By Josh Gibbon
It’s a Thursday morning in lockdown, less than three weeks from their departure date, and it’s all happening in the Petersen household.
A French language lesson after breakfast, emptying cupboards into ‘take’, ‘chuck’, and ‘store’ boxes, and an interview, all before 11am.
This is the moment of preparation that Brendan and Shannon and their two children, Willow (3) and Josiah (1), find themselves in as their flight on 5 October inches closer, and their dream to work in Madagascar with Good News Hospital is almost realised.
Brendan and Shannon are members of Northside Church and are both doctors who have worked in general practice. After years of study and preparation, they are finally heading to Madagascar with Pioneers.
They will be working with a medical ministry team that provides Malagasy people with health services while sharing the gospel.
As they generously took a moment to sit down over Zoom and share their story, I could immediately feel Brendan and Shannon’s hopeful anticipation, along with all of the mixed emotions that come with packing up home and embarking on an unknown adventure.
“This is something we’ve dreamed about and been talking about since before we got married – about seven to eight years now,” Brendan said.
Shannon reflected: “It’s difficult to step back and see the bigger picture, just because everything is so hectic at the moment.
“It’s just been such a long-term dream, so there’s nothing quick or rash about this decision. Seeing this come to fruition is a very exciting thing for us. It’s the completion of that dream and God’s faithfulness along the way.”
I asked them what they were looking forward to most about finally arriving in Mandritsara, the town they will be living in, where the hospital is based.
“When we’ve been there before and worked for a few months at a time, there’s something that comes alive in us – a God gift and a God passion,” Brendan said.
“We’re excited for a different pace – just a different way of living to Sydney. There’s something very simplistic about life there, which we really love.”
Brendan and Shannon shared how much they were looking forward to a season of settling in and putting down roots, as they hope to stay for seven to 10 years in Madagascar.
Shannon said, “Pioneers often quote this depressing but true idea that a missionary doesn’t become really effective until seven years in the field. Particularly when you’re adjusting cross-culturally, it takes that long to build trust.”
As with any imminent adventure, along with the excitement comes some uncertainty. The Petersens shared about how unknown their entry into Madagascar is right now.
“The short-term challenge is that we won’t even get into Madagascar. The borders are closed right now due to COVID,” Shannon said.
Brendan added, “A colleague of ours from the UK has just got in with a special exemption, but it took months to get.”
The President of Madagascar recently announced the opening of borders to foreigners in October. The Petersens will fly to Paris on 5 October as flights from Paris will be permitted before other countries. From there, they will fly to Madagascar as soon as they can, which they hope will be on 20 October.
Prayer that they get through the borders is a way our network of churches can support the Petersens as they fly out, trusting that God will make a way.
Learning to flex the muscle of obedience
In reflecting on what God has been speaking to them about in the preparation, Shannon said, “We’ve been thinking about this a lot; you see the most of God’s faithfulness in your obedience.”
“When we’re doubting, and we don’t want to leave our church, friends, family, life in Sydney, cushy jobs and good salary, you know, but it’s like, I’m not actually designed for this. It will be better because he has created me for this – to be obedient.”
Brendan said, “We don’t see it as this big thing; it’s just the next step in our journey of obedience.”
Northside Church Senior Pastor Sam Haddon reflected on Brendan and Shannon’s formational journey over the years: “Many might think this was a one-off decision, but I see it as the flexing of that muscle, that organ of obedience, that has been developed in them from a series of smaller steps in their life that they have taken.”
He continued: “Personally, for me, it has been one of the most satisfying aspects of ministry to have journeyed with them long enough to watch them both grow – from Shannon being a 16-year-old girl who hung around when there was no youth and Brendan coming to faith at Northside – from a non-Christian, to a Christian, to a missionary.
“To see the Lord at work in someone’s life like that – God can do some pretty incredible things when he calls people outside of our ministries.”
In a commissioning service at Northside Church on 12 September, the congregation celebrated and backed the young family into their mission, and the Petersens shared their heart for Madagascar.
Sam highlighted the impact Brendan and Shannon’s obedience in this journey has had on the church and its culture towards missions.
He said, “Working with someone like Brendan and Shannon challenged us to get stronger in this area. I’m thrilled for the way God’s been working in Brendan and Shannon’s life because it challenged us as a church.
“Their obedience triggered in us a growth area, where we now see ourselves as a sending church for a range of missionaries that we are now actively supporting.”
The ripple effect of the Petersens’ obedience has become an opportunity for God to shift hearts and change perspectives around missions, both in Northside and across the Fresh Hope movement.
Brendan concluded, “We’re really excited for what’s going on in the movement. We’ve been encouraged so much, and we didn’t expect how much others would be encouraged by doing this in this COVID season.”
To find out more about the Petersens’ work in Madagascar, to follow their journey, or to contribute to their work, jump over to their website: https://petersensinmada.com/