You know how hearing an old song can transport you back to the days when you heard it or sang it to your lover? Or, how smelling a fragrance can bring back a flood of feelings and memories? This little guy, gazing fearlessly at me from his branch is a trigger for some of the most vivid memories in my recent past.
I took this picture of a lemur in March of 2014. I retired from my pastoral position at Messiah Lutheran Church in Yorba Linda, Ca. on December 31st of 2013. Three days later I flew to Madagasgar for a three-month guest teaching stint at the Graduate School of Lutheran Theology.
For twelve weeks I lived alone in a huge two story brick home built by the Lutheran missionary society many decades earlier. I taught four graduate classes every week. I conducted who private conversational English classes with individuals and groups. I preached twice in the seminary chapel and twice at congregations in the city. All of my teaching and preaching was done in English and then painstakingly translated, phrase by phrase, into Malagasy.
I suffered from jet-lag, ached with a touch of food poisoning, but mostly I struggled with loneliness. The very few people on campus who spoke English were extremely busy. The Malagasy language is beautiful but very different from the languages I knew. I had no radio or TV and only occasional and sporadic internet access. During all of my previous ministry experiences I always had Lin with me, my confidant and partner. We could laugh and cry together about the adventures and misadventures of life and work. Now I was quite alone. And, more than that, I was now the “Other”. On campus, on the streets, in the churches—wherever I went it was clear by the color of my skin that I was a vazaha, a white foreigner. The children would shout “vazaha” as I passed them on the way to the market.
During the first weeks of my time there, when I couldn’t sleep and the food made me ill, and the malaria pills gave me bizarre dreams, I thought I might not last out the semester. I half-wished I would get malaria so I could go home. Slowly, I did what I needed to do to survive. I developed an exercise routine, found some books to read, and began writing stories. All of these helped me stabilize the days. But what began to make my time exciting was the teaching. Despite the translation barrier, the students were engaged. They questioned, challenged, and wanted to learn. I was invigorated in the classroom.
As I grew more comfortable in my surroundings, I ventured on day long hikes around the city of Fianarantsoa and the countryside around it. Over and over again I was struck by the people’s desperate struggle to survive. Early in the morning I would see men and women from the countryside walking into the city carrying huge baskets on their heads. They would lay out a cloth on the sidewalk and place their wares upon them, hoping that they could sell enough to keep their families alive: fruits, vegetables, chickens, firewood, used clothes, baskets. Everything was sold on the streets. A few times I traveled with others out away from the city and saw that rural living was even more desperate.
I knew I would be leaving after one semester. My students did not have that option. They were committed to serving Christ and leading congregations in their native land. I was humbled by their strength, energy and ability to move forward in hope.
At the end of my stay the seminary staged a farewell for me. The students sang for me and gave me many gifts. That is the Malagasy way. I left with a deeper appreciation of my own need for community. I came home with vivid memories of the eager students and the beautiful troubled country called Madagascar.