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Saved for a Purpose

Published on September 28, 2018

by Chad Bonham

In 1996, Linje Nankhuni came to the United States to participate in the Olympic dream. Unbeknownst to the Malawian national, Linje would be staying for a life-changing adventure that would help him combine his two passions: sports and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the time, Linje was the Vice Secretary General for his national team and was taking two athletes to the Atlanta Games. What might have seemed insignificant to the average sports fan, became something much bigger for the former soccer athlete and coach turned sports administrator. 

“After the Olympics, my wife was going to go to school in Canada where she had received a scholarship to get her PhD in Agricultural Economics,” Linje explained. “I was praying that I would also have a graduate school opportunity in North America so I could earn my Masters in Sports Management.”

That prayer was answered a month before the Olympics. While getting acclimated at the University of Southern Mississippi, Linje met a professor in the corridors of one of the school buildings.

“How can I get into graduate school?” Linje innocently asked. 

“What’s your field?” Professor Dennis Phillips replied.

After Linje shared that he wanted to study sports management, the professor revealed that he was, in fact, a member of the sports management faculty, and invited Linje to attend his class that evening.

“If you like it,” he said, “we can take it up with the faculty.”

Linje was hesitant to accept the offer. His wife Flora was going to be studying in Canada, and they already had a two-year old daughter.

“The enemy was putting something into my mind to make me doubt that this was from God,” Linje explained. “But then the Holy Spirit countered.”

Linje went to the class that night and within two weeks was a student. After the team returned to Malawi, he stayed for the one-year program while Flora attended school—not in Canada, but in Illinois. After a year, she transferred to Pennsylvania State University where the family stayed until 2003. The decisions they made moving forward, at times, may have seemed nonsensical or random. But looking back, Linje now understands clearly how everything that happened during his 20-year stay in the U.S, was meant for a greater purpose.

From Near Death To Life 

To fully appreciate how Linje arrived at his current station in life, it’s important to go back to a moment in time when his life nearly ended. In 1992, he was coaching a college soccer team and was in a horrific van accident that killed the driver and two student-athletes instantly. Linje was flown to a hospital in South Africa and he remained unconscious for three weeks. It was in the days after he finally woke up that he committed his life to Christ.

Linje understands now more than ever how that crash drastically changed the trajectory of his life. But in the moment, he had no idea that he would take such a long and winding path to his God-ordained purpose.

First, it was his involvement as a sports administrator that led him to the Olympic games in Atlanta. That opened the door for him to receive his Masters degree at Southern Miss. From there, God took Linje in another unexpected direction—church leadership.

“I never thought I’d go into ministry,” he admitted. “I have a brother and a sister who are pastors, and I always tried to support them, but I never thought I would ever go into ministry full-time.”

Linje and his family moved to Philadelphia in 2003 where Flora did her post-doctorate training at the University of Pennsylvania. A year later, he met the Ghanaian Apostle Joseph Nsoah of Jesus Miracle Center (JMC) while visiting his branch church. When he saw Linje, Apostle began revealing details of Linje’s past—things that Linje had not openly shared with anyone—about the 1992 car accident in Malawi and the 1999 miraculous healing from Chronic Hepatitis B that had taken place in the U.S., after the “vain” six months of self-injected treatment.

“God saved you from the car accident for a purpose,” the man of God said. “You also were sick and the doctor said the treatment had not been as effective, but God healed you from that sickness because He has a purpose for your life.” 

Linje joined the church in Philadelphia and within two weeks, he learned that they were searching for a new pastor. Much to his surprise, they asked if he would take the job. Even though Linje still felt called into the sports world, he accepted the position and was eventually ordained. 

After one year in Philadelphia and then a two-year stint in Boston, Linje was ordained as pastor and he moved to a Maryland suburb in the Washington D.C. metro, where he served as an assistant pastor and then senior pastor at the Disciples Fellowship International (DFI) Church for 10 years. In 2016, he graduated from the Union University in Tennessee with a Masters degree in Christian Studies.

“All the while, I was asking the Lord, ‘Why did you allow me to get a Masters Degree when all I am doing here is ministry? Is there any connection between my sports degree and my ministry training? Is there something that I don’t know?’”

 

A Matthew 2 Moment

Malawi is sometimes referred to as “The Warm Heart of Africa,” yet ironically, Linje never missed his home country. Little did he know, there was a cold-blooded reason why that had been the case for nearly 20 years.

Early on Linje hoped to visit his friends and family in Malawi while his wife was in her PhD program. One day, he was praying and asking the Lord if He might provide a way back home. When Linje arrived at the house, his wife informed him that her sponsor had provided money for her and their two young children to visit Malawi—but not him.

“Father, I was the one who wanted to go home,” Linje prayed. “Why am I not included?”

During that time of prayer, he was compelled to read the second chapter of Matthew where an angel tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Eqypt until King Herod, who was killing all Hebrew boys under the age of two years old, was no longer alive.

“The Lord was telling me that there was a spiritual reason why I had not been allowed to go back to Malawi,” Linje explained. “I had to be in the United States until my enemy was dead.”

Although he didn’t understand what that meant at the time, Linje accepted it as truth and no longer concerned himself with returning to Malawi. Several years later, his spiritual mentor in Massachusetts revealed to him something chilling that was taking place in the supernatural realm.

“There was someone who I was working with who had signed a blood covenant against my life,” Linje said. “They wanted me dead and the blood covenant can only be nullified when one of the two people is dead. That’s why the Lord kept me in the U.S. and very far from that.”

