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The challenges and joys of working for the Army in Malawi

Narelle Gurney spent more than 10 years working for The Salvation Army’s Community Development Department in Malawi, which she says was a life-changing experience.


I grew up in southern Sydney (Sans Souci) and had a very stable childhood with lots of freedom. My father was a butcher, and my mother had various part-time jobs, but she was always there when we came home from school.

My mother was a churchgoer and the church organist. My father didn’t go to church – he worked six days a week, and Sunday was his day off. We went to Sunday school, but it wasn’t a religious household.

I went to Sans Souci Public School and then to Endeavour High School. I was outgoing and talkative and always out at friends’ places. I could have done better at school, but it didn’t seem important at the time.

I joined Sunbeams and Guards at Rockdale Corps, and I also attended the corps youth group and Sunday services in my teenage years.

After Year 12, I got work at The Salvation Army’s Mancare centre, which helped men with alcohol, homelessness or other problems. I then worked in a divisional office of The Salvation Army. Those two years gave me a very strong grounding, learning about the wider influence of the Salvos.

After a few years, I decided to attend university and complete a Bachelor of Social Welfare at Macarthur Institute of Higher Education (now Western Sydney University). During this time, I worked one day a week at Samaritan House, accommodating women who were homeless or needed to leave home for safety reasons. I worked mainly in the office and also got to lead some chapel services.

Narelle is now a Community Services Specialist for The Salvation Army, based at Redfern in Sydney.

After I finished my degree, I became a Salvos family support worker, as I’ve always liked working on the frontline and rubbing shoulders with those in the real world.

I then worked at Stretch-A-Family, a foster care agency for teenagers, including residential care and preparation for independent living. I worked with really damaged teenagers – kids who’d been abused and abandoned, violent kids, and those suffering mental illness, grief and loss.

Stretch-A-Family is not a Christian organisation, so I couldn’t overtly talk about my faith to the young people, but at times I was able to share a little of what I believed and what gave direction to my life.

My faith grew, and I was then part of Glebe Corps, which was very focused on community involvement in various ways. My faith grew even more when I went overseas to Malawi.

Overseas service

I’d been thinking for a few years about working in a developing country, mainly because I was available and didn’t have any ties. In my late 40s, I applied to The Salvation Army to work overseas.

I applied in November, and by January I received a letter asking me to go to Malawi. My first thought was, “Oh my goodness – where is that?” I discovered it was a very poor African country. I arrived there in August 2010.

I describe the experience as wonderful, although many things weren’t wonderful, like the poverty and things that went on in the government and society. After I arrived, when I was being driven from the airport, poverty was in my face. I saw people selling food by the side of the road and thought, “I’m going to be living here! Can I cope?”

I headed up a department for community development, and it was a huge learning curve – not just the work but living in another culture and doing things the way they do.

However, there were so many enriching times in Malawi. I became friends with a Malawian Salvation Army officer and befriended her extended family and a network of people. Another enriching thing was the ex-pats I met and getting to know people from many different parts of the world.

There was a lot of satisfaction in the work I did. One was a program for orphan-headed households, looked after by the eldest child because both parents had died. There might be four, five or six kids, with the eldest, who could be 13 or 14, heading that household.

Joseph was 18 when I met him, and the program had trained him in a particular type of farming, given him seeds, a bicycle and some tools. He used the bike like a taxi, giving people lifts to earn income so his four young siblings could attend school. Seeing that family get on their feet, still entrenched in poverty, but being able to step up because of what Joseph could achieve was wonderful.

Narelle with close friend Major Doricah Tulombolombo after she graduated from Eva Burrows College with her Diploma of Ministry in 2018.

There was an ugly incident in Malawi where a group of men attacked me. It was dark and raining, and the car was ambushed. It was quite a violent attack – I had cuts on my arm and my back, and I questioned God that night but quickly realised that he protected me because I was alive!

I stayed in Malawi for 11 years and returned on 23 March 2021. Sometimes I have to think about how much I trust God and thank him for what he’s brought into my life. There have been spiritual truths that I’ve had to grapple with – especially in Malawi.

Taking God’s word to heart and applying it to my life no matter the circumstances has been challenging, but it’s helped my faith and belief grow.

As told to Major Bryce Davies. To listen to Narelle’s podcast and more, go to


* Narelle is a Community Services Specialist for The Salvation Army, based at Redfern in Sydney.


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