By Adam Willard
As I guided our boat to the shore of Nosy Mitsio, my passengers pointed towards our village and shouted, “What’s that?” “What happened?” “Something looks wrong!” Rising from the ground next to our house was the peak of a roof. Our TIMO team’s meeting hut appeared a lot shorter than it used to be. In fact, it had completely collapsed.
Truthfully, I wasn’t too surprised. Very disappointed, for sure. But not that surprised. For several days before our supply run to Madagascar’s mainland, a strong west wind pummeled our island. Even then, our meeting hut began to lean. Several of the main support posts had rotted underground and begun to crack. We tied the corners of the structure to a nearby tree, hoping it’d stay standing until we could replace the rotten support posts with new ones. But as we pulled up to shore that day and saw the pile of sticks and thatch, we realized the construction wouldn’t be just a simple fix. We’d have to rebuild the entire thing from scratch, from the ground up and with almost all new materials.
What we’re attempting to do here among the Antakarana people is very much the same as building something new. The culture and faith of the Antakarana is one that believes the Creator God is disinterested and distant, that he passed most of his power onto the ancestors. Those ancestors can interfere at any moment in the lives of the people around them, mostly to cause sickness and curses and to create elaborate and innumerable taboos that constrict the lives of their descendants.
In Romans 15:20, Paul describes the task of proclaiming the Good News where Christ has not yet been named as the building of a new foundation. How does that foundation get translated into Antakarana language and culture? Not easily! Not quickly! We’ve been on the ground making efforts among the people for nearly three straight years, and I still often feel we’ve barely begun. At times, I get frustrated with how slow this process is, with how little progress we’ve appeared to make, and I’m tempted to rush it somehow, to find a shortcut in one area or another. We’re here to bring the Antakarana people into the Kingdom of God, so surely after so long, it’s time to bring them in!
But during the last few weeks, I’ve looked at the ruined mess of our meeting hut and am reminded of the results of building on a weak foundation. Jesus spent years with his disciples, preparing them for the day of his departure. And he spoke their same language and shared their same culture! Even then, many of the disciples were shocked and confused when he left. But through his years of discipleship, the strength of the community he’d formed them into, and the power of the Holy Spirit he’d sent to guide them, the foundation survived. And the resulting life of the Church has changed the world!
Our goal here isn’t to build one Antakarana church consisting of our neighbors and friends. Our goal is to build the foundations of an Antakarana church that will have the strength and endurance to grow and reproduce and transform whole communities, the entire Antakarana tribal group, and everyone they encounter. Only the firmest and most flawless foundation can withstand that weight. And so, like Paul, we need to become skilled master builders.
With that goal in mind, we’ve spent the previous months and years working away at the hard cultural ground. Initially, it was difficult to chip the hard surface with a shovel. But we persisted; we joined the local life, and we learned the local dialect. The ground began to soften. We brought in a team of other missionaries to join us in this endeavor and spread ourselves out among multiple villages. Together, we’ve learned the ins and outs of daily life, the nuances of the language, the particulars of the culture, and the hopes and fears of the people. Now the ground is soft.
Every day now, we and our team members find opportunities to share our trust in the goodness of God, in the grace provided through Jesus, and in our confidence that he is deeply and truly interested in pouring out his goodness into our lives and into theirs. When a neighbor is possessed by a spirit and oppressed by their demands, we confidently proclaim protection from all such spirits, through the goodness of God’s Holy Spirit. Some of our friends respond positively, saying they also want to trust God for protection. When someone is sick or injured, we encourage them to trust in God’s redemption through prayer and healing, both supernatural and natural, and some friends proudly declare that God answered the prayer and healed them.
None of these things were possible at the beginning, when people laughed at prayer or quickly ended conversations that drifted towards belief in anything other than the ancestors. Honestly, we could barely communicate in any of these areas back then anyway. But now the ground is soft. Now is the time for us to choose where to dig, to carefully select our support posts, to prepare them and position them, and to lay the firm foundation of Jesus on which the Antakarana church can endure, grow, and multiply.
It’s unthinkable for local people to build a home without performing this ritual, so we wanted to participate in it as well. Except we did it a little differently. Instead of mentioning the ancestors, the carpenter shared a story of Jesus. He climbed to the top of the roof, tied the flowers, and announced to everyone that the living things were there to acknowledge God, who has created everything. He poured juice upon the roof, saying it was in remembrance of Jesus’s blood poured out for mankind, through whose sacrifice and resurrection we have the blessings of God.
Many of the villagers didn’t know what to think of the substituted ritual. But some had questions, opening the door to more conversations with them about God and Jesus. We hope it planted a seed deeper in the people’s hearts, one to be watered and grown, and we pray that our new meeting hut, being the first building on Nosy Mitsio dedicated to God rather than to the ancestors, will stand firm and be a strong testament of the gospel’s arrival among the Antakarana.
Adam Willard is serving with YWAM Madagascar together with his wife, Lora, and their two sons, Matimu and David. They’re partnering with AIM to lead a TIMO team in outreach to the Antakarana on the small island of Nosy Mitsio. Follow their personal story at madmissions.com and learn more about the Antakarana people at Pray Africa.