Lalaina getting to know Evelyne
LR: Dear Evelyne, I'm sincerely delighted to get to know you. I thought our exchange might be more interesting if we really had a dialogue. That way you can also ask me your questions.
But first of all, perhaps I should introduce myself shortly: My name is Lalaina Rajaonah, I am 40 years old and married. We have two children (a boy of 15 and a girl of 9 years). A parish pastor in the countryside, I have been serving the Church since 2014 and was consecrated in 2018.
Can you give me a little summary of your biography? I read in your introduction on the Tsena Malalaka website that you are a pastoral minister. Can you share with me the story of your calling? How did you hear the call to our ministry?
EZ: I was born in Basel in 1989. My mother is a pastor and my father a veterinarian. From 1990 to 1998 we lived in Gambia and Ivory Coast where my father did research in parasitology and animal health. I am the eldest of four sisters who were born in those years. In 1998, my father's contract ended and we moved to Basel, Switzerland, where I attended the rest of my schooling. The move was painful for me and I felt very out of place. It was also an important experience for my theological journey. For my Bachelor thesis and also for the book “There is something we long for” published by Tsena Malalaka, I wrote two studies on the relationship between migration and faith.
As both my parents’ families of origin were Christian, I was brought up in the Christian faith from the beginning. Praying before meals and singing hymns were part of my childhood life. But for a long time, I refused the faith, largely I think because I wanted to be independent of my parents.
When I was a teenager, I refused confirmation after taking the catechism course at the French Church in Basel, the church that welcomed us back from Africa and where I am now a pastor in my first ministry! For me, this refusal of confirmation was more a question of living “my own will” rather than an affirmation of (a lack of) faith...
After that, I did a lot of reflection and came to the decision to be confirmed a year later. I thought a lot about the necessity of religion in the world and realised that religion is an integral part of humanity. This was the moment when I turned away from atheism, because I realised that by turning away from religion, one does not gain, but instead loses an important perspective on life, and also a way to be in dialogue with other humans, whether they share my own religion or not.
At about the same time I decided to study theology, thinking that since this topic had been occupying me for so long, I wanted to study it in depth. I was also attracted by ancient languages, and by the great age of the Bible. It must be said that my maternal grandfather was also a pastor and a professor for Old Testament, which may also have encouraged my interest for the Bible.
In 2008 I finished high school and went to China for two years to study Chinese in Beijing. I had already taken Chinese classes at school. I got to know some different Protestant and Catholic, Chinese and German churches in China, which was very interesting. In 2010, I started my theological studies in Zurich. I studied in Zurich, Basel and Bern until summer 2017, working as an interpreter for Chinese therapists in Switzerland, as an assistant to an artist and as an assistant to the director of Mission 21, the Protestant mission in Basel during its 200th jubilee.
During my studies I discovered feminist theology through the books of Marga Bührig, a theologian who was very important for the women's movement in the churches in Switzerland, and who lived together with two women (Else Kähler, who studied the Pauline texts and the meaning of the subordination of women, and Elsi Arnold, who was about 15 years younger than the other two and who died on 21 June 2020). It is on these women, among others, that I wrote my Master thesis, which will be published as a book this autumn.
In particular, I have studied how unmarried women theologians found a new way to understand themselves as full women in 1950s Switzerland, a time when one only counted as a ‘real woman’ when one was married and had children. Indeed, in those days, a woman also had to leave her job when she got married, because it was said that she would not be able to work and take care of a home at the same time (which was of course impossible, since there was almost no support from the side of society). In this time, women's suffrage had not yet been introduced (Switzerland only introduced it in 1971). This further diminished the possibility for women to raise their voices in public.
Since 2018, I am pastor of the French Church in Basel, a multicultural parish with African and European members. I work part-time, with a colleague who has an 80% position. For me, this is a good situation, because it allows me to enter slowly into the ministry, with enough time to take care of our son Tristan who joined my husband Cedric and me in May 2019 and who makes us very happy.
LR: So you considered yourself an atheist before? You said: “By turning away from religion, one does not gain a new perspective, but instead loses an important perspective on life”. Could you develop your point of view a bit further?
EZ: No, I didn't consider myself (or not for very long) as an atheist, but I was interested in agnostic perspectives. On the one hand because they are very common in Western philosophy and on the other hand because I was looking for an individual perspective on the world that was not marked by what my parents passed on to me...
Finally, of course, I followed my parents’ example of living in the Christian faith. And I am increasingly convinced – from personal experience – that our individual perspectives on life are very much influenced by what we experience and what we learn from those close to us. We are communal beings, and the Bible teaches us the depth of this reality: We need community with humans, nature, animals, and especially with God...
People who do not learn from religion lose, in my opinion, an essential way of understanding and expressing human existence. As a Christian, I am also able to enter into a dialogue with a person of another religion, even if we do not have anything in common in our way of living it. If I were an atheist and completely denied the importance of religious life, I would not be equally capable of dialogue.
