Thursday, May 25, 2017


A couple of the other volunteers and myself recently had the opportunity to share a meal with both Pr. Themba, the ELCA representative for Madagascar and southern Africa, and Pr. Andrea, the ELCA Global Mission Area Director for Madagascar, West and Central Africa. We hadn’t seen either of them since the beginning of our year of service. It was a lot of fun to catch up and to tell them about our time here. During our conversation, Pr. Andrea asked us to name one thing we will bring back with us at the end of our time here, whether physical or not. The first thing that came to my mind is lychee honey. Of all the varieties of honey I’ve tasted here, this one is the sweetest.

There is a certain sweetness I have discovered here in Madagascar; and like honey, you can’t partake of it without a little bit sticking to you.  It’s in the rains that come to nourish the island, and in the warm sun that bakes it dry again. It’s in the red clay earth that becomes slippery when wet, rendering shoes useless, forcing you to navigate barefoot and to allow it to coat the bottoms of your feet. It’s in the abundance of fruits – even the avocados are sweet here. It’s in the Malagasy language, which I’m only beginning to understand. And it’s in the people, who are some of the most generous and resilient I’ve ever met.

Just as I can’t seem to open a honey jar without a little bit sticking to me, I won’t be able to leave this place without pieces of it stuck to me. I’ll have visions of Fianarantsoa’s rolling hills and vibrant green rice fields engrained in my memory. I’ll have bits and pieces of the language stuck in my mind. The flavors of the many sweet fruits will linger in my mouth. I’ll have a little red earth clinging to my feet. I’ll be stuck with all of the love, lessons, and generosity I’ve received from my community. And I’ll have a jar of lychee honey.

I arrived in Madagascar a confused, disoriented mess; and I will leave this place a beautiful, sweet, sticky mess. And when I open that jar of honey, I’ll pour a little bit on my finger, close my eyes, and savor every last bit of sweetness that’s stuck to me.             

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Ruth: A Poem

Some of you know that I occasionally write poetry. I'm pretty shy about it and don't often share my writing, but I thought I'd put one of my pieces out there for a change. It was inspired partly by my earlier reflection on the first chapter of the book of Ruth (hence the title), and partly by my imagination of the Holy Spirit as a female companion who meets us where we are. I emailed it to my mom and she said she really liked it, so I hope you all will too. 

I returned to myself empty,
longing to be filled with something,
someone, for which I had no words.
She opened unto me at last
in the middle of my kitchen.
I stood there at the center of
the meeting place of grandmothers
and the great-aunts of my childhood,
as she flowed in and around me,
her spirit encompassing mine.
She had come to fill me at last.
She whose face has yet to be seen,
whose being remains beyond words

has made her embrace known to me.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Reflections from the Prison

A few months ago, I found out that two of my students, Pr. Theo and his wife Voaly, operate a prison ministry. They and their team, which consists of a number of other seminary students, hold weekly worship services at the prison here in Fianarantsoa as well as at a prison in Mananjara, which is farther south. I've accompanied Pr. Theo and his team to the prison several times now. It's difficult to put all of my thoughts from the time I've spent there into one cohesive whole, so here's a series of small blurbs/reflections: 
  • Unlike the usual 3 to 4 hour long church services, worship at the prison lasts only 20 minutes. There are over 650 prisoners who come to worship. Because the ministry team is only given a one-hour time slot and they can only fit so many people in the chapel, they do three short services. The service consists of an opening hymn, a Gospel reading, a short homily, communion, and a closing hymn.  Every second Sunday of the month, Pr. Theo, Voaly, and their team give one kopoaka* of rice to each prisoner. The prisoners don't get enough to eat. Voaly said that if they could, they would share rice with the prisoners every week, but their ministry doesn't have the funds to do so. 
  • The first time I walked through the prison gates, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought I might see people in uniforms, maybe even handcuffs if they were deemed a threat to others. But when I walked into the enclosure, there were no chains, handcuffs, or orange jumpsuits. Just people. Ordinary people. People who looked like those I see on the street as I’m walking through town.  People who have children. People who are someone's aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, parents, friend. People.
  •  During my first visit to the prison, I noticed that one of the women had an infant with her. The baby couldn’t have been more than 6 months old. My first thought was, “this isn’t fair to the child.” Barely old enough to understand speech and the kid is already inside of a prison. But he or she wasn’t old enough to understand that either. All the baby knew was that his or her mother was close.
  • During one of my visits at the end of January, one of the female theologians who is part of the ministry team showed me the women's compound. It is small, consisting only of an outdoor kitchen and a building that houses the women. I only got a brief glimpse at the inside of the building, but from what I could see, it is just large enough to fit a row of bunk beds placed so close together that they create one giant bed. And at the head of each bed was a small bundle of belongings. 
  • The prison guards and other military personnel are the only people I’ve seen carrying firearms here in Madagascar. Very few people own guns here. The lack of gun violence has made me realize that I don’t remember a time when gun violence wasn’t an issue. The Columbine shooting happened when I was very young, and I’ve been hearing about mass shootings and other acts of gun violence in the United States ever since. It's been a presence in my life as far back as I can remember and, realistically, I will probably never know a time when gun violence doesn't exist. 
  • After my last visit to the prison, I asked Pr. Theo why the majority of people in prison are there. His response was, “theft.” Poverty rates are high here, and many people struggle to get by. Many of the prisoners I saw and worshipped with may have resorted to theft because they saw no other option for providing for themselves and/or their families. Yes, some of them may have committed more serious crimes and may be considered dangerous; but by and large, most of them were just trying to survive the best they knew how.
** The standard measuring unit for dried goods, a kopoaka is an empty condensed milk can.

