In Which I Am Lost and Found and Saved

David Plotz in Africa

In Which I Am Lost and Found and Saved

David Plotz in Africa

In Which I Am Lost and Found and Saved
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 24 2003 4:06 PM

David Plotz in Africa

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Martin preaches the gospel over pizza
Martin preaches the gospel over pizza

So I was supposed to spend last night in Zimbabwe throwing back beers in the bar of the Meikles Hotel in Harare, swapping world-weary stories with other reporters, scheming up devastating questions to fire at Robert Mugabe when he meets with us on Friday.

Instead, I found myself in a ranch house on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, listening in wonderment as a faith-healing, blood-and-fire-and-thunder Pentecostal preacher, Pastor Martin Thom, tried (and failed) to rescue me from damnation.

Martin tells me the Lord sent me to him. Perhaps, but the immediate culprit is Air Zimbabwe. I had planned my trip so that I would see Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. I wanted to compare their miseries. (Eleven million people are going hungry in Ethiopia because nature does not permit the country to feed itself. Six million people are going hungry in Zimbabwe because one man would rather destroy his nation than relinquish power.)

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To get me to Harare on the right day, the World Food Program booked me on connecting flights from Addis Ababa to Entebbe to Lilongwe to Harare. But when my Ethiopian Airlines plane taxies to the Lilongwe terminal Thursday afternoon, my heart sinks: no Air Zimbabwe plane. The airline never bothered to send it—"mechanical problems."

On the bus taking us the 15 yards to the terminal, a young man next to me asks if this is my first time in Malawi. (At that moment, but no longer, I find it inconceivable I could ever have a second time in Malawi.) I say that it is, and we start to talk. He's wearing a purple-and-yellow flowered shirt. He has a square face, the shadow of a goatee, and a big, gaptoothed smile. But mostly he has an astonishing voice. It is not that loud or deep, but it seems to vibrate.

He tells me his name is Martin Thom, that he is 29 years old, and that he is a Pentecostal preacher returning home after a two-week prayer meeting in Uganda. I tell Martin that my connecting flight had been canceled, and he immediately offers to take me home with him. "I have a clean house, a safe house," he says. "I believe that the Lord has sent you to us for a reason."

At customs, the entire immigration staff of the airport—half a dozen men—gathers around me, astonished at my naiveté: How could anyone actually expect to make a connection on Air Zimbabwe. The Air Zimbabwe agent, Titani, is charming and apologetic. The soonest she can get me to Harare is Friday night, by flying to South Africa in the afternoon, then back up to Zimbabwe. I am stuck in Malawi for the night. An Indian family that lives in Malawi has also been bumped off Air Zim. The patriarch laughs when I tell him how annoyed I am. "This is Africa, man. You can't plan. You take your passport, and then you bounce."

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So I bounce. I figure that a generous evangelical pastor will make far better company than hotel television, and so I ask Martin if I can crash with him. He is thrilled.

At this point I ought to stop and provide a detailed briefing on Malawi: key political parties, population of major urban areas, critical exports. But I can't. I have prepared to go to Zimbabwe. I'm ashamed to say that when I arrive in Lilongwe all I know about Malawi is this: It is a long, thin country next to a long, thin lake. It is very, very, very poor, with shocking HIV rates and widespread hunger. Its capital, apparently, is Lilongwe. It used to be a British colony called Nyasaland. It became independent at some point in the '60s and had the same president from independence till the mid-'90s, Hastings Banda. He was notable for being both extremely short and extremely tidy.

Martin calls a friend to ask him to pick us up, hands out inspirational books to the airport security guards, and then begins to tell me his life story—pausing frequently to read me passages from his King James Bible. Like many born-again Christians I've met, Martin views his life as a tale of sin and redemption. He was born to a poor family in a village of Northern Malawi. His parents divorced when he was 3 days old, so his mother named him Mabvuto—"Troubles"—because of all the pain he had caused. His grandmother raised him and changed his name to Martin, after a British missionary she liked. The grandmother brewed and sold sorghum beer to support herself.

