An Oasis in the Wilderness
M o s c o w - Pastor Emilson Joseph Andriamihanta is retiring - he’s 68 years old. On November 4, he and his wife Berthine will leave Moscow for the last time and retire to the sunny clime of Madagascar. They last saw their six children and 20 grandchildren three years ago.
Dear Pastor Joseph. Are you really from Madagascar?
I spent almost my whole life there until we moved to Moscow in February 2001. After studying theology in Madagascar, I studied at the American Lutheran Church seminary in Minneapolis-St. Paul, USA. I received my doctorate from the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.
From what city are you?
My hometown is Antsirabe, 160 kilometers south of the capital, Antananarivo. But our children live throughout Madagascar.
Are there many Lutherans in Madagascar?
Oh yes! The Malagasy Lutheran Church was founded by missionaries from Norway and now has nearly three million members, making it one of the world’s largest Lutheran churches. Our country has a population of 18.5 million.
Your congregation calls itself “Lutheran Protestant Church Francophone Section in Moscow” and is meeting in the small chapel on the grounds of the St. Peter- and Paul-Cathedral. How did this come about?
Very soon after my arrival, I visited Pastor Dmitri Lotov and told him of our room problems. Thanks to the support of Pastor Lotov and Bishop Siegfried Springer, the congregation was able to begin holding services in the chapel at Easter in April 2001.
Who are your partners in Moscow and beyond?
Our congregation grew out of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, or MPC. It is around 40 years old and serves mostly English-speaking diplomats and foreigners living around Moscow. Yet not everyone understood English, so in 1999 the decision was made to found a French-speaking congregation.
Our congregation is financially supported by the foreign missions program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), based in Chicago. But locally we answer to our brothers and sisters in the MPC and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in European Russia (ELCER).
There is a French-speaking Catholic congregation in Moscow, there are also African, so-called sects, Christian and otherwise, meeting in Moscow. But we have very little or no contact.
What is different about your church services? Do you dance?
We from Madagascar are stiffer, but other worshipers from Africa dance and clap when they sing. We also sing and clap when we greet our guests. We are a Lutheran congregation, but many of our members are Presbyterian, or even Catholic. So we use a simpler, more general liturgy which can be understood and accepted by all.
I know your congregation has nearly 60 members. Does your group include French-speaking Europeans?
Not at present. We are all Africans, coming from Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Angola, Cameroon and elsewhere. We on occasion also have contact with African students from the Russian university in Voronesh.
Do you also speak French in your church in Madagascar?
No, Madagascar has 18 native tribes and millions of other persons from Malaysia, India and the African continent. We all speak Malagasy, but not everyone speaks French, the language of the one-time colonial power.
Your colleague, Pastor Gottfried Spieth, was impressed by your ability to integrate different styles of worship, different styles of Christian faith. He says you were a father figure for many. Living together in harmony was one of the things you taught well. What have you learned about the Christian faith in these six years in Moscow?
Life went very well for us in Madagascar, so coming here was a big shock. The first big problem was the language. And some people are very brutal. So it was not easy to adapt to society. But my faith was strengthened through being here. In the very difficult things we experienced that God was with us. We have learned more about believing in Him just as a child believes in its parents.
Many parts of Eastern Europe have a bad reputation on racism. What must we do to combat racism?
You should teach more about the love of God! I experience that people in Russia don’t have enough love within them. When I drive my car, people are not flexible. They love themselves, but they do not love others. That is the problem. So the church should preach more about love of God and of others. I see many, many church buildings here. Churches should take advantage of the chance to spiritually educate others.
I usually have a good time in Russia. Is it because I look Russian? I’m sure Russians are treated much worse in Germany, where I come from, than I am treated here. But are you afraid to go out at night, to ride in the metro?
Yes, yes. Our people are afraid to go out, particularly in the evening. Some of our members were beaten by skinheads. The car of a member was stolen right in front of the church gate. Russians are afraid that too many Africans will come. Some people hate us. This shows that people are not living spiritually. We need to take advantage of the chance to strengthen the Gospel. The church must preach love, for love unites people.
Do people of color come to Russia voluntarily?
No, they don’t come here voluntarily. They come here when duty calls - for studies or for their jobs. Some of our people work in embassies. The big problem is racism. Very few Africans would want to live here continually.
Your congregation must be an oasis in the wilderness for many Africans!
Yes, I think so. Without this congregation many people would not really have a home. And people like it here because they can hear the Gospel in their own way.
What happens next? There will be a big hole in this congregation when you leave.
Pastor Michel Guerrier from the Alsace region of France arrived here on November 2 and will serve until mid-January. He will then be replaced by Fara Rajarisoa, a woman from Madagascar who has been studying in Rome. But her husband is already in Moscow working for the Malagasy embassy.
Happy travels, we wish you God’s very best!
Yes, it’s time to go. We miss our family! Come see us, you are invited!
The questions were posed by Dr. William Yoder.
Moscow, 2 November 2006
A press release of the “Evangelical-Lutheran Church - European Russia” (ELCER). Press release Nr. 13, 1,035 words.