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World Prayer Day program honors Malagasy tradition

When the women of Madagascar kneel as a community to pray March 6, men and women around the world will join them.

The 111th annual World Day of Prayer will unite in prayer people from 170 countries and regions, representing Christians who are Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox for a time of shared concern and entreaty.This year's program, which was written by the Malagasy women (as natives of Madagascar are called), poses the question: "Who is my neighbor?"

It finds the answer that Jesus gave in Luke 10:25-37. Jesus told of a man who was robbed and beaten and left for dead. As he lay in the street, a well-respected priest and a Levite passed him by, pretending not to see him. But a Samaritan took pity on him and took him to an inn, cleaned him up and fed him. Of the three, the only one who was a real neighbor was the man who showed compassion, Jesus said.

The program will examine other answers as well, based on the biblical teaching that a neighbor is "anyone who needs help," according to a packet prepared by Church Women United in Utah, a local sponsor of the World Day of Prayer.

Central to the program is the Malagasy tradition "Fihavanana," which embodies their Christian beliefs about the bond and unity between people, the "sharing of sorrow and happiness," according to program notes for the service. They also have many proverbs, like "Whichever hand is cut, the whole body feels the pain." They summarize caring for each other with statements like "however little food we have, we'll share it" and "it is better to lose money than friendship."

Two prayer services in honor of the occasion - and the women of Madagascar - are scheduled in Utah Friday, March 6: New Zion Church, 2935 Lincoln Ave. in Ogden, 9:30 a.m.; and the Community of Grace Presbyterian Church, 2015 Newcastle Drive (8890 South) in Sandy, 9:30 a.m. Registration for the services is $1, with a portion of the proceeds going to grants to fund projects in Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. A brunch will follow the service in Sandy, at a cost of $4. The women from the Tongan United Methodist Church also plan to hold a service - a custom many of them enjoyed during the World Day of Prayer when they lived in Tonga.

A special offering will also be taken to pay for the projects in Madagascar, including one to set up an ecumenical center to train adolescents and young women in sewing skills, Malagasy arts, computer skills, personal nurturing and spiritual education and Bible study.

Utah's World Day of Prayer services will include music, with taped Malagasy hymns, in addition to American songs, said organizer Mary Ann Allison of Church Women United. "One of the things I think is really interesting is all through the service they use proverbs. We're going to divide into small groups, take a proverb and see how it would apply to our lives."

The theme developed by the Malagasy women, she said, is how they are isolated geographically but have learned to take care of one another. They talk about natural resources and the problems they face, as well as their country's religious makeup, which is predominantly Christian. "They feel Christ is working in their country, and mostly they keep referring to God's grace."

The service, which will be used by all participants in the worldwide day of prayer, is quite long, Allison said, and addresses subjects like being a brother by doing the will of God, the act of the Good Samaritan and acceptance and love of others - even strangers.

"We didn't cut any out; this is a message they wanted us to hear," she said.

Church Women United, the primary sponsor in the United States, is a national organization of women from all different churches who participate in three celebrations a year, including this one. During the first Friday in November, they celebrate World Community Day. The first Friday in May is May Fellowship.

Reservations for the brunch should be made by March 2. Call Barbara Stone, 272-0665, or Elouise Schwab, 278-5027.