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A letter from Doug Tilton in South Africa

July 2013

Dear friends,

What do you remember from fourth grade? I was fascinated by the world map that hung on the wall of our classroom and, in particular, by an enticingly remote island on the far side of Africa, labeled “Malagasy Republic.” I also recall the posters hung in the school corridor promoting the first Earth Day in 1970.

Earth Day at U.S. Embassy: U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Eric Wong “introduces” the palms to be planted. Behind him, l-r, are SAF/FJKM National Director Tsialoninarivo Rahajary, USAID Mission Director for Madagascar Rudy Thomas, PC(USA) mission co-worker Dan Turk, two representatives of Malagasy environmental NGOs, and PC(USA) mission co-worker Doug Tilton (Photo: Eric Atkins, U.S. Embassy)

Those two memories collided a few weeks ago when I attended an Earth Day celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo, Madagascar (as the Malagasy Republic was renamed in 1975). As a regional liaison I often seek to be present at events as a visible sign of the PC(USA)’s accompaniment and solidarity with our partners. To mark Earth Day the Embassy had asked the Development Department (SAF) of the PC(USA)’s partner, the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar (FJKM), to supply indigenous trees to be planted on the embassy grounds. One of our mission co-workers, agro-forestry specialist Dan Turk, had selected three species of rare Malagasy palms from among the many varieties grown at the SAF nurseries.

Madagascar has close to 200 native palm species—about four times as many as can be found on the whole of the African continent. The vast majority of them are found only in Madagascar, and 83 percent are threatened with extinction.  One of the palms that Dan selected, the “Suicide Palm” (Tahina spectabilis, so named because it dies after flowering spectacularly), is now represented in the wild by only about 30 mature trees growing in a small region of northwestern Madagascar. It is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the 100 most threatened species—plant or animal—in the world.

Presbyterians in the United States are often surprised to learn that World Mission partners with the FJKM to care for God’s creation in this way.  And in some respects our work with SAF/FJKM is as unique as Madagascar’s own distinctive biological diversity. Protecting, even enhancing, that diversity is essential.

Rolland Razafiarison and Rev. Juliette Razafiarisoa explain the impact of the Environment and Development course at Ivato Seminary. (Photo: Douglas Tilton)

SAF/FJKM not only encourages communities to grow trees for food and fuel instead of exploiting native forests, it also imports new varieties of fruit trees, selecting and propagating those that do best in Madagascar. Six years ago SAF helped Ivato Seminary, one of four FJKM theological schools, to launch an innovative Environment and Development course to equip fourth-year seminarians with agricultural skills.

“We start the week with this program,” said Rev. Juliette Razafiarisoa, the seminary’s director. “All students learn how to sow, how to transplant, how to graft, and how to take care of the ground.”  The seminary has established gardens, a demonstration orchard, and a nursery so that students can gain practical experience. “They can experiment and decide which trees they would like to grow at their first parish,” Pastor Juliette explained.  In the FJKM most theological students are assigned to serve a rural parish following their fourth year. “When they go,” said Pastor Juliette, “they can choose 10 plants to take.”

The aim is not only to help pastors to provide food for their own families so that they can minister to otherwise underserved communities, but also to enable them to share the techniques with people in these areas. “They teach the congregation to plant sweet potatoes so that they can have food and even some income,” she said. “Even if there is nothing in the area, they can manage to fight poverty.”

Rolland Razafiarison, an SAF staff member, cited numerous examples, including Matilda, an Ivato graduate who was posted to a remote village in the arid south. “The people there weren’t doing vegetable gardening or growing fruit trees. When they saw what she was able to grow, they were amazed. She told them, ‘God has helped me, and if you are interested in planting and growing, God will help you too.’ So she was able to pass on her knowledge and now that whole area has begun to grow vegetables and fruit trees.”

“These pastors are really making a big difference in the places where they are living because there is often a big lack of vitamins,” Rolland continued. “As many as 70 percent of the people who visit rural doctors are diagnosed as malnourished or lacking vitamins, so these vegetables and fruit trees are a great way of helping the population. And having the pastors share this knowledge is a wonderful way to spread it to all parts of the island because the pastors go everywhere. This helps to protect the environment and improve people’s livelihoods. No other group in Madagascar has a program like this.” 

Liva Razafimahefa, a fourth-year student currently at Ivato, felt that the program would enhance his effectiveness as a minister. “Most pastors are leaders only in their churches,” he said. “I think I will be different. I can be a leader in both the church and the community.  I can work with the people in rural villages because I know how to grow things, how to fertilise them, and how to get a big production out of a little land.”

As Pastor Juliette said, “The new pastors are able not only to preach the gospel directly, but also to demonstrate the good news that God cares for all people.”  Like a mustard seed, that message is bearing fruit all over Madagascar.

Thank you for all that you do to advance the work of Presbyterian World Mission. Your prayers, letters and gifts help to sustain my ministry and the ministries of other Presbyterian mission co-workers around the world. If you are not already supporting one or more PC(USA) mission workers, please consider doing so. And please remember in prayer our sisters and brothers in the FJKM as we work together to address the root causes of poverty, to share the good news of the gospel, and to engage in ministries of reconciliation.

Grace and peace,

Doug Tilton

P.S.  I will be in the United States on “Interpretation Assignment” from late July until the end of the year.  If you would like to learn more about what God is doing in Madagascar and Southern Africa with and through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its global partners, please consider attending one of my presentations or contacting me (douglas.tilton@pcusa.org) to discuss how your congregation can deepen its mission involvement. Or join me in attending the World Mission Partner Conference at the Big Tent event, August 1-3 in Louisville, Ky.  (You can register at pcusa.org/impact.)  In late September and October I will be travelling with Rev. Helivao Poget, one of the International Peacemakers from Madagascar.  Please contact Rev. Carl Horton (carl.horton@pcusa.org) at the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program for more information on how you can invite both of us to visit.

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 123
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