Mary Jo Carlson, a Hilton Head Island resident and member of Providence Presbyterian Church, recently returned from her fourth mission trip to Malawi.
The impoverished, land-locked nation is in the Central African region known as "the warm heart of Africa," subject to frequent drought and famine. Members of the Hilton Head congregation have been traveling to Malawi for the several years, providing life-saving services to critically ill babies, abandoned orphans and widows. The church helps with nurseries, feeding centers and mobile medical services through Ministry of Hope, an international, nonprofit organization that focuses its efforts in Malawi, one of the poorest nations in the world.
Hunger and a lack of basic medical help are daily realities for the majority of Malawians living in rural villages and towns. According to USAID, nearly half of the nation's children younger than 5 are developmentally stunted due to malnutrition.
Established in 1999, the Ministry of Hope ministers to some of the poorest of the poor by operating crisis nurseries in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, and the northern city of Mzuzu, as well as six community feeding and resource centers in rural villages. The centers bring food and other services to thousands of widows and orphans. The Ministry of Hope also provides mobile medical clinics to all people of the villages and the surrounding regions, and the ministry works with several hospitals and schools.
Providence Presbyterian decided to prioritize Ministry of Hope among its outreach programs about four years ago, according to Pastor Martin Lifer. He said that over the past few years, Providence has sent mission teams as large as 12 people or as small as two, comprised of church members and other local residents. When they are in Malawi, the missionaries live in a small guesthouse, travel the dirt roads and work hand in hand with local staff, volunteers and medical teams.
Carlson said she first became passionate about this ministry in 2008.
"Our associate pastor had just returned from a visit to Malawi with two members from our church," Carlson said. "He got back on a Saturday and preached on Sunday. I felt the Lord's hands on my shoulders that morning. I was committed."
Carlson remembers her first trip with Ministry of Hope in September 2009. "As soon as I arrived at the first feeding center, I knew I needed to be there. The Lord was right."
Since then, Carlson has returned to Malawi three more times, including a trip with her daughter, DeeAnne, a critical care nurse.
"In the Malawian culture, when a mother dies in childbirth, the father can leave the household, since he has no ability to care for the child," Carlson said. "Our ministry operates centralized crisis nurseries for these babies and cares for them until they are able to return to their home village in the care of a grandmother or aunt."
The months of November through March are known as "the starving season" in Malawi, when crops are few and the harvest is months away. The church sent a mission group in September, led by members Pete Barbano and Miriam Cotter. The team delivered food and supplies to the villages and baby formula and other provisions to the nurseries -- to prepare for the starving season. Carlson's recent trip further supplemented those efforts.
Providence Church members fund their own travel and help the church seek donations for supplies and assistance to the mission. Other churches and organizations throughout the U.S. do the same.