By 2015, Linje believed he knew the identity of the person who wanted him dead. While having a phone conversation with his younger brother, Linje asked how that person was doing and it was revealed that the individual had died.

“That’s when I knew that I could go back to Malawi,” he said. 

That return was much closer than Linje realized. In 2014, his wife received a job back in their home nation working for Michigan State University on a U.S. funded aid project. In 2016, Linje left for Malawi to join his wife. His two adult children, however, opted to stay in America where one was attending college and the other was embarking on a business career. 

Now in Malawi, Linje remained confused about God’s greater plan for his life.

“My heart was still in athletics,” he said. “I had the Masters degree so I thought I could go back to working in sports and then maybe as I got older I could get back into ministry. I had no idea what was on the horizon.”

 

Full Circle

Linje had only been in Malawi for a few months before a visit to see his children brought him back to the United States. While in Maryland, he visited his former worship leader’s church—the Cedarbrook Community Church—and stumbled upon an interesting piece of information in the bulletin. There was a man on the pastoral staff who was responsible for sports. For the first time, Linje saw the concepts of ministry and athletics together in one place.

He approached the pastor who told him he needed to meet FCA Mid-Atlantic Regional International Coordinator Mark Stephens — a divine connection. Linje connected with Mark who then took him to some FCA events that were taking place. From there, Linje met with FCA Northland Regional International Coordinator Mark Hull in Minneapolis who serves and supports the Southern Africa region.

Mark Hull was amazed at Linje’s unique experiences with both sports and ministry and was happy to help him connect the dots. Later that year, Mark funded Linje’s trip to Kansas City where he met with the FCA International Office team, Dan Britton and Silas Mullis, to discuss the possibilities for sports ministry in Malawi.

Silas saw firsthand Linje’s excitement as his 20-year journey finally came full circle.

“When he first heard about FCA, it was like God was opening up a door to a whole new chapter that was going to bring his love for sports and his love for Jesus together,” he said.

“My son was an athlete growing up,” Linje explained. “He played both football and basketball for high school and college, but I had never heard of FCA or this concept of sports ministry until I had gone back to the United States from Malawi. I thought to myself, ‘Whoa! Maybe this is it!” It made much more sense now.”

 

Friends In High Places 

In July of 2018, Mark Hull and Silas Mullis visited Linje in Malawi to assess the opportunity for sports ministry. While there, they quickly realized that his situation was much different than the typical international partnership. Mark and Silas were continually amazed at his connections in both the government and the sports community—two worlds that are often intertwined in small nations like Malawi.

Linje and Flora

The three men met with the Sports Director of the Ministry of Sports, who was receptive to the concept of sports ministry. They also held a 3Dimensional Coaching seminar for 50 sports leaders from the forty plus sports associations. Additionally, Linje has walked through open doors to the president of the Football Association of Malawi (one of his former soccer players) and the Executive Secretary of the Malawian National Council of Sports (a college-mate and family friend).

There are also helpful connections within his family. Linje’s younger brother is a coach, general manager for the national under-20 football team and the secretary for the national football coaches association. His older brother is nationally known TV and radio football analyst. 

Having launched his organization in Malawi—Athletes For Christ & Development (ACAD)—and becoming an official partner with FCA, Linje is moving forward with his plans to bring sports ministry to Malawi through camps, Huddles, and coaches training.

“Linje has started at the top level of sports in his country because of his existing relationships,”  Silas said. “He’s actually talking to the government leaders. He’s talking to the sports federation leaders. He’s pulling on open doors and discerning where God is already moving and stepping into the world of sports. He has a lot of vision and direction for what he wants to see happen in Malawi.” 

Among his initial goals, Linje hopes to hire three regional directors by the end of this year. He and his brothers are also working together to establish a citywide program in Blantyre, a key city in Malawi’s southern region. 

“This is a God-ordained ministry,” Linje said. “I did not sit down to plan this for my country. The Lord just gave me something that was already there…FCA. Because it is God-ordained, He’s way ahead of us. He’s already opening the doors. He’s already putting people in place and getting them excited. The time has come for change. The time has come to pass for the gospel to be spread in this country through sports—through coaches and athletes. I have confidence that we are going to grow to greater heights.”

  

Five Facts About Malawi

1. Malawi has a population of 18 million people and is made of up more than a dozen ethnic groups including Chewa (32 percent), Yao (20 percent), Lomwe (17 percent), and Ngoni (11 percent). English is the national language.

2. Of the major religions, Christianity is most prevalent at 87 percent. Islam is the second largest religion at 11 percent. 

3. Some notable Malawians include singer Malia, musician Malcolm Ross, inventor William Kamkwamba, author Legson Kayira, singer Tony Bird, actress Tapiwa Gwaza, screenwriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey, and musician and record label owner Theo Thompson.

4. Malawi is among the world’s least developed nations. Agriculture (driven by tobacco production), accounts for 27 percent of the nation’s GDP. Other prominent industries include manufacturing, construction, and forestry.  

5. Soccer is the most popular sport in Malawi. The national team has not yet qualified for the World Cup, but has made two appearances in the Africa Cup of Nations. Basketball is also growing in popularity. Among the country’s most famous athletes, however, are Olympic swimming medalists Cate and Bronte Campbell, both born in Malawi before moving to Australia, and former IBO and WBC boxing champion Isaac Chilemba. Other notable Malawian athletes include swimmer Joyce Tafatatha, long distance runners Catherine Chikwakwa and Mike Tebulo, equestrian Lucinda Fredericks, and boxers Drake Thadzi and Fundo Mhura.