These are my thoughts about atheism.
LR: How do you live your personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
EZ: I try to live my relationship with Christ in daily life. That means to see a gift from Him in the people I meet and in the things that I experience. I try to understand what He wants to teach me with the challenges, the difficulties, but also the moments of grace and joy, and to go out to meet other people in the light of His love. I try to pray continuously, so to speak, and to open myself to the holiness of each moment. All this sounds a bit exalted, but in fact what I try to live is a kind of “pure presence” (even if it doesn't always “succeed”, especially when my weakness, my pride, my impatience come into play... which happens very often...). So that's it in a few short sentences... could I ask you also how you live your personal relationship with Christ?
LR: As far as my relationship with Christ is concerned, we are a bit alike. Having a “personal relationship”, talking and listening, sharing everything... this is what I would like to deepen again and again. It is a challenge because it is often not easy to maintain your “intimate moment” with Him amid the rhythm and certain priorities of everyday life (I try as I can to respect this moment: early in the morning, when I wake up, prayer and simple studies of the Bread of Life of the day). Throughout the day, my conviction is that He is always with me, I talk to Him etc... I am very sensitive to Divine Providence, this subject also interests me a lot. As well as the subject of Predestination, the meaning of life and my Mission “ON EARTH”. I live for a Mission, and I am still in full exploration and preparation... I am trying to listen to the instructions and guidelines on a daily basis to get to know exactly and complete this mission.
Now, I have another question: The contexts in Europe and Africa are different on a spiritual but also Christian level. How do you see or live your mission in the face of this rather difficult context in Europe in terms of its way of understanding the Christian Faith?
EZ: That's an interesting question. Thank you. Lately, the words about the “salt of the Earth” and “he must become greater; I must become less” (Gospel of John) speak to me about this issue. Maybe it is defeatist, because I don't think that growing in numbers is the first task of the church in all places.
In the European context, we have a long history of ‘compulsory Christianity for all’. Freedom of religion therefore means freedom of choice of worldview for people in Europe. A negative attitude towards all institutions accompanies this thirst for freedom. Of course, this form of freedom is for me a very superficial freedom because few people take into account that our churches are still networks of solidarity and forces of integration in society. By leaving the churches, they also weaken this institution which basically contributes to democracy and thus to equality in society. The criticism of everything communal leads to a very individualistic and selfish kind of “freedom”. But this is nothing new. This decline of the Church in Europe is unstoppable – indeed, a lot of sociological research has already shown that the Church as it exists now will not exist for much longer. And I think that in a way, this very decrease is what God wants to show the people in Europe: In these regions that are so rich, so liberal, people forget that their lives are not in their own hands, and that a good life is not necessarily a life where you have only done what you wanted to do and fulfilled all these consumer desires. The slow death of the Church can perhaps serve as a “memento mori” for the people here. On the other hand, I think the decrease is also good for our churches, which for a long time enjoyed enormous power in European societies, as you can see from the huge historical buildings. Having so much earthly power is not only good for the church. To spread the taste of the heavenly kingdom in the world, you only need a little bit of salt. Indeed, too much salt would spoil the taste! In order to be the “salt of the Earth”, quantity is therefore not the primary criterion.
This is what I think about mission in Europe on the Church level. In personal evangelism I think it is especially important to show an attitude of openness and respect for the other and his or her history. In this way, one shows a Christian attitude most directly.
How do these reflections sound to you? Do they sound very defeatist?
LR: Yes, regarding the current context in Europe and your vision of things, I understand. No, I wouldn't say defeatist but perhaps rather realistic? Oh me, you know, I'm only at my first month of discovery of what Europe is, especially Switzerland. It is always useful to live and see for yourself to try to understand. But in the meantime, I already have another vision, since I come from a country where Christianity is still relevant in the daily life of many citizens. We are one of the few countries where Christianity is still central... And to see this way of living and thinking, this need for freedom affecting some Malagasy in Europe distresses me a bit: a real need for freedom from God Himself, wanting to have more autonomy and trying by all means to put aside everything that could affect and therefore block the way for this need to be satisfied (like the Church and its teachings...) etc. I had the opportunity to visit some families in France. And it came as a shock to hear “the Bible has no authority because it was written by humans”. I did not enter the debate because I was stunned (I never thought I would be able to witness this in my family one of these days). I asked myself what has changed... And my answer was: “living in Europe, they have changed their community”. Maybe they didn’t get a biblical education as such or something like that, but to say that the Bible doesn't come from God is “quite interesting”... The community can shape our view of things... Evolution, modernization… And being in a postmodern period, it is true that it should not surprise me. But here ... When you hear your family saying that and discussing that... you think... “What's going on here?” Sincerely.
Our exchange ends here because of our study and work commitments. We both want to get to know each other in person, which may be possible soon, since I, Lalaina, am now studying theology in Switzerland.