As the Rev. David Carver says grace over his family's Thanksgiving meal, he will also ask God to bless his church's efforts to save some of the 2 million Malawians facing famine in 2013. The vision of emaciated, dying children is never far from his thoughts.
Rev. Carver, pastor of First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights, wants to pay forward what Indians in Massachusetts did for his ancestors who faced starvation. He traces his heritage to the Pilgrim Carvers, whose most prominent figure, John Carver, was the first governor of the Mayflower Pilgrims.
"We would not be celebrating life in this place had not someone helped us with corn and the gift of life-sustaining food 13 generations ago," he said. "The idea that there were folks in my family who were unable to survive but were helped by someone outside their own culture and experience has put me in a position where, hopefully, I'm able to do a few good things for others. Maybe I'm paying back something that was done for me 400 years ago."
According to early accounts, two Indians in 1621 taught the starving Pilgrims how to grow maize. Maize is also the staple food of Malawi, a central African nation that is among the world's poorest.
Rev. Carver is so involved in Pittsburgh Presbytery's 20-year Malawi partnership that Malawi President Joyce Banda personally asked him to organize a church-based relief effort before starvation sets in. The resulting "A-MAIZE-ing Grace Famine Relief" can turn $25 into enough maize to feed an average Malawian family for a month.
About 90 percent of Malawians earn less than $2 per day. They grow crops in large gardens and live for a year on what they harvest in late spring.
"March is the hungry season because what you harvested last year is almost gone, and what you planted for this year isn't ready yet," Rev. Carver said.
About every 10 years, the weather, public policy or both produce severe famine. The last was in 2001, when Rev. Carver was chairman of Pittsburgh Presbytery's Malawi Partnership. Top leaders of the Presbyterian Church in Malawi made a desperate plea to Pittsburgh Presbytery, saying that starving people were coming to their churches.
Pittsburgh Presbytery made an immediate gift of $20,000 and ultimately launched a national appeal through the Presbyterian Church (USA). It raised money, but it took a year to receive approval through church channels while tens of thousands of Malawians died.
In 2003, the Presbyterian Church (USA) asked him to take a group of philanthropists to Malawi to see how the donated money saved lives.
They stopped at a church where he had preached as an exchange pastor in 1998 and had baptized many babies. An elderly woman holding a nearly skeletal little girl approached him and began pounding on his chest, crying out in a local language.
A translator told him, "She is thanking you for saving this baby's life. You baptized her when you were here before ... and now you are giving us corn to save her life. It's too late for her mother, who is already dead, but you have helped to save this baby."
On the same trip, a young pastor, the Rev. Dennis Mulele, told him, "Dave, six months ago, I was doing eight or nine or 10 funerals a week, every week. I had so many funerals, and so many were for children. Now, since this food has started to come, I am only doing two or three funerals a week, and many of them are for old people," Rev. Carver recalled.
More recently, Rev. Carver has worked on clean water and river transportation projects for Malawi. He thought that was what Malawi's president wanted to discuss when an influential Malawian told him to ask for an appointment when Ms. Banda visited New York in September.
Ms. Banda, a businesswoman, philanthropist and politician, unexpectedly became leader of her nation in April after her notoriously corrupt predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, died in office. He had alienated many nations that were major suppliers of humanitarian aid.
She has earned a reputation for honest government, slashing her own salary by 30 percent. Her opponents' biggest criticism is that she is personally overseeing distribution of maize to the poor. Her critics see that as political, her supporters as necessary to prevent theft.
Ms. Banda is also an active Presbyterian.
"The first thing she did was sit down and, when I started to introduce myself, she said, 'Do you think you could pray with me first, before we start to talk?' So I prayed," Rev. Carver said.
The 15-minute meeting turned into an hour. Instead of water projects, she wanted to discuss famine relief, saying she knew of his work a decade ago.
"I need to tell you that the hungry season will start soon," she told him. "It will be a long, hard season for the people of Malawi. I am asking anyone who I think might have reason to help us to please come help us."
"Right now there is no rain, so that their crops aren't growing and the government has nothing to help them in terms of emergency aid," Rev. Carver said. "The projections are simply horrible."
More than 2 million of the 14 million Malawians are in danger of starvation, he said. Since the nation's median age is about 17, many will be children.
When he left the meeting, Rev. Carver said, "I went to the lobby of the hotel, sat down and cried. All I could think of was Pastor Dennis Mulele doing nine or 10 funerals a week while we spent 18 months trying to develop a perfect plan. I decided I couldn't do it that way again."
By coincidence, the general secretary of the Malawi synod of the Presbyterian Church of Central Africa was staying at Rev. Carver's home at that time. Together they drafted a plan.
It calls for a $25 donation to buy a 100-pound sack of maize, which can feed an average Malawian family for a month. The two pastors sketched a design for a small pillow resembling a bag of maize, and Rev. Carver recruited volunteers to sew them. Donors will receive a pillow to give to a loved one with a note saying that maize has been given to Malawians in the person's name.
"The food will be distributed free of charge to anyone who has need, not only to Presbyterians, not only to Christians," Rev. Carver said. The head of the Malawian church insisted that better-off Malawians should contribute 10 percent of the cash.
Rev. Carver has put the plan on the web so that any church or civic group can get involved. It's available at www.malawipartnership.org. Checks made payable to "Pittsburgh Presbytery" with "famine" in the memo line can be sent to the presbytery at 901 Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15233.
When Rev. Carver pitched A-MAIZE-ing Grace at last month's presbytery meeting, "We gave out every pillow that I had, which was 140. I could have given out 400 if I'd had them," he said.
Donations poured into the presbytery, the largest was $5,000 from one individual. Rev. Carver has 15 seamstresses working on pillows.
The goal of A-MAIZE-ing Grace "between now and Easter is to make a real difference in the lives of real people," Rev. Carver said. "I want those kids to die of old age, not hunger."
Rev. Carver said that the Malawians have taught him what it means to give thanks to God. They take nothing for granted and don't assume that their hard work is solely responsible for their survival. They have seen too many hardworking people die prematurely, he said.
"When we pray, 'Give us this day our daily bread,' it's a prayer we [Americans] don't really believe because we stockpile like crazy. But the folks I know who have lived closer to life's edge often have a far greater appreciation for that daily bread," he said.
Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette or 412-263-1416.