Evacuation

It was 8pm on a Saturday night in Antananarivo and the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, announced to his nation that the borders would be closing …. 

We’d heard rumors and talked about it in the days prior but it just didn’t seem possible. What would happen in Madagascar if it closed its borders with France? They are such an important economic partner… It was being rumored and discussed as the numbers of Covid-19 cases soared in France and the border with China had already been closed. But France? It just didn’t seem possible. And there we were, hearing the announcement… it’s happening. 

The calls and messages went back and forth between colleagues and headquarters. My emotions bounced as a pinball from shock to action to tears, yet constantly hovering just below break down, shut down. This is happening. You don’t get to worry about how you feel right now, that will come later, I told myself. Then clarification came as I understood it was just with France, not the multiple African routes that could still get us home, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia even Mauritius, they would all stay open it was just France (and Reunion and Mayotte) that Mada would close its borders to on Thursday at 23:59 completely for 30 days. The calls ended with you are all going home. So at 10pm on that same Saturday night I informed the volunteers, tomorrow is your last Sunday, pack your bags, we’re leaving.

I got up the next morning and went to the English Chapel where I had preached just the week before to worship with this community for possibly the last time. After, I went to lunch with Stine and Mirenty. We ate and I sat wondering if this might be our last meal together… at least for a long while. Stine had already been ordered to evacuate and was departing on Tuesday. Mirenty is Malagasy, so she would stay. My head worked to stay present and eat the calories I needed while it swam in the looming details of evacuating seven volunteers from all corners of the country and temporarily closing my home for a time in which no one knew a probable end…

That week borders around the world went from bridges to walls and we watched Madagascar spring surprise mandatory quarantines on all people arriving from France for the now standard, 14 days. They could avoid the quarantine but only by staying on the plane and returning immediately back to France for 11 more hours of flight.  

I worked to bring volunteers in from all directions, not a single one able to travel with another because of the tight timeline and the need to replace one of their passports AND visa so that they could leave the country… and all of it further compounded and compacted as it was decided on Monday, that we wouldn’t depart on Saturday as originally decided, it would be Thursday instead. Which would end up being a good decision as a few hours later, Madagascar announced that all its borders (air and sea) would close Thursday at 23:59.

It was a week of anxiety and stress. Some volunteers came to Tana via bus, others by car in order for them to get back in time. All of us emotional, all of us trying to make sense, all of us in varying levels of disbelief. There wasn’t a single case of Covid-19 in Madagascar, or so said the numbers…yet things were clearly beginning to fall apart back home…

I arranged everything at my home in Tana to be taken care of through the end of May 2020. It seemed a reasonable amount of time in which to be away. A reasonable amount of time for this pandemic to break in some fashion… Even if my time in Madagascar had a scheduled end, this was not it. This departure would not let me say my thank you’s and goodbyes to friends and colleagues. This frenzied evacuation would not be enough to close down my life in Madagascar with my home, bank account and all the rest that is after five years of living, anywhere. So with hopes of return, I packed two bags of things a brain focusing on the wellbeing of seven others packs.

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We arrived at the airport in Antananarivo at about 10:30 on Thursday for the volunteers to check in for their 2:30pm flight. The airport was relatively calm and I was thankful for it. ‘Get everyone checked in and through security and I can start to breathe’ was my thought. My flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 5pm. Borders were closing all over the world that week and flights were filling up, apparently the volunteers got the last tickets on their flight through Ethiopia and I was lucky to get one later through Mauritius/Istanbul.

We walked into the airport and to luggage screening where I said goodbye. I gave pre-Covid hugs to another year of volunteers as they went on ahead and away from Madagascar for their final time. I found a place where I could see them as they passed to security after checking in and waited until they were all out of sight. They confirmed with a text that they had all made it through and my lungs filled a little more completely then they had been that morning.

My flight was not open for check in and wouldn’t be for awhile. So I went to grab some lunch with Hasina. It was such an odd lunch. We ate at a place full of French speaking tourists … or maybe residents … most of whom didn’t seem the slightest bit phased by the chaos and panic and stress and disappointment that had filled and defined the last days for me and the volunteers. I sat there thinking this cannot be the last time I share time with my friend. Hasina and I ate and talked and returned to the airport.

