Rwanda proposes stricter clergy guidelines

Rwanda proposes stricter clergy guidelines

Rwandans sing and pray at the Evangelical Restoration Church in the Kimisagara neighborhood of the capital Kigali, Rwanda, on April 6, 2014. Rwanda’s government closed hundreds of churches and dozens of mosques in 2018, as it seeks to assert more control over a vibrant religious community whose sometimes makeshift operations, authorities say, have threatened the lives of followers. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)


After closing more than 700 churches and some mosques in March, Rwandan government officials have moved to institute guidelines for how faith groups operate in the majority-Christian East African country.

Rwanda’s minister in the office of the president has brought to Parliament a draft law that would require Christian and Muslim clerics to attain university education before preaching in churches or mosques. The law would require clerics to have a bachelor’s degree and a valid certificate in religious studies. It would also bar clergy who have been convicted of crimes of genocide, genocidal ideology, discrimination or other sectarian practices.

“I agree with the law. Some of our church groups have been operating in a dangerous manner,” Evalister Mugabo, bishop of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda, told Religion News Service.

Churches and mosques would also be required to institute an internal disagreement resolution body to complement the work of their umbrella organizations and the government’s dispute resolution authority, which resolves conflicts involving different faiths.

webRNS-Evalister-Mugabo1-071118

Evalister Mugabo, bishop of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda. Photo via Evalister Mugabo Facebook

The measure, according to government officials, will bring order among churches, some of which are suspected of misleading people.

Judith Uwizeye, minister in the office of President Paul Kagame, presented the draft law. “Everyone would wake up in the morning and call people to start a church. Setting up a faith-based organization didn’t require anything. We want to bring about better organization on the way faith-based organizations work,” she is quoted as saying.

The draft law received wide support from most legislators in Rwanda’s Parliament. It will move to the committee stage, after which it will be brought back to Parliament for endorsement.

In 1994, the country about the size of Maryland witnessed a genocide that left an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate members of the Hutu tribe dead. Years later, senior church leaders were among those accused of killing citizens or aiding in their deaths and were arraigned before the International Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, in nearby Tanzania.

Despite its dark past, Rwanda, like many African countries, has witnessed an upsurge in churches in both urban and rural areas. But in March, its government took a radical move, shutting down hundreds of them in the capital of Kigali.

The action was replicated in other towns, amid support from some religious leaders and criticism from others. The authorities said the churches lacked basic infrastructure, security and hygiene and were contributing to noise pollution.

Those most affected by the shuttering were small Pentecostal churches. Jean Bosco Nsabimana, founder of Patmos Church, a Pentecostal congregation, questioned why government officials had not targeted bars and nightclubs.

But other religious leaders see wisdom in the government move. “Churches are mushrooming too quickly and are exploiting poor people. If they are not controlled, more and more will continue to come up,” said Innocent Maganya, head of the department of mission and Islamic studies at Tangaza University College. “They are being started for personal gains, not for that of the followers. Without discrimination, a bit of sanity is needed.”



Maganya noted that other countries require pastors to have a degree or certificate. “On the surface, I don’t think they are interfering with freedom of worship, unless there is a hidden motive,” said Maganya.

But Mugabo said the requirement that clergy have a bachelor’s degree will affect many young churches like the Lutheran Church in Rwanda. The Roman Catholic Church has been dominant in Rwanda, and institutions that can offer a degree in divinity for other denominations are few.

“Most of the pastors have certificates from local Bible schools,” said Mugabo. “Global missions must look at this as an emergency.”

With the new rules and regulations, Mugabo has been negotiating for affiliation with the University of Iringa, based in Tanzania. The institution is owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. Mugabo has sought the use of the university’s curriculum in teaching at his church’s Bible school. The university will also award the pastors educational certificates.

“We made this plan because we can’t afford to take many pastors out of the country for study at once. We do not have enough resources, so we decided to adopt mass training from within,” said Mugabo.

— Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

If Ruth Came to America

If Ruth Came to America

When and where we live, when the super-wealthy have robbed the merely wealthy, when the middling classes have lost their savings and the poor their homes, when the issue of immigration is hot and the lives of immigrants are threatened — the issues of poverty and wealth, of immigration and the home-born, mean a great deal. And that is what Ruth is about.

In the biblical story, Ruth was a foreigner from the nation of Moab, which was despised by all patriotic and God-fearing Israelites. Yet when she came to Israel as a widow, companion to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, she was welcomed onto the fields of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz made sure that even this despised foreigner had a decent job at decent pay. When she went one night to the barn where the barley crop was being threshed, he spent the night with her –and decided to marry her.

But if Ruth came to America today, what would happen?

Would she be admitted at the border?

Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion — detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolator?

Would she be deported as merely an “economic refugee,” not a worthy candidate for asylum?

Would she have to show a “green card” before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?

Would she be sent to “workfare” with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?

When she boldly “uncovers the feet” of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the “family values” that some religious folk now proclaim? Or has she affirmed that love engages the body as well as the heart, the mind, and the spirit, and that sometimes a loving body comes before a wedding?

Today in America, some of us are outcasts like Ruth; some are prosperous, like Boaz. He affirmed that in a decent society, everyone was entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone — yes, everyone! Even, or especially, a despised immigrant from a despised nation. Everyone — not just a certain percentage of the people.

In ancient Israel, everyone had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work, begin to use the means of production of that era. And then to eat what they had gathered.

And Boaz could not order his regular workers to be economically “efficient.” They could not harvest everything — not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first go-round. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.

Although Boaz was generous-hearted, Ruth’s right to glean did not depend upon his generosity. It was the law.

