks set into the wall behind the alter.

Church members formed teams of volunteers to work at the site; a different team came each day. We met them in the adjacent, original church, a small chapel with a leaky roof populated by bats. We began each day with devotionals in Portuguese, Changana (the ethnic language of southern Mozambique), and English. The women enjoyed singing and dancing, and we tried to join them. I was pleased to hear at least one alto voice.

As work began on the first day, a machine pounded down the sand filling the foundation. Dave and the other men on our team brought survey equipment to make sure the foundation was level because if it weren’t, there would be a problem when the roof trusses went up. All the columns had to be measured, made level, and built up to where a beam would be placed. Supplies of sand, small rocks, larger rocks, concrete blocks, cement, and rebar were delivered to the church. Women took charge of the sand and rock piles. I worked with others to move the concrete blocks to where they would be used for the columns and walls. They were heavy!

Building the columns was a major task in the first week, which involved cutting and positioning rebar, surrounding it with concrete blocks, and pouring cement in the middle. Leah was a master at fastening the rebar and pouring in the cement!

Placing and pouring floors in blocks was another major part of our task. I worked on placing the wooden planks serving as borders for pouring each section; this had to be measured carefully to make sure the floor would be level. We tried to block out two sections each day, working slowly toward a total of 48. Churchwomen filled wheelbarrows with rocks and brought them into the church. This was heavy labor, made even tougher by the deep, loose sand of the site. Wide boards were laid to keep the wheelbarrows from sinking. After the rocks were dumped into the floor section, we placed a wire grid, and finally the women brought more wheelbarrows filled with concrete. Danielle, Heather, and Katie became masters at smoothing the surfaces. This was done in a checkerboard pattern beginning in the center.

My Portuguese turned out to be useful because Dave (whose missionary work required fluency in Portuguese) had to leave the site frequently to get supplies. I helped translate when work site issues had to be explained, but what I especially enjoyed was visiting the sand and rock piles to chat with the women.

The concrete block walls went up between the columns, with spaces for the doors and windows. On the fifth workday, I helped assemble scaffolding; they had adjustable bases to stabilize them in the sand.  This was important as the walls rose and scaffolding was put in place to pour a beam. After that, more concrete blocks and a ring beam to support the roof trusses and roof, the latter tasks scheduled for the four weeks after the girls and I left.

This church went in with a neighboring community to finance a well and a pump. The church buys water from them to fill their cistern. At the end of every day women cleaned the tools with water raised from the cistern.

Churchwomen were the backbone of this project! They did the heavy lifting. The most dramatic illustration of their strength and endurance came when the parts for the roof trusses and roof arrived in a big truck that promptly sank in the sand just off the paved highway, far from the church. Women worked from afternoon into the night carrying the roofing through the sand track to the chapel. Each long piece was carried by three women, and when they reached the door, Katie helped them ease the piece down to put inside. It was too heavy for me to be of any help at all. It was so dark I could not see them until they reached the church.

Getting to talk, sing, and work with the women of this church in Macia was the highlight of my experience in Mozambique. At midday, the women gathered in a clearing and cooked manioc (a starchy root vegetable) in pots of salted water for lunch. When they learned that I like papaya, they brought me some. Leah explained that once people know what you might like, they give it to you as a gift. Getting to know these amazing women was truly a gift.

Try not to laugh! One of my favorite places at our lodging was the outhouse, which people there call a “drop pit.” Again, we had all the comforts of home, albeit a rustic one, including a raised seat and the toilet paper we had brought.  Every night I walked with my flashlight behind the buildings and past the chicken and geese coops to the drop pit. The reason for my enthusiasm was the amazing view of the Milky Way; in a land with total nighttime darkness, the sky puts on a light show! I never saw or heard a jet cross the sky. When the full moon appeared, the white sand glowed and the trees cast shadows. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and at night the temperature dropped as low as 39 degrees. I borrowed a spare sleeping bag for extra warmth.

Our two weeks flew by, and Heather, Danielle, Katie and I departed, as the next team would arrive to continue the six-week project. Unintentionally, I brought home an African souvenir: a sand flea called chigoe (tunga penetrans). What I thought was a puncture wound with a round yellow hole on the sole of my left foot turned out to be a mother flea that had burrowed in and laid her eggs. My family physician got a kick out of that! He used his scalpel to extract some remains (eggs must have hatched earlier) for the lab, which made the diagnosis. The site healed with no problems; the flea is not a parasite. As I investigated on the Internet, photos revealed people whose feet had scarring around the toes from many infestations, and I realized I had seen parishioners with feet like this.

The Presbyterians of Macia live in a land of sand, but they built their church on a rock of faith and hard work. I was blessed to play a small part in their effort.