O ur first few months back on Nosy Mitsio have been full of challenges and lots of discouragement. We were so excited to get back here after an extended time in the US, and stepping off the plane here was definitely a return to our home, to our natural environment. After about two weeks’ worth of managing paperwork, gathering supplies, and travel in-country, we finally got off the boat back in our village on Nosy Mitsio. We were so excited! We were greeted with big smiles and warm welcomes by our headman and his wife, and both their children and ours couldn’t wait to start playing together again. But we were also greeted with the same “darkness” that we left surrounded by at the end of 2016.
The day after we returned, the spirits which possess our headlady started acting up again and they spent the next two days engaging in all-day ceremonies to call the spirits forward, to speak to them, find out their demands, and respond in kind. People from a number of villages gathered together near our home to perform the spirit possession ceremonies for our headlady, and to perform more ceremonies to offer sacrifices at the sacred stones to the spirits of their royal ancestry. It was great to see everyone again all in one place and they were all very happy to see us as well; but it was a sad reminder that our entire reason for being together isn’t actually a happy one. The Antakarana people are in a spiritual bondage and they can’t see any way out.
Unfortunately, those two days of spirit possession ceremonies led to a couple more days of the same the following week, and the week after that, and so on. Though the people in our village (and many of their friends and relatives) are doing everything they can and everything they’re told to do in order to appease the spirits which possess them, yet those spirits are never satisfied. They bring back bouts of sickness or madness, always making sure they’re on the forefront of the peoples’ minds. Our headlady told one story, very matter-of-factly, to Lora, about the time the spirits which possess her forced her to run halfway across the island (on swollen knees), running so fast that no one could catch her, then made her crawl around on all fours and start acting like a cow. She also talked about being so afraid of the spirits’ attacks, that she’s sought reprieve by placing a “holy book” (presumably a Christian songbook from a church somewhere on the mainland) under her pillow at night. Somehow she can put this book under her pillow while sleeping at night, but she can’t keep it in her house during the day, or the spirits which possess her will strike her.
I t’s so sad for us to see so many people that we know and love living lives and following customs that are restricting their freedoms more and more, that the spirits they worship find ever more avenues to oppress and enslave them. But spiritual darkness isn’t the only challenge we’ve been facing since being back.
About a month after we returned, there was a big rash of sudden illness spreading around our part of the island, especially affecting children. In less than 24 hours, two small babies from the same village died of this sudden sickness. A good friend of ours who’s been very helpful to our team, also came down with a similar violent illness and nearly died, but he was rushed to a hospital on the mainland where he thankfully recovered. We’ve heard all sorts of reasons why this sickness passed around, everything from poison or curses (jealousy and fear of jealousy is widespread here), to accidentally eating taboo foods, to dirty water. The Antakarana are at least pragmatic, so when people heard that boiling water seemed to help, many people started boiling their water, and the sickness seemed to pass within a couple weeks.
P robably the biggest disappointments for us have been in our direct ministry efforts. Most of those on our TIMO team from the last couple years decided not to return to ministry to the Antakarana, leaving only one (very committed) family to return with us to Nosy Mitsio for continuing ministry. That’s freed up a lot of our own time to be more involved directly in ministry, but it also means a lot less people overall to actually make the efforts. With the various things happening on Nosy Mitsio and in our personal lives, it’s also been a big challenge for us to meet as a team and pray together frequently and work together to discern the ministry efforts God would have us to make.
So those are challenges on our side as a team, but the real disappointments are that most people just don’t seem to be truly interested in the Gospel. As Lora shared at the end of 2016, at that time only one village was still interested to gather and hear the Bible stories we were sharing. Most others seem to be too afraid of their ancestors to want to hear more. Or maybe they think they already know what we’re sharing and they already have the answer.
For example, we so often hear people saying, “we’re asking God,” when something bad is happening or when they’re seeking a blessing. But so few of them literally ask God, and none seem to trust there could be a response directly from him. Instead, when they say, “we’re asking God,” they really just mean, “if God wills,” as in, “if for some unknown reason God actually allows or encourages the ancestors to leave us alone long enough that we can have what we desire.”
I was visiting with the headman in one village after those babies died and we were discussing the sickness and how sad it was. (This is a village that had previously heard the first few Bible stories we had to share, but then they also lost interest and stopped meeting to hear more.) In talking about the sickness going around, the headman said that they were asking God, asking Mohammed, and asking Jesus. That’s the first time I’ve heard someone say that about Jesus, though certainly the man was being pragmatic, trying to cover all his bases. So I followed up by telling him some stories from the Bible about Jesus’s ministry and how Jesus (and God) responds to those who trust in him. The headman remarked with a lot of interest while I was sharing the stories and at one point he said he trusts in God. This is a common response we often get when we talk to people about trusting in God as the basis for faith. They often say they do trust God, but this statement seems to be with the sense that if they were caught speaking ill of a powerful spirit like God, they’re liable to get struck down. To this man I pointed out: “How can you trust in someone that you don’t know? Could I say I trust in some man, would I ask him to hold my money for me, if I’ve never met him? Jesus is God revealing himself to us, so that we can know him and trust in him. But how can you know him if you don’t know the stories about him? And if you don’t know him, you can’t really trust him.” The headman agreed vigorously with my logic and we talked about choosing a time to hear more stories, but he never followed through.
