Making a difference in Malawi

Adirondack Christian Fellowship Pastor Rick Cohen, far right, talks with the children being helped by the Calvary Feeding Center in Bangula, Malawi. Cohen’s congregation has partnered with a church in Connecticut to help provide food to the local people as well as tending to their spiritual and educational needs.

Pastor Rick Cohen felt if he was to understand the plight of the people of Malawi, he had better see for himself what was going on.

His Adirondack Christian Fellowship, a small church housed within an office complex in Wilton, had been sending a parishioner to help with a couple of projects, but Cohen knew it was time to get a personal perspective.

Cohen’s daughter, who had just finished nursing school, went first. She came back overwhelmed by the needs of the people dealing with poverty, AIDS and a lack of food, clean water and education.

“I said to her, ‘So, what do you think?’ She said, ‘Dad, you need to go,’” Cohen recalled.

That was 10 years ago. This summer, Cohen completed his 15th trip to the African nation.

As partners with Calvary Chapel in Southbury, Connecticut, the local church addresses certain needs in Malawi. They focus on evangelism, providing Bibles to Malawian pastors and feeding some of the country’s youngest citizens, many of whom have been orphaned as their parents were wiped out by the AIDS epidemic.

These missions have thus far been supported by the two congregations, but Cohen said, they can’t be sustained without the help of others. One church came forward, unsolicited, to donate $4,000. Most of the money was used to buy goats and pigs for a husbandry project. The church supports Cohen’s Bible mission and travel expenses, but his wife, Gayle, pays her own way.

Cohen hopes people will donate money to buy more textbooks for students and teachers in the high school, as most of the formal schooling ends after grammar school.

“The need is far beyond the scope or ability of our church to assist. Yet for a few hundred dollars, a school that has next to nothing can be changed dramatically. We feel we can be a conduit,” he said.

Cohen’s first trip to Malawi came at the end of 2004. He discovered grandparents, uncles and aunts who were raising their own children and those of relatives in their extended family. Orphanages are chronically short of financial support, Cohen said, and people told him they needed feeding centers to help ease the burden on their own families.

The two churches established the Calvary Feeding Center in Bangula, where one or two meals a day is provided to about 140 children and 20 seniors.

On other trips, Cohen and other church members visited schools and found teachers without educational materials. Gradually, the congregations began buying books for the kids they supported at the feeding center.

Cohen usually visits Malawi for two to three weeks at a time, sometimes taking with him teams of five to six people from his church or the Connecticut congregation. He said he listens to people and tries to help, but also sets boundaries so they take responsibility for improving their own situation.

“Instead of saying, ‘We want to build an orphanage,’ We said, ‘What would work for you that helps you?’ They told us a feeding center that would help provide food. By giving them guidance spiritually and showing them in a way that we do not act oppressive to them, we’re not power-hungry. We try to include them in decision-making, even with the money we give. We are both giving leadership and also hearing from them,” Cohen said.

Cohen and his wife, Gayle, traveled by themselves on the most recent trip and returned in mid August. They visited and taught at a 300-church conference and Cohen taught at a pastors’ conference. They visited the Calvary Feeding Center and brought educational materials and games of Uno for the children. They traveled to other areas and handed out Bibles and checked on pigs donated for an animal husbandry project.

Ed Joss of Wilton has joined Cohen on two trips, in 2009 and 2011. He said he believes with each successive trip the two congregations are building relationships with the people.

“I’ve seen kids grow up into young men in just the way they present themselves but they teach us, too. You go and you’re the one that really gets blessed,” Joss said.

Cohen gauges the program’s impact by the leadership of the local people.

“We’ve seen servant leadership develop, we’ve seen decision-making and integrity raised. We’ve seen people read better. We’ve seen children who are being cared for be changed from being in rags and dirty faces all the time to being cared for, although I’m not saying it’s perfect now,” he said.

Most importantly, Cohen is seeing results without his direct involvement anymore.

He believes much work is left to be done in Malawi and he never knows if he has made his last trip there. A lot will depend on the financial generosity of others.

“Our hope is somebody will hear about what we do and realize that they could help, whether they cared about the spiritual side or not,” Cohen said.

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