Our Missionary Life
John Young's account of his time in world mission
Why did I get involved in World Mission? I must have grown up with a worldwide view. My parents were from Dorset but my mother had been in New Zealand for several years when she met my father who was an army teacher in India. I spent my first four years in India and when we returned to Britain our home had an international flavour. As a teenager a friend pointed me to a mission agency that worked in the Indian sub-continent and I supported it for many years but did not consider being directly involved. I worked as a laboratory technician for a few years before going to theological college in Bristol. There I became the college link with Methodist International House in Bristol where I met students from many countries. I was also advised to take, as a special option, a two year course on Religion in Africa with the Revd F. B. Welbourn. It introduced me to Africa and its religions through Uganda as a case study and gave me a greater awareness of the relationship of religion and culture.
I did not expect to work in the World Church and with my wife Hilary served in a Methodist circuit in the North East of England. The circuit was very missionary minded and I devised some simulation games for missionary meetings. These made it clear that there was a need for ministers to lend a hand in developing countries. We had thought that the need was for medical, educational and agricultural workers but realised that was a leadership shortage in many churches around the world so discussed this with some recently returned missionaries and then with Mission House in London. As a result we offered our next move to the World Church and were invited to serve in the United Church of Zambia (UCZ) probably in a widespread rural consistory/circuit around Namwala in the Southern Province. That summer (1975) we visited a family who had recently returned from Namwala and were lent Smith and Dale, a pioneer anthropological study of the Ila-speaking people of that area. By that time we had two children, David and Gillian.
Before going to Zambia we spent a term at Kingsmead College in the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham and attended a variety of lectures and seminars; theology of mission, African theology, area studies, practical matters, living issues… The principal, who noticed my interest in local history, suggested that I do some research on those lines in Africa.
We left a very cold England in January 1977 and arrived in a very warm Zambia. Instead of going to Namwala we were surprised to hear a few weeks earlier that I would be the chaplain of Njase Girls Secondary School near Choma, named after Joel Njase, the first Methodist Minister from the Zambezi Valley. Before starting there we had about ten weeks of language training/acclimatisation in the very hot Zambezi valley where we were accommodated by the German Gossner Mission led by Clem and Miriam Schmidt.
We were near Lake Kariba and the closed border with what was then Rhodesia. A guerrilla war was going on nearby with reports of incidents and though we never actually experienced any problems our relatives were anxious because maps in England showed us very close to the troubles. For language study I was given some notes and a text book, not altogether satisfactory, but providence came in because the Gossner Mission had arranged for Professor Dorothea Lehmann from the University of Zambia to come and work out a course for people learning Tonga, the local language. A female worker with Gossner and I were guinea pigs for this project. Professor Lehmann, who was familiar with Bemba, said we would be speaking Tonga after a few weeks. I had little confidence in speaking French after six years of study so was sceptical. However, she was proved right by getting us to learn, analyse and use simple phrases for such situations as meeting people at home, on the road, in the school, clinic and church and going shopping. Although the school used English this language introduction turned out to be very useful around the villages and with the school workmen and was designed in such a way as to allow continuous development.
We returned to the school for Easter and I had to work out what the chaplain’s job was about. Overall, I was in charge of the school’s religious activities. This involved arranging a Sunday service for the whole school as well as the cycle of hymns, lessons and leaders for the daily assemblies. Also, various church groups had their own meetings and I was the school’s link with them and their leaders. When we arrived the headmaster mentioned a church class and we invited some UCZ young people and others interested to come to our house on Sunday evenings.We found that they wanted to sing and pray and have some teaching so that is what we did. Some of them were very evangelistic and brought other friends along.We called it the Youth Fellowship and it grew and developed throughout our time in Zambia. We also started a service for UCZ members and shared the leadership among staff members. We were highly impressed with African singing and made a few recordings of songs and hymns.
Chaplaincy involved teaching. I found this very tiring and was glad not to have a full teaching load. The senior pupils studied Bible Knowledge for the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate. Over the years we looked in detail at 1 and 2 Samuel, Mark, Luke and Acts. Forms One to Three followed a more general syllabus which included such topics as the prayers of Augustine and St Francis, the obstacles to, and creation of, fellowship.The liminal community, a concept fresh from Victor Turner’s anthropology though originally coined by Arnold van Gennep in his 1909 Rites de Passage, also came into this syllabus. I remember discussing rites of passage with some 16 year olds. I asked what happens when someone dies and was told that one needed to find out who caused the death. When I asked ‘What if someone just dies?’ the girls looked at me as if I came from outer space saying, ‘No one ever just dies!’