A young man in our village often comes over to our house nearly every time they’re doing spirit possession ceremonies in our village. These days this young man usually starts by teasing me and asking me why I don’t want to be possessed by one of those spirits. But what he really seems interested in is our talk that a person can be protected from those spirits if they trust in and follow Jesus. He often asks follow-up questions and says he wants to trust, but only that it’s difficult. One time recently he even brought a friend of his from another village to hear more about it, and his friend said it left him with a lot to think deeply about. This should be exciting! But the truth is, I’ve had nearly this same conversation with this young man so many times for well over a year now and still he’s not ready to step out in faith! To me, that’s discouraging.
S o as a team we’ve wondered: what can we do differently? Where can we find an avenue to really share the full truth about Jesus with these people? What can we say or do that will pierce down to the heart of the matter and give these people a full opportunity to respond to Jesus? We’ve tossed around some ideas and we’re going to work on some new efforts, but the reality is, we just don’t know.
One of our big hopes has been to be in partnership with Malagasy Christians, hoping that their testimonies, as nationals of the same country (even despite their tribal differences), would be better received than ours, as foreigners from afar. And praise God, he’s giving us more and more opportunities to make these partnerships! One that has almost caught us by surprise is our good friend, Nuckiline, who lives in Ambilobe (the town on the mainland where we shop for supplies).
Nuckiline is an Antakarana lady who grew up in a Christian Anglican home quite a bit removed from standard Antakarana traditional practices of Islam and spirit possession, etc. She’s been a huge help to us and our team in countless ways and over the last few years she’s developed a passion for seeing her own people reached. Without us even prompting, she offered to come join us on Nosy Mitsio for a month, and to bring another friend of hers, another Antakarana Christian who was set free from spirit possession in the past. We were so excited for this visit to happen! With all of our discouragement at the responses to our ministry efforts, we started to stake all of our hopes on seeing big changes during her visit.
When it came time (in mid-December), Nuckiline’s friend decided not to come, but Nuckiline was undaunted and she came out with us anyway. We set her up in a small village with a good friend of ours, so she would be free to come and go and for people to visit her without any association to our “vazaha” foreignness. She also brought with her lots and lots of rice to sell at a low price, something desperately needed on Nosy Mitsio after poor harvests from the previous year. We were so excited to start hearing how her conversations were going! But within a week or two, Nuckiline shared her own disappointments about how closed off the people seemed to be, how hard it was to have conversations with them about God or Jesus, and just the immense amount of effort it seemed like would be required to reach them.
So it seems that bringing Malagasy nationals to testify, even someone from the same tribal group and a nearby town, isn’t a magic solution. The people don’t automatically open up to her sharing the Gospel either. Another disappointment! But we do thank God that he’s given Nuckiline a vision for reaching her people group, and determination to persist in spite of the challenges. She’s already planning her next month-long trip, and she’s still trying to think of other nearby Christians she knows that she can bring with her, particularly any who’ve grown up in a rural lifestyle and who previously had the same traditional religious practices. And at least for Nuckiline’s next trip she’ll be prepared for the challenges that we regularly face in our ministry, and we pray the Holy Spirit would speak to her unique responses, through the unique attributes of the Antakarana people.
A nd if it’s not the spiritual darkness all around us, or the ministry discouragements, or the sicknesses, sometimes it’s just plain dark! We live so close to the equator that we’re used to hot and sunny all the time. But this past month, we’ve had several weeks of constant dreariness with low-hanging clouds, constant rain alternating between drizzling and pouring, incredible winds, and simply no sun! At least one of those weeks was the result of a cyclone and the winds were the strongest we’ve ever seen. But after first one week, then another, the constant rain and no sun really started to wear on us. It kept us mostly in our house and everything was getting damp and moldy and our clothes wouldn’t dry, not to mention the discouragement in terms of ministry efforts. Even when we did leave the house, it was only to get soaked through our clothes and squish through deep mud from one side of the island to the other. But most of all, I just wanted to see the sun again!
And all of this time has been punctuated by death. One village where some of our former team members lived, has since had several children die and every single family in the village has split up (husband leaving wife or vice-versa). It’s so sad! Or a headman dying in another part of the island or another kid dying here. People were going from one funeral to the next, without much of a break.
S o, it was time for us to head back to the mainland, to take our friend Nuckiline back and to follow up on some paperwork for our visas. We were worried with the constant wind that would make it impossible to take our boat. But we got some weather forecast updates and it seemed like we had a break in the weather coming up and we were planning a trip for two days later. As we were making our preparations, that night we got the news that a headman from a nearby village just died – the same village that recently had two babies die in one day. His nearest relative was from that other village where they’d already had so much tragedy this past year.
It seemed like the worst news at the worst time. I knew I needed to attend the funeral and show my support, but I wasn’t looking forward to spending half my day hiking through the mud in the rain just for the funeral services, and then making all our preparations for the trip and hauling luggage to the other side of the island after that. All the darkness was just weighing down on me.
