By Thierry Rakotobe
What do we really know about faith?
Not much! I don’t remember becoming a Christian. Jesus was always such a part of my life since the beginning that I see my faith story as a very ordinary one.
I grew up in a devoted Presbyterian family in Madagascar. The Protestant-Presbyterian tradition is more than five generations deep in our family, which is not unusual in a country where the Reformed Protestant Church is the most dominant denomination. Indeed, the island of Madagascar has one of the largest Presbyterian communities in Africa. Not surprising, either, in a country where the Bible was the first to be published in an African language in the early 1800s by the English missionaries.
My weekend during my childhood consisted of going to church: On Saturdays, we wake up early to get ready for church activities. Morning for youth group, then afternoon for a variety of church activities.On Sundays, we go to church early in the morning, after a large family breakfast—which now makes sense to me, as the service in that part of the world can easily last three hours. The children then go on to Sunday school after the service. We only get to go to our grandparents' home late in the afternoon, as my Grandpa still has to take care of church business, which takes him most of the afternoon. The week always ends with a large, happy family dinner on Sunday.
Such was our weekly routine in our family. Our life revolved around the church. It makes me feel as though I did not discover God the same way as other Christians may have, but rather that God was always part of me, and I was entrusted to him.
On Friday, Feb. 29, 1980—a leap year—my grandfather passed away. A retired government employee, he spent most of his retirement days on church business, to the point that on his deathbed, his last words to us, as we gathered around him, were "Never forget the church!" The grief-laden teenager in me was puzzled in hearing those last words. The grown-ups may have been less surprised, as they knew how deeply committed my Grandpa was to his church.
Later on, I decided to move to America for college and build my life here.My Grandpa’s last words never made sense to me, but that went away as I busied myself with schoolwork and taking care of myself in a country where everything was unfamiliar. It was also during those times that I felt a strong yearning for God’s reassuring care. The first months in America, as I expected, were difficult. I was homesick most of the time. But that was the time when I turned to my faith the most; I turned to God to carry me through that period. Prayers lifted me up. Prayer helped me face the difficulties and celebrate the wins at school and at work. I realized then that faith is really about who we turn to.
But despite having my wife by my side, I felt that my spiritual life was not complete. We were blessed and had our share of successes and failures, but felt a yearning for more. Our faith may be strong, but it is incomplete. Then about 10 years ago, it hit me: We cannot practice our faith just by ourselves. Faith has always been a personal thing to me. But while it is a personal matter, I realized that it cannot be a private matter. We need a community to share our faith.
My wife and I then sought to look for that congregation. We went through the motions of visiting churches on Sunday mornings until we came to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Our first visit brought back the memories of the busy and active congregation of our childhood church. The warm welcome of that early spring morning felt like a relief for both of us. Not only did we feel welcomed, we were immediately asked to be part of the active life of the church upon becoming members. I served as Deacon, and now on the Session. I also serve with the Presbytery of New York City, while at the same time convening the Madagascar Mission Network for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
It is busy, but it is fulfilling. My Grandpa’s last words now makes sense. It took me close to 40 years to realize what I think he really meant.
One thing I know for certain is that the Church is an important part of my faith, it is the beacon of my faith journey, pointing to the One I trust and believe. It has always kept me feeling blessed, whatever God is sending my way.
Thierry Rakotobe is an Elder in the Officer Class of 2018. Thierry and his wife, Ando, have been members of the church since 2010. He shared this testimony on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018. This season of testimony accompanies the Lenten Sermon Series, Sifting the Real from the Fake in Life and Faith.