A letter from Doug Tilton in South Africa
May 27, 2007
In the wee hours of the morning of December 30, 2006, Pastor Claire Razafindramiarana awoke to find that her home and her church were on fire. In no time at all, the wooden church burned to the ground and Pastor Claire had lost virtually everything.
The cause of the fire remains a mystery. Pastor Claire and the elders of the 500-strong FJKM (Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar) congregation at Morondava on Madagascar’s west coast have a number of suspicions. Some believe that the incident was politically motivated. Madagascar’s president, Marc Ravalomanana, is also the lay vice president of the FJKM. The FJKM and the island’s Christian population as a whole were instrumental in enabling Ravalomanana to take office following a disputed election in late 2001, and the church had openly supported his successful re-election bid a few weeks earlier. Others are convinced that the arson was an act of religious intolerance in a region that has a relatively large Muslim minority. And no one can rule out that the fire wasn’t accidental or the random act of a deranged mind.
But the congregation is looking to the future, not the past. Last Sunday, as they have done every Sunday since the fire, several hundred people gathered under a large tarpaulin on vacant land next to where the razed church is being rebuilt. During the worship service, the chair of the building committee gave a progress report, a special offering was taken to finance the rebuilding and parishioners streamed to the front of the makeshift church to fill a vessel the size of an institutional soup pot with cash. After the service, PC(USA) Africa area coordinator Doug Welch and I joined Pastor Claire and several of the elders to survey the new church’s recently laid foundations. The new church will be bigger and more durable, and its floor will be raised a foot or two above ground level to prevent flooding during the cyclone season.
I was in Morondava last Sunday in my capacity as PC(USA) regional liaison for southern Africa. Doug Welch and I spent 10 days in Madagascar — and a few days prior to that in Mauritius — to meet with partner churches, to share our respective joys, concerns and visions and to explore ways in which we can continue to walk together in partnership and learn from each other’s ministries.
The PC(USA)’s partners in the two countries are as different as the islands themselves. Mauritius is two-thirds the size of Rhode Island and has a total population of 1.3 million. Although the nation has its share of poverty and social problems, it remains one of the most prosperous societies in Africa. The majority of Mauritius’ people are Hindu, and most Christians are Catholic, so the Presbyterian Church of Mauritius (EPM) is fairly small, with only a few thousand members in five congregations. Nevertheless, the church is seeking dynamic and creative ways to minister to a changing society. The growth of “non-stop” industries such as tourism and offshore services (like customer support call centers) has made it difficult for many people to attend traditional Sunday morning services, so the EPM has established a network of house churches that meet during the week. The church also benefits from active youth structures and the full participation of women in leadership at all levels.
In contrast, Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is nearly as large as Texas. It is also one of the world ’s poorest nations with 85 percent of its 18.6 million people living on less than two dollars a day. With over three million members, the FJKM is larger than the PC(USA).
The FJKM is working to make a difference in the lives of Madagascar’s people through a variety of evangelism, health, education, rural development and environmental programs. With the help of dedicated church staff and experienced PC(USA) mission personnel in Madagascar (Dan and Elizabeth Turk and Dr. Joanne Brown), we were able to get a taste of the broad spectrum of the church’s work in just 10 days.
While in Morandava, we had an opportunity to visit five rural churches that had been planted by the FJKM Evangelism Department with assistance from the PC(USA). At each location, members of the congregation turned out to greet us and to worship with us before we explained the reasons for our visit. It was immensely inspiring to see the church at work in the most remote corners of the country, and it was clear that our visit was also an encouragement to them. When we reached the hamlet of Analamitsivala, after 45 minutes of lurching along a narrow track through dense brush, the catechist told us in amazement, “We are so far back in the forest that we never thought anyone would ever visit us!”
We also had a chance to see some of the church’s schools and health care facilities in operation. Despite its limited resources, the church maintains more than 500 primary and secondary schools around the country that serve more than 150,000 students as well as four theological training institutions. The church has established 37 dispensaries around the country that provide basic medications and medical advice at low cost and offer nutritional support programs for young children. The FJKM’s development arm has also pioneered environmental education and native tree planting initiatives designed to protect Madagascar’s unique ecology, as well as clean water projects and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention programs.
Wherever we went in Madagascar, we encountered profound appreciation for the continuing relationship between the FJKM and the PC(USA) and for the crucial ways in which this partnership has helped the FJKM to realize its vision and strengthen its ministry.
Please keep both the FJKM and the EPM in your prayers as they discern new ways of witnessing to God’s love for the people of Madagascar and Mauritius.
Grace and peace,
The 2007 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 335