On Being Empty

“I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” – Ruth 1:21

            I haven’t been reading my bible a lot lately; but as I waited for chapel to begin at the seminary one Thursday morning, I pulled it out and flipped to one of my favorite passages, Ruth 1:15-18:
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.”
I usually finish the passage and stop there, but this time, I kept going. That is, until verse 21 stopped me in my tracks. It struck me, so much so that I had to stop and re-read it several times.
            Naomi, who was widowed and had lost both of her sons, felt as though the Lord had emptied everything from her, and rightfully so. Family is a huge part of a person’s life; and when one loses his or her family, they lose part of themselves. I’ve read the book of Ruth several times, and even translated part of it from the original Hebrew in college, but it took moving across the world for me to really understand the first chapter.
            The story of Naomi and Ruth is one of accompaniment. Despite being “empty,” Naomi had a companion who refused to leave her side; someone there to fill her sorrowing spirit once more. God may have brought Naomi back empty, but She did not leave her alone. Ruth accompanied Naomi in the midst of her emptiness, and my community here in Fianarantsoa has done the same for me.
            Emptiness has been a reoccurring theme in my personal life over the last seven months. It’s not that I haven’t been happy here – I’ve found more joy and fulfillment in the midst of a foreign culture than I ever thought possible. But time and time again, I find myself returning to a place of emptiness. Transitioning to life in a new country and culture, especially one so different from my own, has been a beautiful, but often stressful and overwhelming experience. Somewhere in between my home in Minnesota and my new home here in Fianarantsoa, part of myself went missing.
            Although I do feel as though I’ve lost part of myself, I don’t view this loss as being inherently negative. If I had never known what it is to be emptied of myself, I would have never known how wonderful it is to allow other people to fill me. As I sat in chapel that morning reading and rereading the first chapter of Ruth, I felt within myself not a sense of emptiness, but a readiness to be filled. Now that I’ve taken the time to mourn the part of myself that I lost, I’m ready to open myself up to my community and the world around me and to allow my spirit to be filled once again.
I have come to view the process of being emptied not as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity to be filled. And just as Ruth stayed by Naomi’s side, my community has walked with me, filling me in more ways than I will ever realize. I came into my year of service with the mindset that I was supposed to be walking alongside my community, but have instead found that my community has carried me.  

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The power went out just as the Christmas Eve service was about to begin, and was still out when I returned to my apartment after the service. I shut the door behind me and stood there in the dark for a couple of minutes. Everything was silent, even the mice that live in my ceiling. For the first time, I found myself alone and in the dark on Christmas Eve. As I stood there, memories of Christmases past began to replay themselves in my head:
I remembered Grandma Shirley singing the first verse of “O Christmas Tree” to me in German.
I remembered my dad riding his snowmobile to church after he finished milking cows, the faint smell of exhaust fumes following him into the sanctuary.
I remembered uncle Joe dressing up as Santa Claus, his booming voice filling the house with a string of, “ho ho ho’s.” My parents swore they could hear his reindeer on the roof.
I remembered candles lit one by one until the sanctuary was filled with their warm glow, our voices joined in singing “Silent Night.”
I remembered winter nights so crisp and clear you could see the Milky Way, the snow shimmering by the light of the moon.
I remembered eating pizza on Christmas Eve, a tradition my family still upholds.
I remembered the year dad hung a star at the top of one of the silos. It lit up at night, and everyone within a 2-mile radius could see it. It’s still there as far as I know, shining down on the cattle yards.

