Tilton would be attending a national meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar just three months after a military-backed coup had sent the country into chaos. Security forces from the new government had arrested and beaten pastors and other church leaders. As a result, many pastors went into hiding and one church official left the country temporarily. Some remained in hiding the day Tilton arrived, and the tension was still thick.
As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s regional liaison for Southern Africa, Tilton goes to many church meetings. In this case, his hosts thought his attendance would be particularly beneficial. They surmised that his presence would make it less likely that church leaders would be arrested or harmed.
The meeting was held without incident, but Madagascar’s political and economic crises still persist. Human rights violations also continue, and in response the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar, known by its Malagasy acronym FJKM, is pushing for a return to democracy. Presbyterians in the United States, including the Madagascar Mission Network, are supporting the FJKM.
“We hear constantly from the FJKM that the most important thing people can do is to pray, pray for peace and justice and for the health and discernment of the church in Madagascar,” Tilton says. “It’s also important that we engage in advocacy with U.S. officials.”
FJKM leaders hope that a “roadmap” brokered by a delegation from the Southern Africa Development Community, will provide an effective pathway toward the restoration of democracy and human rights. Meanwhile, there continues to be great concern for the safety of FJKM pastors and other church leaders. This includes 10 employees of the church's radio station who were jailed for more than 100 days when the station was closed by security forces in May 2010. Their trial has since been postponed repeatedly, denying them an opportunity to clear their names. The radio station remains off the air.
As Malagasies seek to cope with severe economic hardship, many of them turn to the FJKM for help. “It’s a church that expresses well the concept of holistic ministry,” Tilton says.
The FJKM is heavily involved in community and economic development, agricultural work, environmental reclamation, and health ministries and also pursues a vigorous program of evangelism and church planting. Over the past decade, it has planted more than 500 congregations, averaging approximately one new church start each week.
The FJKM is assisted by PC(USA) mission co-workers Dan Turk, a forester and agronomist, and his wife, Elizabeth, a nurse and public health specialist. Mission co-worker Jan Heckler, who has recently been appointed to Madagascar, will assist with long-range planning, assessment and resource allocation.
The FJKM is one of nine partner churches with which Tilton works. Based in South Africa, he also supports the ministries of other mission co-workers and helps build partnerships between African Christians and Presbyterians in the United States.
“I am filled with wonder at the creativity and diversity of God’s creation and at God’s perpetual capacity to do new things in the lives of God’s people,” Tilton says.
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