The airport had a much different feel an hour later. It was packed as people tried to check into more flights than the Ivato airport ever handles in a day. Once in the terminal I was lucky to find some fellow missionaries from Norway and joined them in the wait and heaviness of the situation. People were present trying to get on flights that didn’t have seats. People were finding out just the day before South Africa had closed their borders to citizens of the USA, so they couldn’t take that flight though Johannesburg and they were left without a way home.

You could feel the tension and the emotional restraint. Some handling it with silence, others by talking loudly without seeming to take a break even to breathe. 

The checkin area of the Ivato airport was crowded, hot and moving as a sloth. If Covid-19 was already here, we in this place are all infected now I thought.

I made it through checkin and security to wait for my plane. I’d been certain I wouldn’t see the volunteers again as it took so long to make it through security but their flight was late in boarding, so I saw four of them and gave four more pre-covid hugs as they scanned their tickets and walked out to the tarmac.

My pacing took over again as their plane sat not moving until a full 90 minutes after the flight was scheduled to take off. They only had a 2 1/2 layover in Ethiopia. It was a relief to see the plane finally push back.

Maybe 30 minutes after that my plane began to board. We took a bus out to a more distant plane and eventually stepped into an incredibly tranquil environment of soothing music, temperate lighting and the semi-serenity that comes with knowing that you made it onto the last commercial flight that could have gotten you to the USA and all of your volunteers are headed ahead of you…

Madagascar to Mauritius (staying on the plane) and then to Istanbul. Change planes in Istanbul and fly to JFK. Change planes, airlines and terminals in JFK and fly after multiple hours to Detroit. The airports were silent and they screamed of a world shutting down, of people returning to wherever they were from and of fear. I moved easily through all the airports and was taken aback by the number of people not present and yet the presence of many that I encountered. Kind words, patient encouragement, time taken to notice the person in front of you.

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I was a mess that day, actually that whole week and for much of these weeks that have since past. I remember the loveliness of fellow passengers, crew and workers throughout the trip. We were all shaken at least a bit and we recognized that in each other. Our humanity and frailty was exposed and mutually met… 

I am now in Michigan and watching Covid-19 take over our lives. I watch Madagascar  and see mostly the same. Their Covid-19 case count is 121 and there are varied opinion about how and when to end their lockdown. Today is a month after we landed back in the USA.

Stolen Life

There are things that happen in life that leave us breathless, shaken. Things that make us question the humanity of our fellow humans. Things that leave us looking for firm ground and another version of reality completely distinct from the one we are currently wading through … 

On Sunday February 23, Ramatoa Ralivao Helene died. Not of old age, sickness or even accident but of someone else deciding to take what wasn’t theirs to take, her life and her body. 

Ramatoa was a strong and kind woman, one full of patience and wisdom, experience and connections. One whose smile told you it would be all right. She was one of the first four women theologians to come through the FLM in the 1970’s. She was a mpiandry of the Fifohazana. She has been a faithful steward and developer of ILOFAV, a women’s center for women’s development, a ministry of the Malagasy Lutheran Church. She earned her Master’s degree in the USA and she has traveled to Norway and other places for additional training and program work.

She has friends and colleagues all over the world through the FLM, ELCA, NMS, LWF, AACC and many other organizations. So many of these connections where made through her work and interest in the development of women and the elimination of violence against them.

This week is the mourning and burial of a beloved woman who was stolen from us. Her body currently lies at ILOFAV. She will travel to Fandriana on Thursday morning and be buried on Friday. All while family, friends, fellow theologians and the church work through their shock, cry their most painful of tears and beg the attention of civil authorities to investigate and help us to understand the full story of something that never should have been. May we all continue her work.

Rest In Peace Ramatoa

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This picture is from October 2019, at the FBL in Manakara.

Ramatoa Ralivao Helene leaves behind her husband, five children, children in law, many grandchildren and so many more who call her Mama.

Weeping

Where vibrant life once radiated, now comes no twinkle of the eye, no wondering of the mind, no breath from the lips… just still flesh. 

