It was with sadness that I listened to the words of my friend David Beard telling me of Victor Smith’s death. He was a very influential person in my life.
I’d always heard Victor Smith had made and lost a fortune more times than anyone in the state. I guess that’s the nature of the oil business.
I got to know Victor through Clean Water for Malawi — a local charity that drilled and repaired water wells in Malawi, the poorest country in the world.
The Sun had done a feature on Victor and his charity. He called me up and invited me to their board meeting. I showed up expecting to get a good column out of it.
I was a few minutes late and when I walked into the boardroom, there was an empty seat waiting for me with a dozen people sitting around at the table. I looked down and saw a stack of formal documents neatly arranged on the table in front of my seat.
I looked down at the document on top. Its title read, “Clean Water for Malawi Board of Directors.” There was Victor Smith as President, followed by Wyatt Emmerich as Vice President.
That is how I got to be closely involved with a small local charity that ended up providing clean water to a half a million impoverished people in rural Malawi. It may have been the best thing I have done in my life.
I can remember at the time my two greatest fears were long transatlantic flights and exposure to strange tropical diseases. How ironic that both would soon become routine events in my life. After it was all over, both fears were vanquished.
My trips to Africa are precious to me now. So many adventures. Such a fascinating expansion of my worldview. So many wonderful people I met. It changed who I was and made me a better person.
I can remember being in Malawi to inspect our operations. We just got word that our director had been arrested on dubious charges. The next thing we knew, Malawian police were on the way to our hotel to question us.
I can remember going to my room and getting my malaria pills and putting them in my pocket. If I were going to be thrown in a third world African jail, at least I wanted to not get malaria in the process.
The police questioned us and then left. The next day we were scheduled to speak to the Lilongwe Rotary Club which was our local sponsor.
Our local manager, the one in jail, was the only person who could sign for the Fedex Air delivery of a critical mechanical component to our drilling rig. In addition, our driver was lost and we had been pulled over by the police, who were perhaps shaking us down.
“Let’s pray,” someone said. So we prayed. It was something like, “We are over here God trying to do your will and we are in a heap of trouble. Could you please help us out.”
The minute we finished our prayer, the police waved us on. We turned the corner and there was our manager, walking along the road, just released from jail and, lo and behold, the hotel hosting the Rotary meeting was across the street. “Wow, the prayer worked,” we all marveled.
As it turned out, we got the Rotary meeting time wrong by a half hour and were right on time. Our manager and driver picked the part up from the airport during our meeting and we were soon on our way to inspect the drilling of five new wells which provided clean water to thousands of Malawians.
During that trip, I got to meet the Chinchens and go to Sunday church at their beautiful seminary campus which has trained hundreds of Malawian ministers.
It all relates back to the Chinchen family and Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church which established the seminary in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.
You can read the story about the Mississippi-Malawi connection in a book by Nell Robertson Chinchen titled “The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle — a Journey of Love Across Africa.” It is one unfolding miracle after another. It’s a great book that you can order online.
Reading about the amazing miracles in her book, how mind-blowing to experience the exact same type of miracles on our trip. It was yet another steel beam in my edifice of faith.
The Chinchen’s involvement in Mississippi created a Mississippi-Malawi connection that ultimately led to the election of a life-long minister, Lazarus Chakwera, winning the nation’s presidency in a landslide. I attended a fundraiser for him at the Madison home of Mike Espy.
It is the first time in African history that an election overturned by the judiciary resulted in the defeat of an incumbent president. African political observers are beside themselves over the significance of this event. I believe Chakwera will change Malawi and change Africa.
After many trips to Africa, Victor got too old to travel. Before we left, he would call us into his office and read us Corinthians 1 12:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.
All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.
The foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be?
It was a powerful message to work together as a team with each contributing his or her unique strengths to accomplish a mission powered by the Holy Spirit. Victor’s reading of that passage before we left made all the difference in the world.
In the end, Victor faced health and financial challenges. Oil prices collapsed on him yet again, forcing him to abandon several major projects. Without Victor’s leadership, the funds for Clean Water for Malawi slowly dried up and the charity had to cut back substantially, but only after we had already accomplished so much good.
My own challenges in the turbulent news industry forced me to focus on my own business. As much as I loved Clean Water for Malawi, I had to move on.
I’ve always wondered why God did not cause Clean Water for Malawi to flourish or for such a servant as Victor to face so many end-of-life challenges. But who am I, as Job finally realized, to question the provenance of our creator? And who knows the extent of the good we did do?