"I grew up, and oh I was very bad, so very bad. I was drinking, smoking marijuana. There were women. I was demonic." Then, at age 16, the Lord came to him, and he was born again. He got a job at an insurance company but spent most of his time spreading the gospel. He preached on the street, on buses, in prisons. In 1998 he married an accountant named Leah—also Pentecostal—and she had a son last year. He's named Chrein—Greek for "The Anointed One."

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Last spring, Martin quit his job to gather his own flock: the Eleventh Hour Labourers Ministry. He rented out halls and ran advertisements in the paper. Now he has 100 people in his congregation. "Next year, 3,000," he vows. Every Friday night, the congregation prays from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., beseeching God to end the sinfulness that has brought HIV and poverty and corruption to Malawi. He's trying to buy six acres in Lilongwe to build the church, but so far the congregation has raised only one-quarter of the $4,000 down payment. He's not discouraged; "We know the Lord will find a way."

In the meantime, his group's prayers are accomplishing much more than real-estate deals. "I have healed HIV and cancer. I have stopped men from using drugs and drinking beer. That is the power of the Lord's blessing." He tells me that the church's prayers stopped a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Malawi's current president to extend his term indefinitely. (The president is a Muslim named Bakili Muluzi. Martin despises him and worries about the increasing power of Malawi's small Muslim minority.) "We prayed all night that he would be defeated, and the Lord blessed us that day—by three votes."

After 45 minutes the question comes that always comes: "Are you Christian?" When I say, "No, I'm Jewish," Martin nearly falls out of his chair. He grabs my hand and shakes it. "Oh, the Lord has blessed us. A Jew! David, I am so full of love for you. So, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah?"

"No," I answer.

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"But you will, my friend! A Jew—you know I too am a Jew. I too am a son of Abraham."

Martin, Faith, and Peace
Martin, Faith, and Peace

Around then, Martin's friend and his wife finally arrive in a little red Suzuki. She is plump and pretty and elegantly dressed. He is small and has a friendly face. "My name is Faith," she says. "And my name is Peace," he says. Their two boys, they tell me, are "Favor" and "Success." We start the 15-mile drive to the city as dusk falls. The road is empty. There are huge thunderclouds in the distance, their tops lighted pink and orange by the setting sun. The land is greener than anything I have ever seen. It seems inconceivable that there could be famine here.

I ask Peace and Faith what they do. Peace works for the National Democratic Institute—a U.S. organization. And Faith, in a coincidence that defies imagination, works as a secretary for the World Food Program, the organization that arranged my travel. Moreover, she tells me that a delegation from WFP has just checked into the Capital Hotel—where we have been planning to stop in order for me to call Zimbabwe. "I think God has brought you to us for a reason," says Faith, with a big laugh.

When we get to the hotel, I try and fail to reach my Zimbabwe contact. Martin, meanwhile, starts evangelizing the desk clerk and the concierge. He's wonderful at it. They are charmed. The WFP press officer, Jennifer Abrahamson, arrives as we stand in the lobby. She has been told to look out for me. I introduce her to Martin. Just to make Martin happy, I say, "And judging by Jennifer's name, I bet she's Jewish, too." Jennifer confirms this. Martin hugs her and then says, "And what is your name?" She says "Abrahamson." He hugs her again. "You are Abraham's son, and I am a son of Abraham!"

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Jennifer invites us to the bar to get a drink, which is the thing I most want in the world at that moment. Martin, who frowns on alcohol, looks disappointed in both of us. He says he'll wait. As he walks away, he tells her, "I will pray for you." (He remains very concerned for Jennifer's soul. "Jennifer, did she drink?" he asks me later. Then, "Please tell Jennifer to call me. I must pray for her.")

Jennifer and I straighten out my plans. It turns out that I can't get into Zimbabwe after all. I need to enter with a special journalist's visa, and mine was valid only today. So I settle for Malawi. Malawi's food problems are as dire as Zimbabwe's, though it lacks the political instability. It turns out that I can travel to famine-areas of Malawi on Sunday, then catch a British Airways flight to London that night—not the same as meeting Mugabe but much better than I expected.