I am just returning from mourning a man that I did not know. But I did know that this man was loved and cared for by people I love and care for. I did know that he was but 32 years old. I did know that the people who loved him did all that they could for him in these last days of hospitalization from just before Christmas until he died on January 3, 2020. I did know that they where all deeply grieving and that their questions of why will never be able to be answered.

So so difficult.

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We all know that life sometimes gets snuffed out way too early but for those left behind there is shock, grief, anger, questions and disbelief.

I sit here with my own disbelief and a rather heavy heart. Thinking of my friends and knowing they now carry the weight of this death, the unrealized hopes and the loss of a friend, brother and son.

It’s at these times we cling to the promises of the resurrected Christ and of the new heaven and the new earth to come. We cling to the promise that there will be new life healed and renewed, resurrected from all that once was. We know it and believe it… and yet, all feels quite dark and heavy now. The road ahead feels labored and the air thick with emotion yet thin with oxygen. Light is barely perceivable, time does not move.

But what surrounds my friends whether they can see them or not are a great cloud of witnesses, gathered outside their home, sitting and waiting, and visitors and fellow mourners bringing words and prayers and white envelops to the family. Shaking hands and joining their hearts. Saying ‘we have come to be with you because this loss is too much to bare and you must not bare it alone, we are here with you now and in all your times of need.’

I remember the last time I was with this whole family, it was a wedding, big and beautiful and full of life and promise, the youngest sibling marrying her love. We were all happiness and joy, there was a twinkle in our eyes, dreams in our minds and smiles on our lips.

Life is not a straight easy road, we are forever reminded of that. “Weeping may last through the night but joy comes in the morning” says the psalmist. It is true but certainly not always the next morning and not always directly from weeping to joy. 

I pray tonight that in the weeks and months to come joy will be found again, but for now I know  it’s the weeping. We weep with you and for you my friends until that joy is somehow re-found. We are your cloud of witnesses, praying for you, standing with you, reminding you that you are not alone and that somehow in all of this God is present, mourning with us all and giving courage and hope enough for us all to get each other through.

Hasina, Landy, Rivo and the rest of the family, my heart is with you.

Hope, maybe

The count was close to 27,000 women who gathered in Manakara for the triennial gathering and celebration of the FBL of the FLM. (The Women’s Organization of the Malagasy Lutheran Church.) The 16th Zaikabe.

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It’s always encouraging to be present and to connect with friends.

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This Zaikabe brought with it the official recognizing of a decision of the larger church to allow the female theologians to wear a clergy collar and robe, no stole, no ordination but something to acknowledge and differentiate them. The female theologians have had the exact same education and much of the same work experience as their males colleagues but ordination is not currently allowed.

I had some mixed emotions about the decision, as I so hope this is not the last step and one day there will be women’s ordination in all churches.

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The moment I saw the nearly 300 female theologians standing in front of me, many with clerical collars and/or robes, I was overwhelmed with emotion… an overwhelming collision of past loneliness and future hope rushed through me and my eyes welled with tears. It’s been a long time standing alone here, and what a sight, a sight of hope and possibility. The power of the visual!

The President of the FLM spoke and acknowledged that the KMSL (decision making board of the FLM) is divided on the issue. But then continued to comment, that he thought ‘this was the first step.’ He encouraged the synods to employ and use the knowledge and skills of the theologians, as they should have work.

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Mariette, the first theologian also spoke briefly and reminded us all that it has been 45 years since the KMSL took the decision to allow women to study at the seminaries. She shared some from Psalm 103. I have to say she look rather dignified as she did.

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The question of women’s ordination here is for the FLM to decide but I cannot help but to hope and to pray. I found encouragement and joy for sure this past Sunday, may courage continue!

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Peace be with you

I’m wandering a bit through the USA right now. Meeting congregations and synods and friends who support me in so many ways in life and particularly as I continue to live and serve in Madagascar. Some of these stops along the way include the opportunity to preach as I did at St Philip in Littleton, Colorado on Sunday, April 28. We read the gospel of John from chapter 20 verse 11. This is a picture of the churches altar and stained glass window and below are the words I shared that day.

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Peace be with you.

