The life of officership is a life of being surprised by God. In retirement, Malcolm and Laurel Herring have just spent 16 months heading up the work of The Salvation Army in the Solomon Islands. We caught up with Malcolm in the last few weeks of their appointment—and discovered every day is still a surprise and a gift from God.
It was just another day’s work in the Solomon Islands—a nation made up of thousands of tiny islands, neighbouring Papua New Guinea. Malcolm was part of a team of four from the corps at their base in Honiara visiting the only other Salvation Army fellowship, on the remote island of Malaita.
The visit required over eight hours of travel—firstly by boat to a neighbouring island, then by ute over treacherous terrain, and finally by row boat on the Pacific Ocean, with just a small outboard motor to get them to their destination.
Malcolm remembers the moment the motor cut out in their dinghy, while they were still far out at sea. The sun was fading, and they were in danger of being stranded through the night. ‘We were facing a night in the pitch black with no navigation instruments,’ he recalls. ‘Thoughts of the apostle Paul’s shipwreck adventures were crossing my mind.’
The team managed to get the motor going just enough to limp very slowly to the nearest island. ‘It was a thin strip of land with coconut trees and banana trees, and scarcely anybody on it but one family,’ remembers Malcolm. The locals were astounded to see a white man, and a local fisherman came out to greet them.
Then, one of the team members—the wife of the corps sergeant major— squealed with delight. The fisherman was her relative and they instantly recognised each other. ‘She was the only one on our boat who knew the mother tongue of these remote people,’ remembers Malcolm.
But there was another ‘coincidence’: the fisherman’s name was also Malcolm. He lent the team his boat so they could get to their destination. ‘Malcolm truly rescued us,’ says (the other) Malcolm. ‘It was just the amazing goodness of God, our “pilot” who guides us along life’s way.’
The guidance of God has been Malcolm’s daily companion since he first said yes to officership ... eventually.
Although he was only 18, Malcolm remembers it like it was yesterday. ‘I was working on a farm in the Taranaki and I sat down to have my lunch, and I got this very strong and definite call, and it gave me quite a shock. I can’t explain it, except that it sounded audible and so strong and definite, and the calling was that I should be a Salvation Army officer.’
Malcolm recoiled from the idea and tried to bury the calling. ‘I never told anybody, including my wife when we got married.’
But God is not known for giving up. After 10 years of marriage, three children—plus a foster child—and having established a successful business, the call came again. This time, Laurel prayed asking for confirmation, and within months, they were cadets, training to become officers.
In 47 years of marriage, and 35 years as Salvation Army officers, Malcolm and Laurel have led corps (churches) and travelled the world, sharing the good news of Jesus. They have seen babies healed from epilepsy and men from life- threatening illnesses, they’ve witnessed marriages saved, lives transformed, and not one day has been the same.
While Malcolm has found his gifting in ‘sharing the best news in the world’, Laurel has been the quieter voice of the ministry, supporting the public work, offering guidance and wisdom, and ‘being a “mother” to the women and children in the corps, as well as a mother to our three children’.
Malcolm laughs as he recalls how, during an interview with Senior Training Officer Bill Allott ahead of becoming lieutenants, Bill ‘spoke glowingly of all Laurel’s wonderful qualities and characteristics. Then he turned his attention to me, and all I can remember were his opening words “and Malcolm—long pause—you can just thank God you have Laurel as your wife.” He was right!’
Admitting he has the ‘gift of the gab’, Malcolm is one of those people who has amazing God encounters wherever he goes. He laughs that whenever he travels by plane he has a captive audience—‘I’ve got all the time in the world, and the person sitting next to me is literally strapped in!’
But on a more serious note: ‘It’s not about me exercising evangelism, it’s about others needing to hear that God loves them and has a purpose and plan for them.’
Malcolm remembers a flight to see the All Blacks play in Chicago. He began chatting to the strapping young man next to him, a marine in the US military. The man was returning from Afganistan, where he had lived through the horrors of warfare. In charge of a troop of 400 men, he had held one of his soldiers in his arms as he lay dying. ‘He couldn’t look down at this man for fear that he was going to fall apart, and he was trying to keep all the men safe as well. He said it takes a long time to get over that.’
Malcolm asked the marine if they had chaplains, and said that he was also a chaplain. ‘I asked him how he was coping, and how it had affected his relationship with God. We talked and I shared some scriptures with him. [The marine] said that it was exactly what he needed to tell his men. He took a photo of the scripture and asked me to pray for him. So we prayed right there on the plane.’
‘He said, “We were meant to meet today.” Of course, I already knew that,’ laughs Malcolm.
‘For me, officership is only about two things: it’s about winning souls and making disciples. Very, very simple,’ sums up Malcolm.
‘Simple’ is a refrain he often uses. ‘I’ve got the best news in the world, the best job, and for me not to share that, well—,’ he tapers off, as if the thought is unthinkable. ‘It’s so simple. I have to do it.’
But Malcolm also notes that it doesn’t happen ‘by accident’, explaining that ‘you need intentionality and expectation. If you expect people to be saved, if you intentionally want to lead people to Christ, then people will come to Christ.’
Their stint in the Solomon Islands, two years into retirement, is the latest in a long list of invitations from God to be intentional. Malcolm describes how they were reading in the Bible about God’s heart for the poor, and God challenged them: what are you doing for the poor? ‘The answer was “nothing!” It shook us, even shocked us, but we didn’t know what to do.’
So, they prayed. The next day, they received an email asking them to consider managing the Salvation Army work in the Solomon Islands.
The small nation is the second most supported and dependent country in the world after Haiti, with approximately 80 per cent unemployment. The largely rural landscape is lush, the cultural heritage is rich and the people live for one another.
Local culture is based on ‘wantok’, translated as ‘one talk’, which means everyone must look out for each other. ‘It’s a beautifully godly way to live,’ explains Malcolm.
But with such high unemployment, if someone finds a job, other family members come asking for money. ‘Because of this, often people would rather not find employment.’ Most people live by subsistence—eating fruit from the trees, and cassava from the ground. High levels of corruption keep the people in poverty.
In a country where there is plenty of religion in the name of Christianity—often intertwined with witchcraft—people are hungry for a personal relationship with Jesus. In the 16 months of their appointment, Malcolm and Laurel have seen the corps grow from 22 people to over 100. Stories of transformed lives abound, and the congregation is as diverse as the population. Those who have recently joined include the former prime minister (Sir Billy Hilly) and an ex-convict, released last year after 16 years imprisonment.
People who have discovered a life-giving relationship with Christ, share it eagerly.
Rex, a security guard who works for the Parliament’s chairman of the caucus, the Honorable Jackson Fuilaua, showed his boss the Bible Malcolm had given him. Rex then came knocking on Malcolm and Laurel’s door with a request from Fuilaua for a Bible for him and his family, and asking if they could visit his home for ‘teachings and meetings’.
‘I gave Rex some Bibles as well as some pamphlets,’ Malcolm remembers. ‘Ten minutes later, I walked passed and heard Rex sharing the pamphlet with another security guard in his own Pidgin language.’
One of the Solomon Island’s most prominent politicians, his family and their staff, were all hearing the good news of Christ simply because one security guard could not stop himself from sharing it.
‘Easily the most rewarding thing about being in the Solomon Islands has been to see the power of God changing transforming lives,’ says Malcolm. ‘This has been the most rewarding thing of all in all our officership.’
So, as they return home this month, will they settle into retirement? ‘I cannot see me retiring,’ laughs Malcolm. ‘You cannot retire from God’s calling.’