T hat night before going to bed, I looked out our window and saw that the crashing waves seemed to have a neon glow. I was intrigued! There was no rain and very little wind at the time, so I went out to the beach to have a look. Sure enough, 9 out of 10 waves that crashed had a remarkable phosphorescent light! The bigger the wave, the bigger the glow. The sky was all overcast still and there were no moon or stars, so it couldn’t have been a reflection. It must have been some sort of bio-luminescent algae or plankton that had been stirred up by all the extreme weather and which was activated by the breaking waves. I was fascinated and stayed out there watching for a long time.
After some time, and with a lightened heart, I went back to our house to go to bed. As I lay in darkness in bed, thinking about the upcoming events and the struggles we’d been facing, a couple lightning bugs came in through our window and weaved around among the rafters and the rooms, blinking at each other and lighting up the inside of our house. These were the first lightning bugs I had ever seen on Nosy Mitsio – I didn’t even think they existed here! Even in a pitch black night, even amidst the darkness that is the norm on Nosy Mitsio, God still sent a light. The source of the light was certainly unexpected, but there it was nonetheless.
So I started to pray to God and think about what it means to be a “light in the darkness.” I think God was showing me that even in the darkest places, it’s still not absolutely dark. There is nowhere that God has left without hope, nowhere without some sign of his presence. At times it may just be a little flicker, or a dim glow, but it’s a sign of the dawn that is to come, when the Son appears in all his glory.
I think maybe God sent those little creatures, those remarkable and unexpected aspects of his creation, to remind me of this. I started to pray for his light to shine brighter on Nosy Mitsio, for that dawn to come. And God reminded me that we, Lora and I, and our teammates, are the small lights that God has sent before him. He’s sent us to shine his light, to give an indication of his presence, to point towards his greater glory that’s yet to be revealed. So I prayed that as I would be with the men at the funeral the next day, that God would give me another opportunity to fulfill that role, that he’d give me a chance to really share who he was with some of the guys there. Then I fell asleep.
T he next morning was thankfully without rain. We went through the usual funeral customs, and I accompanied the guys carrying the body on the long walk to the funeral site. While some of the guys were busy digging the grave, I was chatting with a good friend of mine. He asked me some questions about why people do bad things, and it led into a long and detailed talk about God, and it gave me the opportunity to share many stories with him about Jesus. At one point he asked who exactly Jesus is. So I shared the passage from Philippians 2, and I shared Jesus’s responses to people when they asked him the same question. I shared the Hebrew name for God, “I AM,” and thought up a quick translation and explanation for it on the spot. (It wasn’t easy, but judging by the tone of voice of my friend when he repeated it, it was meaningful to him.) I told my friend that this is who Jesus said he was – the same as the Creator God. Not long after that, the funeral ceremonies continued and our talk was done, but I was excited at all that I’d had the opportunity to share, and I prayed and asked God that it would sink into my friend’s heart.
As we left for the mainland the next day, my friend also took his own boat and he arrived at the Port just after us. As we were loading into the back of a truck to go to town, my friend stopped by to talk to Lora. (I was busy elsewhere making arrangements.) He gave her a big smile and repeated the name of God, that I had translated from “I AM”. That was it. No context, just “I AM” with a big smile.
The next day in town, our headman stopped by the room we were staying in to give us some news about a land conflict that had started over a year ago. He told us that the government ruled in the favor of the people of Nosy Mitsio and it was finished. They weren’t losing their land! He pointed out that we had prayed together over a year before about this very situation, and that God had answered our requests as we asked them. I had actually forgot that we had prayed together about that! But our headman remembered and he credited the good news as a response from God!
Sometimes it can seem hopeless, the situation we’re in, the responses of the people. God has sent us to them, but they seem to be so stuck in their fear of their ancestors, unable to step out in faith and trust Jesus. But God always has a light shining, no matter how unexpected the source, and no matter how dark the surrounding. God is present, and his presence is always breaking in ever more fully. Our lights may now flicker or be dim, but dawn and the fullness of God’s glory is coming.
Adam, Lora, Matimu, and David
P.S. It looks like our team will be growing! We have a Malagasy co-worker within YWAM, a lady named Narindra, who wants to join our team in outreach to the Antakarana, for at least two years. She will be visiting with us for a month starting in mid-February and we’ll see how the people receive her and see how she does. (Historically, the Antakarana people have had conflicts with the primary tribe from the highlands of Madagascar, but Narindra’s father is from a different tribe, so we hope that they’ll receive her well enough.) This appears to be another answer to prayer, as we have long sought to have Malagasy co-workers full-time on our team. So please be praying for Narindra, as she will be in a situation she’s never been in before; pray for her health and her finances, and pray for her to quickly learn the new dialect (totally different from the Malagasy she’s used to speaking) and to adapt quickly to the rural island lifestyle. And please pray for the people of Nosy Mitsio, that they’ll receive her well, and in so doing, be able to receive Jesus as well. Please visit our prayer request page for more ways to pray for us and the work here!