My name is Kirsten Laderach. I am a pastor with the ELCA and the country coordinator for the Young Adults in Global Missions program in Madagascar.

I consider myself a pretty lucky person! I have a job that – though extremely challenging at times – gives me great joy. I like the challenge and the learning and personal growth that is often uncomfortably thrust upon me.

I work at the intersection of encouraging and developing young adults to see a world larger than themselves and the homes and country they came from … while in many ways representing those communities and this church and country to the Malagasy Lutheran Church. 

We, myself and the young adult volunteers, do this through the lens of accompaniment. Walking with, thinking and acting mutually and together, or at least trying our best to… and then picking ourselves up over and over again when we fail. It doesn’t matter where you are or who relationships are with, relationships are beautiful and hard, life giving and exhausting but we are always more, and better because of them. 

The Bible is full of stories around relationships … relationships with family, friends, strangers, enemies and ultimately with God. It too records and tells the stories of beauty, difficulty, life and death. All while it points to larger themes like forgiveness and grace, salvation and eternal life, truth and resurrection. Our text today is not foreign to these themes; and neither are our lives…

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I arrived in Madagascar just over four years ago and the Madagascar I originally met looks little like the Madagascar I know today … and that’s mostly because the Kirsten who arrived in Madagascar four years ago looked and was a bit different then the one who stands before you now. 

And that’s what happens to us, right? Time moves forward, circumstances and understandings change and so do we…

This isn’t to say that we wake up one day and know all the answers and get everything right because we’ve been prepared and prepped for what might be to come. But it is to say, that we continue to be human.

Jesus had been telling the disciples, and any one who would listen, who he was and what was about to happen and still the empty tomb wasn’t first met with joy but instead an inability to see, question, fear, and doubt.

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One of my favorite things about my job is to watch the volunteers grow and to work through their own blindness, question, fear and doubt…maybe because they do so in ways not so dissimilar to my own …

A couple weeks ago I met the new volunteers who will arrive at the end of August. From April to August we share information about what to expect in a year of service and in Madagascar AND then they come to Mada get off the plane and their eyes get really big … we then spend another 4 weeks in country preparing them more specifically and yet still I get the phone calls and the messages … sometimes panic and shock, and sometimes in weeks or months, an “I couldn’t hear what you were saying until I actually saw it…”

And you’ve been there, we’ve all been there,… the first day of school, a new job, relocating, how about marriage?… all the preparation and still…

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And Mary Magdalene and the disciples… they where dealing with something, some one even bigger … A resurrection, Jesus alive again… can you imagine??? 

We take this for truth now, we celebrate the story, we read about it in the book that “these are written so that you may continue believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

But that wasn’t always so, there had to be a first… (or firsts,) to struggle through the information, to see what’s new and what’s possible and even to be given the opportunity to understand for themselves, for ourselves.

Some, through the years, have questioned those who first encounter the risen Lord and their reactions to the news. Thomas always gets the most criticism, forever being… who? (Doubting Thomas) 

And the disciples after hearing the news are locked in a room, locked. in. fear. But Jesus had just told them…

And we often wonder and explain away why Mary didn’t recognize Jesus right away…

But what if…

We are all Thomas?

What if we are all the disciples….

What if we are all Mary Magdalene….

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Waiting, sometimes stubbornly, until proof can be supplied…

Waiting until we can just like Thomas “see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side… I will not believe…”

Maybe we are like the disciples?

Unsure of what to do, locked in fear, afraid of what is to come, afraid of what is, afraid of a group even a group we might some how be a part of… “and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…”

Maybe we are like Mary Magdalene 

Questioning, unable to recognize Jesus, even speaking to him as though he was another until he spoke her name… “sir, if you have carried him away…”

This is often how we react to ourselves and each other in times newness and in times of doubt, fear, question…

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What keeps jumping out to me as I read this text over and over… Jesus presence and his gentle words …. 

“Mary” … 

“Peace be with you”

Can you hear him?

“Mary”…

“Peace be with you”

It’s as if Jesus is saying, ‘Friends I am here as I told you, I will always be, I come in peace and love so that you may have life…and not just a heart beating, breathing in and out life but an abundant life. A life where forgiveness and grace, salvation and eternal life, truth and resurrection direct and guide your very being, your very existence.

