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Malawian pastor perseveres despite deaths of 5 children

LIMBE, Malawi (BP)–Pastor Samuel Chilokoteni drums his hand on the pulpit, keeping time to a hymn. There’s no microphone on the podium at this rural, dirt-floored church near Blantyre, Malawi. But you can clearly hear his voice above the others.
“There is power, power, wonder-working power,” he sings enthusiastically in Chewa, the main tribal language in this part of Malawi, a tiny country in southeastern Africa.
Chilokoteni, 61, is well-acquainted with God’s power. In his 20 years as a Christian — half of those as a pastor — that power has carried him through plenty of trials. The toughest of those have come during his current pastorate at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Limbe, Malawi.
The day after he moved there as pastor in 1993, one of his adult sons died. Since then four more of his grown children have died, too. All of these deaths are thought to be from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses.
But in Malawi — where the average life expectancy is just 41 years and AIDS has reached epidemic proportions — Malawians aren’t preoccupied with the cause of death. “Death is just death here,” explains an International Mission Board missionary who recently transferred from Malawi to The Last Frontier.
As a regional leader of the Baptist Convention of Malawi, Chilokoteni travels as often as he can to Malawian Baptist churches. Developing church leaders is a top priority for Chilokoteni and missionaries who work with him.
One of those leaders is Luciano Phiri, 35. Phiri met Chilokoteni about a decade ago after arriving in Malawi as a refugee from neighboring Mozambique. Phiri and his family fled their home to escape a brutal civil war.
Chilokoteni then was serving as a Baptist chaplain to Mozambican refugees who poured across Mozambique’s border into Malawi. During his nearly three years in that role, he personally led more than 4,000 Mozambican refugees to faith in Jesus Christ. Phiri is one of them.
“When he started visiting and witnessing to us, I didn’t take him seriously,” Phiri recounts. “I didn’t understand what he was doing. But finally I came to realize that what he was saying about Jesus is true, that this path is the only one to follow. So I repented and gave my life to the Lord.”
Chilokoteni helped disciple Phiri, who then began witnessing to other refugees. Later Phiri felt God’s call to be a pastor, too.
With Chilokoteni’s help and encouragement, Phiri was accepted as a student at Malawian Baptists’ Bible school. His studies there prepared him for returning to minister in his homeland in 1993 — a year after the war ended.
Since then Phiri has started four Baptist churches in Mozambique, near its border with Malawi. To reach some of them, he and fellow Baptists ride bikes about 40 kilometers each way.
He’s also working to improve his skills as a pastor. He and some lay leaders in Mozambique travel weekly across the border to attend Theological Education by Extension classes taught by Eric Laffoon, IMB missionary in Dedza, Malawi. Laffoon grew up in Tanzania, the son of IMB missionaries.
The studies have helped him see that “without God’s power, I can do nothing,” Phiri says. That’s long been an important truth for his Malawian mentor.
Just a few day before his visit with Phiri, Chilokoteni had been sick with malaria. Despite that, he found enough strength to baptize about 20 people during a service at Jerusalem Baptist. Not long afterward Chilokoteni traveled to Chilambe Baptist Church on the outskirts of Blantyre, where he baptized 75 people and another 13 received Christ.
Such blessings, of course, have come alongside more than his share of suffering. But Chilokoteni keeps it all in proper perspective.
“Some people have asked my wife and me why we’re still here,” Chilokoteni says of his grief-filled pastorate at Jerusalem church. “But we can’t run from our troubles. Troubles will always be with us. When we tell people we want to stay here to work for the Lord, it’s an encouragement to them.”
That kind of attitude encourages Chilokoteni’s colleagues in ministry, too. “I’ve learned so much from him, seeing him bury his kids, seeing how much he loves his family,” says a missionary who’s worked with him. “During [his children’s] funerals, he was so strong — like a pillar, a rock.”
But beyond all that, “he has such a heart for his people, for evangelism, missions, church starting,” the missionary adds. “He’s been a good friend. But more important than that, he’s been a pastor to me.”

    About the Author

  • Mary E. Speidel