Hope in the Desert

Anne B. Doll

On an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, two Gordon-Conwell D.Min. graduates are ministering to the poorest of the poor.

When Todd and Patsy McGregor responded to God’s call to missions in 1991, they determined to go “where the greatest need was.” Today, The Rt. Rev. Dr. Todd McGregor, now an Anglican Bishop, and The Rev. Dr. Patsy McGregor, an Anglican priest, live in a poverty stricken area in southwestern Madagascar—the ninth poorest country in the world.

In the remote desert area where the couple ministers, daily incomes average 75 cents, gleaned chiefly from subsistence farming. Two and a half years ago, locusts wreaked havoc on this arid region. Last year, famine struck, affecting 400,000 people.

Most people live in small bamboo or tin huts. They have no indoor plumbing. “When it rains,” Todd says, “you’ll see people out on the streets collecting water and bathing right there at the side of the road. At the same time, they are sponging water into their mouths.”

Living next door to Todd and Patsy for four years was an African Traditionalist shaman and priest, whose daughter, Nolavy, accepted Christ and studied the Bible with Patsy. Nolavy eventually became an evangelist and is now a student at a theological school in Kenya. When she graduates, she could become the first clergywoman in her province. “It’s an amazing story,” Patsy says, “and it’s by the grace of God.”

Nolavy’s path to faith is illustrative of Todd and Patsy’s approach to evangelism. “We indigenously live among the people, just being present and saying ‘hello’ every day,” Patsy explains. Over time, she built a relationship with Nolavy, discipling her through Bible study and prayer. And then two more girls wanted to pray with Patsy, and she would invite them to do things together with her family.

“We’d say, ‘We’re going to the market. Do you want to come along, maybe even watch me play tennis sometime?’ We’d take a walk, or I’d get my hair braided. I got my hair braided a lot just to be rubbing shoulders with the people!”

When the shaman initially forbade Nolavy to become an evangelist, Todd and Patsy invited both her parents to their home for soda and cookies. During their visit, Todd recounts, “We asked the shaman, ‘Would you allow your daughter to join the evangelism program?’ And he accepted. He said, ‘I trust you.’”

And when a political coup brought gunfire just yards from the McGregors’ home, the shaman told Todd, “Bishop, I will protect you. The youth of the community and we will surround your home. Do not fear.”

Madagascar’s religious composition includes 5 percent Islam, 40 percent Christian and 50 to 55 percent African Traditionalism. Todd says ancestor worship plays a significant role in the latter faith tradition. Adherents attempt to communicate with deceased ancestors, and, as acts of appeasement, conduct elaborate bone-washing ceremonies several years after their relatives die.

African Traditionalists also pray to deceased family members. Todd and Patsy first witnessed this when they happened onto the ceremonial sacrifice of a cow. Afterward, people started praying—first to God, then to Jesus and then to their ancestors. “It was very much a syncretistic approach,” Todd explains. “This is a problem within the churches…Christianity is just added to their existing belief.”

Despite this mindset, Todd says people are very receptive to the gospel. They have a strong, albeit different view of God, recognizing him as a superior God. They comprehend the concept of sin, perhaps better understanding it as taboo. And because they fear God, they want to know more about him.

“What we try to do,” Todd says, “is to share the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ, why he came, and why God sent him…We’re basically looking for them to turn away from their sins….And through building relationships with them, we can then say, ‘Let’s go on a journey together. Let’s study the Scriptures and see what God reveals to us so that we can be pure before him’…A lot of our approach is just trying to communicate more effectively in their own culture and…grow together. That is why we lived in the slum with them for three and one-half years.”

For the first 11 years of their ministry in Madagascar, Todd and Patsy served in Antananarivo, the capital and largest city. There, through their ministry, People Reaching People, they taught at St. Paul’s Theological College; constructed and started nine health clinics; founded, constructed and ran the School for Lay Ministry; built 11 new churches and planted an international, English-speaking church and missionary school.

In 2002, with their daughters Corbi and Charese about to enter high school, the McGregors moved to Kenya where the girls could attend the Rift Valley Academy for missionary children. The move was an act of faith for Todd and Patsy. Their ministry in Madagascar was flourishing, and they had no idea what lay ahead for them in Kenya. “We decided that if our children were going there, we were going to follow them,” Todd says. “We believed the Lord would open up ways for us to work and minister.”

Todd affirms that the Lord did open doors: for Patsy to direct a retreat center near Nairobi, and for him to minister in the rural, tribal areas of northern Kenya. For three years, he flew there weekly with AIM and Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilots—the only aviators willing to make the treacherous flights.

The semi-arid region where he ministered had no paved roads and little access to water. In some areas, Islamists were prevalent. Where he was working, they were hostile. A number of evangelists were stoned, and Todd was on a hit list. At times, he had to travel with an armed guard. But in the midst of this, he says, “people were coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and we were starting churches.”

On one memorable occasion, he and fellow evangelists were leading a week-long mission in a remote village. At week’s end, they baptized 50 to 60 people, planted a church and prayed for rain. Several weeks later, an excited new Christian told a member of their clergy team, “You won’t believe this. You prayed, and it rained. It rained that day, and it rained hard. And it only rained right above that village.”

During his tenure in the north, Todd planted seven churches, built a girls’ dormitory and trained new and existing evangelists. After he left, a bishop was appointed to live and minister in that area.

In 2007, the McGregors returned to Madagascar to continue their focus on evangelism, education and economic development. Since then, they have baptized thousands of new believers, planted and constructed over 15 new churches, and formed discipleship and small groups. Prayer meetings gather daily at 6 a.m.

Through funds from U.S. donors, they have also purchased land and are starting economic development projects in each parish. So far, five churches have agricultural initiatives, and have received training from U.S. volunteers on how to develop a cooperative agricultural program and start a small business. Half the projects are led by women.

The McGregors’ educational efforts include training clergy/evangelists for ministry, offering the “Introduction to Christianity” Alpha course and “Rooted in Jesus Program,” providing weekly English classes and sponsoring children to attend primary and secondary school. In 2011, they opened a new lay training center and dormitory. This year they expect to break ground for a primary school.

Patsy, who has written several books on Madagascar, grew up in an upper middle class Episcopalian home. She says that moving into a slum was “a very different experience.” She remembers asking the Lord, ‘What do you want me to do here?’ “I didn’t hear a ‘to do’ list. I didn’t hear ‘write a book, get your doctorate.’ I heard, ‘Just observe; just live and be intimate with me.’ And through my intimacy with Christ and seeking him day by day, yes, I wrote books and got my doctorate, and I’m discipling women and young ladies. But the focus is on intimacy with God.”

Patsy admits that Madagascar’s inescapable poverty daily overwhelms her. Intimacy with God helps her maintain hope and convey it to others. For Todd, hopebuilding occurs in the early morning devotions in their churches.

“We want all our people involved in daily devotions,” he says, “but we do them in community. People have their individual devotions, but they do them in the presence of others. I think that building community and starting off the day together brings tremendous hope for everyone. We are able to provide hope through the Gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ, but it has to be done living in community. And so when we go through difficulties, we’re there to support and encourage each other. We’re there to be.”