Madagascar, the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, is rich in history, biodiversity and culture. It is also one of the poorest nations in the world.
Much of the Malagasy population survives on less than $2 a day, and many communities lack safe drinking water and basic education. Add to that the recent political instability, persistent deforestation and rising HIV rates, and the social challenges can seem insurmountable.
For the Church, where does ministry even begin?
Dan and Elizabeth Turk have a creative strategy that draws on three of Madagascar’s most vital resources—fruit trees, seminarians and ex-pats.
The Turks are Presbyterian Church (USA) mission co-workers in Madagascar and among the new mission partners of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Dan grew up in Africa and earned three university degrees in the U.S.—a BS in biology from Davidson College, an MS in agronomy and soil science from the University of Hawaii, and a PhD in forestry from North Carolina State, where his research focused on the growth rates of 60 native Malagasy trees.
Working with the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar (the FJKM, the nation’s second-largest Christian denomination) and the PCUSA, Dan is part of the Fruits, Vegetables, and Environmental Education Project, an initiative that promotes the cultivation of fruit trees (mangoes, quenepa, sapodilla, Indian jujube and other indigenous varieties) to address hunger, generate revenues for local farmers and help stanch the conversion of native forests to grassland agriculture.
Dan has helped to establish nurseries and orchards at FJKM churches and seminaries, as well as a new “fruit center” northwest of Anatananarivo (the capital city) that will furnish grafted mangos and other quality fruit trees for planting throughout Madagascar.
Elizabeth’s undergraduate education was in psychology and nursing, with bachelor’s degrees in each field as well as a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina. Before going to Madagascar, she was a Presbyterian volunteer in Haiti and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and worked for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Elizabeth now works with the FJKM's national AIDS program and community health ministry, helping to train church leaders to be effective counselors in HIV prevention. She also contributes to initiatives that promote access to safe water and sanitation, and encourage family planning.
For both Dan and Elizabeth, seminaries are vital to their ministries.
Before new graduates leave to become pastors, Dan gifts them with a certificate good for 10 fruit trees. "Once they are established in their churches," he says, "they can come back and redeem that certificate. A lot of them take yams, too. The idea is to encourage them to plant locally and encourage their communities to do the same."
For Elizabeth's part, seminaries are training grounds for new HIV counselors. Although HIV is less prevalent in Madagascar than in many other African countries, rates of other sexually transmitted infections are high. Given the scarcity of public resources for education, prevention and treatment, the church's involvement can be lifesaving.
"The Church has a stronger public role here than you see in the U.S. or other Western countries," Dan explains. "Poverty and the lack of public resources have a lot to do with that. The pastor is very often the most educated person in the community. With no agricultural extension services and few community health clinics, the Church must step in to do what the government cannot."
The FJKM has partners in this work. Within the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Madagascar Mission Network works with congregations, presbyteries and synods to support PCUSA mission co-workers in their ministries, raise awareness and funding, and serve as advocates (and lobbyists) for Madagascar and the Malagasy people.
"After the military coup in 2009, we talked with the State Department and members of Congress on issues related to Madagascar and the FJKM," says Thierry Rakotobe, an FAPC member who is co-convener of the mission network. "The network has most often been in the position of responding to political crises and natural disasters. Going forward, we also want to focus on projects that will stimulate long-term growth and stability."
Last spring FAPC hosted an organizational meeting of the mission network, where members identified four focus areas – community development, leadership development, advocacy and support for PCUSA mission workers in Madagascar (including Doug Tilton and Jan Heckler, in addition to the Turks).
Most of the network’s participating congregations, including FAPC, have a sizable Malagasy presence in their membership. Thierry first came to FAPC at the invitation of another Malagasy member, Jacky Radifera. The church immediately felt like home.
"I left Madagascar when I was 24 and have built my life here," Thierry says. "But I've always felt an inner tension. I've felt pulled to Madagascar and want to help. That's why I accepted the opportunity to convene the Madagascar Mission Network, and why I am grateful for the support that FAPC gives to people like Dan and Elizabeth Turk and other mission co-workers."
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