This has been sustaining for me and I hope for you … Jesus is still present to us and through us, through the people we know and who come into our lives in often fascinating and unexpected ways. Sometimes we have to listen a little harder and drop more of the Thomas that dwells inside of each of us, but we are, all of us, we are called by name and we are greeted with peace. 

May God’s peace be with each and everyone of you.

Relief

I left the house in pursuit of a newspaper and to understand the feeling in the air. What might it be? I expected everything to be changed, but it could have been any other day… sort of…

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The beggars begged, the police loosely stood watch, people moved from place to place, car horns honked, and the park benches were full. I took the one remaining spot I could see, between two men, one fixated on his lunch the other on his own thoughts. “Please release me, let me go” played in the background, a particularly odd and potentially poignant message for the day.

Yesterday the results of Madagscar’s Presidential election were finalized. For those of us who tuned in we waited over two hours as the High Constitutional Court (HCC) responded to the 305 election complaints submitted to the court before they made the final announcement: Candidate number 13, Andry Rajoelina had won, defeating candidate 25, Marc Ravalomanana. The DJ versus the yogurt maker and the men of a long standing and deep rivalry. But we had now the final outcome, no more speculating about what the HCC might do. Now just some speculating about what we might do…

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The election has highlighted so many of the challenges in this country; corruption, ethnic and tribal divisions, vast poverty and extreme wealth, hope, chance, history and an unknown future. It’s brought up emotion and fear, resignation, distain and disenchantment. (This run-off election saw only 48% of the voting public make it to the voting booth.)

Today there are some really happy people and in Tana where their more favored (though not exclusively favored) candidate was defeated, some sadness, but mostly relief. There has been so much speculation and memory of past transitions floating in the air, it was hard not to worry and wonder and prepare for the worst at least a little bit. As recently as last Saturday there was tear gas and molotov cocktails going off at ear distance away from where I live. So yes relief, that the court would come out with the expected result. Relief that the defeated would congratulate the winner for all to see at the court house and relief for the winner to acknowledge that greeting to the Malagasy population in his acceptance speech. Relief, oh yes, relief.

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Will anything change? We don’t really know. But I guess something already has…we have the makings of a smooth transition of power. Something not necessarily the norm here. So that’s a positive.

I can’t tell you whether I think Andry Rajoelina will be a good president or not. Time will tell that but all the marks of a democracy worked at least at a minimum and the rejection of such would likely have lead to chaos. So today I pray for his success and for the success of this country and these people that I love.

And tonight I will sleep easier and I am certain that I won’t be the only one.

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I ran into Pascal today and chatted about the elections and prayer and life. I asked if I could take a picture of the two of us, just to show how calm things are now. Right behind us is City Hall and the place of recent protests, tear gas and molotov cocktails. Today no gatherings, just freely moving people breathing a sigh of relief.

One hello is another goodbye

One month ago I said goodbye to another group of volunteers. In the weeks prior, those same volunteers all said goodbye to countless people in their communities who had become friends and family through the year. People who may forever live in their hearts but who most likely they will not see beyond Facebook for a long time if ever again.

This part of the year is an interesting one for me, as I too am part of that community left behind… 

I celebrate the reunions and see the joy radiating, especially from Moms and Dads re-uniting with their adult child again, and yet I confess I mourn it all a little too. 

So much focus on preparing the volunteers to leave their communities well and then shifting towards how to speak about their experiences to friends and family back home. This is my work and privilege. And the best way I know to go about it is with a bit of a stiff upper lip and waiting until everyone has gone to deal with my own emotions. 

(Full disclosure… I tried to wait. Serena you couldn’t hold the tears, could you? 😉 )

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I confess, I don’t like being left behind even knowing that I will be fine. Yet this is the work, to support and grow a group through a year in country, say goodbye and then say hello to a whole new group and start it all over again and again.

I am thankful for the consistency of my friends and colleagues here in Madagascar, though I can’t help but think of the inevitable goodbyes that will come for me too when I talk with the volunteers about theirs.

