by John Coutts
It still seems surreal to me as I look back on our recent visit to Africa. We were sitting under a tent canopy, to keep us out of the hot sun, and there was a warm African wind whipping up gritty red clay dust devils all around us. Here we were 7,850 miles from home while small, freshly scrubbed Malawian children in their Sunday best cloths sat on our laps, playing with our cameras and taking pictures with our cell phones and asking for treats.
The thing that I couldn’t help but notice was that we came this far bringing school supplies, dresses and candy treats for these kids but most of them who were wearing shoes had no shoelaces. I couldn’t get over the fact that something as simple and inexpensive to us as Americans as shoe laces could be such a rare commodity, unbelievable.
I am 54, and I grew up and attended school in Fort Washington, one of 10 children; ours was a busy home. My father, Skip Coutts, was an excellent carpenter, working since the age of 17 for B. F. Gotwals in nearby Flourtown. His company was well known and respected throughout the region, and they focused most of their remodeling and restoration work in the elegant homes in Chestnut Hill. Dad would eventually take over ownership of the company and kept running it until the age of 80.
My mother, Bettie Coutts, had her hands full raising five sons and five daughters and caring for both grandmothers. Today’s perception of the envied “stay-at-home mom” has no comparison; hers was a tireless daily grind. Bettie’s days were hectic, but she relied heavily upon humor in order to maintain her sanity.
Thankfully, my mother is a natural comedian. It saved her on many occasions. Unlike the current trend in parental ambitions for their offspring, the finest schools followed by lucrative careers, my mother’s main hope and prayer for all her children was simply that they find happiness in life.
I am a general contractor and have been self-employed for the last six years. About 30% of my work is in Philadelphia are the rest in the suburbs. Three years ago I was remarried to Debi Coutts, an elementary school teacher at New Hanover Elementary School in the Boyertown school district. I had been living in Lansdale for 26 years but now live in rural Barto, Berks County.
I was raised Roman Catholic and attended St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Ambler while growing up. I had not been very active in the Catholic Church and changed my denomination to Methodist when I moved to the country. I have been attending New Hanover United Methodist Church (NHUMC) in Gilbertsville for the last three years. It has about 1500 active members and a very busy missions program in the U.S. and overseas.
Last year the church embarked upon missions to Guatemala, Malawi and Lexington, South Carolina. The church’s youth program also works in the Pottstown area. This past August five members of our church, my wife and myself included, traveled to Malawi, Africa, to witness the dedication of a girls’ orphanage home built with the donations contributed by our congregation from last Christmas’ pledge drive.
Our church missions department has been involved with the citizens of Malawi, Africa, for six years. Five years ago money was raised to construct a boys’ orphanage home in Malawi. The need for a facility for disadvantaged girls in this area of Malawi has been a pressing issue for several years. Through the generosity of the members of our church, $65,000 was raised at last year’s Christmas pledge drive in a few weeks. Before the money was even produced, the residents and other ministries in Malawi were making the bricks for the orphanage by hand and had begun the construction of the building’s foundation.
This Malawi mission trip consisted of 10 people from various Christian denominations. There were five members from NHUMC: Gene Niconovich, President/CEO of CarSense, Inc. of Greater Philadelphia, and his wife Nancy Niconovich, a retired microbiologist; Kelly Donlon Hoy, a writer and blogger; Debi Coutts, a second grade teacher at New Hanover Elementary School, and myself.
Also on the trip were Marsha Harris, a recently retired federal employee and Director of Missions at the First Presbyterian Church of Moorestown, NJ; Barbara H. Seiple, a nurse at Jefferson Medical College; Joanne Hankins, of Flemington, NJ., who completed six mission trips to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and six mission trips to Haiti thru “Haiti Outreach Ministries;” Margaret Wooten, Director of Special Projects at Urban Promise International and the only one in the group who had ever been to Malawi; and Teresa Wooten, Margaret’s mother.
The area we visited is in the suburban area of Lilongwe, capital city of Malawi. The group “Youth Care Ministries,” directed by Gibozi Mphanzi, was behind the development of the boys’ and girls’ homes financed and dedicated by our church. There is an urgent need to house children in this area due to the high mortality rate in Malawi from AIDS and other diseases that have left many youths without parents. (Malawi has one of the lowest life expectancy rates on the planet, 39 years for women and 37 years for men.)
The newly built, “Safe Haven,” which can accommodate up to 20 girls, home sits near the boys’ home built six years before, also financed by NHUMC. We were on hand for its benediction and blessing ceremonies. We weren’t there to aid in the construction, but we were there to be witnesses to the plight of this nation that is said to be the poorest in the world.
Malawi is famously referred to throughout the African continent as “The warm heart of Africa” due to the friendly nature of its citizens. These are beautiful and warm hearted people. If one wants to experience them, the trip will cost about $2,000 a person, plus $600 for the week’s expenses. Our flight took about 20 hours, an uncomfortable amount of time to be cooped up in a plane.
When we approached our church’s head pastor, Dave Lewis, about such an expensive mission trip, he said, “There is a mission trip planning to leave in August, two months away, and the tickets are being purchased this very day for eight people. Why don’t you just go?”
“How will this be financed?” we asked, and he told us that if God meant for it to happen, it would happen. We then began a letter campaign, asking people to pledge money for this cause. It worked because through the generous contributions of church members and friends, we had the opportunity to go on this amazing journey.
Overall the experience was a positive one. We met a people with an amazing capacity to persevere under very trying conditions yet seeming content and positively exuding happiness. As a Christian I left Malawi feeling that what material wealth the people lacked was far outweighed by the richness of their character and the strength of their faith. In comparison, we are a nation rich in material wealth and resources but are poor in our faith with our God. We could learn a lot from a people who struggle each day since every day of difficulty places them closer to the care and protection of God.
— To be continued