Despite not having any of the familiar sights and smells of home, I will have fond memories of this Christmas:
I will remember Christmas Eve by candlelight. The power went out shortly before the service began. Then, a procession of at least 100 children entered the sanctuary, carrying candles and singing at the tops of their lungs. Seeing their faces and hearing their voices fill the large sanctuary filled me with an inexplicable joy.  
I will remember my host mother digging a handful of candies out of her purse just before church started and handing them to me. Giving gifts for Christmas isn’t popular in Madagascar, but handing out candies sure is. As I looked around me, I saw several women rummaging through their purses for candies to give to the children around them.
I will remember my youngest host sister, Alexia, and I making funny faces at each other during the Christmas Day sermon; and her pointing at various objects, wondering how to say their names in English. Purse. Bible. Hymnal.
I will remember the meal I shared with my friend Voaly and her family. I sat by her at choir practice last week. She turned to me and asked what I was doing on Christmas Day, then proceeded to invite me to her house for a meal. She and her husband normally travel to a different city to be with her husband’s family; but this year, something came up and they had to stay in Fianar. Voaly told me that her family hosts a guest for Christmas every year. This year, they wanted me to be their guest.
There may not have been any presents under the tree this year, but my community is a gift in itself. The longer I'm here, the more I realize that I need them far more than they need me. When I am clueless, they help me understand; when I stumble, they are there to pick me up; and in the absence of my family, they have taken me in. They have helped me rediscover the thing I love most about Christmas: the simple act of being in community with those around you. Being present with and walking alongside my community is a privilege and a joy, and I will be forever thankful for the wonderful gift that they are.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Wednesday Morning in Fianar

I could tell it was going to be a two cups of coffee kind of morning the minute my alarm went off. I shouldn’t have stayed up so late reading the night before, but I couldn’t bring myself to put my book down and blow out the candle, the lone source of light in my apartment some evenings. Water has been scarce lately, and my electricity has become unreliable. The rainy season is supposed to be in full swing by now, but the red soil remains parched. I get out of bed, pull on a skirt and a button-up shirt, and shuffle to the kitchen, my feet making little squeaking sounds against the wood floors of my apartment. I fill my kettle with water and set it on the stove to heat up. As I wait for the water to boil, I run a brush through my hair, noticing the golden streaks that have appeared, little gifts from the sun. I separate my hair into three strands and weave it into a braid that hangs over my right shoulder.
I hear the kettle start to boil and shuffle back into the kitchen to make oatmeal and a cup of coffee, my usual breakfast. I pull the can of sweetened condensed milk – an accidental purchase due to my lack of French skills – out of my fridge and drizzle a small amount on my oatmeal. After breakfast, I gather my lesson plans and put them in my backpack. I glance at my phone – 7:10. No time for that second cup of coffee. I need to leave at 7:15 in order to make it to Amboaloboka, the all-girls bible school, on time. I brush my teeth, put my shoes on, grab my keys from their usual place on my table, and head out the door.
I walk out of my compound and turn onto the gravel road that goes past the church I attend every Sunday. This takes me to a cobblestone street that I follow for a few minutes before turning off onto a small dirt path that winds between houses and small shops, eventually taking me to the main road. I pass by children on their way to school in matching uniforms; barefoot women with baskets of fruits and vegetables skillfully balanced on their heads, lambahoany (colorful cloth worn as a skirt) wrapped around their waists; skinny street dogs out in search of scraps to eat. Most shops don’t open until 9 am, but a few small roadside fruit and vegetable stands are already open for business. Occasionally, one of the stand owners will call to me, “mandrosoa, mandrosoa,” come in, come in!
Upon hearing the “beep beep” of an approaching car, I step off the paved road onto the red dirt path that runs parallel to it. I’ve become well acquainted with the language of car horns. Two short beeps means you might want to scoot over a few inches in order to avoid being clipped by someone’s rear view mirror. Two long beeps means that there’s an irritated driver stuck behind two men pushing a heavy wooden cart stacked with bags of rice or other grains, a classic Malagasy traffic jam. One long beep means get off the road – this driver isn’t slowing down for anyone.
To my right, I hear a young boy say “vazaha,” the Malagasy word for white foreigner, in a very matter-of-fact tone. I’ve been spotted again. No matter where I go, there are always children who feel the need to announce my presence. The Malagasy are particularly fond of stating the obvious. I look over to see him leaning against a pole, intently watching me. He can’t be much older than 6 or 7. I greet him with a smile and continue on my way to class, knowing he will watch me until I disappear over the hill.
As I get closer to Amboaloboka, I pass by a roadside repair shop where barefoot men in tattered clothes fix old trucks, wood blocks placed under the wheels to keep them from rolling down hill. In the land of making do with what you have and doing what you have to do to get by, parking brakes are the least of peoples’ concerns.
I turn off the main road onto a gravel road that leads to the school. I meet a mother and her young daughter walking hand in hand, most likely on their way to school. The girl’s face lights up at the sight of me. “Salama, vazaha!” she exclaims, hello, white person! “Salama, Malagasy!” I reply, hello, Malagasy person!  Her mother chuckles at my response.
After 45 minutes of walking, I finally reach the school. I give the red metal door to the compound a good shove, and it opens with a squeak. Bobby, the watchdog, is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he is sleeping in the shade somewhere. The school building itself consists of two classrooms. I walk around the side of the building and enter one of the rooms through a narrow side door. As I walk to the front of the classroom, I greet my students with a cheerful “good morning!” The clock on the wall reads 8 o’clock. Right on time.