One day my parents and other family and friends will express a similar joy of my return. And I will be like the volunteers, so happy to see them and simultaneously completely broken hearted. One hello is always another goodbye…

Exhale.

For now, I await a new hello. One that will bring another year of joy, challenge, learning and hope. And one that is full of its own goodbyes.

Life is fragile

We know it, we’ve seen it, we’ve felt it and yet it’s proof often catches us by surprise. Life is fragile. Life changes, it lives, it dies, it takes new courses, it finds new loves. Life can feel strong and powerful, deliberate and bold, but still it can never walk away from this truth; life is fragile and we are fragile in it.

I remember watching my grandfather hang wallpaper at my parents house when I was a child. He was working in the den and came to a corner inside the closet, he took a small piece of wall paper scrap to cover a gap and told me it was our secret how he’d done it. How vivid that memory is all these years and decades later that if that wallpaper ever comes down, I want that corner scrap.

Grandpa died when I was 12 years old. A proud and stubborn man who wasn’t interested in taking the adequate rest after a quadruple by-pass surgery…another heart attack would come and we would lose grandpa forever.

At his funeral, the cars where ordered for the procession to the cemetery and the casket was loaded into the hearse, I watched from inside of the car as my Mom, my Dad and my Mom’s two brothers just collapsed into each other’s devastated mutual embrace.

Life is fragile.

While pastoring a church in California, I had ample opportunities to witness the fleeting quality of life. Late night calls, unexpected passings and vanishing hope as prognosis became clear. I cried with parishioners and by myself. I questioned the universe, God and everything available to question, I felt my fragility, our fragility.

Living in Madagascar, the fragility of life comes into laser focus more often then any where else I have lived. The price of poverty and lack of development is often a lack of access and services which consequently give way to a closer relationship with death, the unknown and choices thrust upon you. I’ve watched caskets transported on top of taxi brousses and gotten choked up as I spoke words of condolence to surviving family members.

But this week that fragility hit me in a new way.

I sent a volunteer home to be with her sick father. We did so with a mix of hope and trepidation and a charge to get back to Mada as soon as it was reasonably possible. We’d cried tears of anger and frustration, tears of sadness and question. She hoped that this was an unnecessary decision to return, that he would be fine when she got back. But he wasn’t. She missed him.

I am overwhelmed by my own sadness even as it pales in comparison to the devastation of this beautiful young women and her family. I didn’t know this man, but I know his daughter and I imagine her pain.

No resource, knowledge or privilege could grant health. And life came to remind us again how fragile she is.

We can be strong and brilliant, lovely and whimsical but times come when fragility is what defines all; our space, our time and ourselves.

Take nothing for granted.

Life is fragile.

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Friends and Loves

I am coming up on my 3-year anniversary of arriving in Madagascar. March 10, 2015 I first stepped on Malagasy soil and breathed Malagasy air. Three years ago my head was spinning and my heart spent its days vacillating between pounding in my chest and slipping to the pit of my stomach. What did I say I would do? And who did I think I was? Over and over I asked as I traveled around from city to city meeting person upon person all while never knowing completely what I was doing or even where I was.

How funny to look back from a position of knowing what I couldn’t have known I didn’t.

Since the New Year I have been able to visit all nine of the volunteers at their sites. During this set of visits something shifted drastically from previous visits at many of the sites. I’ve always enjoyed visiting, I’m too social of a person not to, but the tenor and tone changed from business and colleague to collaborator and friend. Was it me? Was it them? Is it we?

I feel one of the lessons life is repeatedly trying to teach me … and maybe you have this one figured out already? … but life keeps trying to teach me that everything takes longer than you think it will… relationships, projects, travel, settling in a new home and in a new community, getting comfortable with a new job…it always takes. so. long. I fight that reality over and over, when will I just accept that time is so often the only thing that’s needed.

How can I get to know someone if I don’t spend time with them? How can I learn a new skill if I don’t give the practice enough time? How can I heal and be able to say good bye? Time, it’s always time.

Not always a quantity of time, but definitely a quality of time.

Something awoken in me not that long ago about this and my own need to continue to lean in. To press forward. To give love and friendship, to trust and stay open for the most positive and promising of outcomes … in my work, my life and in my relationships.