Ruth was entitled not only to a job, but to respect. No name-calling, no sexual harassment. And she, as well as Boaz, was entitled to Shabbat: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, love. She was entitled to “be” — as well as to “do.”

Because Ruth the outcast and Boaz the solid citizen got together, they could become the ancestors of King David. According to both Jewish and Christian legend, they could thus help bring Messiah into the world — help bring the days of peace and justice.

What do we learn from their story today?

In America today, many of us live in the place of Boaz. Many others live in the place of Ruth. Our society has dismantled many of the legal commitments to the poor that ancient Israelite society affirmed. What are our own religious obligations?

What are our obligations — those of us who still have jobs, who have not lost our retirement funds to the machinations of the banks, or even those who have! What are our obligations to those who are living in cardboard boxes on the streets or parks of our cities? What are our obligations to those who have been evicted from their homes, to those who have no jobs?

Are we obligated only to toss a dollar bill or two into the empty hats of the homeless?

Or are we obligated to write new laws for our own country like the ancient laws that protected Ruth? Are we obligated to create new communities — local credit unions instead of global banks, food coops and neighborhood clinics, groups of caring people who turn an involuntary “furlough” from their jobs into time to learn together, sing together, plan together to make new places of shared work?

Are we obligated to create a society that rubs away the barriers between the rich and poor, between those who speak one language from those who speak another?

What can we do — what must we do — to help bring on the days of peace and justice?

When gospel sermons came on the phonograph

When gospel sermons came on the phonograph

Oak Grove Acapella Singers, a Gospel group of Chester County, Tennessee, being recorded while singing in the office of the preacher at the Oak Grove Church of Christ.
Tennessee State Library and Archives, CC BY-NC-ND


The first truly African-American musical form, the “Spirituals,” took shape in the 17th and 18th centuries within the generations of slaves born into the tough American experience. Music was a daily part of their survival and sustenance.

Spirituals were sung “a cappella,” that is, without instrumental accompaniment. Voices were blended over rhythms provided by clapping hands, stamping feet and makeshift percussion. The words and melodies were improvised, not written down and never sung the same way twice. The singers remained untrained in the formalities of music.

Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston attributed the power and beauty of spirituals to these very qualities. As she wrote,

“Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water.”

These early songs, over a hundred or more years later, gave rise to 20th century gospel music as well as secular genres including blues and jazz, R&B (rhythm and blues) and doo-wop, a style of ‘50s vocal group pop.

As an author of a book on the gospel canon, Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music, I have been particularly drawn to a compelling but lesser known outgrowth of the spiritual tradition – the African-American “folk” preachers.

These folk preachers blended homespun sermon and song to offer life lessons on how to survive in a world of inequality and virulent racism.

Recording sermons

A phonograph.
Javier Kohen, CC BY-SA

While the folk preachers may have perfected their preaching skills in Southern churches, they broadened their reach through phonographs records. From the mid-1920s well into the Depression, there were roughly 85 preachers whose hundreds of singing sermons were recorded and heard throughout the black community nationwide via 78-rpm records.

On their records – none longer than three minutes in duration – the preachers, in “call and response” with a handful of select “sanctified” congregants, would sing and opine in rhythm and rhyme about everyday realities like “always pay your furniture man” or “is there harm in singing the blues?”

Their records were advertised in nationally distributed black newspapers, such as The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender. Their names were famous within the African-American community and some of the better sellers included Rev. J. C. Burnett, Rev. T.N.T. Burton, Rev. A.W. Nix, and Rev. Sundown Jesse. The most prolific of all was Rev. J. M. Gates of Atlanta, Georgia. His more than a hundred sermons were released on a variety of labels – Paramount, Columbia, Vocalion, Okeh, and Victor – that specialized in records that catered to “race.”

The case of Rev. Gates

What gave Gates prominence, besides his stellar performances, were his sensational titles, many drawn from Biblical verse, others from African-American vernacular. The titles enticed people to buy the record to find out more.

“Dead Cat on the Line” was Rev. Gates taking on marriage infidelity. He opened the sermon by saying,

“If a child is no way like his father, there’s a dead cat on the line.”

His reference was to a time when a cat might get up on the power lines and die from electrocution, cutting off telegraph signals so no messages could get through. The phrase meant “we’re not communicating here.” But with the dead cat festering up there, Gates was also alluding to the problems of infidelity.

Dead Cat on the Line.

“Kinky Hair is No Disgrace” spoke to demoralization stemming from negative value placed on “negro” features.“ Gates preached,

“Skin and hair don’t make the inside of man or woman good…Remember that God looks on the inside and man looks on the outside…And a whole lot of this hair straightening is just strictly so men can see it…You needn’t worry about your hair…You straighten your heart or your brain…Get something straight on the inside. You know it!”

Kinky Hair is No Disgrace.

And his masterpiece was based on a line from the Gospel of Matthew, “Straining at a Gnat and Swallowing a Camel.” “Straining at a gnat,” implied getting worked up about small matters, and “swallowing a camel,” was a reminder to people about missing what was truly important right in front of them, in this case the incongruities of racism. He sang,

Straining at a Gnat and Swallowing a Camel.

“You! You negro-haters. You that can’t sit with him on the street car. You that can’t eat at the same table with him. I’m talking about you who can’t sit in your own automobile with him. Aah, but I’ll tell you what you can do. You can eat what they cook. Sleep in their bed. You can let them drive your car while you sit in the rear and he handle your life in his hands. You’re straining at a gnat and swallowin’ a camel.”

The music of Rev. Gates and his fellow preachers provided the sonic moments for the religious seeds of the budding Civil Rights Movement.

Jerry Zolten, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences, Pennsylvania State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.