At the end of Paul Chinchen’s funeral Cal Wells walked up to me and said, “You’re going to have trouble putting this into words.”
Indeed, I have written 2,000 columns, the equivalent of 30 books, and I am struggling to find the words. If you find the time, go to Facebook and search for “Dr. Paul Chinchen Funeral Service.” Or just click the link below:
I have been to a lot of impressive funerals in my day, but this one was unbelievably profound. Not knowing Paul Chinchen well, I was planning to briefly show my respects. Instead, I stood in the narthex of the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson (the church was packed) and listened for an hour and a half.
But that was just the beginning. After the funeral, almost everyone spilled over into a large meeting room where for three hours family, friends and associates of Paul Chinchen stood up and told story after story about the impact of this man in their lives.
Paul Chinchen was one of the greatest missionaries the state of Mississippi has ever seen. Governor Tate Reeves issued a proclamation honoring him. Congressman Michael Guest sent a representative and read a beautiful letter. There were a dozen, maybe two dozen or more Malawians who flew half-way around the world to be at the funeral.
Paul, with the help of his mother Nell, father Jack, and other family members and supporters, founded the African Bible College in Lilongwe, Malawi. This college has trained thousands of Malawian men and women and hugely impacted the country of 20 million.
The African Bible College (ABC) has now expanded to dozens of buildings at the Lilongwe campus, a large hospital, a television station, a basketball team, and business school and much more. In addition, bible colleges were started in Liberia and Uganda.
All of this happened because of the relentless drive, charism and energy of Paul Chinchen, his family, friends, supporters and associates. Dozens of Mississippi churches and non-profits were part of this effort. It is a great example of God’s spirit working through people to further the Kingdom.
We are pounded by a relentless stream of negative news, yet there are wonderful, miraculous things going on in the world. It is sad that it takes a premature death for people to acknowledge and witness this.
I lost my vibrant, athletic father to a sudden heart attack at age 64. Paul Chinchen fell to the same sudden attack.
It’s impossible to comprehend the mind of God in the wake of such events, but it seemed like everyone at the church understood that God’s ways are a mystery and faith is a gift. Sin, evil and Satan are still present in this world. Paul Chinchen was one of God’s most valuable soldiers. Although God’s ultimate victory is assured, the battle rages on.
Through the grief, hundreds witnessed what an amazing life Paul Chinchen led. Raised in a bamboo hut in the wilds of Liberia with his twin brother Palmer, the boys had a pet chimpanzee which they kept in diapers. When they played outside, they faced deadly vipers and wild animals. During the wildly violent Liberian civil war, a soldier threatened to kill them if they didn’t pay him $20. Paul negotiated it down to $5. He was like that.
Paul Chinchen was not an overly pious, boring scrooge. He was fun, funny and full of laughter and zest, filling every moment with can-do enthusiasm, never taking no for an answer. There were many stories of his outrageous escapades and practical jokes. And he had movie star good looks. He was a missionary rock star.
At his death, his latest project was building Lilongwe’s first full-scale emergency room. Lilongwe is a city of over one million people.
Every person at the funeral spoke of his kindness, dedication, Christian faith and love, giving personal examples of how it changed their lives. After three hours, they had to shut it down to go to the burial. It could have lasted all night. I sat there transfixed, humbled by the gap between my journey and his.
Rev. Sean Kampondeni, an ABC graduate executive advisor to the President of Malawi, spoke at the funeral both personally and on behalf of Lazarus Chakwera, president of Malawi.
It was a beautiful speech, one part of which described Paul Chinchen’s role in getting Chakwera elected president, perhaps the most stunning and remarkable rise to power in African history. Chinchen didn’t achieve this through trickery, power play or manipulation. He merely told Chakwera time and time again, “Lazarus. Listen to me. I know this. You will be president.” And it came to be. A miracle.
Although I didn’t know Paul Chinchen well, he had indeed profoundly changed my life, causing me to travel to Africa many times to drill water wells in Malawi. We attended church at the African Bible College.
The African Bible College influenced Victor Smith who created Clean Water for Malawi. I served as its president after Victor. We drilled and repaired hundreds of water wells to bring fresh water to hundreds of thousands of Malawians. Paul Chinchen was the keynote speaker at our last fundraiser.
The start of the Chinchen family’s missionary journey to Africa is chronicled in a wonderful book, still available, titled “The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle — a Journey of Love Across Africa” by Nell Robertson.
Nell grew up in Jackson. Her renowned brother “Bouncer” Robertson founded Gulf Guaranty. She met Jack Chinchen when he was a soldier based in Biloxi. Nell turned Jack into a driven missionary and the rest is history.
In the book, Nell wrote of the numerous miracles that marked every step along this journey. One of the great joys of my life was to experience several similar miracles during my trips to Africa — just like the book described. The miracles greatly strengthened my faith which brings me tremendous joy every day.
Malawi is now 80 percent Christian, 15 percent higher than the United States. I have personally witnessed the strong faith of its people, the product of the dedication of missionaries of which the Chinchens are a great example.
Clean Water of Malawi is no more. The price of oil crashed, demolishing Victor Smith’s business. The rise of the smartphone caused a big downturn in my newspaper business. Our funding dried up.
I have often wondered why God allowed this to happen when we were so ready and willing to serve. I wonder how Paul Chinchen could possibly be dead. But Satan is still disrupting God’s vision. Christ has overcome death but life on earth is still mired in sin’s destructive forces. Paul’s reward is assured and greater than we can possibly imagine. Those of us left behind must grieve and carry on.