Not stepping away from the hard stuff or the difficulties of life either but leaning in to all. of. it.

And not blindly, or naively, but boldly and confidently and taking moments as particular and precious. Regarding them as specific and real, not judging or qualifying them. Just taking them for what they are, with and from the beautiful people who share them with me.

And maybe this is just an over flow of positive energy and recent conversations, but I’ll take it and I’ll keep moving with it.

Maybe you’ll take it and move with me too…

Moments of friends and love these past couple months.

Some Daze

Some days will spin you in circles, let you fly free and then tie you in knots. Sunday was one of those days…

I went to Betafo, a small town west of Antsirabe, Madagascar. Here the first Lutheran worship was held in Madagascar 150 years ago. Rightfully we were there with more people than I could count to celebrate the 150 years of Lutheranism in Madagascar and 500 years of the Lutheran Reformation. (This weekend would have happened in October, but the plague got in the way…)

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It was quite the event. Church people from all over Madagascar, numerous choirs, government officials, some military and a few missionaries came to witness and to celebrate the endurance and hopefulness of the faith.

I have to admit to being a little overcome, maybe even a little star-struck when the murmurs rose as Marc Ravalomanana (the ousted former President of Madagascar) descended the center stairs. He waved to the crowd on the left and on the right, possibly a bit much for a church service entrance but then I wasn’t the only one making sure they got a picture.

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He took his sit and then as if on cue, the Presidential helicopter flew over head to deliver the President of Madagascar, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, his entrance only different because of his close body guards, I couldn’t resist and got a picture of him as well…

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Oh the separation of … never mind…

With the two most important and distinguished guests present the service began…confession and forgiveness, scripture, hymns, homily, offering and choirs all leading up to announcements and introductions.

The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) along with NMS (Norwegian Mission Society) and Dan Mission (Danish Mission) form the trilogy of what is referred to here as “traditional partners” to the FLM (Malagasy Lutheran Church). The Norwegians have been here 150 years, the Americans about 130 years and the Danes joined more recently. It was our time to stand up and be recognized. There is always a speech given by one of the partners, the Norwegians took the task. I just had to stand there and smile.

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While we were still standing the Norwegian Official sang an old Norwegian hymn to the crowd. An interesting but endearing choice. From my vantage point I could see many with the look that says ‘what exactly is going on here?’ And then Marc Ravalomanana, seemingly just as surprised as many others, took out his cell phone to get not just one but two videos of the song while he sat their smiling. And then it was over, or so I thought… I turned around and there was President (of the country!) Hery Rajaonarimampianina standing with his hand extended to me, with a clear “Thank you.”

Where am I and how did I get here?

Later that night I went to dinner with a friend. We walked to a restaurant not far away. I told her about how my predecessors had introduced me to the place and how they had always made sure to take their leftovers and give them to some of the homeless street kids as they returned to Lovasoa (where I always stay.) I confessed that I had made it a bit of a habit to do the same. So when the meal was done we gathered leftovers and took to the road to return home. It unfortunately didn’t take long to spot a couple kids huddled up against a store front. I asked if they wanted the food. It was a girl no more than 8 years old with a second smaller child resting on her lap. I gave them the food and proceeded to tell them what was in the container. “Thank you, thank you madam.” The child was no more than 8 sitting on the street protecting another smaller child at night…maybe you can imagine the sense of the unimaginable, the sorrow, the injustice. This is life for these kids. I walked away in a deflated daze.

Not 50 meters further continuing down the road. A young man grabbed my arm, not violently but surely and suggestively. I spun around quite quickly to release my arm from his grasp and very loudly said, no! To which, he just laughed.

Some days will spin you in circles, let you fly free and then tie you in knots.

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I’m not sure which part of the day I will remember the most, but I can say the range of reality – power and powerlessness, celebration and distress, faith and defeat, hope and injustice – came to show itself in awkward and vivid dichotomy.

Lord of hope, God of Grace and Spirit of Peace, come to dwell with your people. Protect, guide and enlighten us. Make us to see reality as it is, help us to embrace your truth and give us courage to stay awake. Amen.