Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper, Malawi and ‘Living Water’
August 9, 2005
Lilongwe, Malawi – Let’s get one thing straight here: I’m a Dr Pepper man.
I say this because if you look into my office, you might notice my collection of Coca-Cola bottles from around the world. I don’t drink the stuff. No, it’s just a reminder.
Some might say that Coke is a example of American commercial imperialism at work, creeping across the globe. That is one way to think about it. I think of it as an evangelism goal and reminder of God’s faithfulness.
I just got back from a mission trip to Malawi, a tiny nation packed with 12.5 million people. It’s in eastern Africa, shoe-horned between Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. Malawi is the 12th poorest nation on Earth, but home to generous and open people. Its nickname is “The Warm Heart of Africa.”
Traveling to Africa and interacting with a new culture is always exciting and eye-opening: new foods, new customs, new songs, and new ways to praise the Lord. Our team was struck by how receptive the people were to the Gospel. As we planted churches and witnessed “hut-to-hut,” our interpreters told us that more than 900 received Christ. American’s hearts are so hard it can take dozens of encounters with the Gospel before they begin to open up, but a majority of Malawians knew when they heard the name of Jesus that they needed genuine repentance and a Savior. They were hungry – thirsty I should say – for God’s Word.
So yes, things in Malawi are different from America, and in a very good way. But some things do remain the same.
No matter where you go and no matter how far you travel by plane, train or automobile, chances are there’s a frosty Coke waiting for you within a 10-minute walk. After flying for 18 hours across the Atlantic to South Africa, catching another plane to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, and driving five hours north to the Nkhota-khota region of Malawi, we were in “The Bush.” There were no power lines, no cell phone reception, we had waved goodbye to the nearest paved road long ago. And yet as we shared the Gospel and visited modest, clay brick churches, the village headman would force a cold Coke into our hands. A gift to the Americans, probably costing more than a week’s wages. We’ve no clue how it was kept cold, but a cold drink is a cold drink.
Coke has a presence in more than 200 countries with a business plan to reach from the North to the South Poles soon. The International Mission Board is in 157 countries. We should never think of mission work as a corporation and the Gospel is not a commodity, but it is a sad day when people have access to a Coke, Sprite or Orange Fanta, but not the Living Water of God’s Word in their own language, or the opportunity to hear the name of Jesus. Sure, I’d like to buy the world a Coke, but that isn’t what it needs.
I’m sure you’ve seen cheesy T-shirts comparing God to Coca-Cola: “He’s the Real Thing.” Sometimes cheesiness is true. As we walked through the brush, coming across one grass hut after grass hut, we heard over and over again through the quiet voices of our interpreters, “Thank you. I did not know the way to the real God.”
Malawi is a country that is largely “Christianized” in the sense that David Livingstone explored the area during the colonial era spreading Anglicanism. The churches still stand today, but they are empty, lifeless buildings devoid of hope. Despite being Anglican in name, almost to a person the Malawians would say they did not know they could have faith in something bigger than a church, and more powerful than an earthly priest. They wanted something real.
I have just one more comparison between the Gospel and Coke. We can count on it. In a place where the local water would do a number on our fragile American stomachs, even this dyed-in-the-wool Dr Pepper drinker will gratefully down a Coke, knowing it’s made with pure, clean, safe ingredients. I can count on that funny-shaped bottle, whether I’m in Jefferson City, Malawi, Romania or on the Moon. The same is true of Christ. We can count on Him. In Malawi – surrounded by AIDS, malaria, famine and extreme poverty – His love is the only thing they can count on.
So, as I look at the Coke collection in my office, I’m reminded of the godly men and women I’ve met in Malawi, not to mention the adorable faces of thousands of children. I look forward to the day when my brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world – especially Malawi – and I can be reunited as we praise God in Heaven, probably enjoying a nice cold Coke. I just hope God will serve Dr Pepper, too. (Brian Koonce is a staff writer for The Pathway.)