Zambia was What God Meant for Us to Find: Charles and Melissa Johnson Reflect on Life in Lundazi as Mission Co-Workers
Charles and Melissa Johnson are mission co-workers in Lundazi, a small town in the Eastern Province of the Republic of Zambia, close to the Malawi border, which is in southern Africa. They were invited to serve by the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), Synod of Zambia. They arrived in Lundazi in March 2016 and returned to the United States in June 2017 for a few months for interpretive assignment. They paid a visit to Grace Presbytery in late September, just a few weeks before their return trip to Zambia in early November. They reflected on how their lives have changed and have been enriched by their experiences.
Did we choose Zambia? I don’t think so. I think Zambia was what God meant for us to find.
When they arrived in Zambia, Charles and Melissa said it did not take long for them to realize their new life was meant to be.
“We were received with open arms,” Melissa said. “It was like a joyous celebration that these mission co-workers were arriving. We found out they had been waiting for us for five years, and during that time no one else even applied for this position that they had posted with PC(USA).”
Charles had found an agricultural development specialist position in Zambia through Presbyterian World Mission, but it took 16 months from the time they applied until the couple learned that they had been selected. During that time, Charles took online courses on community development that would enhance his business and agriculture background. Melissa studied about life in a Zambian village and learned about the culture, gender roles, and people’s interaction with the church as she tried to prepare for the likelihood of a new life in Zambia.
Melissa said, “We really feel like God created this position for us and that’s why no one else applied – we just had to find our way and realize God’s call in our lives. There were lots of things in our lives that kept us from finding it sooner, but as you know, everything is in God’s time.”
Their personal joys and struggles over the years shaped their call to service. They raised three children, including one son who was severely disabled, Holden. Charles and Melissa said that raising Holden, and then losing him, was a significant factor that led them to answer God’s call to serve. After their son’s death, the Johnsons began taking short-term mission trips to Vietnam, Peru, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These trips changed their lives forever and eventually, the Johnsons began discerning a longterm commitment. They were especially moved by their experience with children suffering from severe malnutrition in Congo. Charles wanted to use his background in farming and his degree in agronomy and Melissa knew she wanted to help, too.
“As a mom of a special needs child, I felt a strong call to work with the least of these, and I wanted to help women and children.”
Today, Melissa is a health education programs facilitator, working with the CCAP Zambia Health Department and church clinics. Melissa’s years of navigating America’s health care system with her son, Holden, provides valuable experience to her role as an advocate for the health care needs of the people in Lundazi.
Charles is an agricultural development specialist working with the ministry of community development and food security. Charles relies on his experience of growing up on a farm and working in business and agriculture. He spends much of his time facilitating the development of the Chasefu Model Farm, an agricultural project of Chasefu Theological College.
“There are challenges,” Charles said. “We as Westerners view ourselves as problem solvers and sometimes we have to remind ourselves that’s not a sustainable approach. We are there to walk with our partners, we are to help facilitate their understanding of some of their challenges, and help facilitate the process of solving some of those challenges.”
Life in Lundazi
The Johnsons are eager to get back to Zambia to continue their work and strengthening the relationships they began building with their partners.
“We were only there 15 months, and six months of that time was spent in language learning,” Melissa said. “We spent a lot of time building relationships and learning about the community’s needs, and getting to know who is working in those areas. Because the church has very limited resources, we don’t want to waste resources by duplicating services. When you’re working cross-culturally, it is sometimes hard to see results of the work you are doing; there’s not a checklist to measure what you have accomplished. That’s when we have to step back and realize that building relationships in our community and understanding its needs is often more important than a checklist of accomplishments.”
Charles echoed Melissa’s sentiments. “We had to take time to learn who the players are. We had to look for ways to collaborate.”
Both Charles and Melissa have projects waiting for them when they return to Zambia.
“A grant that the department submitted to the PC(USA) Healthy Women Healthy Families program has been approved and the department will begin work on that project in January,” Melissa said. “The grant will fund the creation of a pilot program to sew and distribute washable, reusable feminine hygiene products and to provide health education to girls and women. The health department will work with the CCAP education department and focus on the CCAP schools in eastern Zambia to provide feminine hygiene kits and education to girls in school to try to keep girls in school. The project will also teach women sewing, business and marketing skills so they can learn to sew, market the kits and provide feminine hygiene education to help improve the health of women and girls and reduce stigma throughout the CCAP congregations and communities. This will be accomplished through coordination with the CCAP Christian Women’s Guild (the Zambian version of Presbyterian Women) with the hope that the program will become sustainable and spread throughout the 15 CCAP presbyteries. I’m really excited about this project.
“In addition to that project, the department has received another grant through PC (USA) that will provide funds for malaria research programs at both clinics to hopefully find a way to reduce the high rates of malaria in those communities. There can be as many as a 1,000 cases of malaria per month at the peak of the season.”
Charles said he has a deadline when he returns to Zambia. “We will work on a grant application that supports sustainable programs through the church. That’s hard to do when we are over here. The rainy season begins in late November or early December and that’s when agriculture starts to get busy, so it’s time to get back into the swing of Zambian life.”
The Johnsons are using their five months in the United States to reconnect with family and friends and to continue to build relationships and support for their ministry work.
“On June 13, we got to Atlanta, which was our hub for two months,” Charles said. “We relocated to San Antonio around Labor Day. When we depart in November we will have visited 55 churches, presbyteries, and seminaries in 14 states. It’s important to share to our work, the work of our partner, CCAP, and the work of Presbyterian World Mission.”
The Johnsons said a big part of their visit is to raise financial support. Mission co-workers are responsible for raising their own support.
“The average cost of supporting a couple working in a team ministry like us is $138,000 per year,” Charles said. “That includes salary, housing, language study, and other costs. We hope people we meet will prayerfully consider helping us both with prayers and also financially.”
“We hope people will join us in this partnership,” Melissa said. “We encourage them to learn about Zambia and our partner, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), Zambia Synod. What is really wonderful is that some people have been writing to us. We had some cards and letters from kids in a Sunday school class; remembering us, praying for us, loving us. We cannot tell you how encouraging it is to receive those cards and letters.”
“We are grateful to Grace Presbytery for allowing us to speak at the stated meeting in September,” Charles said. “It gave us a chance to meet people and connect. We are thankful for the opportunities to spread the word about the work God has called us to in Zambia and we hope people will become involved in whatever way they feel called.”
Keep up with Charles and Melissa Johnson by reading their blog, “Life in Lundazi”:
Read more about the Johnsons on the Presbyterian World Mission website:
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