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A letter from Jan Heckler in Madagascar

September 2013

Tabitha (the word for ëgazelleí in Aramaic) is the name of the woman in Acts (9:36-42) who did many deeds of kindness and acts of charity throughout her life. When she died, her friends were so heartbroken over heir loss that they beseeched the Apostle Peter to intervene. Peter prayed and the Lord brought Tabitha back to life. The women’s division of FJKM takes both its name, Dorkasy, and its mission from this story. Dorcas is the Greek word for gazelle.

I had just learned that not only was I to develop four days of quality workshop training material but that I would have to deliver it—textually and orally—in French (a language I do not speak)!  Though I have conducted training and workshops my entire professional life, I had never come up against anything like this before.  I was really stuck!

The Executive Secretary of Dorkasy—the women’s division of the PC(USA)’s partner church, FJKM (the abbreviation for the Church of Jesus Christ of Madagascar in Malagasy)—had requested the training for her leading managers and decision-makers.  As part of my ministry as a consultant to FJKM’s organizational development, training is definitely something I normally expect to do.  And, I was especially happy to do this particular training as this was not an insignificant step forward in building trust and improving our work relations.  But with this "French twist" I knew that this workshop would be anything but routine.

The workshop itself was to cover a broad range of familiar topics including:

  • Leadership
  • Team Building
  • Process Analysis
  • Communication
  • Problem Solving
  •  Time Management


Mamisoa Rakotomalala: Wife, mother, seminary student, multilinguist, accomplished educator/trainer and humble servant of the Lord

At the time, my regular language helper, Lisy Razafinimpiasa, was only days from delivering her first baby, a healthy boy named Tiary as it turned out.  So quite naturally the occasion of Tiary’s first birthday removed Lisy from consideration.  Where would I ever find a multilingual translator who was not only willing and available but who also could expertly deliver the material I was already hard at work developing?

As with the other "heavy lifting" tasks in my life, I turned in prayer to the One who neither faints nor wearies and whose understanding is unsearchable.  Gratefully, it wasn’t long before the Lord put the name of a person I already had met once before into my head, Mamisoa Rakotomalala.

Mamisoa, a past university educator, was called by the Lord to FJKM’s ministry a little over four years ago and ever since has been working her way through seminary, the Faculty of Theology in Ambatonakanga.  She still has a final 5th year to go for her master's, but she has been serving as an associate pastor in a nearby church for two years.  To my delight, Mamisoa is not only an experienced educator, she is also fluent in Malagasy, English, French and German and recently added reading and writing Hebrew and Greek to her huge repertoire as part of the seminary’s requirements for the ministry.  Thank you, Lord!!

The pictures in the upper frames were taken around 7:30 a.m. and the ones in the lower frames about three hours later on the same day from the same two windows. The early morning smog problem is apparent in these unretouched photos of Antananarivo.

I wasted no time in getting in touch with her and arranged to meet to discuss the work.  Once we were together, I described the project including its "French twist."  Mamisoa grasped immediately the scope and significance of the work and was at once enthusiastic about it.  She agreed to begin just as soon as her finals at the seminary had concluded.

Fortunately for the workshop, Dorkasy, and me, Mamisoa and I hit it off right away, working together as if we’d been at each other’s side for many campaigns, all the while quickly becoming good friends.  We put in many hours the last few weeks but finally had made ourselves ready with everything set to go for our mid-July start.  But that was when the "challenge bar"—already set a little high—was moved up a notch.

Pastor Miora, manager of Akany Gazela in Moramanga, arrived the day training began in Antananarivo to share the unfortunate news that her infant son Jonathan had become quite ill, apparently suffering an allergic reaction to Antananarivo’s heavy air pollution.  Pastor Miora already had been to a physician and had been told that Jonathan should be returned to their home in Moramanga as soon as possible. 

Akany Gazela—final venue for the Dorkasy Leadership Training Workshop

Because Miora is one of the people we really wanted to support through this training, it was most difficult for us to envision proceeding without her.  So, after looking over the alternatives that were available, we decided to finish the training day already begun, re-organize the material into a three-day workshop instead of the planned four, and then move the show down to Moramanga, where we would resume training on Wednesday (after taking Tuesday off to pack and move).

Despite having a husband and four children to worry over at her own home, Mamisoa did not hesitate when it became clear what was being asked of us.  She knew her presence was necessary for the training to proceed.  She simply said she would work it out and added that she would be more than happy to go to Moramanga to get the job done.  (Now, don’t you wish everyone would deal with the vagaries of life just like that?)

So, we moved the training down to Akany Gazela in Moramanga to continue there.  Of course we had to re-plan our seriously shortened week to take full advantage of every opportunity, collapsing some things, changing others in order to minimize our losses.  These changes were not always apparent until just as a segment of the training was about to unfold.  Then, with only a moment’s warning Mamisoa, never recalcitrant, never dismayed, would do just as I asked, performing at the highest professional level, making my suggestion hers and in doing so graciously transforming the suggestion for improvement from "mine" to "ours." 

Our next challenge came in the form of the electricity.  Or, should I say in the form of its absence?  First it would be on, then off.  Then it would be on but with voltage so low or irregular that both of our uninterruptible power supplies and one of the laptops failed, having to be shut down and set aside.  Still, training continued and Mamisoa never allowed it to disturb her or the master training event she was in the process of quietly rendering. 

Even while ill with a severe bronchial infection, Mamisoa stepped up and trained on.

Then, though we could hardly believe it, the challenge bar was raised yet one more time.  The unexpected on this occasion took the form of a Wednesday morning sore throat, runny nose, and congested sinus that turned almost immediately into a severe bronchial infection that made Mamisoa most miserable.  Still, strengthened by the Lord’s Spirit, our prayers, and her own unwavering determination, Mamisoa rose yet again, missing none of the next dozen or so hours of training over the ensuing two days despite her wanting—praying!—for a bed and to get some badly needed sleep. 

She simply would not quit or give up.  In fact, Mamisoa delivered one of the most effective training performances I have ever witnessed, finishing the last module on Thursday with only an hour to spare before she then lost her voice altogether!

In the end we got higher workshop marks by participants on the participant survey than I have ever seen in 38 years of training and workshop experience!  The highest

Mamisoa conferring with participants while doing small-group work

Watching Mamisoa dig-down to find inner strength and dig-in to "see it through" was an important lesson for me in understanding the depth of character of many of the Dorkasy women.  I realize Mamisoa is an exceptional woman, but her capacity to overcome adversity through faith, the great quality of her unadorned determination, and her just plain having "guts" when she needed to is something I see more and more now in other women of the Dorkasy division thanks to Mamisoa and her most illuminating example. 

Stories like this one do not happen every day here.  But the struggle that pits good people against the most difficult living circumstances imaginable on a regular daily basis does happen every day in a majority world country like Madagascar, arguably now the poorest in the world with 90 percent of its people living on $2 or less each day. 

I am grateful to those who support my ministry through your prayers, communications, and financial commitments.  I need this help to continue the work like that described above; work already ongoing helping to address the root causes of poverty and helping to build the capacity of our partner church, FJKM.  Prayers, correspondence and financial commitment are as much a part of our ministry here as Mamisoa’s dedicated training effort that the Lord inspired her to achieve.  Please if you are not already, won’t you prayerfully consider how the Lord may be calling you to be a part of our mission in Madagascar?  Thank you even for trying.

Jan Heckler

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 121
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