Finally, around 8 p.m., after a drive through pitch-black and empty city streets, Faith and Peace drop us at Martin's place, a three-bedroom brick ranch house in a neighborhood called "Area 47." (The number system is perverse: Area 47 is next to Area 15 which is next to Area 37.)

Martin introduces me to lovely and serene Leah and lovely and unserene Chrein, who bursts into tears at the first sight of me, and at every subsequent one. I meet the nanny and a pair of Martin's disciples, Stanley and Danny, who immediately start clearing the third bedroom for my use. The house is comfortable but not lavish, with stone floors, and inspirational posters decorating the walls. Bibles are everywhere, including one perched on a circle of 12 stones in the fireplace—one stone for each of the tribes of Israel.

Martin and me at dinner in his house
Martin and me at dinner in his house

Martin's kindness overwhelms me. He gives me the sandals on his feet to wear around the house. He plunks me down on the couch and gives me Fanta to drink and leafs through family photo albums with me. He gives me a photo of him and Leah and takes one of me and my family. Then, when the baby has been put to bed, he and Leah feed me a yummy meal of rice and beans and sausage.

Over dinner he tells me about the Satanists who are invading houses at night in rural Malawi and stealing villagers' blood for their devilish rituals. Leah quizzes me for a long time about how I can be Jewish but not Israeli, a question that I fail to explain in any cogent way. This leads to a discussion about the politics of Israel, about which Martin is amazingly well informed. (He hopes Sharon wins the election, believes that Israel has a biblical right to Syria and Lebanon, and prays for a Christian president of Malawi, so that Israel will reopen its embassy here.)

After dinner, he pops in a videotape of one of his church services. In it, he is wearing a pristine, white collarless suit. He preaches in English while Stanley interprets in Chichewa. Martin is mesmerizing—he finger-wags, dances, duckwalks.

"You walk with him," he shouts.

"You walk with him," he screams.

"You better walk with him," he whispers.

Before we go to bed, Martin leads us again in prayer.

As I read this over, I realize it may sound like I am making fun of Martin. I am not. Susan Orlean wrote something in The Orchid Thief (later included in the movie Adaptation) to the effect that her only passion was to know what it felt like to feel passionately. That is how I feel about meeting Martin. I don't believe anything that he believes, but I am awed by his utter conviction. He feels Christ moving in him, which is why he took in a stranger, and housed him, and fed him, and clothed him.

The next morning, today, Peace and Martin take me to the Capital Hotel, where I am going to stay over the weekend. Martin prays over my room and then takes me on a walk through town. It's like walking through Little Rock with Bill Clinton. He knows everyone—in the supermarket, the town center, at the taxi stand, in the park, on every other street corner, someone calls out, "Pastor Thom!" For all of them he has a big handshake, a warm word, and an invitation to pray.

The bush creeps up on Lilongwe's Capital Hill
The bush creeps up on Lilongwe's Capital Hill

Lilongwe is one of the strangest cities I have ever seen. Martin says the population is about 1 million, but it's hard to believe; it feels empty, and the bush encroaches everywhere. Capital Hill, where the government buildings are clustered, is like something out of an archeological magazine of the future. The buildings, white and '60s modern, are imprisoned by a bush that is creeping up all around them. Grasses and trees and flowering vines crowd everything. It feels like Mother Nature does not want this city to exist and is taking it back.

Over a pizza lunch, Martin makes one last run at me. He tells me of the conversions of Peter, Cornelius, and the Samaritans. It is the Eleventh Hour, he reminds me. The end times are coming soon. Jews have a very special role to play when the Messiah returns, but I have very little time left to turn to him. Martin is bewitching. I would love to believe him, love to believe that, as he tells me again and again, "The Lord brought you to Malawi for a purpose."

I ought to, but I can't. All I can do when we say goodbye is say thank you again and again for his sweet generosity, and hug him, and give him a too-small earthly reward: $250 for his church—a gift from an American Jew that he saved, but only for one day.