Monday, November 14, 2016

11/14 A Lesson on Self Love

When asked why I decided to spend a year volunteering through YAGM, I often respond by saying something along the lines of “because I find being able to be of service to others very fulfilling.” However, that’s only part of the answer. One of the reasons I chose to spend a year in service to others is because it’s easier for me to love other people than it is to love myself. This is not a recent struggle; in fact, I’ve been wrestling with this for the past several years.
I have a tendency to be incredibly hard on myself. There are many days where I’m simply not a fan of who I am. I’ve had several people in my life tell me not to be so hard on myself, but it’s a hard cycle to break. Over and over I have found myself stuck in a rut of self-loathing, and I hit a point where I got really tired of continually finding myself in that place. It’s emotionally exhausting, unhealthy, and just plain damaging. So I decided that if I can’t love myself, I’m going to dedicate a year to doing the next best thing: loving other people.
Being able to serve others is one of the greatest joys in my life; but the thing about loving others is that, at some point, someone is going to love you back. It’s a two-way street. Although I have been shown love by members of my community countless times over the past two months, there is one occasion that stands out in my mind. Last Saturday, I went to an English Club staff meeting at Margot’s house. Margot established the English club in Ivory Avaratra, the part of Fianarantsoa I live in, and continues to run it. She texted me that morning to let me know that she would pick me up at 9. In her message, she addressed me as “sister.”
After the meeting Margot and I chatted for a while. We attend the same church and had met a few times before, but had never spent time together. A conversation turned into an invitation to stay for lunch, and staying for lunch turned into an afternoon dance party where she and Florencia, a young woman she and her husband have taken in as their daughter, taught me some popular Malagasy dances. Margot continues to call me “sister.” This is not simply a term of endearment. She has literally taken me in as her sister. At one point during our conversation before lunch, she looked at me and said, “You ARE my sister!”
Love, laughter, a good meal, and a dance party work wonders for the soul. I left Margot’s house that evening feeling the most content I’ve been since arriving here. This isn’t to say that I’m not happy here, because I am. I have experienced joy far greater than I ever thought possible in a land and culture that is not my own. But for the first time in over two months, I let the warm, content feeling of being loved stick with me. When I get back to my apartment and close the door behind me, it is easy to let the feelings of loneliness and inadequacy take over. But after saying goodnight to Margot and closing the door behind me, I stood there alone in my apartment, completely alone and grinning like a fool.

What started as a desire to love and serve others has turned into a lesson on how to allow myself to be loved in return. This is simultaneously the most difficult and most beautiful lesson I have learned here so far, and I'm still learning. Thankfully, there are people who love me even when I am not capable of doing so. As the late Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”