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Reaching ‘the people of the thorns’ in Madagascar

EDITOR’S NOTES: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is Nov. 30-Dec. 7 with the theme of “One Sacred Effort — Find your place in God’s story” from Matthew 28:19-20 (HCSB). The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions in tandem with Cooperative Program gifts from Southern Baptist churches support approximately 4,800 international missionaries in seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. Gifts to the Lottie Moon offering are received through local Southern Baptist churches or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources to promote the offering. This year’s goal is $175 million.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)– Hardly a day goes by without someone telling Adam Hailes, a Southern Baptist missionary in Madagascar, that he’s out of place. In the Malagasy dialect that the Antandroy people speak, the term for white means foreigner.

Locals address him by that title. The term isn’t used out of disrespect. Their attitude of separation is produced by fear.

Because of a history of territory conquests and mistreatment by outsiders, “white men instill fear, so already you’re limited by the time you get there.

“In Madagascar, you’re considered either white (a foreigner) or black (a native),” Hailes said.

So the Antandroy didn’t know quite what to make of a group from North Garland Baptist Fellowship near Dallas, Texas, a predominantly African-American congregation.

Because they looked alike, the Antandroy had assumed that North Garland’s missions director Barry Calhoun was from their people group until they heard him speak, Hailes recounted.

Then they wondered where he came from because he looked like them but didn’t speak their language. “‘How can you have black people that don’t know Malagasy?'” the Antandroy asked.

The Antandroy didn’t have a specific term to describe someone whose ethnicity is African but whose birthplace and residency aren’t. Since their word for white and foreigner is the same, they referred to the missions team as white black people or foreign black people.

Perplexing the Antandroy further, the team consisted of both white and black team members — the North Garland congregation has been multi-racial since its formation 25 years ago. The Antandroy weren’t used to seeing blacks and whites interact that closely or be grouped as a team or congregation.

North Garland members Anjal Coleman, who’s African American, and Julie Cummings, who’s Caucasian, taught the locals a praise song, “Most High God.” Instead of having the song translated into Malagasy, they taught them the song in English: “Jehovah! You are the Most high. You are the most High God.”

“More than a year later, I still hear women, while cooking meals, or children, while playing, sing that song,” Hailes said. “I think of Garland every time that happens — the type of little impact you can have after only two to three days.”

Because fear and separation are entrenched into the local mindset, it’s unusual to be able to make a lasting impact that quickly, Hailes said. Groups like North Garland “can break some barriers quicker. They aren’t as intimating to them” because the people see a similarity in them, he said.

Hailes, however, has been able to gain acceptance from the people, Cummings observed.

“When he started talking, a hush would come over the people because for one it was amazing to see this white guy all the sudden start speaking their language,” she said.

“Having that experience has changed financially the way we give,” Cummings said of her family of four. “Me actually being there and seeing how the money works,” how the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering fund international missionaries, “really changed our family, even the kids.” When her daughter or son receive money as a present, they say, “I need to put some aside” for missions.

The Antandroy don’t have ready access to Bibles in their language, so the missions team shared Bible stories with them orally through translators.
After one of the Bible studies, a woman told Calhoun if the team returned to the home the next day, she would invite some friends to hear the stories.

“Those are the type of moments that cause me to want to go back and do it again,” Calhoun said, “to be able to see where God is working in the life of someone and they’re willing to go get their friends … that they know that need to hear the same stories about the message of Christ.”

Hard road ahead

The Antandroy, known as “the people of the thorns,” are African ranchers who guard their herds encaged in cattle pins made of tangled thorn brambles. “Androy” means “where there are thorns,” and “roy” is the name of a long-thorned plant.

The thorns are the fences to keep the cattle in and others out, Hailes said. “Part of the battle is just getting to the people,” he said. “The roads are very hard and isolated.”

The roads are so bumpy that they jolt people up and down in vehicle seats, so violently that a bone in a local man’s back was broken by the jarring. So, travel on these roads is slow-going and wearing on tires and their alignment.

“You can guarantee that at the end of that journey, the ability to fly up and down the interstate here in Garland, Texas, is something that you will cherish,” Coleman said.

Cummings had commented to Hailes that “if we’re taking this road I can’t imagine what the bad roads are like, and he looked at me and he said this is the only road to where we’re going.”

Adding to the isolation is that idle vehicles can be easy prey for bandits, roaming cattle thieves out to steal belongings from stranded motorists. Though the locals are fearful of invasion and theft, their fierce protectiveness is also feared by others.

The Antandroy are known as tough, upfront people, Hailes said. They live in a harsh environment subject to drought and famine.

Their primary religion is a blend of tribal religions. They believe that objects in nature have souls and try to appease their ancestors to receive blessings and avoid curses.

“They will say, yes, they believe in Jesus, but they just add it to the shelf” of gods they worship, said Suzie Hailes, Adam’s wife. They also fear that deviating from their ethnic religion will mean they would have to separate themselves from their cherished ethnic identity.

The Antandroy people group is unique to Madagascar, with a population of more than 1 million in the southern part of the country.

The people group was adopted by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, as part of the Embrace initiative to reach all people groups with the Gospel.

North Garland became involved in the missions partnership after North Garland’s pastor, Tony Mathews, met Adam at a meeting in South Africa. Mathews, also a SWBTS trustee, heard firsthand from Hailes about the Antandroy.

“I was overwhelmed hearing the missionaries’ stories — hearing about the lives they’ve touched and going places where others didn’t go,” Mathews says. “Our pennies, our nickels, our dollars enable them to share. And through that, we’re a part of what they’re doing.”

Find your place in God’s story

The Hailes are among the nearly 4,800 Southern Baptist missionaries serving overseas whose presence and ministries there are funded through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

Coming from a family of pastors four generations over, Adam had witnessed the struggles and sacrifices of being in the ministry but was eventually drawn to it himself.

The Hailes’ home state is Texas, where Adam was a pastor before the couple became missionaries three years ago. They were among the prospective missionaries whose appointment was delayed after the economy downturned.

Though Adam was the child of missionaries to Argentina and he and Suzie both knew Spanish, Adam says they decided to go to Africa instead because the same opening in Madagascar was still unfilled a year later, he said.

“We wanted some place difficult, unreached, where relationship was key,” he explained.

The Hailes asked for prayer for:

— new believers to grow in their walk with the Lord.

— leaders of new Bible story groups to stay strong, to be encouraged, to continue to pursue God and to forsake former beliefs that don’t honor Him.

— family and coworkers to stay healthy.

— the formation of at least two new churches that are underway.

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  • Kate Gregory