We saw the Indian Ocean today. We are near it tonight as I write in a town on the southeastern coast of the island. We didn’t get to put our feet in the ocean, but I have put in my request to do so.
Today I saw more white people than I have the entire trip. About ten of them, not counting the two of us. We stayed at a lodge in another rain forest last night. The lodge belongs to a member of one of the Presbyterian churches nearby. Think: deal. The pastor of that church joined us from dinner. We saw a few white people in the restaurant. They were eco-tourists visiting the rain forest. A few more were in the restaurant this morning and a few more were on bicycles touring and perhaps one or two living there. We’ve heard of Peace Corps workers, missionaries, and tourists.
The trip to the south started out like an extreme sport of racing through curves. Oddly enough, the locals got nauseous. Kelly and I were fine. I passed out Pepto-Bismal tablets and we got back on the road, albeit a little slower around curves for a while.
The trip was long. Again. More sitting.
About 4 pm, we pulled into our destination of a town called Vangaindrano. The pastor of this town is a fairly recent seminary graduate and is serving as required in a remote area. This pastor, Pastor Jonah, however, is inspired and organized. He has planted five new churches and has 14 total worshipping communities meeting in homes in villages throughout the area. Unlike Dunedin and much of America where there is a church on every corner, this is like the pioneer days of America: church planting means putting a church where none exists for miles. This pastor will go into a village, talk with the senior political leaders, explain his desire to make Jesus known through a community of people in that village, and leader after leader in village after village immediately offers land to build the church for free. And so Pastor Jonah and the church here plant churches. All of that church planting has caught the attention of the dean of students and professor of mission of the seminary, Dr. Laurent Ramambason. So here we are, encouraging this church.
When we arrived, a group of about 30 people from the church met us in the church. We had a worship service that included the pastor, me, and Kelly King speaking. That is Pastor Jonah speaking in the photo above. During that visit, I explained that we were bringing a word of encouragement for the good work they were doing in Christ’s name. We were also bringing a portion of the global mission funds that were raised during the Walk-a-Thon earlier this year. They were, in fact, encouraged that someone would sacrifice what was by then 45 hours of traveling on three airplanes, and one long Land Rover ride to encourage them in an area even the average Malagasy considers out in the sticks.
One of the members has a few bungalows where Kelly and I are staying tonight. We had about 45 minutes to take a break and then it was dinnertime with the church leaders. Dinner was Chinese noodle soup, rice, chicken, and fish. The pastor stood and gave a welcome speech and introduced his leaders. At the end, I stood and expressed our gratitude for their generosity. A meal like the one they prepared was a feast and in a region where many go hungry we were indeed grateful for their sacrifice of love for us.
The highlight of this southern trip and the whole trip thus far came after dinner. It was an inspired speech by one of the leaders. The church has deacons doing what we call the work of elders at St. Andrews. Their work is actually a cross between our elders and deacons. Once a deacon retires from work at retirement age, only then do they become an “elder.” One of the elders gave the speech. He wanted to tell us the history of Christianity in Madagascar. He told us that missionaries brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the island 200 years ago. At the time, it was dangerous to convert to Christianity. The traditional religion leaders would kill those who converted. He reminded me that much of what we take for granted – the freedom to worship Jesus openly – was bought with the blood of the martyrs who went before us. With arms flailing and strong voice, he told the stories of the first martyrs for Christ in Madagascar. He was the senior statesman in the church in Vangaindrano. It was his privilege to share the legacy that came before them. The first person who converted to Christianity was a woman. She was stabbed to death because of it. Others, he said, were stoned. Still others were thrown off of cliffs. One woman converted to Christianity while she was late in pregnancy. They burned her on a stake and while she was burning she gave birth to the child who also burned to death in the fire. With rising passion, he thundered his message for us, “Tell the people back in America that there are Christians on this island! It cost people everything to bring Christ here. Tell them that there are brothers and sisters who love Jesus here!”
I can’t think of anything I’d rather tell you. Jesus Christ is worshipped and loved here. In the middle of great poverty, pre-modern living conditions, and the devastating financial after effects of a coup government, their faith is strong. Take heart! You may be facing difficulties in your life as you read this, but God is not absent from this world or your difficulties. He shows up in the middle of difficulties and has elder statesmen on the other side of the planet remind us that worshipping Jesus is the shared and great privilege of our lives. Enjoy it. Be encouraged in your life. And see hope in the future.
It’s late and once again, the wake up call will leave us with inadequate amount of sleep. At least for me who wants to journal thoughts of the day. The guests of the bungalows are quieting down all around me, although the geese that are somewhere close are chatting eagerly to each other.
The weather here on the coast is comfortable. Some would say hot, but I still had on long sleeves and didn’t regret it. You know me.
All is well.
I am thinking of you.