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Melissa and Charles Johnson

What does the word “missionary” bring to mind? Perhaps the naïve, culturally insensitive young evangelists from "The Book of Mormon"? Or the severe, paternalistic ministers with tales of converting heathens in Java? Well, modern missionaries are nothing like that. In fact, in many Christian traditions, they’re not even called missionaries anymore.

The denomination to which I belong, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has “mission co-workers” who carry out God’s call for faithful and effective mission. The title reflects a significant difference in how we perceive world mission. Presbyterians believe we are called to mission through the discipline of partnership. World mission addresses the root causes of some of the most pervasive problems in the world — poverty alleviation and reconciliation in cultures of violence — by working alongside people in their own communities. It also feeds spiritual, as well as physical hunger in the sharing of God’s love.

This month, we have a unique opportunity to meet two mission co-workers who are visiting central New York to give a firsthand account of their work in Zambia. Charles and Melissa Johnson are Presbyterian elders from San Antonio, Texas. They are serving in Zambia at the invitation of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian's Zambia Synod.

Charles and Melissa’s devotion to world mission was shaped from their personal experiences, struggles and joys. Most significant was the life and death of their son Holden, who had a severe disability. Following Holden’s death, they were compelled to answer a call to serve God by helping others, having felt God’s presence through the most difficult of times, largely through the hearts and hands of others. They began their mission work with several short-term trips to Vietnam, Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after which they felt drawn to full-time mission service in Africa.

Their professional background includes Charles’ work for 21 years as the president of an agribusiness in Texas and Melissa’s work as an advocate for children with special needs in the health care and educational arenas. They bring this experience to their work in Zambia, where Charles is focused on two agricultural-related activities. The first consists of efforts to develop an agricultural income-generating activity (farming for profit). Funds generated are used to reinvest in the AIGA, to help sustain Chasefu Theological College and to support the work of Chasefu Model Farm. Charles’ other focus is teaching courses in sustainable agriculture at Chasefu Theological College, providing education to help the students feed their own families, and training the future pastors to teach others new agricultural techniques. In addition, Charles is working to develop Chasefu Model Farm, a training center for smallholder farmers, using appropriate technology in a Zambian context.

Melissa is working with the CCAP Zambia Health Department coordinator and other church leaders, local stakeholders, the Ministry of Health and the community to identify important needs and gaps in general health education. Along with the health department coordinator, Melissa works to develop and implement health education programs to improve maternal and child health, to address hygiene issues of girls and women and to raise awareness about nutritional needs of children and adults.

Zambia has a population of 15 million people, which includes some 70 ethnic groups. An estimated 50 to 75 percent of the population identify themselves as Christian. Most other Zambians are either Muslim or Hindu. Presbyterianism was introduced into Zambia by Scottish missionaries in the 1860s. The Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Zambia Synod is growing rapidly and is committed to a holistic approach to outreach. The synod serves a population struggling with massive poverty and the rapid spread of infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

Charles and Melissa are back in the United States for a few months, travelling throughout the country and visiting churches. They are in central New York in July, and have been invited to share their stories in Auburn next Saturday, July 22, beginning with a potluck picnic at 5 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 112 South St., Auburn. A talk and presentation, beginning at 6:30 p.m., will follow the picnic. Westminster and First Presbyterian churches are co-sponsoring the event, and welcome everyone who would like to meet Charles and Melissa and hear about their work.

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Jill Fandrich is a ruling elder and clerk of session at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 17 William St., Auburn, where she edits the newsletter, church website ( and Facebook and Twitter pages.