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Acts of charity

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Lebanon man completes two-year mission trip in Africa

By Stephen Lega

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”

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- 1 Corinthians 13:1-2

The Apostle Paul’s words took on a new meaning for Josh Cook after he spent two years doing missionary work in Zambia and Malawi.

“After the first couple weeks, I said this is going to be a long time. But it really turned out to be one of the greatest experiences I could ever have,” Cook  said.

Like many members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Cook, 21, volunteered to take part in a two-year mission. When he applied, he didn’t expect to leave the United States. He even thought his assignment to Africa had been a mistake.

“After I embraced that idea that I was really going, it became an adventure. I was excited to go,” Cook said.

He was 19 when his journey started. He first went to South Africa for two weeks of training, then he flew to Zambia to begin his mission work. He spent the next two years travelling back and forth between Lusaka and Copperbelt in Zambia and Blantyre and Lilongwe in Malawi.

Zambians speak 74 languages (with multiple dialects within those languages) and Malawians speak eight languages. By the end of his trip, Cook said he was pretty good at the most common languages he encountered, Bembe and Nyanja in Zambia and Chichewa in Malawi.

“I could at least hold a conversation and understand what people were saying. Sometimes it was hard for me to say something back, but I could at least hear what they were saying,” he said.

Cook had to adjust to cultural differences, too, but that wasn’t his only problem during the early part of his trip.

“I almost came home. I had been in the hospital eight times in the first three months, and it was tough,” Cook said. “It was humbling.”

He suspected that he was having trouble adjusting to a different diet, but he learned that stomach infections were a side-effect of the anti-malaria pills he was taking. When he stopped using the pills, he felt better — and he is also grateful that he did not contract malaria afterwards.

While recovering from his illness, Cook refocused his efforts on helping others, and he felt happier.

“If we can go out and help people, we don’t have to put our name in it, and say ‘I did this, I did that,” he said. “Sometimes we get caught up in that mindset. Look what I did. Did you see how good I did it? ... It doesn’t matter who gets the credit, and ultimately, not to be too religious, but I think it should be God. I think it should be Christ who gets the credit.”

After a few months, Cook was appointed to serve as a district leader, which meant he also had to oversee three other missionaries. He later became a zone leader and then the assistant to the mission president. In that last position, he provided support to 40-70 missionaries at any time.

In Africa, Cook worked with seven different companions from South Africa, Congo, Uganda, and Malawi. In the evenings, they would often go over their plans for the next day. Sometimes, that meant just looking for someone to help.

As an example, he said one day they saw some people pushing wheelbarrows loaded with heavy charcoal.

“We just decided, me and my partner, let’s go help them. We carried it maybe, 200, 400 feet. It was just a small simple act we could do,” Cook said. 

Many families they visited cooked their meals on a grill outdoors. He recalled helping to grind corn into a powder that was a food staple for many families.

He also worked with other missionaries to repair a roof on an auditorium at an orphanage and to fix a dirt road that had been damaged by heavy rains.

Cook was particularly happy with the connection he and one of his partners made with the Sinkala family. At the time they met the Sinkalas, they were considering a divorce, and the wife, in particular, did not want them around.

“They were both heavy drinkers, and the father, the husband, felt like something wasn’t right. He wanted to change. We came and showed them a video about the family and how important the family is, and it really touched him,” Cook said.

Eventually, the wife started to welcome them. By the time they left, Cook said the family was committed to strengthening and saving their marriage.

Cook stressed that the missionaries did not have quotas, but they were encouraged to keep track of what they did. Their only goal was to bless people’s lives however they could.

“Teaching people about the Savior. Helping them feel loved. Helping them feel appreciated, and ultimately, helping them feel like they have a purpose in life,” Cook said. “So many people - here and there - go through life and they don’t feel like they have a purpose.”

Cook returned to the United States Aug. 13, but he hopes to apply lessons he learned from his experiences in Malawi and Zambia.

“There’s opportunities, even here in Kentucky, where there are people who need to fill loved, who need to feel appreciated. And they’re carrying heavy burdens that we may not be aware of,” Cook said. “We really need to go out and reach out.”

In the U.S., many people are caught up in a frantic daily lifestyle, while many people in Africa live a more relaxed — and therefore more personal — lifestyle.

“No one’s in a hurry, and people take time to care about other people. People go out of their way to help other people,” Cook said. “That’s something that I really liked there.”

When he landed at the Atlanta airport, he couldn’t help noticing how Americans are often cut off from the people around them. 

“Everyone was so consumed with their phone, I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone,” Cook said. “There in Africa, it was so easy to just walk up to someone and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ And it felt comfortable.”

Coincidentally, Cook was only allowed limited contact with his family while he was overseas. On Mondays, he would do laundry and visit an Internet café to send emails to his family and to read their emails to him.

Missionaries are only allowed to call home twice a year, on Mothers Day and Christmas. At first, Cook didn’t understand why that rule was in place, but he thinks he does now.

“When you are calling home all the time, you start to have the mindset of ‘I can’t wait to go back. I want to go back. I miss them so much.’ And it kind of distracts you from what you’re really there to do,” he said.

Last month, Cook started the next big step in his life. He moved to Utah to study at the LDS Business College. He plans to transfer to a university later to study exercise science and then complete a graduate degree in physical therapy.

Now that he’s back, Cook added that he has a greater appreciation for many of the conveniences that Americans enjoy. When people get cut off in traffic, they might complain, Cook said, but at least they have a car. In Malawi and Zambia, nearly everyone he met walked everywhere they went.

Cook is convinced that anyone can make progress if they have a purpose in life. For him, that means continuing to look for opportunities to help others.

“They’re all around us,” he said. “We just have to be aware of them, and we have to be willing to act.”

Editor’s note: Cook is the son of Tim and Sandra Cook of Lebanon. His younger brother, Aaron, is currently on a mission trip in Arizona and Nevada.