My scientific background came in handy when I was drawn in to taking science and maths classes when some teachers were on leave and when the maths teacher was on leave I was asked to set out the new running track. Later on a friend was really surprised when an aerial photograph showed it to be perfectly symmetrical and the current Google Earth image shows that it is still properly proportioned! Surveying and maps are among my interests and it shows how with God nothing is wasted.
Outside the school we often went to and led services at the Interdenominational Church in Choma and made friends with people at Choma Secondary School which was run by two American denominations, the Brethren in Christ and the Pilgrim Wesleyan Church. I also visited some village congregations and on our second tour looked after the UCZ congregation at Kalomo (40 miles from Choma). They met in the Roman Catholic Church hall which the priest kindly allowed us to use. The UCZ congregation was run by capable members including the local magistrate and hoped to build their own chapel and achieved that a few years later.
At the end of 1979 we returned to the UK for home leave or furlough as it was called. Rachel, who was born in September 1977, had her first experience of Britain. We stayed most of the time with Hilary’s mother in Truro and David and Gillian went to a nearby school. We spoke to church groups in Cornwall and made a rail trip to Co Durham to report to the churches there as well as calling on friends in Birmingham. I was asked to go on deputation in Ireland and after a weekend in the north went all over the southern half of Eire; Galway, Limerick, Birr, Clonakilty… showing slides and talking about the work. I was impressed by the support of Irish Methodism for world mission and was shown many interesting sights including Gurteen College, a Methodist Agricultural College.
Back to Africa
We returned to Africa in March 1980 and stayed for a further two years. The UCZ had some records which were hard to access in a cupboard at Synod Office, Lusaka. I was delighted when the Principal of the Ministerial Training College found some funds to equip an archive room at the college and asked me to prepare the church archives. The files were moved to Kitwe and we spent the 1980 Christmas holidays there while I catalogued papers which were mainly from Methodist sources. I returned the following Easter and did some more work and made copious notes. The archives are still there and appear to have been significantly developed since my time.
The Youth Fellowship and Scripture Union groups in the Southern Province joined for meetings in term time and some members went to Camps in April and August. The latter were well attended, had good speakers and excellent fellowship and we got to know several active Christian teachers in the other schools. The YF developed as the students asked for more serious Bible study as part of the session and grew so much that we couldn’t fit them into our house. The evening would begin with a time of singing at and around our house, then dispersal to teachers’ houses and the church for Bible study groups and finally we would all gather at the church for a final prayer time. Every weekday after lunch some of the girls came come for prayer meetings which had various subjects for different days – the school, the local area, the country and other countries. The students thought I was pulling their legs when I said that the UK needed prayer and missionaries.
Clubs met weekly, usually on an afternoon and Hilary was involved in some of these; toy making, singing and Sunday School as well as taking occasional preaching services. The Sunday School teachers went out on Sunday mornings from about 0630 to sites nearby or on the edge of Choma. I started an astronomy club which met after evening prep and used a small telescope loaned by a nearby Roman Catholic seminary. At our 17 degrees south latitude we enjoyed the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri, Canopus and the Magellanic clouds. The zodiac constellations passed pretty well overhead and Scorpio was a splendid sight. About a dozen girls joined and I learned and have since forgotten African names for some of these stars and constellations; except for mulala bungu, the Milky Way and intanda, the morning star. I also inherited an evangelism club from an enthusiastic Indian minister. We studied one week and the following week shared the faith in small groups around the campus and in the surrounding homesteads.
When we arrived at Njase most of the teachers were from the West or from India. By the time we left in 1982 there were few westerners but many more Africans as graduates came from the University and teacher training colleges. Most of the South Indian teachers were from Kerala and from them we learnt a lot about Indian Christianity; the Indian Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Church and the Church of South India.
Home to the UK
We decided to return to the UK in 1982 as David was coming up to secondary school age and we did not want to split up the family by him going to boarding school. He and Gill used to go to Adastra School in Choma and would set off for school at 0700 but the advantage was that they finished by 1330 and had the rest of the day to play. Rachel had friends of her age and she and all the children enjoyed playing in the sandy ground around the school. Hilary remarked that although the children spoke various mother tongues they all laughed in the same language!
There were surprises and culture shock in going to Africa. We expected to have them and were prepared for such things but were taken by surprise by the reverse culture shock on returning to Britain. It took some time to readjust to life in Britain because we had changed in those 5½ years. The UK had changed as well so home was not as we expected.
Africa is hard to get out of the system and although I haven’t been back there in person many of my research interests over the last 30 years have involved mission history in Africa and the life and work of Edwin W. Smith (1876-1957). More recently I have gone back to thinking about Asia, perhaps as TS Eliot said ‘In my beginning is my end’.